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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
16 - 31 March 2003
Sophie Osborn — in California Condor Restoration    ShareAlthough using caves as nest sites has undoubtedly benefited condors for many thousands of years, this breeding strategy can be extremely frustrating for the biologists who are attempting to monitor the birds’ nesting activities. Unable to see into our condors’ nest caves, the Arizona condor field crew has to content itself with watching the adult condors’ behavior for clues about the status of their nesting effort. After weeks of wondering what our condor quad was doing in their cave on the southwest corner of the Paria Plateau and hiking to innumerable different vantage points to try in vain to get a look into the cave, we finally took more drastic measures to satisfy our curiosity.

On the blustery morning of March 19, Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) climbers Greg Moore and Brenton White and Arizona Game and Fish climber Lee Ludecker met up with Grand Canyon and Peregrine Fund biologists to climb into the quad’s cave. Although the cave seemed to be quite accessible, we were soon to find out otherwise! Despite being raised in captivity and released to the wild by biologists, the condor quad (consisting of Condors 114, 126, 133, and 162) had instinctively chosen a fabulous first nest site. (If only they had split into two pairs and chosen two nest sites…)

Greg, who had climbed into the Battleship Cave and the Dana Butte Cave at the South Rim last year, made the first attempt to get into the quad’s cave. To his dismay, a large overhang precluded his entry. Laboriously, he ascended the hundred plus feet back to the rim to discuss strategy with the other two climbers. As Greg climbed, the condor quad periodically floated past, investigating our strange activities and giving us breathtaking displays of their nine-and-a-half-foot wingspans.

Having devised a new strategy, the climbers began their second attempt to access the cave. This time, Brenton descended. Rappelling to a designated spot below the nest cave, Brenton then attempted to climb up to the cave so as to avoid the large overhang. From our vantage point farther along the cliff rim, we watched Brenton (who looked like a minute spider against the cliff’s imposing backdrop) struggle in vain to access the cave. Foiled, he slowly ascended. Again the climbers discussed strategy. This time, they moved the ropes hoping that a different angle would allow them better access. Soon after, Lee was rappelling down the cliff. The new route began to look more promising….

Soon, Lee was dangling several feet out from the cave, Repeatedly, he tossed a line, hoping to hook it on a rock inside the cave to pull himself in. Finally, he succeeded! Cheers of “He’s in!” reverberated along the cliff. After what seemed like an eternity, Lee emerged and began the arduous ascent. In breathless anticipation we watched his slow progress. Had he found eggshells in the cave? Or had we been mistaken in thinking our quad had been trying to incubate an egg?

As he came level with the cliff, Lee shook his head. “I didn’t find much,” he told us. As I radioed the depressing news to field crew members that were observing the climb from the release site viewing area down in the valley, GCNP biologist Chad Olson began sifting through the handful of “stuff” that Lee had collected from the cave floor. There were numerous condor pellets (like raptors, condors will regurgitate pellets of fur from the animals they have consumed, though they do so less frequently than do hawks and eagles). There was also a plethora of small mammal bones, which baffled us. And then … hidden among the debris, Chad uncovered an eggshell fragment. And then another and another. Given their size, thickness, and color, they could only have come from a condor egg!! Our quad (or at least one of its female members) had indeed laid the first recorded egg at the Vermilion Cliffs. Although the quad had been unsuccessful in incubating their egg, their efforts gave us hope for next year. When they are a little older, a little wiser, and hopefully two pairs rather than a quad, perhaps they will successfully hatch an egg.

After their failed nest attempt, the quad continued to search out other potential nest caves. Hoping that perhaps they would try again, we decided to “encourage” the quad to break into two pairs, by recapturing Condors 126 and 162. On the morning of March 24, Project Director Chris Parish opened up our condor trap. Soon, hungry condors nervously began entering the trap. Condor 126 quickly filled her crop, while Chris waited anxiously for Condor 162 to enter the trap as well so he could capture both simultaneously. Finally, Condor 162 moved hesitantly toward the entrance. Chris’s hands tensed on the trap lines. Condor 162 suddenly moved into the trap, but as Chris began to pull the trap shut, Condor 126 rushed out, followed by Condor 162. Foiled, Chris settled back for a long wait as the nervous condors left the trapping area.

