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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
1 - 15 May 2003
Sophie Osborn — in California Condor Restoration    ShareAs hot-pink prickly pear cactus flowers began bursting over the desert like fireworks, the condor field crew anxiously watched our breeding birds for any hint that we might at long last be able to celebrate the hatching of the first wild condor chick in Arizona in decades. Despite our hopes, the adult condors’ behavior remained frustratingly unclear. On May 4, Condors 119 and 122 raised our hopes by switching incubation duties in their cave twice in one day. When a condor chick is hatching (a process that can take up to three days), first-time condor parents are typically very curious about their egg’s bizarre transformation and both parents will spend time together in the nest and switch nest duty more frequently. For the next three or four days, the pair took daily turns at nest duty, as opposed to the two to four days of nest duty that had been typical for them in March and April. Could their egg finally have hatched?

Before we could be carried away on a wave of optimism, our hopes were sadly dashed on May 9. That morning, both Condors 119 and 122 were out of the nest, loafing and playing with the other condors. To our great consternation, the pair spent the majority of the day away from the nest – definitely not a good sign since a recently hatched chick would need to be brooded by one of its parents in these early stages in order to survive. The pair headed back to their cave late that evening, but on the following day seemed to show little interest in revisiting their nest. On May 10, it became clear that for the second year running, the Battleship nest had failed. Although such a failure was not out of the ordinary for inexperienced condors, we could not help but feel utterly disheartened. It had been such a long wait: six years for the condors to reach breeding age, and two years worth of attempting to hatch an egg. We began to make plans to climb into the nest to try to determine the cause of this year’s failure.

At first, the behavior of Condors 123 and 127, while less alarming than that of Condors 119 and 122, nonetheless gave us little cause for raging optimism. Because Condor 123’s only functioning transmitter was extremely weak and because we could not view the nest cave, determining the status of Condors 123 and 127’s Salt Creek Nest Cave was particularly challenging. Nevertheless, from what we were able to determine, male Condor 123 spent May 1 and 2 in the nest, while female Condor 127 took her turn on May 3 and 4. Beginning May 5, the pair began switching nest duty on an almost daily basis. Although Condor 127 occasionally did a two-day stint in the nest, we were unable to determine whether or not Condor 123 was also frequenting the nest during those time periods.

Although we could not yet say for sure that their egg had hatched, as the days passed we began to feel increasingly hopeful since in 2002 this pair only switched nest duty on a daily basis for a few days before going back to their two- to four-day stints. In that effort, they had incubated their egg for an extra month and it ultimately failed to hatch. Perhaps the more extended period of daily nest switches that we were seeing in 2003 meant that this time they had been successful! Only more time would tell. . .

While the breeding condors were throwing us into an emotional roller coaster, the newly released condors continued to delight us with their increasing adventurousness. Juvenile Condor 274, who was released on March 3, was particularly bold. On May 3, Condor 274 made his first overnight trip to Navajo Bridge. He was quickly followed by juvenile Condors 272 and 281, who arrived at Navajo Bridge on May 4. All three youngsters returned to the release area on May 5.

After spending almost a week back at the release area, Condor 274 followed several of the older birds and flew to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park for his first time on May 10. Because the South Rim is inundated with people, the field crew always awaits a condor’s first trips to the South Rim with a great deal of trepidation. Fortunately, Condor 274 lived up to his already great reputation and gave us no cause for worry. With at least half of our condor population frequenting and finding food in the South Rim area, it appears that Condor 274 had little incentive to return to the release area. Instead, he seemed perfectly content to explore his new surroundings and did not return to the release site until May 18.

