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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
15 - 31 July 2003
Sophie Osborn — in California Condor Restoration    ShareI have said before that the ups and downs of working with condors resemble riding a roller coaster. Lows are invariably followed by highs, delight all too often wages with fear. The second half of July epitomized this analogy. We started out on a high. On July 16, Project Director Chris Parish trapped Condor 123, the father of our first wild-hatched condor chick and our most dominant condor. Condor 123 had increased all of our stress levels by going into stealth mode (meaning both of his radio-transmitters stopped functioning) on July 7. Unable to track his movements using his radio signals as we do with all the condors, we had to rely on chance sightings and feared we would never know what happened to him if he suddenly disappeared. Fortunately, we need not have worried. Condor 123 spent his seven days in stealth mode under our watchful eyes as he fed on an elk that had fallen off the rim of the Grand Canyon and calf carcasses that we had put out at night for the condors at our release site.

Nevertheless, we all sighed an enormous collective sigh of relief when Chris had him safely in the hand. After months of wondering, we also would finally be able to determine whether Condor 123 (and by default his chick!) had avoided ingesting the lead that had plagued several of our other condors in the last few months. To our delight, we soon found that, like his mate Condor 127, Condor 123’s lead levels were low. For the time being, he and the nestling were safe! After administering his West Nile Virus vaccination, we quickly returned Condor 123 to the wild.

Condor 134 had not been so lucky. Upon trapping him on July 2, his lead levels had been high enough to warrant chelation (a series of 10 injections to help remove lead from the system). To our dismay, the chelation treatment had not brought Condor 134’s lead levels down to an “acceptable” range and we had had to subject him to a second round of chelation (five more days of two shots per day). We couldn’t help feeling saddened whenever we had to treat or check on Condor 134. Aside from the obvious stress and discomfort our ministrations caused him, it was disheartening for us to see this majestic creature alone in a pen far from his companions. Condors are extremely gregarious creatures who appear to thrive on the companionship of other condors. While Condor 134 recuperated in quiet isolation, the other condors were spending their days drifting high over Arizona’s canyonlands and resting in the shade of cliffs and trees. We couldn’t wait to return Condor 134 to his companions and to his rightful place in the wild.

The day finally came. On July 21, we transported a feisty Condor 134 out to nearby Badger Canyon and opened the door of his transport kennel. He shot out and, a bit shakily, launched himself into the sky. Seconds later, he perched on a cliff outcrop overlooking the river and like a maestro acknowledging an audience’s applause, extended his great wings to the sun. Watching him from a safe distance, we could not stop beaming. With the sun glinting on the backdrop of the Colorado River that tumbled forth below him, Condor 134 was a spectacular sight. There is nothing quite like returning a condor to the wild.

Nevertheless, the wild in today’s world has innumerable hazards for unsuspecting condors. During the course of the reintroduction of condors to Arizona, we have been amazingly fortunate that condors have not targeted road-killed animals on roads. Whenever, we come across road-kills, our condor field crewmembers drag the unfortunate creatures far off the road (one of the many delights of working with a scavenger!). Our condors often find and feed on such animals, but heretofore have seemed loath to land on highways. We were therefore incredibly surprised to hear from an Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) employee that he had very nearly killed Condor 223 just after daybreak on July 23. Condor 223 had been feeding on a road-killed mule deer when the AGFD truck suddenly came around a blind corner and saw the giant bird mere yards ahead of him in the roadway. The driver swerved and Condor 223 immediately flushed to the safety of the trees. By the time we went to check on Condor 223, who had roosted in the forest north of the small community of Jacob Lake on the Kaibab Plateau, he had already had a near-death experience, unbeknownst to us, and was now perched cautiously in a tree near the roadway. Crewmember Jonna Weidmaier quickly dragged the deer deep into to the safety of the forest, where Condor 223 could feed in peace.

Fortunately the rest of the condor flock showed a great deal more care in feeding on a variety of carcasses in late July than had Condor 223. Condor 176 who had been frequenting the Zion National Park area with Condor 196 since July 17, returned to the South Rim area on July 20 with a full crop, indicating that she had fed on a carcass up in Utah. Several older birds that had been frequenting the canyons between Grand Canyon National Parks North and South Rims revealed that they too had found food, when they showed up for roost near Grand Canyon Village over the next few days with full crops.

