The sun has just risen over the frosty brim of the Colca Canyon, high in the Andes of southern Peru. From mountaintop to roaring river, the canyon drops 11,000 feet, nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. As the rays begin to slant into the chasm, which drops a dizzying 4,000 feet beneath my rocky perch, a tiny black-and-white speck appears far below, circling and growing in size as it approaches. An Andean condor is ascending on the first of the thermal air currents set in motion by the morning warmth.
Within minutes I find myself staring into an eye of the world's biggest flying bird. The adult male passes 15 feet before me, 33 pounds of body supported by expansive wings reaching 10.5 feet tip to tip. He banks and returns, white patches flashing on broad black wings, white ruff pulled snugly over his featherless neck. His splayed wingtip feathers make a whistling noise, not unlike wind in a sailing ship's rigging, as they slice the air.
For 22 years I have been waiting for an encounter like this, ever since my first distant sighting of an Andean condor circling high above an ice-clad volcano in Ecuador. Though only a dot in the sky, the legendary South American bird ignited my imagination. Now the creature is vanishing from many parts of its former mountain home, and my partner Mark Jones and I are here to photograph it and learn about two very different rescue schemes unfolding near the center of its range.
For many centuries the condor has been revered by Andean civilizations, appearing prominently in pottery, stone sculptures and even a gigantic figure etched into the desert surface of Peru's Nazca Plains. Yet much remains unknown about the birds. It is clear that they are formidable scavengers, the undertakers of the natural world. They quickly clean up the remains wherever death strikes, helping to prevent the spread of disease among large mammals in the process.
At the time of the Spanish conquest, the Andean condor's silhouette was a common sight along the entire Andes cordillera. But habitat loss, reduced food sources and relentless persecution have been drawing ever- enlarging blanks in this former range map. The species is all but gone from Venezuela, while in Colombia it is down to only one small natural population. Ecuador has an estimated total of just 80 to 100 birds. Only in Peru, Chile and Argentina's most precipitous mountains are there pockets of dense populations.
As the morning sun grows warmer, more condors appear from the depths of the Colca Canyon. Today, 18 rise and fall in circles, never flapping a wing but simply adjusting their feathers to harness the rising air currents. Dark juveniles dive-bomb each other in a mock dogfight, while a stately pair of adults cruises back and forth in synchrony, apparently courting in midair, within a wingspan of the cliff face. The breeze picks up, and all disappear high in the sky. Where to? That is part of the mystery. Could these be the same birds that every year turn up hundreds of miles away along the desert coast just in time for the sea lion pupping season?
During the weeks that follow, we strive to learn more. We especially want to see where the condors nest. The native Collagua people, whose ancestors have been cultivating the canyon for 14 centuries, are friendly and talkative. "Yes, the condors used to nest in all these crags here above our village, but not anymore" is a comment we hear again and again.
For several days we follow two guides, Collagua Indian Silverio Cutira Llallachachi and biologist Eduardo Mejia, in search of condor nest sites. Crag after crag, we come across perfect condor nesting sites: small deep caves on the faces of vertical cliffs, each with a guano- splattered perch. Silverio claims to have seen birds nesting higher than 18,000 feet. We see no condors, but at one nest in particular, copious whitewash around the cave entrance attests to frequent traffic. …