Hours later, Chris trapped Condor 162, hoping that he would soon have another chance at Condor 126. But Condor 126 had fed enough on the carcass that she was unwilling to risk entering the trap again that day. Nevertheless, the following morning, crewmember Ty Donnelly, who was manning the trap, managed to trap Condor 126. As nervous as the older birds are about entering the trap, fortunately for us they eventually seem to find the bait irresistible when they see younger, less wary, condors successfully getting a meal. Both Condors 126 and 162 were placed in our release pen, where we would hold them for a few weeks to see if Condors 114 and 133 would make any progress with another nesting attempt.

Meanwhile, the breeding efforts of the eight-year-old condors at the South Rim continued to progress smoothly. Condors 119 and 122 exchanged incubation duties in their Battleship Cave on a regular basis, while Condors 123 and 127 did the same in their Salt Creek Nest Cave .

While the older birds remained fixated on the challenge of successfully incubating their respective eggs, back at the release site, the newly-released condors faced some challenges of their own. Although the youngsters had made tremendous progress in developing their flight skills since their release on March 9, accessing and remaining on a safe roost ledge was especially challenging for them during the end of March. Violent winds repeatedly buffeted the Vermilion Cliffs, making it difficult for the young birds to land on the narrow cliff ledges. Even when the juveniles did manage to settle onto a safe ledge, they faced another challenge: Condor 158, who we soon dubbed “the roost menace.”

The young birds soon realized it was best to roost on a ledge that wasn’t overly popular with the older condors if they wanted to keep their spots. As a result, as many as 12 young condors would pile on to a ledge that we call “the lower faultline ledge.” Unfortunately though, aggregations of condors often draw the attention of other condors. When the young condors clustered together in one area for roost, dominant, six-year-old Condor 158 would land on the popular ledge and, either through his intimidating presence or some well-placed snaps of his bill, would clear it, scattering young condors into flight. While Condor 158 could fly at near-dark and take advantage of trace whispers of wind to move around on the cliff, the more inexperienced condors sometimes found themselves losing lift and dropping on to the more accessible talus below the cliff when forced into flight.

The violent winds and our “roost menace” kept the condor field crew busy at roost. If a youngster dropped down to the talus, we would hike up and haze the reluctant bird to a spot that would be inaccessible to coyotes. Newly-released Condors 272, 274, and 281 were all hazed on at least one occasion just before dark. Even Condor 257, who was released in September 2002 found himself on the talus on the night of March 22 after being “bumped” from the lower faultline ledge by Condor 158 at dark.

Condors are very reluctant to fly at night, so hazing them to a safe spot once darkness has set in can be a challenge. Kris Lightner and Chad Olson repeatedly attempted to haze Condor 257 to safety. After trying to flee on foot, Condor 257 would eventually take off and disappear into the dark. Kris and Chad would then use radio-telemetry to relocate Condor 257, who invariably landed farther along the talus, and try to “persuade” him to move to a better spot once again. At long last, Condor 257 managed to get to a spot that was inaccessible to the frighteningly persistent two-legged creatures as well as the far more dangerous four-legged ones. Next time Condor 158 tried to push him from a roost ledge at dusk, Condor 257 would either stand his ground or ensure that he remained on the cliff at all costs!

March is an exploratory time for young condors. Condor 250 (released in December 2002) and Condor 253 (released in September 2002) expanded their horizons by leaving the release site for their first overnight trip on March 20. Condor 253 went to the Colorado River Corridor near Badger Canyon with Condor 257 (who had already made the trip), while Condor 250 eluded us and, we believe, spent the night on the Kaibab Plateau. As is typical for first journeys for our released condors, Condors 250 and 253 kept their respective adventures short and returned to the release area the following day (March 21).

