After attending the World Ranger Congress in Colorado, I had an amazing opportunity to follow that up with 3 days of volunteering at the Pinnacles National Park, to work with their rangers and wildlife biologists in a shadow assignment.
Pinnacles National Park is the United States’ 59th and newest national park, located in Central California, 125 miles south of San Francisco.
The park gets its name from the towering rock formations that dominate its landscape – eroded leftovers of the extinct Neenach Volcano (which is in an advanced stage of decomposition after erupting 23 million years ago!). The park is managed by the National Park Service and the majority of it is protected as wilderness.
I was lucky enough to spend my time at Pinnacles with a fellow Brit – Chris Lockyer, a ranger working in the Peak District National Park who I had met as part of the National Trust contingent at the World Ranger Congress.
I met up with Chris and some of the Pinnacles team on the night before the shadow assignment. We met at a traditional American saloon called the 19th Hole in a town called Tres Pinos, and chatted over burgers and beers!
I had already met Jan Lemons, Chief Ranger at Pinnacles, whilst in Colorado. She was our host for our stay at Pinnacles.
What was interesting to find out from Jan was how the team at Pinnacles works – staff cover different roles focusing on specific areas (which back in the UK we generally cover within a single role):
● Law Enforcement Rangers – who have a broad authority to enforce federal and state laws (they have guns!) and are tasked with everything from responding to crime to searching for a missing hiker
● Interpretation Rangers – who provide a wide range of informational services to visitors alongside educational programs
● Maintenance team – who undertake practical work such as building, repairing and preserving trails/signage
● Wildlife Biologists – who work to protect and preserve wildlife and related resources
We eventually arrived at Pinnacles in the dark, stars prickling the night sky with a dim light teasing the surrounding park, offering only disguised glimpses of the landscape we would be working on in the following days…
The plan for our first day of volunteering was to head out with the Pinnacles Condor Crew working on the California Condor Recovery Programme.
The California Condor is the largest land bird in North America, with an impressive wingspan reaching 3 meters (10 feet).
They’re majestic creatures that suffered a severe and dramatic population decline in the 20th century – by 1982, there were only 23 condors living in the wild and by 1987, all remaining wild condors were placed into a captive breeding program in an attempt to save them from extinction.
Pinnacles National Park joined the California Condor Recovery Program as a release and management site in 2003.
The team here is led by wildlife biologists Gavin Emmons and Alicia Welch.
Gavin and Alicia took us on the High Peaks Trail, a breathtaking loop passing through and around some of the Pinnacles rock formations, offering some incredible views on the way along with great vantage points to survey for condor activity.
On our way along the trail we saw lots of wildlife and I was in awe of anything and everything that moved. One of the highlights was seeing my second species of hummingbird since being in the United States – Anna’s Hummingbird.
On reaching the highest point of the trail we stopped for lunch. Ahead of us was a huge rock face which Gavin told us was home to a pair of Prairie Falcon.
Part of Gavin’s job is to also monitor raptors in the park, including this pair, and he told us how they were currently rearing 3 chicks together. Through Gavin’s scope we could actually see one of the chicks sitting on a ledge, and whilst eating lunch we also caught a glimpse of one of the adults flying nearby (presumably hunting). Pretty amazing!
Up until that point we hadn’t spotted a condor, and we weren’t necessarily guaranteed to see one either. We had spotted dozens of Turkey Vultures – a very similar, smaller species that can often be confused with the former.
However, almost on cue as we finished off our lunch, what was first thought to be another Turkey Vulture in the distance, soon materialised into a much bigger bird – the California Condor. Approaching us slowly, we had plenty of time to watch it glide effortlessly through the air. And it didn’t stop approaching, eventually passing right over our heads!
Every California Condor is identified by a ‘studbook’ number, assigned on their hatch date. The bird we saw was 340.
Gavin and Alicia know 340 well and told us a bit more about him:
340 hatched in 2004 (the first condor to hatch from Oregon Zoo). After his release in 2005 he started to expand his range and quickly ascended the dominance hierarchy. He is known as a bit of a Rockstar for his feisty behaviour, and is really liked by the Condor Crew and many local visitors. As a culturally significant species to the Wasco tribe, the honour of naming 340 was given to Chief Nelson Wallulutum, who named him Kun-Wac-Shun – meaning Thunder and Lightning. No chicks from him have reached adulthood as of yet. Sadly, last year, a one month old chick of his died. But there is hope this year! He has another chick over a month old which is so far doing well. Fingers crossed.
These birds are an iconic species and an incredible conservation story in the United States (and the World). There are now 410 birds living in the wild. To hear their story, and see one fly above my head, was a privilege and I admire the great work the programme is carrying out and the success it has achieved. Let’s hope the California Condor can continue to prosper!
