16 - 30 April 2003
Sophie Osborn— 16 April 2003 — in California Condor Restoration ShareOn April 19, Condor 250 landed on a low wall adjacent to the rim trail that passes through Grand Canyon Village. Hopping to the ground, he quickly drew the attention of numerous tourists, who sought to get as close to him as possible. Unlike most condors, Condor 250 showed little fear. It was the moment we had been waiting for. For the past week or two we had been hoping for an opportunity to recapture Condor 250. His excessive curiosity and fearlessness put him at risk and threatened to entice condors that would usually behave appropriately into bad situations.
Each year, one or two condors exhibit excessive tameness and must be recaptured. With additional growing up time, close monitoring, and hazing whenever they come near people once they are re-released, these condors can usually be turned into successful, free-flying condors. Unfortunately, even though these condors are not the norm, they garner the most press and give the impression that the behavior of all the released condors is problematic.
Veteran condor field crewmember Roger Benefield and Angel Montoya, project leader for The Peregrine Fund’s Aplomado Falcon reintroduction project, soon arrived on the scene. While Condor 250 was distracted by people, they moved in behind him and grabbed him. Even a seemingly tame condor like Condor 250 is anything but tame when you try to handle it. Condors’ extremely powerful bills are designed to tear flesh and their first instinct is to bite. Condors can strike with lightning speed. Fortunately, Angel quickly immobilized Condor 250’s head, while Roger grabbed his body. They bundled him into a kennel and transported him back to our release area. He was then placed in our flight pen with the five juveniles that will be released for the first time in the fall. Hopefully, the very negative experience of being grabbed by people and placed in captivity will have taught Condor 250 a valuable lesson. After some additional growing-up time this summer, he will get another chance to fly free in the fall.
During the second half of April, the younger condors continued to chalk up a variety of personal “firsts.” On April 16, Condors 241 and 274 left the release area for the first time. Fortunately, the two opted for a very conservative first adventure. After flying the 25 miles or so to Navajo Bridge, the two circled over the area then returned to the release site without ever touching down. A few days later, Condor 241 opted for a bolder approach, when she left the release site with Condors 114, 162, 243, and 253 on April 21. The group joined up with Condors 126 and 249 and soared over Navajo Bridge. Rather than settle with the other condors in the Navajo Bridge area, Condor 241 moved a few miles farther downriver and roosted by the confluence of Badger Canyon and the Colorado River.
The following morning, Condor 241 buzzed back to the release area. We could not have been more thrilled with Condor 241’s first experience away from the release site. Because of her overly tame and submissive nature, Condor 241 had been held in captivity until she was over one-and-a-half-years-old. (Interestingly, she is Condor 232 and 250’s sister). After her release in December 2002, Condor 241 spent the next four months at the release site, gaining in strength and confidence. Although we were amazed that we hadn’t had to recapture her during that time, everyone on the field crew was convinced that Condor 241 would run into people-trouble the moment she left the release area. To our delight, Condor 241 had proved us all wrong. Nevertheless, her first visit to the South Rim would be far more telling!
On April 20, Condor 232 made it to the South Rim for his first time. He was another bird whose first encounter with the hoards of visitors at the South Rim we’d been dreading. To our surprise, Condor 232 did very well. He required no more hazing than any of the other free-flying condors and did not descend, as we had suspected he would, to the level of poor behavior exhibited by Condor 250.
Condor 232’s visit to the South Rim coincided with a massive influx of condors to the South Rim area. By the latter half of April, the South Rim season was in full swing with as many as 22 condors in the area on most days. (In 1982, there were only 22 California Condors left in the whole world! Visitors to the South Rim have been thrilled by the unforgettable sight of so many condors flying over the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon.) Veteran crewmember Roger Benefield, who has been doing the lion’s share of the “South Rim duty” exclaimed in his field notes on April 29 “Air raid! Fourteen condors suddenly appear from below Plateau Point and fly level with me and over me,” as he monitored the birds from Plateau Point, down in the canyon.