Both spread their wings again on March 29, but unfortunately, this time, both flew to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Because visitors to a park do not harm animals and typically try to get close to wildlife to get photos or to view animals up close, animals inside National Park boundaries tend to be much more approachable than their counterparts outside the parks. Teaching impressionable, parentless young condors, who will be spending as much time outside parks as inside, that people are dangerous and should not be approached is a challenge in a park setting. The difficulties in managing condors in the park are further exacerbated by the fact that condors key into the activity of ravens and park ravens walk among visitors, visit garbage cans, and accept handouts – not exactly the best mentoring behavior for young condors! The Peregrine Fund field crew tries to be on hand whenever newly-released condors encounter people, so that we can keep people from approaching the condors and can harass the condors if they get overly curious about people. (It would be nice if we lived in a world where we could allow humans and condors to interact, but having had three condors shot in Arizona , we cannot afford to allow condors to become overly comfortable around people.)

Much to our dismay, on their first visit to the South Rim, rather than coming up to the Grand Canyon Village area, which is heavily patrolled by the field crew, Condors 250 and 253 stopped at a favorite overlook down in the canyon. Because it is a rigorous twelve-mile round-trip hike for us to get to this point, it is difficult for us to actively manage this area. Crewmember Roger Benefield could only watch in frustration from the Village as the young condors landed miles below him near some hikers on the overlook, known as Plateau Point. Rather than being chased away as they invariably are by the field crew, these condors instead were greeted by people who either sat quietly to watch them or moved in closer to take photos. In doing so, the visitors inadvertently gave these impressionable young condors the message that people are not to be feared.

Soon, the condors grew bolder. Young condors are fascinated by anything new in their environment and explore the world with their bills. The hikers’ hiking poles, which had been left lying nearby, soon proved to be too much of a draw to the condors, who approached cautiously and began to nibble at and drag around the poles. While this was undoubtedly a delightful experience for the hikers, Condor 250 would later pay dearly for this entertaining first encounter with park visitors. Fortunately, crewmember Kris Lightner, who was monitoring the Battleship nest cave from a drainage a few miles away, soon arrived on the scene and chased off the young condors. To our relief both Condors 250 and 253 returned to the release site the next day, but their first visit to the South Rim left us dreading their next one.

The end of March was a time of turnover for our field crew and we reluctantly had to say our goodbyes to two amazingly dedicated biologists. Long-term Notes from the Field Notes readers probably remember Kris Lightner’s name. Kris first worked on the condor project from November 2000 to December of 2001. On the night of August 20, 2002 , after a long day in the field, I returned to the field house and found a great surprise awaiting me: Kris Lightner had returned! And even better, she wanted to work for a couple of weeks while she was between jobs. To our delight, Kris’s two weeks turned into four months! After a short-term field job, she returned again to volunteer for the condor project for two more weeks before moving on to a field job in California .

Jill Adams joined our crew on September 10, 2002 . From the day I met her I knew she would be a wonderful and invaluable addition to the crew. Kris and Jill’s love of the condors constantly manifested itself in their enthusiasm, their unstinting hard work, their wonderfully detailed and observant field notes, and their total dedication to the birds and the project. It is hard to do “extra” in a job that consumes most daylight hours, but somehow Jill and Kris always made time to enter and organize our reams of data and help keep the project running smoothly. Both stayed with us far longer than they had originally planned, doing their utmost to keep the newly-released condors safe and flying free at a time when we were unexpectedly short-staffed.

Kris and Jill, despite the many additional weeks that you dedicated to the condors, it still felt like your time with us was woefully short. I will miss you both dearly, but feel privileged to have worked with you and thankful that the wildlife world has two such fine and dedicated biologists working for it!

Until next time….

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