For years, it's been a rare experience to see an endangered California condor in the wild. There are only 429 of North America's largest bird alive today, and half of them live in zoos.

But on Monday, with some high-tech help, the bird watching got a lot easier. The first camera to capture live streaming video of condors in the wild was turned on in the remote hills of Big Sur.

The solar-powered "condor cam" allows the public to watch the huge, vulture-like birds feeding, grooming and flying in real time, and enables scientists to monitor them more efficiently.

It's the latest example of how inexpensive video technology and high-speed Internet connections are changing the way the public interacts with wildlife -- from sea otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to pandas at Washington, D.C.'s National Zoo.

A screen grab taken from the "condor cam" in Big Sur.
A screen grab taken from the "condor cam" in Big Sur. (VENTANA WILDLIFE SOCIETY)

"We put the camera right on top of one of the main feeding areas so we could zoom down and get identification of each individual," said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, a nonprofit that has worked to bring condors back from the brink of extinction.

"Over the weekend when we were testing it, we had 25 condors in front of the camera."

The condor cam can be watched on the group's website, www.ventanaws.org.

Several times a week, biologists who work at the organization put out stillborn calves on the site, a 240-acre property surrounded by wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest of Monterey County. Several condors were seen Monday morning on the live camera eating and preening.

Biologists from the group will zoom in on the birds at key times, such as in the morning when they are most active, Sorenson said. They also plan to ask the public to send notifications on the Ventana Wildlife Society's Facebook and Twitter feeds when birds are doing something interesting.

It wasn't easy setting up the camera. The area is so rural that there is no electricity or Internet connection. The system, which cost about $15,000, Sorenson said, was funded by a donation from FedEx and help from the Oakland Zoo. Crews installed a high-speed T1 Internet connection at a home 12 miles north of the site, then set up antennas to get the signal to the solar-powered camera.

On Wednesday at noon, biologists will be releasing three condors on camera that were raised in captivity. When they aren't releasing birds, the new video footage can help scientists see how condors are feeding, or whether they are exhibiting signs of lead poisoning from eating dead animals with lead bullet fragments in them. "We have to drive one-and-a-half hours up a dirt road behind five locked gates just to get to this place," Sorenson said. "It's an all-day thing. So this is an amazing tool for us to help monitor condors in the wild."

The marriage of Silicon Valley and "Wild Kingdom" is part of a national trend at zoos, aquariums and other wildlife hot spots.

Since 2011, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has received 2.8 million views on its three most popular animal cams: the sea otter exhibit, the kelp forest tank and the aquarium's vast open ocean exhibit.

"We want people to be amazed and inspired by the animals," said aquarium spokesman Ken Peterson. "If people can't physically be in the buildings, they still have a chance to stay connected with them. It's like visiting old friends."

At the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, four webcams receive nearly 300,000 page views a year. As with the aquarium, anyone can watch animals being fed at regular times every day, and can listen to experts, such as when divers enter the academy's colorful coral reef tank.

Wild animals don't always do cute and cuddly things. In fact, the Ventana Wildlife Society website has a note saying, "Viewer discretion advised. May contain graphic feeding images."

And in San Jose, the camera that has streamed images of peregrine falcons in a nest on the 18th floor of City Hall, though currently down for repairs, has shown the falcons eating dead pigeons, and was recording when several of the 25 chicks born there since 2007 died.

"It's not the Disney Channel," said Michelle McGurk, a spokesman for San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. "But it has created a lot of enthusiasm -- particularly among children -- about biology and science and nature. It's really exciting."

Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.