1- 15 March 2003
Sophie Osborn— 1 March 2003 — in California Condor Restoration ShareSometimes releases of juvenile condors are just plain boring. Even after the front gate on the release pen has been opened up, young birds often wait for hours before either noticing their pen now has an exit or overcoming their timidity enough to investigate the opening by taking the first tentative steps out of the pen.
Seconds before 1100 hours on March 3, I radioed up to veteran crewmember Ty Donnelly, who was huddled in a blind attached to the back of our release pen, that it was time to open up the gate and let Condors 272, 274, and 281 fly free. Exactly on schedule, Ty began turning the winch that opens a long gate at the front of the release pen. The three young condors appeared to be jittery and energetic, actively moving about their enclosure. At 1102 hours, Condor 274 ran toward the gate as watching field crewmembers and assembled visitors held a collective breath. But he continued on past the open gate.
Before we could even exhale, though, Condor 272 shot into view from behind Condor 274 and launched himself into the air like a feathered missile! Cheers erupted from the crowd. Condor 272 swooped over the release area, making a surprisingly graceful first flight. A retinue of three ravens quickly descended upon him, cavorting around the young bird as he danced with the winds over the Vermilion Cliffs for the first time.
But the rapid-fire action was far from over. At 1103 hours, less than a minute after Condor 272 had launched himself into flight, Condor 281, who appeared to have been electrified by Condor 272’s surprising actions, ran for the open gate and likewise launched herself into flight. Condor 274 followed hot on her heels. It was 1104 hours, a mere four minutes after the release pen gate had been opened and our three juvenile condors had already become part of Arizona’s free-flying flock of wild condors! Thirty-six condors were now flying free in Arizona.
For the remainder of the day, the newly released condors explored the cliff rim on foot, interacted with the other free-flying condors, and made several short, conservative flights around the release area. As the day drew to a close, the condor field crew moved into higher gear. The critical roosting period would soon be upon us. We needed to ensure that each young bird roosted in a safe spot that was inaccessible to coyotes. If they did not chose an appropriate roosting place on their own, we would “encourage” them to move to a safe spot by hazing them.
To our delight, our youngsters needed no help from us! Condors 272 and 274 settled into safe spots slightly apart from the rest of the condor flock. Condor 281, meanwhile, seemed very eager to join the older, more experienced condors on the portion of the cliff that we have dubbed “Africa.” Appearing to realize that her flight skills were still inadequate and she wouldn’t be able to land successfully on the cliff, Condor 281 made a valiant, but unsuccessful attempt to walk down the near-vertical section of cliff to reach the other birds. To our amusement, the wind kept almost upending her as she tried repeatedly to reach the desired locale. Needless to say, she was unable to join the other birds and had to content herself to roosting a short distance above them.
As each day progressed, the three young condors showed dramatic improvement in their flight skills. Condor 274 managed to land in Africa for roost on the evening of March 4, while Condor 281 was successful the following evening. We couldn’t help but feel inordinate pride in these two juveniles’ progress. Condor 272’s progress was a little rockier. Upon being hazed from an unsafe spot on March 6, Condor 272 flew south of the release site and roosted on the southwest corner of the Paria Plateau (just around the corner from the release site and still on the Vermilion Cliffs). To the quad’s (Condors 114, 126, 133, and 162) consternation, Condor 272 spent most of the next day loafing on a safe ledge below their failed nest cave. Much to our relief, though, Condor 272 returned to the release site on March 8 and landed like a pro in Africa! In a matter of days, the three juveniles had developed the necessary flight skills and the know-how to get themselves to a safe roost. We couldn’t help but think they were going to be exceptional condors!