Aside from behaving surprisingly well on his first visit to the South Rim, Condor 232 chalked up another first at the end of April when he found his first carcass! While the other condors were busy entertaining themselves in the Plateau Point area on April 30, Condor 232 found a mule deer that had most likely fallen to its death in the Bright Angel trailhead cove, adjacent to Grand Canyon Village. Condor 232 spent the day alone filling up his crop, before being joined the next day by a plethora of other condors who quickly finished up the carcass.
Visitors to the South Rim who are treated to sights of condors perching on the cliffs below the Grand Canyon Village frequently ask us why the condors like people so much. As I have explained in the past to Notes from the Field readers, condors probably don’t “like” people. Nevertheless, they are curious birds and opportunistic scavengers that were probably attracted to herds of mammals in their evolutionary past. Where there were abundant mammals, there was sure to be food. Not only are the condors attracted to the activity and commotion of the thousands of tourist mammals at the South Rim (who might well be a nice food supply, if it weren’t for back-country rangers and Med-Evac helicopters!), but they are also attracted to the other scavengers in the area.
Condors are visual scavengers – they find their food using their tremendous eyesight – unlike the smaller Turkey Vultures that use a well-developed sense of smell to find their food. In addition to locating food on their own, condors key into the activity of other scavengers to help them find food. Ravens, another scavenger whose activities the condors key in on, are abundant at the South Rim, as are Turkey Vultures. There are two communal Turkey Vulture roosts close to the Village area. Drawn to the area by the commotion of tourists and the abundance of other scavengers, the condors are all too often richly rewarded by finding a bonanza of food at the South Rim. Findings such as Condor 232’s mule deer carcass ensure that the condors keep returning to and spending time at the South Rim. Although the South Rim presents innumerable challenges to those of us who are trying to teach the condors to be wild and wary creatures, it is an area that is a great boon to the condors and an even greater one to the thousands of visitors who are treated to incredible sights of this magnificent, endangered bird each year.
Before the end of April, the first of the three juvenile condors that were released on March 9, 2003 spent its first night away from the release site. Condor 281, the only female in the release group, left the release site on April 24. Heading southwest, she appears to have flown back and forth over the east flank of the Kaibab before dropping down to roost. Before we could hike in to find her the next morning, Condor 281 took off and returned to the release site. Another young condor had completed a very successful first trip!
As the month drew to a close, we anxiously kept a close eye on the activities of our two breeding pairs, hoping for some sign that their respective egg was hatching or had hatched. Condors 123 and 127 showed no obvious changes from their incubation patterns, although monitoring their activities were extremely difficult since we couldn’t see the nest and had to rely solely on deciphering their activities by listening to their radio signals. With no clear signs that they had hatched their egg, we would have to content ourselves with waiting to see if their behavior would change in the first week in May.
Condors 119 and 122 began to show subtle changes in their behavior in the second half of April, but unfortunately these changes were more disconcerting to us than reassuring. On April 16 and 17, the pair surprised us by spending time together away from the nest. Perhaps one was joining the other while on its incubation break, but it was disconcerting to see both birds loafing together on the cliffs below Grand Canyon Village. On April 20, male Condor 22 disconcerted us by taking two incubation breaks, one of which was over an hour long. Again, this may not have been cause for alarm, but it meant he was spending more time away from the nest than in the previous weeks. It also seemed different than the behavior we were documenting for Condors 123 and 127, but because we weren’t watching the Salt Creek Nest pair, it’s possible they might have been taking longer incubation breaks than we realized. The following day, Condors 119 and 122 again spent time away from the nest cave together. Condor 122 seemed to be the less attentive pair-member. Whenever Condor 119 took over nest duty, she took quick breaks and we did not see the pair out away from the nest together.
Each time we felt concerned, however, Condors 119 and 122 resumed the attentive care of their egg, making us feel like overly fretful grandparents! Condors take a long time to grow up and begin reproducing and often require several attempts before they are successful. Knowing this, we kept trying to tell ourselves to be patient and not get our hopes up too much. As April ended, the question on all our minds – whether or not we had a nestling condor yet – remained unanswered. Hopefully, May would finally provide the answer we had long been hoping for!
Until next time….
Our Conservation Projects
Species we work with
Where we work
|Unknown column 'Hits' in 'field list'|