Condor Feeding Frenzy

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By John Cullum, Post-production Associate Producer

So it was mid-September and the production side of Big Sur was winding down. All of the prepared field shoots in California were complete, and footage had just started being loaded into the editing system for the DC bound, but creative side of post-production. We knew we had really great footage to work with but unfortunately we were still missing a critical scene that would really help solidify the documentary as a whole. To make matters worse, we all knew this particular footage was going to be extremely difficult to capture.

The reason for this was because what we needed was a rarely seen, very specific behavior from an endangered species. This species, the California Condor, is an icon of Big Sur. Though this area is considered a “stronghold” for the vulnerable bird, their numbers are still low and that in itself makes filming their behavior difficult. To be clear here, the behavior we were looking for was of Big Sur Condors feeding on their own in the wild.

Despite this hurdle, we had not lost hope. It just so happens that Ernie, our main cameraman, is permanently based in Monterey (just north of Big Sur). This allowed him to be filming in the field almost 24/7. Ernie is very dedicated, and is quite skilled at filming rare animal behavior. We knew that with a lot of persistence and a little luck, Ernie might be able to get the shots that would make the film and strengthen the story.

A day or two went by. Then, out of the blue, came the exciting phone call. Ernie got it! We were thrilled back here, and couldn’t wait to see it. The tapes were shipped out overnight and the next day we were able to take a look.

It was pretty extraordinary stuff to watch. Ernie found a dead sea lion in a concealed cove on a small rocky beach. At first, one condor spotted the carcass and landed. One by one, more condors discovered the rocky cove, including a mated pair and their juvenile! Some might find the way they dig into decaying flesh repulsive, but it was magnificent. Their physique is otherworldly and their movements and interactions with one another are a bit eerie. Instead of being repulsed by this feeding frenzy we were all so happy to see it. Human eyes hardly ever witness a scene like this, and watching it gave us a sense of hope. It’s good to see that such a fragile population of animals might actually have a fighting chance for stability in the end.   

Big Sur: Wild California premieres Sunday March 14 10P et/pt.