By TRACIE CONE
Associated Press Writer
BIG SUR, Calif. (AP) -- As wildfire whipped toward a remote sanctuary of the endangered California condor last month, the rare birds got their biggest test in survival after years of pampering by biologists: They had to live completely on their own.
Forced away by flames, their scientist handlers could only hope the birds' animal instincts would kick in. To their delight, they did.
The birds found fresh air, and food: a beached whale and decaying California sea lion at the edge of Big Sur's cliffs. After the blaze swept through the area, many even returned home.
"It's incredible. They did just what they're supposed to do," said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, which runs the sanctuary. "I was honestly thinking we'd lose four to six birds. You can rebuild pens, but we only have a limited amount of time to restore a species."
The Ventana Wildlife Society near Big Sur is the only nonprofit in California to prepare captive-bred condors for life in the wild, making it an integral part of conservation efforts to save the condor from extinction.
Flames from the 188-square-mile fire in the Los Padres National Forest last month destroyed the society's aviary and release pen and thousands of dollars worth of equipment. The fire also displaced the 43 free-flying birds the society monitors and forced a hasty rescue of seven 1-year-old chicks and their adult mentor by the U.S. Coast Guard.
For 17 days, biologists were cut off from the sanctuary, monitoring the wild birds by electronic transmitters.
"We felt so helpless," Sorenson said.
The vulture was declared an endangered species in 1967, when its population -- estimated to be 50 to 60 birds at the time -- was in sharp decline because of poaching, habitat destruction and lead poisoning.
In the 1980s, the U.S. government approved an ambitious and costly conservation plan that brought the last of the nearly two dozen surviving California condors into captivity for a captive-breeding program.
After teaching the newborns with puppets and other tools how to survive in the wild, reintroduction into forests started in the 1990s. While there have been some setbacks (powerlines have proven a difficult obstacle to navigate), there are now 332 condors, half of which are living supervised in the wild in Arizona, California and Baja California, Mexico.
The wildfires near the sanctuary started the night of June 21 with a burst of lightning storms that ignited fires all over Northern California. The blaze near Big Sur was particularly complicated to attack because of the steep terrain.
Sorenson was at the remote sanctuary that night, entertaining donors, when he saw a black cloud blow in over the coast.
"I had an eerie feeling," Sorenson said. "We know it's dangerous. I told my donors we needed to get out of there."
By the time Sorenson and his group reached the highway, he could see four plumes of smoke rising from the mountains behind him.
The next day, the Ventana Wildlife staff sought to rescue the seven 1-year-old juveniles and one adult mentor from the sanctuary. They were not ready to be released into the wild to fend for themselves. The birds had to be taken to a sanctuary the group operates with federal biologists from Pinnacles National Monument.
With roads impassable, the U.S. Coast Guard airlifted the birds out in two trips through thick smoke and approaching flames.
"The clock was ticking," said senior biologist Joe Burnett.
All told, biologists have tentatively accounted for all but two birds: a chick that had been in a nest high in a redwood tree and another older condor that was released into the wild two years ago.
Last week, Sorenson and Burnett returned to the burned-out sanctuary and hiked to the edge of the feeding site. At the top of a charred Ponderosa pine the alpha male of the group surveyed his blackened canyon.
Burnett pumped his fist.
"They survived on their own without us," Sorenson said. "It shows us they can do it."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)