While the newly released juveniles delighted us with their flying endeavors, Condor 243 began to worry us by exhibiting polar opposite behavior – namely moving very little for days on end. Condor 243, who was re-released in December 2002 after spending seven months in captivity, had taken a flight and arrived at Navajo Bridge on May 6. On May 7, he spent the day tucked up under an overhanging ledge at the base of the uppermost cliff layer and barely moved all day. Such behavior was not especially worrying. Condors, particularly after feeding, occasionally spend a full day loafing and sleeping. When Condor 243 moved little over the next few days, however, we began to worry. Although he might move to a boulder for a short while in the morning, Condor 243 continued to spend the better part of each day tucked up and resting on a low cliff ledge. After about four days of this listless behavior, we began to talk about how we might get a boat to take us downriver to Navajo Bridge and then see if there was a way to climb up to the cliff layer on which Condor 243 was resting to check on him. On May 12, though, Condor 243 was a little more active, flying across the river early on, before resuming his listlessness later in the morning.

Meanwhile, other condors came and went to and from Navajo Bridge, but Condor 243 remained in the area. On May 15, the group of young condors that had been frequenting the bridge area began soaring mid-morning and quickly left the area. Soon, Condors 203, 223, 234, and 253 were out of sight, heading back to the release area. Anxiously, new crewmember Jonna Wiedmaier watched in consternation, as Condor 243 remained alone on the talus below the bridge. Although he’d made short flights below the bridge in the last few days, he had not got up and soared as the condors typically do. A short while after the youngsters’ departure from Navajo Bridge, eight-year-old female Condor 126 arrived from the release area, stuffed to the gills with the fresh carcass she had fed on that morning at the release site. Condor 243 had not fed since May 5, and it’s quite likely that he was feeling hungry.

When condors feed, they fill their crop (an enlargement of the esophagus that functions as a food storage area) up with food that they slowly digest over the next day or two. Condors that have eaten a big meal often look like they have swallowed a basketball! Their crop area has feathers on either side that cover the crop when it is not inflated. When the crop is full of food, however, the feathers no longer cover the bulging crop so one can see a very visible pink bulge in the condor’s chest area (in younger birds, whose skin is black as opposed to pink, this bulge is grayish black, so it is harder to detect when the young birds have had a meal). This bulging pink crop is a very good indicator to all the condors in an area, that a particular bird has had a meal. Such an obvious sign of successful feeding may be useful when birds are trying to select dominant mates that will be good providers for future chicks.

Condor 126’s bulging pink crop certainly seemed to capture Condor 243’s interest. He appeared to be fixated on it and followed Condor 126 around for the next few hours. Finally, Condor 243 began to circle on a thermal of air. Delightedly, Jonna watched him move higher and higher up into the sky until he was a mere speck and then an indistinguishable part of the firmament. Relying on his radio signal, Jonna then tracked him as he headed back toward the release site. Unfortunately, though, whatever had contributed to his listlessness over the past week may have contributed to his inability or unwillingness to complete the journey to the release area. Putting down on the Vermilion Cliffs about half way between Navajo Bridge and the release area, Condor 243 settled down for the afternoon and night. To our relief, he completed the journey the following morning. Remaining at the release area and tanking up on food, Condor 243 was soon behaving normally again.

While the beginning of May saw several newcomers to the condor field crew (delighting us with their energy and enthusiasm), it sadly also meant the loss of one of our veteran crewmembers, Ty Donnelly. Ty had come to the project in May of 2002 for a six-month internship. He soon became utterly captivated with the condors and to our delight signed on for an additional six months. Ty’s love for the condors continuously manifested itself in his work, whether it was spending the night out on a sheer section of talus one cold December night to protect Condor 241 from coyotes, or commemorating the condors we’d lost in 2002 with his beautiful artwork on the wall of our blind, or driving to a tracking point close to midnight after a carcass drop to check on a particular birds whereabouts. His enthusiasm and willingness to work were unflagging. Ty, we wish you the best in your future endeavors up in Alaska! Thank you for all you did this past year to help keep the condors flying free! We’ll do everything we can to ensure that they’re still flying when you come back to visit the Canyonlands.

Until next time…

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