16 - 31 May 2003
Sophie Osborn— 16 May 2003 — in California Condor Restoration ShareOn the morning of May 20, a Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) helicopter flew through normally restricted air space and set down in the canyon on the massive formation known as The Battleship. Three people climbed out and headed toward the cliff rim. About a mile away, up on the canyon rim by Hopi Point, assembled Peregrine Fund and park personnel anxiously monitored their progress through binoculars and spotting scopes. Today, we hoped to discover why Condor 119 and 122’s Battleship nest had failed.
Soon, the three GCNP climbers were setting up their ropes and preparing to make the daunting 150-foot rappel down to the nest cave. Brenton White would first belay ranger Greg Moore into the cave. Park raptor biologist Chad Olson would then follow Greg down to collect the biological information. The climbers’ activities astonished and delighted passing tourists. Invisible to the naked eye against the massive cliff, the climbers suddenly took shape when one looked into a spotting scope, eliciting a plethora of exclamations from amazed viewers.
After a smooth rappel down the cliff face, Greg used a grappling hook to pull himself toward the cave’s overhung entrance. Chad followed and was soon dangling in front of the cave entrance about 400 feet off the ground. Within a fraction of the time it had taken to rig up their equipment, both climbers were in the cave. Impatiently, we waited and waited and waited. What was Chad finding in there? It seemed like an eternity before he finally radioed up to us. “There are a bunch of condor eggshell fragments, some debris, and at the back of the cave, I found a lot of old bones.”
As it had last year, the climb into the Battleship nest cave provided us with as many questions as answers. Based on the birds’ behavior and Chad and Greg’s findings, we believe that Condor 119 and 122’s nest attempt failed once again in the hatching phase. Had their egg been infertile, we likely would have found an intact egg, rather than eggshell fragments. Additionally, the precipitous abandonment of the nest by the adults seemed to indicate that something had gone wrong during the time period that we’d expected the egg to hatch. But why hadn’t the egg hatched? We could come up with a dozen hypotheses, but nothing definitive to explain why Condor 119 and 122’s nesting attempts had been unsuccessful for the last two years.
Although saddened that we would have to wait yet another year for Condors 119 and 122 to try and hatch their first chick, we later discovered that the cave’s contents had yielded a small consolation prize. Preliminary findings by a paleontologist who analyzed the large bones that Chad had found embedded in the deep duff at the back of the cave indicated that several of the bones were Pleistocene-age condor bones! Although our young adult condors had not hatched a chick this year, we couldn’t help but relish the fact that they had selected a cave that was once used by their ancestors, who soared over the Grand Canyon in another age.
We had little time to mourn the untimely end of the 2003 Battleship nest. Our 35 free-flying condors kept us extremely busy as May steamrolled toward June. To our delight, as each day passed, we began to be more and more convinced that our remaining nest cave, Condor 123 and 127’s Salt Creek nest, now contained a condor nestling!! Seeing is all too often claimed to be believing. Unable to get a view into the Salt Creek nest cave, we were therefore reluctant to make a grandiose declaration that two of our birds had produced the first California Condor hatched in the wild in Arizona in more than a hundred years! Nevertheless, with each passing day, the birds’ behavior became more and more convincing. Condors 123 and 127 continued to switch nest duty on a daily basis. While one parent always appeared to remain in the Salt Creek drainage, the other invariably would be out flying, presumably searching for food.
If, as we suspected, the pair had indeed managed to hatch their egg successfully, then their little chick received a wonderfully diverse menu in the last few weeks of May. In addition to feeding on the stillborn dairy calves that we placed out for them at our release site (approximately 50 miles north of their nest cave), Condors 123 and 127 also fed on an elk, a mule, and two unidentified carcasses that the condor flock discovered out in the canyon. The chick’s first meal, in the beginning of May, was likely a mule deer. (Adult condors fill their crops with food and regurgitate food for their nestling upon returning to the nest; they are incapable of carrying anything in their feet and rarely transport anything in their bills.)
Watching male Condor 123 dominate each carcass he fed on, it became increasingly clear to us why a condor should seek out the most dominant mate possible. Unlike female Condor 127, who despite holding her own with most of the females, was frequently pushed out of the way by dominant males, Condor 123, the most dominant condor in our flock, never had any trouble gaining access to food. Condor 127’s persistence inevitably rewarded her with a full crop, yet the ease with which Condor 123 obtained food would certainly be a tremendous benefit to his mate and chick if food were ever scarce.
