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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
1 - 15 June 2003
Sophie Osborn — in California Condor Restoration    ShareWhenever condor field crewmembers return to the Vermilion Cliffs to visit or call to ask us how the condors are doing, their first question is invariably, “How is 241 doing?” Aside from the ever-present specter of lead poisoning, how Condor 241 would fare when she first encountered people-areas was perhaps the over-riding concern for anyone that worked on the condor project in the last year. In the beginning of June, we all finally had to face our demons. And, to our eternal surprise, they amounted to very little.

Condor 241, who hatched on April 13, 2001, was one of the “tamest” (if not the tamest) young captive-raised condors that any of us had encountered. During her first few months in our flight pen, she revealed herself to be completely unwary and irrepressibly curious. She was also extremely submissive with the other members of her cohort. As we have with other overly unwary juvenile condors, we opted to hold Condor 241 for some extra growing-up time before releasing her to the wild. During the course of her year in our flight pen atop the Vermilion Cliffs, Condor 241’s only encounters with humans were extremely negative – namely, when we entered the pen to capture and bleed or put transmitters on the other members of her cohort.

Finally, last December, we decided that it was time to give Condor 241 a chance to prove herself in the wild. Most of us guessed we would end up recapturing her within a few weeks. Nevertheless, Condor 241 proved us wrong. Although it took her a few weeks to learn how to roost safely, she steadily improved her flight skills and became more and more confident and capable with each passing day. To our relief, she seemed content to remain at the release site unlike some of the more adventurous members of her age group.

In a world devoid of people, we all felt that Condor 241 would be a stellar condor. But what would she do upon encountering the hoards of people that congregate at the South Rim? Would her latent curiosity lead her into trouble? Even the best of condors sometimes find keeping their distance from people a challenge when they are frequenting one of the most populous and popular parks in the United States. (They are not alone in this regard: in Grand Canyon National Park, squirrels try to climb into people’s laps, deer accept handouts, coyotes sometimes beg food from passing motorists, and a bobcat nonchalantly prowls below the rim in plain view. Clearly this is a challenging environment in which to teach an intelligent, curious, captive-raised creature to be wary of people!) Would Condor 241 have a complete behavioral meltdown upon reaching the South Rim for the first time? We all dreaded the day when we would finally have our answer.

On the afternoon of June 1, veteran crewmember Roger Benefield suddenly heard the blip blip of Condor 241’s radio-transmitters – frequencies he’d never before heard from his station at the South Rim! Over the ensuing hour, the blips became louder and louder as Condor 241 neared Grand Canyon Village. Roger raced along the rim, trying to position himself in just the right spot to see where our worrisome condor would land. Condor 241 soared over the Bright Angel Trail, then turned and buzzed over the Village. Minutes later, when Roger returned to the Village from the Bright Angel trailhead, he was greeted by a wonderful sight: Condor 241 was perched far below the Village, on a portion of the cliff that the field crew calls “the warthog.” She had kept her distance from people and settled on the best possible portion of the Village cliffs. Roger breathed a sigh of relief. Condor 241 was safe for now, but what would tomorrow hold?

We need not have worried. Condor 241 was a superstar! Despite keeping Roger’s heart rate up by spending a great deal of time flying over the village, Condor 241 continued to keep her distance from people and to land in the best possible spots on the Village cliffs. In addition to periodically exploring the area from the safety of the air, her head swiveling to and fro to take in the commotion and activity below her, Condor 241 spent her day playing at the ever-popular leaky water pipe that runs down the cliffs below the Village. As each day passed, Condor 241 continued to impress us with her stellar behavior. On June 7, Condor 241 finally flew the fifty-plus miles back to the release site completing a more successful first journey to the South Rim than any of us could ever have predicted.

Behavior in captive-raised and released juvenile condors rarely progresses in a linear way. (The same was probably true for condors raised in the wild.) Several steps forward are invariably followed by a step or two back. For a few brief moments on June 8, we worried that having shown such great behavior at the South Rim, Condor 241 was now going to take the inevitable step back. On the morning of June 8, Project Director Chris Parish tracked Condors 241 and 243 to the small community of Cliff Dwellers, about fifteen-plus miles from the release site and a few miles down the road from the Condor Field Crew’s base camp. The two condors were perched low on the talus behind the small community.

