30 March 2004
Sophie Osborn— 30 March 2004 — in California Condor Restoration ShareIt has been an incredible time in Arizona Condorland. Condor 305, our wild-hatched chick and the first condor to fledge successfully in the wild since the inception of the captive breeding program, has found its wings and has finally discovered the other condors! For months following Condor 305’s unprecedented leap out of the nest, it has remained in close proximity to where it was raised. With the rest of the condor flock beginning to move around more with the coming of spring weather, we felt it was only a matter of time, before Condor 305 began moving beyond the confines of its nest drainage. But rather than Condor 305 flying out to meet the other condors, on March 13, an influx of free-flying condors discovered Condor 305.
Condor 305 was flying with its mother, Condor 127, for one of the first times, when the pair was suddenly joined by nine other condors. Crewmember Amy Lindsley watched in delight as Condor 305 joined the swirling mass of condors cavorting through the skies. It must have been an exhilarating experience for the young condor, which until then had interacted only with its parents.
Later, two subadult condors, Condors 210 and 248, perched near Condor 305 and had their first bill-to-bill contact with the youngster. When young female Condor 248 began to get a little rough while neck-wrestling with Condor 305, Condor 127 intervened to protect her offspring and chased Condor 248 off. Condor 305 seemed to be fascinated by these other condors. A few days later, s/he perched next to another subadult, four-year-old female, Condor 235. Periodically, Condor 235 would take off and take a quick flight over the nest drainage. Each time, Condor 305 was quick to follow her. As Condor 305 continues to expand its horizons, it increasingly is becoming visible to the many delighted tourists at the South Rim, who are being treated to the unique sight of a condor with no wing tags or transmitters.
After months of anticipation and watching courting condors, we have finally been rewarded with two condor eggs! Our condors laid so late this year that we began to despair that no eggs would be produced in the wild in Arizona in 2004. To our delight, however, a new pair comprised of Condors 114 (nine-year-old-male) and 149 (eight-year-old female and daughter of the famed AC-9, the last wild condor brought into captivity in 1987) laid their first egg in a cave in the Vermilion Cliffs in mid-March. At first the inexperienced pair switched incubation duties on a daily basis. After about a week-and-a-half, however, the pair settled into a pattern of switching nest attendance every two to four days. So far all seems to be progressing well! Each day that passes makes us more hopeful that we may have a chick hatching at the Vermilion Cliffs in mid-May.
At long last, Condors 119 and 122 are also incubating. For a time, the pair seemed very interested in reusing the Battleship nest cave, in which they nested unsuccessfully the last two years. Then, they appeared to lose interest in their old cave. The two seemed so unfocused on nesting and were so often visible at the release area or in the canyon that we became convinced that they would forego nesting this year. And then, unbeknownst to us, Condor 119 slipped back into the Battleship nest cave and laid an egg! We didn’t realize she had even done so until a few days later when Grand Canyon Raptor Biologist Chad Olson observed male Condor 122 disappearing into the Battleship nest cave. Condor 122 remained in the nest cave for the rest of the afternoon and night, convincing Chad that he was incubating. The following day, further observations by Peregrine Fund crewmember Roger Benefield confirmed that Condor 122 was indeed incubating. Since that last week in March, the two condors have been switching incubation duties on a regular basis. Since Condors 119 and 122 failed to hatch their egg for the last two years, we are desperately hoping that third time will be lucky for this dedicated but unsuccessful pair.
Eight-year-old female Condor 133 and seven-year-old male Condor 158 have been associating closely and to our surprise have been nest-searching on the Kaibab Plateau. This area has few cliffs that are suitable for condor nesting so until now, birds have paid little attention to this snow-covered area during the early breeding season, focusing their attentions instead on the many cliffs and canyons that surround the Plateau. Nevertheless, at the end of March, Project Director Chris Parish confirmed that the pair (and a tag-along female Condor 136) were investigating a large cave on one of the few cliff sections in the Kaibab National Forest. We are still watching and waiting in suspense to see whether or not this pair will actually lay an egg in this area.