Most of the young newly-released condors also treated their palates to a new array of food items as they fed alongside older birds on non-proffered carcasses for their first time. On May 20, juvenile female Condor 281 made her very first trip to the South Rim. Accompanying Condor 158 on a late flight from the release area, Condor 281 arrived at the South Rim at 1900 hours. With too little daylight left for exploration, she quickly settled down with many of the other condors at a popular condor and turkey vulture roost adjacent to Grand Canyon Village, known as the West Wall.
The following day, Condor 281 exhibited stellar behavior, keeping her distance from people, soaring out over the canyon, and playing at the very popular leaky water pipe that runs down the cliffs below the Village and has provided the condors with innumerable hours of entertainment over the last few years. On May 24, Condor 281 returned to the release site for roost, completing a very successful first journey to the South Rim.
On the same day that Condor 281 was completing this journey, juvenile Condor 272 discovered the South Rim for his first time. Condor 272 first caught veteran crewmember Roger Benefield’s eye when he soared over the Village with seven other condors at 1315 hours. After spending an hour or so out of view in the vicinity of the Village, Condor 272 soared northward again. Either Condor 272 was very cautious in his explorations of the South Rim or something more interesting captured his attention in the Canyon to the north. While he remained in radio-signal range from the South Rim on May 25, he did not return to the South Rim area until May 26, when he made another quick flyover before returning north again. Finally, on May 27, Condor 272 followed a plethora of other condors back to the South Rim. This time, he remained and settled down for his first night at the South Rim with 22 other condors! The following day, Condor 272 returned to the release area, completing a very successful, albeit brief first visit to the South Rim.
Two-year-old Condor 241 also chalked up another first for herself when she left the release site on May 29 and followed adult Condor 126 to an area between Navajo Bridge and the Glen Canyon Dam that we have dubbed “upriver.” We were delighted that she had opted for this cautious ~25 mile journey, as opposed to heading straight to the South Rim as some youngsters do. In addition, we couldn’t have asked for a better mentor for Condor 241! Despite a difficult first few years, Condor 126 is now one of our best-behaved condors. The two females spent part of the next day loafing upriver then parted ways when Condor 241 took off and returned to the release site.
Although he had very competently explored the Navajo Bridge and South Rim areas earlier in the month, Condor 274 had an especially traumatic flight over Navajo Bridge on May 24. New crewmembers Jason Blackburn and Meghan Lout were watching over the condors at Navajo Bridge and admiring juvenile Condor 274’s graceful flight over the Colorado River, when a helicopter came in to land at Marble Canyon. Feeling utterly helpless, Jason and Meghan watched as the helicopter flew within 20 feet of Condor 274 before finally veering off. Seemingly unconcerned, Condor 274 headed downriver. Shaking their heads over Condor 274’s close call, Jason and Meghan breathed a collective sigh of relief that both helicopter and condor had departed from the encounter intact.
In the ensuing days, both Jason and crewmember Jonna Wiedmaier were able to take a more proactive role in helping to shape an impressionable young condor’s behavior. Although he was showing some improvement over his behavior last summer, Condor 243 was still exhibiting far too much curiosity about people for his own good. For unknown reasons he became fixated on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. On May 30, Condor 243 landed close to a group of people that had assembled at the Point Imperial viewpoint. Fortunately Jonna soon arrived on the scene and persistently hazed Condor 243 until he’d cleared the area. The next day, Condor 243 kept Jonna busy by flying back and forth over the trail between the North Rim Lodge and the Bright Angel viewpoint. On several occasions, Condor 243 landed close to the trail and people, though he was hazed away almost immediately by Jonna each time. Jason took over “243 duty” on June 1 and hazed Condor 243 several times at Point Imperial. Perhaps tired of the harassment, Condor 243 soon took off and returned to the release area.
Although we felt Condor 243 would certainly improve with continued hazing, we did not want him to be a bad influence on the other young condors that were exploring the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon for the first time. As it had with other “problem” condors, a little ‘time-out” and some additional growing-up time would certainly improve his behavior. We resolved to retrap him when we had an opportunity. Hopefully, pulling in Condor 243 for a few months would ensure that other impressionable youngsters would get through the important next few weeks and ultimately remain flying free.
Until next time….
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