Chris was soon joined by crewmember Jason Blackburn and the two walked toward the condors to haze them to less accessible spots. To their relief, both condors appeared nervous at their approach. Soon, Chris and Jason had hazed the two birds to safety high up on the cliff. Nevertheless, we were still concerned that the two remained so close to a developed area. (While the condors are attracted to the South Rim, which is located on the edge of a cliff and has an abundant population of scavengers, they otherwise have shown little inclination to visit developed areas.)

The following day, Condor 241 took off early and returned to the release site. In doing so, her behavior differed markedly from that of Condor 243, who we were considering retrapping if the opportunity arose. While Condor 241 rejoined the other condors and continued to divide her time successfully between the release site and the South Rim, Condor 243 remained alone at Cliff Dweller’s. Various crewmembers kept watch over him on July 10 and 11. Finally, after being hazed on the morning of the eleventh, Condor 243 returned to the release site.

Our relief at his departure from Cliff Dweller’s was short-lived. On June 14, Condor 243 returned to the slopes and cliff behind Cliff Dweller’s. Although he only remained in the area for two days and maintained a safe distance from buildings and people, Condor 243’s willingness to forego the other condors’ company to satisfy his curiosity about a developed area only added to our belief that he could benefit from a bit of “growing-up time” back in our flight pen. Soon, we would be trapping our free-flying condors to inoculate them against the West Nile Virus. If we succeeded in catching Condor 243, we would take the opportunity to give him a “time-out” from the wild.

While Condor 243 was being a bit too curious about Cliff Dweller’s, our other 34 free-flying condors spent much of their time flying over the Vermilion Cliffs, the Kaibab Plateau, the Colorado River corridor, and Grand Canyon National Park in search of food and condor companionship. The birds’ efforts did not go unrewarded. Because the condors all too often travel over unbelievably remote portions of the canyon, we can only document a portion of the food they find. Nonetheless, last year, we documented our condors finding 65 carcasses (the majority of the carcasses were large animals, such as elk, mule deer, and range cattle; the smallest carcass we saw them feeding on was a road-killed fox). During the first half of June, the condors found and fed on a mule deer, a range cow, and at least one carcass that we were unable to identify (because of its location). Several of the youngsters also revisited the remains of a mule carcass that the birds had found at the end of May. Since the condors had had a difficult time getting through the mule’s tough hide, the carcass lasted a long time and there may have been a little meat left for the young condors that periodically checked back at this banquet.

Condors 123 and 127, who appeared to have successfully hatched Arizona’s first condor chick in the beginning of May, continued to give us every indication that their nestling was alive and well! The pair seemed to be on a constant food-finding mission. Instead of loafing around with the other condors, Condors 123 and 127 seemed to spend virtually all their waking hours either flying in search of food or out of view in the Salt Creek drainage. Typically, when one bird was in view either at the release area, flying over the canyon, or at the South Rim, the other parent remained out of view in the nest drainage.

As I have mentioned before, we had to determine the parent condors’ attendance at the nest cave based solely on the birds’ radio signals, since we could not get a view into the cave or even into the nest drainage without making a grueling 24-mile round-trip hike in dangerously hot weather conditions. Based on our interpretation of the birds’ radio signals, on certain days, the two parents seemed to switch nest duty numerous times during the course of the day. For example, on June 12, GCNP seasonal technician Laura Babcock received Condor 127’s radio signal toward the nest for several hours in the morning and received no signal on Condor 123 (meaning he was away from the nest area). By approximately 1000 hours, both birds’ signals were toward the nest. The two condors remained together either near or in the cave until approximately 1200 hours, when Condor 123 headed west. He was back within 45 minutes and remained at the nest, while Condor 127 went out of signal range to the east. Condor 127 returned less than two hours later. Both birds then appeared to remain at or near the nest for the next several hours. Finally, at around 1715 hours, Condor 127 took off and roosted out in the canyon, while Condor 123 roosted in or near the cave.

As we approached the second half of June, the chick turned approximately six-weeks-old. We expected Condors 123 and 127 to begin spending more and more time away from the nest cave, searching for food for their growing nestling. We could only hope that food would be bounteous for the growing young condor and its increasingly busy and very-dedicated first-time parents!

Until next time…

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