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When Climbing and Condors Clashed, These Two Biologists Helped Save Both

Nothing can close a climbing area as fast or as surely as the discovery of raptor nests. In California's Pinnacles National Park, two climbers are working with the park service to protect the birds and preserve climbing on the park's famous formations.

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For Gavin Emmons and Alacia Welch to do their jobs, they have to be expert climbers, have extensive search-and-rescue training, be experts on endangered bird species and know how to do phlebotomies in the middle of the desert. Emmons and Welch are wildlife biologists at Pinnacles National Park, California, specializing in monitoring raptors like the California Condor, Prairie and Peregrine Falcons that nest in the park.

“Alacia and I often joke that the whole suite of skills that are needed for this job makes for a very specialized set. And you need to have quite high expertise,” says Emmons.

Alecia Welch takes measurements of a condor nestling in Pinnacles National Park. Photo courtesy Pinnacles National Park.

Emmons and Welch use their skills to perform “nest entries.” They climb or rappel to reach raptor nests, extract the nestlings (baby birds) and bring them to the ground for tagging, measuring and blood draws, then return the babies to the nest. The data they gather helps the park manage the birds.

One morning I met Emmons at 7 a.m. at the park to observe his work, which that day involved tagging nestlings, and taking measurements and collecting blood and feathers for genetic and pesticide research.

After a few minutes of walking, we veered off-trail. Emmons pointed out a whitewashed area of rock. Overhead, two adult Prairie Falcons circled, protecting their nest of three.

“It seems like there’s always some new location that some pair of [birds] finds,” Welch said. “The first thing to do is sleuthing out how do you approach the nest and what are your options as far as anchors go?”

That was the case with this site. From the ground about 400 feet away from the nest, Emmons surveyed the situation

“It’s not on an established route,” he said. “So that’s why I need somebody potentially for belay.”

We scrambled up the back of the cliff, flighting through trees and squeezing through gaps in boulders. When we got to the top, Emmons unloaded a curious array of equipment including a climbing rope, ascender, harness and helmet, but also a cat carrier, thick leather gloves and safety goggles that would be more at home in a woodshop. After tying off an anchor to the lone tree behind a section of the cliff that blocked a straight down repel, Emmons scrambled and rappelled to access the nest, calling down to the crew of interns who had come along, and who had been left at the base of the cliff.

Emmons prepares to climb and deposit the falcons back in their nest. Photo by Mike Baird

“How far am I away from the nest?” he walkie-talkie to them.

“About 8 meters above and 10 meters away to the right.”

A few minutes later Emmons jugged back up to grab the cat carrier. “I think I can make it work,” he said.

“I try to treat nest entries like search-and-rescue incidents, because I feel that it helps to focus my awareness on the seriousness of them,” he said later. “I don’t want to get hurt, I don’t want any other staff to get hurt, I don’t want the birds to get hurt.”

As Emmons rappelled, the adult birds began dive-bombing, getting within two feet of him. The helmet, goggles and gloves now made sense.

“You have the adults that are screaming and diving at you,” Emmons said. “Routes that might otherwise be like, ‘Oh, this seems pretty doable on lead’. Now, you have these birds that could strike you and are screaming at you. You have to be pretty focused.”

Focused was right, when last year Emmons and Welch extracted a condor nestling that was in the path of an incoming wildfire, again when a nesting site required a two-hour approach, 70 feet of climbing, setting up fixed ropes, aid climbing 100 feet and then a rappel to the nest.

The day I observed, Emmons scooped out the three baby birds covered in white downy feathers. The nestings were about three weeks old and still flightless. Emmons placed them in the cat carrier, covered their heads and eyes with a gray T-shirt and rappelled to the base of the cliff.

There, a canvas sheet had been spread out. Needles, test tubes, syringes, gauze, and digital calipers lay on the rocky ground. Emmons and his team measured the birds’ beaks, wings and legs prying open bands and fixing these to the nestlings’ legs, then snipped a piece of feather and drew two milliliters of blood. The babies remain docile

Emmons takes measurements of the falcon at the bottom of the cliff. Photo by Jesse Klein

with the shirt covering their eyes. Once the procedures were wrapped up, Emmons jugged the fixed-line and put the birds back in the nest.

Pinnacles is a popular climbing spot and these nests have created friction between environmentalists and climbers.

“At first, the park said, ‘We’re going to close all climbing areas during the Raptor nesting season,’” Emmons said. “And then the Access Fund rightly came in and said you don’t really have the data to back that up, so you need to come up with something a little more reasonable. And that served as a motivation to bring park managers and climbers to the table to create the advisory program, basically, voluntary closures [of certain routes where nests are.] The Park Service mission is to balance out resource protection with visitor access. The onus is put on the local climbing community to manage themselves and to be good stewards of the park. And we’ve had pretty good success with that over time. And climbers have been great in that regard. As a climber myself, I really appreciate that.”

A few hours later after checking out other possible nest entries where the birds were either too old or the sites too difficult to enter, we were back at the first cliff. Emmons pulled out his scope and trained it on the nest. The mother was feeding the three nestlings a small rodent.

“It’s good to see them getting back to normal after I do that,” Emmon said “It’s a total privilege to be able to do this job. It’s just amazing to me that it’s even an opportunity to get paid to do this kind of work. They’re beautiful birds. It’s a beautiful park that I get to explore and collect data on. I love this place. I’m glad that I can continue to be a part of protecting it.”

This article is free, but sign up with an Outside+ membership and you get unlimited access to thousands of stories and articles on climbing.com and rockandice.com, plus you’ll enjoy a print subscription to Climbing and receive our annual coffee-table edition of Ascent. Published since 1967, Ascent is climbing’s premier edition, with the finest writing, illustrations and photography the sport has to offer. Outside+ members also receive other valuable benefits including a subscription to Outside magazine, an ad-free online experience, a Gaia GPS Premium membership, and more. Please support us by joining today.