If any of you are interested, I interviewed Gavin and Alicia, asking them some questions about the work they do and some of the challenges they face in Pinnacles National Park along with why they think conservation is important and what inspires them to carry out this work. See the videos below:
We eventually re-joined the trail and headed back down to our start point, still on a high from our experience up top and taking in more wonderful scenery on our way.
We spent the evening of our first full day at a BBQ with some of the Pinnacles team, including a USA v. UK dart game (UK won!) followed by an intense game of The Settlers of Catan.
Our second day started by checking out a moth trap put out the previous evening.
So many moths! And interesting, some very similar to moths we find in the UK.
One in particular, the One-eyed Sphinx (Smerinthus cerisyi), is incredibly similar to the Eyed-Hawkmoth (Smerinthus ocellata) we find in the UK.
After clearing up the moth trap we headed over to meet another member of the Pinnacles team – Paul Travis Lathrop or PT – an interpretation ranger.
PT was a great character – easy going and humorous, yet equally serious about the importance of engaging with visitors, connecting with the disconnected, stimulating thought and developing an honest respect for place.
He took us on a short hike, along the way telling us about some of his ideas and programs.
SPACE (Spontaneous Audience Centred Experiences) is one of his programs. As he explained, the idea is trying to revert from traditional interpretation (which focuses on giving visitors as much information as possible, from a number of different angles – History of Pinnacles, Wildlife of Pinnacles, Geology of Pinnacles, Activities to do at Pinnacles etc.) to a new form of interpretation which instead focuses on the visitor themselves – primarily encouraging and stimulating connection.
He gave us some examples:
- Visitors are offered a Contemplation Card from the visitor centre. Each card has a different statement on the back. The card encourages contemplation from the visitor whilst enjoying the park.
- A chair is placed somewhere in the park – in a quiet spot, overlooking a scenic view, next to a thought-provoking feature. With the chair is a box – within which there is a notepad and some crayons. It is encouraged on the chair to take 5 minutes to sit down and enjoy your surroundings. The box encourages those who are interested, to leave their thoughts from their 5 minutes either in written words or through a sketch or illustration.
Both of these methods aim to create deeper connections and positive experiences from time spent at Pinnacles National Park.
During our walk with PT the weather was again hot, today breaking 100°F! We kept our hike short and returned to PT’s office early afternoon. Sighing with relief from the air con, PT continued to inspire us with his ideas.
He followed up with his top 5 tips for interpretation:
- Thou shall not inflict interpretation
- Your smile is part of your uniform
- Good manners and charm work wonders
- Be punctual
- Junior Rangers (young visitors) will receive extra attention
Having some free time left following our time with PT, me and Chris decided to so some rock climbing (the area being well-known and well used by rock climbers) with one of the Pinnacles law enforcement rangers, Seth James.
Despite being scared of heights and never having rock climbed before, I had so much fun – scary yet exhilarating. And what a place to climb, Pinnacles National Park !
We finished off our second full day with a visit to a local Mexican restaurant with the Pinnacles team. Super tasty and super (!!!) portions.
Our final day of volunteering at Pinnacles National Park was spent with wildlife biologist Paul Johnson.
He took us on a trail through some of Pinnacles’ Talus Caves.
Talus caves are formed when steep canyons and ravines fill with boulders, leaving passages between the largest rocks that are then widened by water and erosion.
We ventured inside a particular cave, closed off to the public at this time of year, due to it being used by a colony of Townsend’s Big-eared Bats.
As we ventured through the cave we saw some interesting wildlife.
Finally we entered the area that Paul said housed the bats, and we surveyed it quietly and quickly, as to not cause any disturbance. Initially we noticed a single bat on part of the cave wall.
Delving deeper, soon heard and saw glimpses of bats swooping past and over our heads. But then we were signalled by Paul, who shone his light up to part of the ceiling uncovering a huge maternity roost of bats. Paul was shocked by the size and so recommended we leave, so we promptly followed our trail back out. I managed to get a shaky shot of the roost in Paul’s torchlight:
On reflection, Paul said he thinks the colony was as big as it has ever seen at this time of year!
Upon leaving the coolness of the caves, we were hit with the heat of the day (104°F) – it was as if someone was suddenly holding a hair dryer set to hot up to our faces.
We followed a trail up to Bear Gulch Reservoir, along the way spotting lots more wildlife of which Paul gave us more information about.
Our time at Pinnacles was coming to an end. With accommodation booked outside of Pinnacles for the night, we said our goodbyes to Paul and then went on to say goodbye to many of the other Pinnacles staff we had met and made friends with, finally saying by to our host Jan.
All in all, my time at Pinnacles was an incredible experience, one that I will never forget!!!