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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
1 - 15 April 2003
Sophie Osborn — in California Condor Restoration    ShareThe life of a field biologist can be surprisingly dull at times. Days in the field are exceedingly long and all too often consist of hours of waiting for an animal to show up, watching it rest for hours on end, or driving long distances listening to the monotonous blips of radio transmitter signals. Days are often spent in solitude in remote areas in inhospitable conditions. Clearly, it is not the life for everyone.

For those of us who embrace it, however, the many hours of tedium fade into insignificance since they are inevitably disrupted by uplifting moments of euphoria and entertainment. Here in Arizona Condor Country, our office walls are delineated by the vividly-colored Vermilion Cliffs, the ever-changing yet timeless Grand Canyon, and the refreshingly verdant Kaibab National Forest. Watching a dozen condors simultaneously extend their great wings to dry them in the sun after bathing in the sparkling Colorado River, or observing a pair of adult condors engaging in the grace, speed, and perfect harmony of a synchronized flight make the long bouts of inactivity fade into insignificance. And being outside watching wildlife hour after hour and day after day means being treated to sights that the average person may only ever see on a Discovery Channel special.

On April 6, the condor field crew was treated to just such a sighting. Several of us had gathered at our viewing area in the House Rock Valley to ensure that our newly-released condors would find a safe roost for the night. It was a warm time of camaraderie for a group of people that all too often does its work solitarily. Amidst the chat, eyes roamed the cliffs with binoculars or spotting scopes as we worked on locating each young condor. Chad Olson, Grand Canyon National Park raptor biologist, who had joined us for the evening, suddenly interrupted the banter by saying, in his ever-nonchalant way, “There’s a mountain lion on the release pen.”

The rest of us laughed at the out-of-place remark, delivered with a casualness that belied its veracity. “No, I’m serious,” Chad insisted, “there’s a mountain lion on the pen.” Quickly, binoculars and scopes swiveled to the release pen, whose roof was barely visible from our viewing spot at the base of the cliffs. Sure enough, a very large cat was prowling around on the top of the nylon netting, completely absorbed in the frenzied flapping of Condors 126 and 162 who were inside the pen. Time seemed to stand still as we stared in amazement and awe at the beautiful but unwanted visitor. For most of us, it was our first-ever sighting of this elusive predator. Throughout my years of hiking in wild places, I had always hoped to catch a glimpse of a mountain lion. Never did I expect to see one actively trying to get at our condors in Arizona!

After a momentary pause, we swung into action. Despite our fascination with the lion, our priority was to ensure the safety of adult Condors 126 and 162 who were being held in an attempt to break our condor quad into two pairs. Project director Chris Parish and veteran crewmember Ty Donnelly jumped into a truck and headed “up top” (our release area and holding pens on the top of the Vermilion Cliffs). The rest of us watched in an agony of suspense hoping that the release pen netting, which had always seemed indestructible, would hold the weight and resist the sharp claws of a very persistent lion.

In record time, Chris and Ty were up at the release area and running toward the release pen. Reluctantly, the cat moved off a short distance at their approach, but remained close by watching Chris and Ty’s every move with its beautiful tawny eyes. In the hopes of instilling more fear and caution into the seemingly hungry lion, Chris fired off a shot close to the cat. Quickly, she took off, disappearing into the desert landscape. It was the first time since 1998 that any one had seen any sign of a mountain lion “up top.” We did not expect to see her again.

Nevertheless, although darkness was now settling on the cliffs, Chris and Ty raised the front gate of the release pen and released Condors 126 and 162. With so few condors left in the world we did not want to risk leaving these adults in the release pen for fear that the lion might get at them if she returned in the night. While our scheme to split up our quad was therefore foiled for the time being, having a condor quad was infinitely preferable to having two condors be mauled by a lion!

Despite the extreme winds and frequent rain and snow squalls that buffeted the Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Canyon during the first half of April, the younger condors continued to expand their horizons. On April 7, Condors 158, 176, 193, and 235 took a trip up to Zion National Park (about 60 miles northwest of the release site). This was three-year-old Condor 235’s first trip to Zion, which has long been a favorite haunt of Condor 176. The following day, the four birds thrilled tourists by finding and feeding on a mule deer carcass. Condors 158, 176, and 193, returned to the release area on April 9, while Condor 235 remained in Zion National Park, finishing up the remains of the mule deer. She was soon rejoined by Condor 176, who in typical yo-yo fashion, buzzed back to Zion on April 10.

