California dreaming

Things are well and truly wintry in Britain at the moment, so the Leica Birding UK team decided to banish the blues temporarily by chatting about sunnier summer days with one of our ambassadors. Naturalist, TV presenter and wildlife guide, Iolo Williams had bad luck with the weather earlier this year, having been caught in unseasonably bleak, wet weather in spring and early summer on various islands off the Scottish coast.

In August, he flew to the very different environment of America’s west coast for a lecture tour, some radio work and a bit of holiday thrown in for good measure. California provided not only the long awaited sunshine but also the fulfilment of a birding dream.

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Part of the radio work involved heading up into the mountains in search of the California condor. This enormous bird of prey is not only the largest thing on wings in North America, but is also one of the rarest raptors on earth and has been brought back from the brink of extinction by successful captive breeding programmes. The opportunity to see one in the wild was extremely special for Iolo, so he made extra sure to have his Leica Ultravid 10×42 HD-Plus at the ready to ensure that he didn’t miss a moment. “When I was last looking for the California condor it was 1985 and there were none left in the wild. They had all been taken into zoos for breeding programmes,” he explained.

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Fortune has been on the side of this huge bird of prey over the past decade or so and successful breeding programmes were followed by promising reintroductions. The global population is now thought to be more than 400, with more than half in the wild – an awesome comeback from the dangerous low of 22 worldwide before drastic action was taken in the 1980s. Luck was also on Iolo’s side this summer – as he put it: “I couldn’t have asked for better. It was a glorious sunny day and the views of the condor through the Ultravids were absolutely amazing. It really was the fulfilment of one of my birding dreams.”

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Not all California’s conservation news is so positive, however. Iolo also noted the ominous effects of the region’s extended period of drought, which made the abundance of wildlife still in evidence all the more special: “We had a good sighting of coyotes and even saw some mountain lion tracks, which is amazing when you think just how close we were to Los Angeles.”

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Back at sea level, the coastline was just as rewarding. Highlights included willets, Heermann’s gulls, sea otters and California sea lions. “As usual, the Ultravid HD-Plus performed extremely well. We had some great close views of all sorts in the bright sunlight. I always pack my binoculars, wherever I go in the world and whatever the weather is likely to do!”

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