1- 28 February 2003
Sophie Osborn— 1 February 2003 — in California Condor Restoration ShareAs befits the month containing Valentine’s Day, February was a time of romance and adventure for the Arizona condors! Romance for the older birds and adventure for the youngsters. Courtship activities continued to heat up for the breeding birds. Condor 122 and 123 repeatedly cemented their pairings with their respective mates of almost two years—Condors 119 and 127.
At one time or another, soon-to-be-six-year-old Condor 162 was seen attempting to copulate with all three other members of the condor “quad” – a unique twist on the typical (and ideal) pair scenario. While we were pleased at the attention that Condor 162 lavished on female Condors 126 and 133, his undiminished interest in male Condor 114 definitely continued to concern us! We could only hope that his attempts to mount Condor 114 were dominance-related. Condor 114 seemed focused on Condor 133, but whenever he attempted to show off his colors and condor dancing style to Condor 133, Condor 162 would intervene.
Sadly, the much-hoped-for pairing between six-year-old Condor 158 and five-year-old Condor 176 appeared less and less likely as the month progressed. Condor 176 had initially seemed to return Condor 158’s interest. As late as early February, the two investigated several caves on the Vermilion Cliffs. By mid-February, however, Condor 176 began to reassert her characteristic independence and re-embrace her reputation as Arizona’s “flyingest” condor by making repeated trips away from the release site. Unfortunately, Condor 158 seemed disinclined to follow her.
Instead, Condor 158 refocused his attentions on seven-year-old Condor 136. For the field crew that watches the condors every day, this new development was bittersweet. Condor 136 had heretofore elicited tremendous sympathy among the crew because she had garnered so little attention from any of the male condors. One of the older females in our flock, Condor 136 is one of the three remaining condors from the first Arizona condor release in December 1996. Since our condors had come of age, the male condors’ universal disinterest in Condor 136 had always baffled us. For Condor 136’s sake, therefore, we were delighted when Condor 158, one of our more dominant males, began to show interest in her. Condor 136 appeared to relish the attention, snuggling up to Condor 158 whenever he displayed to her.
Nevertheless, while we felt that Condors 136 and 158 would make a great match, such a pairing would leave fewer options for Condor 176. Condor 187, who has shown a great deal of interest in Condor 176, is her brother. Condor 193, the next likeliest option, still seems a bit immature and submissive. Perhaps by next year, when and if Condor 176 is more inclined to settle down and try her hand at nesting, some younger males will be ready to compete for her attention.
As the month progressed, our quad doings became increasingly interesting and ever more baffling. Condors 114, 126, 133, and 162 spent more and more time in or near a potential nest cave located on the Vermilion Cliffs, about a mile and a half from the release site. Some nights, all four members of the quad would roost at what we dubbed the Southwest Corner Cave (because of its location on the southwest corner of the Paria Plateau). At other times, one or two of the condors would remain near the cave while the others would zip back to the release site to roost in the company of the other condors. Although we desperately yearned to see some clear pattern of occupancy in the cave, the birds’ behavior continued to confound us.
On the night of 17 February, for example, Condor 133 spent the night alone at the southwest corner. The following night she was accompanied by male Condor 114, who then spent the next night alone at the cave. Condors 114, 126, and 162 all roosted in or near the cave on February 20, while Condor 133 roosted at the release site. On 21 February, Condor 126 spent the day at the cave and roosted there with Condor 162 for the next two nights. Confused? So were we!
Beginning on February 25, we begin to see the glimmer of a pattern in the convoluted behavior of these inexperienced birds. Both males, Condors 114 and 162, began taking turns spending the night in the nest cave, as though they were doing incubation duty! Could one of the females have laid an egg? And if so, which one? And which male was the father? If indeed there was an egg, could four inexperienced birds care properly for the first condor egg laid at the Vermilion Cliffs in recorded history? Clearly, we had far more questions than answers!