Amidst the activities of the older birds, four young condors took to the skies for their first time this month. On March 20, we released one-year-old Condors 296, 299, 300, and 304 from our release pen atop the Vermilion Cliffs. About 160 supporters and condor aficionados assembled at our viewing area in the valley below the cliffs to watch the young birds take their first flights. After nearly two hours, male Condor 304 finally ventured out of the pen. He launched into flight and then continued to delight those watching below by flying over the release area (with many curious older condors in tow) for about 10 minutes before settling down on the cliff rim. Male Condor 299 flew out of the pen within seconds of Condor 304’s departure and made a shorter flight over the cliffs before spending the next few hours recuperating from all the excitement on the cliffs near the release pen. The juvenile males certainly outdid their female companions on release day. A few minutes after the males boldly launched themselves into the sky, female Condor 296 crept cautiously out of the pen and remained within a few meters of the release pen all day. Female Condor 300 was even more cautious and opted to remain in the pen for the rest of the day. She was quick to leave on March 21, however, when we reopened the release pen.
Since then, the newly released condors have been doing extremely well. They have become comfortable flying for extended periods over the release area and are learning to roost safely (although extremely windy days still make landing on the cliffs challenging for them). The two females, Condors 296 and 300, have boldly joined the older birds at carcasses and have competed aggressively and very successfully for food. In this realm, the two males, Condors 299 and 304, have been a little more cautious and are still a bit reluctant to take on the older condors at the carcasses.
While the juvenile condors are familiarizing themselves with the routines of the other free-flying condors at the release site, condors that were released to the wild last fall and winter have begun exploring the world beyond the release area for the first time. Female Condors 280 and 282 have made successful first trips to the South Rim and the Kaibab Plateau, while male Condors 273, 275, and 276 have opted for more conservative flights along the portion of the Vermilion Cliffs that border the southern end of the Paria Plateau. Re-released Condors 232, 243, and 250 have also left the release site for the first time since their re-release after spending “time-outs” in captivity and, thus far, have managed to stay out of trouble. Condor 243 went to the South Rim for his first time ever last week and kept his distance from people, much to the relief of the field crew.
As the birds begin spreading out over northern Arizona with the arrival of warmer weather, a new tool is helping us keep ever more accurate tabs on their whereabouts. Five condors are currently wearing GPS (Global Positioning Systems) transmitters: Condors 133, 196, 203, 246, and 274. These transmitters are providing remarkably accurate data on our condors’ whereabouts. Although we are able, with our conventional transmitters, to determine that a bird flew from the release area, over the Kaibab Plateau and to the South Rim, the GPS transmitters are providing us with data points that show us the bird’s exact flight path, providing us with exciting new details on our condors’ movement patterns.
The utility of these GPS radios was really brought home to us when three-year-old Condor 246 left the release area and headed to the South Rim on the morning of March 17. We briefly received his radio signals at the South Rim later that morning and then Condor 246 disappeared for almost two days. Such disappearances by birds like Condor 246 that have proven track records of excellent behavior are usually of little concern since a condor tucked into the vastness of the Grand Canyon may temporarily elude our conventional tracking methods. We assumed Condor 246 was somewhere out in the Canyon for the short time that we didn’t receive his radio signals. To our astonishment, though, the GPS data told a very different story! After passing over the South Rim (about 54 miles south of the release area), Condor 246 continued southward and just kept going! He flew over Sedona, Arizona’s famed red cliffs then settled down for the night just west of Sedona (and 131 miles south of the release area). The following morning, Condor 246 headed northeast and flew along the Mogollon Rim, going as far west as Show Low, about 40 miles from the Arizona/New Mexico border! After spending the night near the White River in the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, Condor 246 made a beeline back to the South Rim on the morning of March 19. By early afternoon, crewmember Jonna Weidmaier was again receiving Condor 246’s signal at the South Rim. The following day, Condor 246 returned to the release site. Condor 246’s astonishing whirlwind tour of northeastern Arizona would have gone undetected were it not for his GPS transmitter. Indeed, Condor 235, who is wearing conventional transmitters may have accompanied Condor 246 on what amounted to at least a 546-mile journey in fewer than four days! As more and more condors grace Arizona’s skies, such new technology will be amazingly helpful to the field crew that works hard to keep track of and watch over each and every condor.
Until next time….
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