On July 23, while Condor 223 maintained a solitary vigil by his road-killed mule deer, Condors 136, 149, and 248 found their own mule deer carcass about 20 miles farther south. Meanwhile, on the same day, Condors 195, 210, and 235 found and fed on a cow elk several miles south of GCNP’s south entrance. Condor 210 showed herself to be a champion food finder, when she located a mule deer a bit closer to the park’s south entrance on July 27. On the same day, Condor 133 found a mule deer buck about 60 miles to the north in the Kaibab National Forest. There seems to be no shortage of food for the Arizona condors!

Sadly though, as delighted as we are that our captive-raised condors roam so widely and find food so successfully, such innate skills may both sustain them or threaten their lives depending on the food they find. On July 30, Jonna hiked in to check on four-year-old Condor 203 who appeared to be on the edge of the forest that borders the large meadows one drives through when going to the North Rim. To her dismay, she found him perched in a tree with Turkey Vultures above a thoroughly scavenged coyote carcass. While coyotes may be a wonderful food source, their consumption by condors instills more worry among our crew than virtually any other type of carcass. Coyotes are hunted in Arizona and Utah and are sometimes shot with a type of lead ammunition that fragments upon impact. As a result, any time we see our condors feeding on a coyote carcass, we attempt to recapture them as quickly as possible to ensure that they have not ingested lead.

In the time it took Jonna to make a phone call to inform me of her findings, Condor 203 was joined by three-year-old female Condor 235. Upon returning to the carcass, Jonna collected the remains and noted that Condor 203 had a very full crop. Under the cloak of darkness later that night, Chris Parish set our condor trap, in the hopes that Condors 203 and 235 might return to the release area the following day and give us an opportunity to trap them.

First thing the next morning, Chris settled himself in the trapping blind, while Jonna took what little was left of the carcass to a nearby vet to be x-rayed. The x-ray soon confirmed our worst suspicions: the coyote’s head and shoulder areas were riddled with small lead fragments. Meanwhile, temporary field crewmember Jessi Brown watched Condors 203 and 235 closely as they started their morning in the meadows area, to ensure that someone was on hand to track their movements and watch for any signs of ill health (unfortunately, condors rarely show signs of having lead poisoning until it is almost too late). Soon Condor 203 took off, flapped laboriously until he found a thermal then quickly and gracefully gained altitude. To our delight he headed northward, with Jessi hot on his heels. An hour and a half later, Condor 203 landed near the trap at the release site. We could not have been luckier! Apparently, his meal the previous day had not impacted his appetite. Soon after arriving at the release area, Condor 203 entered the trap and began feeding on our bait. Quickly, Chris pulled the trap shut.

Under stormy skies, Chris netted a very aggressive Condor 203 and got him into a transport kennel, then ferried him to the Roundtree Animal Hospital in Page, AZ for an x-ray. Condor 203’s x-ray looked similar to that of the coyotes, except that the plethora of lead fragments visible on the x-ray were all concentrated in his stomach. We looked at one another with a mixture of dismay and relief: dismay that Condor 203 had ingested large quantities of lead fragments and relief that we had managed to capture him fewer than 24 hours after his potentially fatal meal. Jonna’s careful tracking and vigilance had likely saved Condor 203’s life. Chris drove Condor 203 the five hours to the Phoenix Zoo, where Dr. Kathy Orr would oversee his treatment for lead poisoning. Later that evening, I received word from the crew that despite the intermittent storms that had buffeted the Kaibab and the Vermilion Cliffs, Condor 235 had returned to the release site later in the day.

An infrequent visitor to the release area, Condor 235 was one of only five condors that we had not yet been able to trap to administer a vaccination against the West Nile Virus. Condor 235 also needed a new radio transmitter. Most importantly, however, was our nagging suspicion that she might have fed on the coyote carcass. Although she had arrived at the carcass when only scraps remained, perhaps she was returning for a second feeding. There was only one way to find out. Late that night, irrepressible crewmember Meghan Lout and I set up our condor trap yet again, hoping that we would be as successful in our attempts to trap Condor 235 as we had been with poor Condor 203.

Until next time….

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