The movements of animals are limited by evolutionary constraints and ecological processes and are strongly influenced by the medium through which they travel. For flying animals, variation in atmospheric conditions is critically influential in movement. Obligate soaring birds depend on external sources of updraft more than do other flying species, as without that updraft they are unable to sustain flight for extended periods. These species are therefore good models for understanding how the environment can influence decisions about movement. We used meteorological and topographic variables to understand the environmental influences on the decision to engage in flight by obligate soaring and critically endangered California Condors Gymnogyps californianus. Condors were more likely to fly, soared at higher altitudes and flew over smoother terrain when weather conditions promoted either thermal or orographic updrafts, for example when turbulence and solar radiation were higher and when winds from the east and north were stronger. However, increased atmospheric stability, which is inconsistent with thermal development but may be associated with orographic updrafts, was correlated with a somewhat higher probability of being in flight at lower altitudes and over rougher terrain. The close and previously undescribed linkages between Condor flight and conditions that support development of thermal and orographic updrafts provide important insight into the behaviour of obligate soaring birds and into the environmental parameters that may define the currently expanding distribution of Condors within and outside the state of California.