Grand Canyon: Where the Birds Are

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The national park’s bird life, including magnificent raptors, is a fantasy of flight

Posted by: Grand Canyon National Park - South Rim on September 4, 2018

The California condor and peregrine falcon are only some of the reasons birdwatchers flock to Grand Canyon.

It may be hard to compete with Grand Canyon’s immense size, fascinating geological features, and dramatic beauty for attention. But birdwatchers can be richly rewarded with views of magnificent birds of prey, which are among the most commonly seen wildlife in the national park. They include hawks, eagles, falcons, ospreys, owls, condors, and vultures, ranging in size from the Northern pygmy owl to the massive California condor. These raptors are just some of the estimated 447 bird species found in the park, thanks to its wide variety of ecosystems.

Most raptors are carnivorous, using their sharp vision to hunt live prey and it’s a rare thrill to encounter a hunt in progress. Keep an eye out for bald eagles and ospreys pulling fish from the Colorado River, falcons hunting smaller birds, and hawks and golden eagles pursuing mammals and reptiles on the ground. You might also spot scavengers, such as California condors and turkey vultures, feeding on prey that is already dead.

California condor in flight

While some raptor species are fairly common in the park, such as the red-tailed hawk and the zone-tail hawk, others are threatened or endangered, such as the California condor, the largest bird in North America and one of the rarest birds in the world. For this majestic fowl, Grand Canyon is not only a crucial habitat but also a place of revival.

Among the wildlife preservation and conservation efforts in the park, no initiative has been more successful than the re-introduction of the California condor. In a destination where most people spend their time looking down, things are looking up.

Just about 30 years ago, there were only a few dozen living in the wild. But in the late 1980s, the non-profit Peregrine Fund launched a recovery program to re-introduce native California condors to the region. A success by any measure, the initiative has increased the number of condors to more than 400 at the Grand Canyon alone. Their presence has been a gift to sharp-eyed birdwatchers who can witness one of the most amazing flying machines nature has created.

A short hop from a cliff is all the California condor needs to begin an amazing journey. Unfurling wings that measure up to nine feet across, with just a few swift flaps they can reach warm-air thermals rising from the canyon floor. The constantly rising currents can keep them aloft for hours, which, incredibly, is more than enough time for them to soar for hundreds of miles.

Condors are such an integral part of the Grand Canyon story that each evening in the Village Amphitheater west of the historic El Tovar hotel, guests can attend the popular Condor Talk to learn about their perilous brush with extinction and see how science, dedication, and determination helped save this incredible bird.

Falcon

Another success story is the peregrine falcon. The fastest animal in the world — diving at speeds of 200 mph — was once on the brink of extinction. Thanks to conservation efforts in the park and across the country, peregrine falcons have recovered and are now a common sight along the cliffs of Grand Canyon.

The California condor and peregrine falcon are only some of the reasons birdwatchers flock to Grand Canyon. They’re likely to see more common non-raptor species such as canyon wrens, whose song you can hear on most trails and lookouts throughout the canyon; jays, which are frequently seen in the canyon and along the rims; and ravens, the park’s most boisterous residents, which often turn up in populated areas.

Even amateur birders can participate in one of the most intriguing activities offered in any national park. Each year during fall migration, which runs roughly from late August to early November, guests can sign up for HawkWatch International’s Grand Canyon HawkWatch where they’ll be invited to head to Yaki Point to assist in the annual raptor count. From here, they’ll join other volunteers who are keeping an eye on the canyon to tally raptors, such as eagles, falcons, hawks, and condors, returning from Canada and then sharing that data to inform land managers, scientists, and visitors on what these remarkable birds need to survive. It’s a crucial responsibility considering that in 2014, Grand Canyon National Park was designated a Globally Important Bird Area by BirdLife International due to its role in protecting hundreds of bird species.

It’s all part of the valuable efforts of park employees and conscientious guests who are doing what they can to preserve the diverse avian life in this Wonder of the Natural World.

How to Explore

The best way to enjoy the birds is to spend a night or longer at one of the Grand Canyon National Park Lodges, the premier in-park lodging with six distinctly different lodges. From the El Tovar hotel, long considered the crown jewel of national park hotels, to Phantom Ranch, the only lodging on the floor of the canyon, you’ll find accommodations to help you get the most out of your visit to the Grand Canyon. You can also book rafting, railway, and motorcoach tours. For more information and reservations, visit grandcanyonlodges.com or call 888-297-2757.

Or consider the 10-day “Bryce, Zion & the Grand Canyon” tour from Holiday Vacations, one of America’s most reputable tour companies with more than 45 years of experience. As a nationwide provider of air, rail, motorcoach, and cruise guided vacations to more than 65 destinations worldwide, their packages are inclusive of all airfare, fine hotels, meals and must-see attractions. Expert tour directors handle all travel details, assuring you a carefree and memorable vacation. Visit HolidayVacations.com for more information.

For more travel experiences to Beautiful Places on Earth™ available from the Xanterra Travel Collection and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.


Written by: Gary McKechnie

The author of the best-selling Great American Motorcycle Tours, Gary McKechnie also wrote National Geographic’s USA 101 and Ten Best of Everything: National Parks. He lectures on American travel and history aboard the ships of the Cunard, Seabourn, and Silversea lines.


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SR Watchtower with Dead Tree and Canyon
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