While the field crew was fully absorbed with monitoring the newly released condors, some of the younger members of our condor flock took it upon themselves to initiate the South Rim season! (South Rim season is the time of year when numerous condors visit and spend time at GCNP’s South Rim.) On March 5, delighted visitors to Grand Canyon National Park were treated to the sight of eight condors on rock pinnacles adjacent to the Grand Canyon Village area! Three of the birds, Condors 176, 198, and 210, had begun their day at the release site. They had then flown approximately 20 miles to Badger Canyon where they had met up with Condors 203, 223, 227, and 235. This swirling kettle of condors, for unknown reasons, had then moved downriver and headed well over 50 miles to the South Rim!
The arrival of this group of three-, four-, and five-year-old condors brought the number of condors at the South Rim to a whopping thirteen! (Condors 119, 122, 123, 127, 134, and 149 were already at the South Rim). In 2001, the South Rim season started in force in mid-May. Last year, we were astonished when South Rim season began in early April. This year, the condors took us by surprise yet again, by beginning visitation to the South Rim almost a month earlier. (Over the last few years, South Rim season has been ending earlier as well since the birds have increasingly been spending their late summer and fall on and around the Kaibab Plateau.)
As it always seems to do, the South Rim soon rewarded the condors’ visitation by providing them with a bounty of food! Sadly, the first documented carcass found this year (on March 6) was a mule that had fallen to its death off a trail at the South Rim. Because of the mule’s position and tough hide, it was many days before the condors could feed on it. Nevertheless, it continued to draw their attention.
Unfortunately, on several occasions the birds opted to observe this potential meal by perching on the closest “cliff” ledge above the mule. The ledge happened to be a hiking trail. While this allowed some visitors to get tremendous views of these magnificent birds, such situations can only be detrimental to the condors. Knowing that they are safe because they can just drop off the ledge and fly away, several of the condors allowed hikers to get fairly close. (The same birds will not let people get close to them when they are in forested situations with more difficult escape routes.) Slowly approaching a condor, taking a picture, then backing away gives the birds the impression that people are not to be feared. Since three condors have been shot in Arizona during the course of the reintroduction effort, such a message is clearly the wrong one to be giving to these parentless young birds. We would prefer that visitors who happen upon condors on a trail either keep their distance or rush at them and chase them off. You may miss out on a great picture, but by teaching the condors that humans are unpredictable, you very likely might help save a condor’s life!
Aside from releasing new condors, the most exciting event of the first half of March was finally documenting the onset of incubation by four of our breeding-aged birds! Since Condors 119 and 122 and Condors 123 and 127 had begun searching for nest caves as early as January, we had thought they would lay earlier this year than they did last year. Week after week, we waited impatiently for the onset of another nesting attempt. Week after week, the birds lounged at the release site or at the south rim, desultorily engaging in courtship activities. Last year, both pairs laid at the end of February. We had been sure that, as had happened with the condors in California, our pairs would lay earlier in their second year of nesting. But the condors continuously seem to confound us! The birds showed no signs of egg-laying in February.
Based on Chad’s preliminary observations on March 6, it also seemed probable that Condors 123 and 127 had also started incubating. Chad and Peregrine Fund field crewmember Roger Benefield were able to determine that the nest cave was located in the Salt Creek drainage (the next drainage to the west of the Horn Creek drainage where the pair nested last year), but despite their concerted efforts, Chad and Roger could not get a view of the nest from the cliff rim. On March 14, therefore, Chad began the 24-mile round-trip hike into the Salt Creek drainage.
The following day, as he was watching a large cave that he felt must be the nest cave, he caught a glimpse of male Condor 123 flying past against the dark red cliff. Breathlessly, he waited to see if Condor 123 would land at the cave entrance. To his dismay, Condor 123 kept flying. Moments later, though, Condor 123 landed on the lip of a barely discernible (from Chad’s vantage point) smaller cave. Within seconds, Condor 123 disappeared inside. He remained inside for the remainder of the day. The nest cave (which we have dubbed the Salt Creek Nest Cave) is in a portion of the canyon known as “The Inferno.” According to Chad, even in early March, this area is aptly named! Clearly, monitoring this cave is going to be significantly more challenging than monitoring the Battleship Nest cave. Volunteers are welcome!
Until next time …
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