I scanned the top of the cliff one last time. Finally, there was movement. The young condor was making its way along the ridge using its monstrously long wings (a condor’s wingspan can be more than 10 feet) as an extra pair of legs, or perhaps crutches. No, he was begging.
Feeding Time on the Cliffs of Paileman
His mother, wing tagged #21 indicating she was the 21st to be released, appeared above the ridge gliding down to greet her youngster. She regurgitated food. Her fledgling ate then begged for more. Leon and Rupi, the researchers on duty when we were there, later said that they had only seen a feeding session a couple of times before. The luck of the Andean gods was with us.
Two hours had passed before this moment. We ate, scanned the top of the cliff over and over again, and dozed off in the afternoon sun, mercifully protected by the blind from the relentless winds of the Patagonia steppes. It was worth the wait.
Proyecto Conservacion Condor Andina Bringing Back an Iconic Species
The Andean condor is not considered Endangered but it has been extirpated from large parts of its range. PCCA, a joint project of the Zoo de Buenos Aires, Fundacion Temaiken and Fundacion Bioandina Argentina, concerned that the Andean condor not go the way of its California cousin which did become extinct in the wild, has been working to restore condors to more places in their historic range.
Paileman, about two hours north of Puerto Madryn and sixty kilometers down a dirt road, is one of those places. Condors from a captive breeding program at the zoo and rescued injured or orphaned birds are carefully managed for return to the wild.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You are a sucker for a conservation success story, particularly where large birds of prey are involved.
- You enjoy immersing yourself in the local environment, getting to know the wildlife and the people of the area.
- Good for adventurers happy to accept rustic accommodation and long hikes to viewing sites.
Visiting the Andean Condor Recovery Programme at Paileman
During our two days at Proyecto Conservacion Condor Andina (PCCA) we saw young condors soon to be released, helped put food out for birds already back in the wild and watched a pair of injured, non-releasable condors beginning their new life as part of the captive breeding program. Later #21 flew in and broke into the carcass we had put out the night before, eating her fill before leaving it to the turkey vultures and other birds and animals who depend on the condor’s strong bill to ‘open the restaurant’ as it were.
And it wasn’t just about condors. The area around the release site had been heavily ranched and hunted for many years. As a result, native wildlife such as guanco (a relative of the llama) and lesser rhea (an ostrich-like bird) was scarce. We saw guanaco that have returned to the area and witnessed the first rheas seen on the property since PCCA has been there. In the evening, Leon and Rupi prepared an amazing dinner then entertained us with traditional music from the Andes.
On our way out the next day they asked us to stop at their neighbors’ house with them. One of the dogs had a broken leg. Our group, which included 2 vets and a vet nurse, immobilized the leg to prevent the broken bone from moving and taught Leon and Rupi how to rebandage if needed. The leg would heal crookedly but it would heal, and the dog would be in less pain during the healing. The Andean gods had smiled on this dog, too.
Condor Chick Brings Argentina’s PCCA Full Circle
The chick we watched on the top of the cliff was special. Both its parents were birds released by the project. On the second day our traveling companions were the ones touched by the Andean gods. They watched #21 push her chick into its maiden flight, the first completely wild condor to fledge at Paileman in many years.
- Having at least rudimentary Spanish is important for an overnight visit to Paileman. Not all staff speak fluent English and they need visitors to understand what they are doing and why.
- Visitors pay for their food and accommodation, with some of the money collected going to help operate the project. It is possible to stay longer than we did. The staff encourages interested volunteers to stay at least a week or two. Volunteer duties are varied, from helping monitor the birds to helping with construction projects to data entry. Contact PCCA via Fundacion Bioandina Argentina.
- Activities at Paileman vary depending on season and condor population. After a release, the focus shifts to tracking the newly freed birds. Some activities will be restricted if the condors might be disturbed.
- You’ll need a car that is reliable on rough roads to get to Paileman. Visits should be scheduled in advance as the team, just 2-3 people, is often out at the field sites, not at the camp to greet visitors.
- The site is isolated. There is no phone coverage, no electricity (they have a generator for basic needs) and visitor accommodations are bunkhouse style. Those who can bring their own sleeping bags are especially popular.