1- 15 August 2003
Sophie Osborn— 1 August 2003 — in California Condor Restoration SharePerhaps I am being fanciful, but it often seems as though condors return “home” to the release area when they are feeling unwell. Over the years, we have been fortunate in discovering that several condors had recently ingested lead by trapping them upon their return to the release site. Whether the condors returned to the one place they know of that has a stable, reliable food supply because something felt not-quite-right with them or whether it was pure coincidence and we happened to get lucky with our trapping is anyone’s guess.
On July 31, we had been incredibly fortunate in trapping Condor 203 fewer than 24 hours after crewmember Jonna Weidmaier had seen him at a scavenged coyote carcass that contained lead fragments. Now, on the morning of August 1, we were hoping to be equally successful in trapping three-year-old Condor 235. Although we were ostensibly trying to trap Condor 235 to vaccinate her against the West Nile Virus, the nagging suspicion that she too might have fed on the lead-filled coyote with Condor 203 gave a greater urgency to our task.
Dawn splashed the sky with pinks and blues, songbirds trilled their morning songs, and a curious Pinyon Jay investigated the bait in our trap as Grand Canyon raptor biologist Chad Olson and I huddled in our trapping blind, wondering if and when Condor 235 would show up. After about an hour, we suddenly heard the magical whooshing of the wind in condor wings–an indescribably beautiful sound. Soon the sky was filled with condors swooping over the trap, and tail-chasing each other while checking out the tantalizing bait. One by one Condors 114, 126, 162, 193, 198, 248, 272, and 281 landed, either on or near the trap. But there was no sign of Condor 235. After a few moments, Condor 198, one of our easier birds to trap, broke the ice by entering the enclosure. Others soon followed. Anxiously, we awaited Condor 235.
As a newly-released juvenile, Condor 235 often showed up late to feed at the carcasses we had placed out at the release site the night before. Typically, late-coming juveniles miss out on the meal or have a difficult time competing with the birds that have already assembled to feed in a rugby-like scrum. Condor 235, however, quickly showed herself to be very capable and utterly unique. Upon arriving at the feast, she would often land on the carcass and lie on it with her wings outspread, mantling over her food like a raptor. I have never seen any other condor do this. But Condor 235, our youngest condor at the time, always managed to get herself a satisfactory meal!
Despite admiring her tenacity and independence, past and present crewmembers have been quick to point out that Condor 235 has “balance issues” as ex-crewmember Kris Lightner coined it. Comically, she once fell into a water tub after losing her balance while perched on the edge. A graceful flier, Condor 235 nonetheless often stands out in being surprisingly poor at landings. Upon touching down, she all too often stumbles forward onto her beak or has to put her giant wings out and rest them on her perch until she can get her balance.
So when a condor flew in late to join the others already at the trap and promptly fell forward onto her beak upon landing, I almost laughed out loud and whispered to Chad, “That has to be 235!” Sure enough the condor soon turned giving us a great view of the big “35” painted on her wing tag. (We typically put the last one or two digits of a condor’s studbook number on its identifying wing tags.) Inherently more cautious than many of the other young condors, Condor 235 surprised us by entering the trap mere minutes after her arrival. Adrenaline coursing through my veins, I quickly pulled the trap shut.
Moments later, our elation at having trapped Condor 235 dissolved into sadness and concern: her blood-lead levels were extremely high. She would have to be taken in for an x-ray. We placed her in a transport kennel and began the arduous journey back to our trucks and then into the Roundtree Animal Hospital in Page, AZ.
Given Condor 235’s unbelievably feisty and aggressive demeanor at the vet clinic, we could never have imagined how sick she actually was. Nevertheless, her x-ray revealed a stomach full of lead fragments that were superficially similar to those present in Condor 203’s stomach and those present in the skull and shoulder of the coyote on which the birds appeared to have fed. Any Arizona condor that has lead in its system gets transported to the Phoenix Zoo for monitoring and treatment. After helping to administer her first chelation shot at the zoo that evening (to begin the process of removing lead from her system), we left Condor 235 in Dr. Kathy Orr’s care. It is always heartbreaking to confine a free-flying condor, but leaving Condor 235 in a concrete cell was especially heart wrenching because she is one of the wildest condors in our flock – staying away from the release area for months at a time and eluding our watchful eyes more often than most of our condors. Nonetheless, she did have company. Condor 203 was in view in a nearby pen, separated only by a large blue tub containing water and a small alligator! (Condors lead such interesting lives!)
It was several days later, upon receiving Condor 235’s blood-lead levels back from the lab, that we learned that her lead levels were among the highest ever recorded in our Arizona condors (close to 500 ug/dL). Had we not trapped her and Condor 203 when we did, Dr. Orr informed us, the two would certainly have died.