Meanwhile, Condor 232 made his first major trip away from the release site. Released initially in December 2000, Condor 232 was recaptured within a month of his release because he exhibited overly tame behavior. After spending some “growing-up time” in captivity, he was re-released in September 2002. Although we were anxious to see how he would fare when he finally left the release site, we were relieved that he seemed perfectly content to remain at the Vermilion Cliffs, feeding on carcasses, improving his flight skills, and becoming socialized with the other free-flying condors. On April 10, Condor 232 finally shed his reputation as a homebody and joined a mass exodus of condors traveling from the release site to Navajo Bridge.

Although, a handful of birds had been frequenting the Navajo Bridge area sporadically over the last few weeks, the Navajo Bridge season started with a bang when 11 condors arrived in the late afternoon and settled on the surrounding cliffs. To our delight, a wide-eyed Condor 232, head swiveling to look at the commotion and activity around him, maintained an impressively cautious distance from the tourists walking along the bridge. He soon settled down to roost on the cliffs with the other condors. While many of the more experienced condors returned to the release area the following day, Condor 232 seemed reluctant to turn his back on this new-found area. He spent almost a week playing on the Colorado River beaches below Navajo Bridge, bathing in the river, and loafing on the cliffs, before finally returning to the release site for a bite to eat on April 16.

Condor 249, who was also released in September 2002, likewise expanded his horizons in early April. Unlike Condor 232, Condor 249 was the most adventurous condor in his release group, leaving the release site within 10 minutes of his release! On April 3, Condor 249 made his first trip to the South Rim. Exhibiting exemplary behavior, he kept his visit short and sweet and returned to the release site on 6 April.

If only the same could be said about Condor 250, Condor 232’s younger brother! Condor 250, who had been released in December 2002, left the release area with Condor 210 on April 3, for his second visit to the South Rim. Unfortunately, the confidence he appeared to be gaining day by day began to manifest itself in a proclivity for approaching people. His behavior did not seem particularly aberrant during his first week at the South Rim. However, on April 11, we received a report that Condor 250 had approached people in a remote back-country campsite down in the canyon. On April 14, we received a report that a very “friendly” Condor 250 was allowing tourists on the South Kaibab Trail to approach him.

Drawn to the area by a mule that had fallen to its death a few days earlier, numerous condors were beginning to congregate at Skeleton Point on the South Kaibab Trail. The trail, situated high above the carcass, may have seemed like a natural cliff ledge to the condors that sought to perch on it. Unfortunately, the birds could easily be approached by hikers in this location. Condors often descend to the lowest common denominator. If one condor is playing with something or doing something that sparks the curiosity of other condors, those condors will often move in to investigate, even if it means landing somewhere or behaving in a way that they normally wouldn’t. Condor 250’s total lack of fear and excessive curiosity about people was extremely worrying, not only because he put himself in danger by landing near people, but also because he was likely to lead other impressionable young condors into trouble. After several frustrating days of trying to haze Condor 250 away from hiking trails, we decided to retrap him. Our hope was to catch Condor 250 “in the act” of allowing tourists to get close to him. If he eluded us, we would have to wait until he returned to the release site, where we could bait him into our condor trap.

Fortunately, it is the rare youngster that exhibits the excessive tameness that characterized Condor 250. Condor 257 who was released in September 2002, showed us how elusive and “wild” young condors that are raised in captivity can be when he left the release site and disappeared on April 13. New crewmember Jason Blackburn and Aplomado Falcon Project Leader Angel Montoya, who was helping us out for a few weeks, located him briefly on April 15, flying over some remote cliffs near Big Water, a small community west of Page, Arizona. They soon lost sight of him as he headed north of Lake Powell. We did not see him again until April 19, when he finally returned to the release area. During his absence, we did not receive a single reported sighting of an errant condor. We could only wonder if he had made it as far as such legendary travelers as Condor 119, who flew to Flaming Gorge, Wyoming as a youngster, or if he remained in the wild country just north of Lake Powell.

While the younger condors were busy exploring new areas, the breeding birds continued their seemingly endless incubation duties. Condors 123 and 127 regularly took two to four day turns incubating their egg in their remote Salt Creek nest cave, while Condors 119 and 122 did the same in the Battleship nest cave. The birds were finally coming down to their last few weeks of incubation. Would a condor chick finally hatch in Arizona this year? The eggs were due to hatch at the end of April/beginning of May, so we would not have long to wait for an answer!

Until next time….

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