While Condors 203 and 235 recuperated in Phoenix, the rest of the condor flock continued its typical summer pattern of flying vast distances, feeding, and loafing. Two-year-old Condor 249 found the remains of a bull elk carcass and seven-year-old Condor 136 found a cow elk carcass just south of Grand Canyon National Park on August 3. Although that seemed like quite a food bonanza, it suddenly paled in comparison to the birds’ and crewmember Meghan Lout’s discovery the following day.
On August 4, Meghan hiked into the forest on the Kaibab Plateau, tracking Condors 187, 241, and 246’s radio signals, which appeared to be stationary in the same area. Crossing small clearings, hiking up and down small drainages, clambering over downfall, Meghan followed the birds’ signals deeper and deeper into the woods, convinced that they had found a carcass. She must have felt like she had entered the twilight zone when she saw not four, not eight, but twenty-four bovine legs sticking straight up toward the sky! The mass of swollen bodies, which were arranged in a circle around a tree, consisted of one immense black bull, four enormous cows, a yearling, and a calf. Condors 187, 241, and 246 had hit the jackpot. But Meghan felt disconcerted to say the least. After documenting the scene, she finally made it out of the woods and into cell phone range to inform us of her findings.
Within a day or so, the local livestock officer relieved our minds by providing us with an explanation for how all six cattle had died: they had been struck by lightning! Indeed, upon closer examination, a fresh lightning scar was evident on the tree under which the unfortunate cattle had gathered for shelter from a storm. Several of the cattle showed signs of burns and charring. We felt desperately sad for the cattle and the rancher they belonged to, but very glad that our condor clean-up crew would put the animals to good use. With two fresh road-killed cattle within a mile or two of the “six-cow strike” as we dubbed the lightning-killed animals, the birds had eight carcasses to feed on. Needless to say, few condors were observed at the South Rim or elsewhere over the next week as the majority of the condor flock remained tucked deep into the Kaibab National Forest feasting on a beef smorgasbord!
Very few of the condors missed out on the feasting on the Kaibab. Those that did were busy finding other food up in Zion National Park and its environs. The Zion gang consisted of Condors 176, 195, 196, 198, 227, and 232. Busy monitoring our other condors and the activities of our breeding pair, we had little time to monitor the Zion birds as closely as we might have liked. Nonetheless, the birds appeared to be finding food and, as far as we were aware, staying out of trouble. While several of them made periodic flights back to the release area or the South Rim, Condor 196 had not left the Zion area since flying up there on June 16. With the specter of Condor 240’s lead poisoning death last summer just north of Zion fresh in our minds, we could only hope that the birds were finding safe food.
On August 9, most of the Zion birds gave me the slip, while I was keeping an eye on re-released Condor 232 who was perched in the vicinity of a mobile home adjacent to the park. They soon returned from a morning flight with crops full of food and settled on a cliff rim overlooking a rushing stream. In many ways, it was an idyllic spot except that the area was dotted with cabins and summer homes. As I kept an eye on the birds, I was suddenly jolted to my feet by the sound of a rifle being fired in the direction of the birds. Condors 196, 198, and 227 who were perched in view of me shot into flight and disappeared down the drainage. Desperately I looked for Condor 232 who had moved out of view around a cliff corner a short while earlier. The gun fired again right where I suspected Condor 232 was perched and, to my relief, the young condor suddenly shot into view, heading after his companions. Was someone shooting at the condors? And if so, would they really appreciate my showing up to ask them about it!?
I took a chance and went in search of the source of the gunshots. To my relief, a young man had merely been target shooting nearby (he hadn’t seen the condors) and he and his girlfriend seemed interested to learn about the giant vultures that were frequenting the area. I would never know how nervous the gunshot actually had made the condors, but was delighted that two of them, Condors 227 and 232, had kept on flying and continued all the way back to the release area (some 60 miles away)! Condor 232 was only one of four condors that we still needed to trap and inoculate against the West Nile Virus.
We could not miss our chance. Just before daybreak the next morning, Meghan and I baited and set our condor trap at the Vermilion Cliffs release area and prepared to trap Condor 232. We hoped to get Condor 227 as well to test his blood-lead levels and determine whether the Zion birds had been finding safe food. Despite waiting three hours for condors to show up at our trap, our trapping session that morning ran like clockwork. By 1004 hours we closed the trap on Condors 114, 126, 227, 232, 234, 241, and 253. We bled and tested blood-lead levels on Condors 126, 227, 232, and 234 and let the other three go. In an agony of suspense, we watched the field lead tester count down the 180 seconds it takes to reveal the results of each condor’s lead test. Three minutes is an eternity when waiting to find out whether a condor can be returned to the wild or condemned to captivity for lead treatment. One after another, the condors came up … clean! In delight we returned Zion birds and Kaibab/South Rim birds alike to their rightful place in Arizona and Utah’s skies.
Until next time….
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