To our chagrin, though, the bizarre quad nesting effort appeared to come to an abrupt end on 28 February. Both Condors 114 and 133 spent time in the cave that day. Condor 133 returned to the release area in the early afternoon and did not return to the cave again. Meanwhile, Condor 114, who had gone into the cave when Condor 133 had exited it, remained for only about 40 minutes, then spent the rest of the afternoon flying back and forth between the cave and the release site. After one more brief visit to the cave, he abandoned it altogether.
That night all four members of the quad roosted at the release site, leaving the cave unattended for the first time in at least a week. If there had been an egg, the nesting attempt appeared to have failed. We resolved to continue monitoring the quad’s activities, while making plans to climb into the abandoned cave to look for any signs of a condor egg having been laid and subsequently broken. Despite the quad’s apparent failure and our concomitant disappointment, we took consolation in the fact that the foursome had learned lessons that will hopefully put them in better stead for nesting successfully in 2004.
While the older birds were fixated on finding potential nest caves and captivating future mates, the three- and four-year-old condors, began traveling with increasing frequency to the Colorado River Corridor. In doing so, they repeated the seasonal pattern exhibited by our condor flock since the early days of the reintroduction effort. While the majority of the flock frequents the release area during November to January, a growing number of condors typically begin visiting the Marble Canyon portion of the Grand Canyon in February, March, and April.
With more and more of the younger condors making trips to and from the river and the release site, we knew it was only a matter of time before some of the condors that we had released to the wild in September and December would venture away from the Vermilion Cliffs for the first time. Each newly released condor’s first trip away from the release site is looked upon with a conflicting mixture of excitement and trepidation. Upon leaving the familiarity of the release area, these young condors will inevitably confront their biggest challenge to date: people. How they interact with people will determine the course of their next few years. Birds that are unwary and approach people will be hazed repeatedly by the condor field crew and potentially recaptured and given more growing up time in captivity before being re-released. Birds that are more cautious of people are likely to remain in the wild.
On 19 February, juvenile Condor 257, who was released in September 2002 as a one-and-a-half-year-old, suddenly decided to accompany young female Condor 234 to what was for him a novel destination. Condors 234 and 257 met up with Condor 227 at Badger Canyon (an offshoot of the Marble Canyon portion of the Grand Canyon that is often frequented by hikers and fishermen). As a condor field crewmember rushed after Condor 257 to monitor him in this new locale, we couldn’t help but feel that he was in great hands (or would that be wings?!). Both Condors 227 and 234 are exceptional three-year-old condors and we expected them to be good mentors. They did not let us down. After spending an uneventful night and part of a day on the Badger Canyon cliffs, Condor 257 headed back to the release site. He had had a short, but very successful first trip into a potential people-area.
Juvenile condors 243 and 249 were quick to follow Condor 257’s lead. While both had left the release site once before, neither had ever been to the Marble Canyon area. Condor 249 had had an exceptional first outing a few weeks after his release in September 2002. He had flown to the west flank of the Kaibab and remained for weeks before finally returning to the release area. We all felt very confident that Condor 249 would be an extremely successful young condor.
Condor 243 was another matter! Released in February 2002, Condor 243 had overextended himself on his first flight from the release site in May 2002. Unable to keep up with his traveling companions, Condor 243 had dropped down at Pipe Springs National Monument and approached some hikers. We had quickly recaptured him and subsequently given him some extra months of growing-up time in captivity.
When Condor 243 left the release site for the first time since his re-release in December 2002, we quickly followed after him, hoping he would have a more successful first outing. Fortunately, he did not disappoint us! Flying with Condor 249, Condor 243 flew as far as Badger; the two then returned to the release site for roost. We were delighted that Condor 243 had passed over several small communities and campsites without moving in for a closer look. Our youngsters were taking tentative steps forward, but the real test, South Rim season, would be on us before long….
In the meantime, it was time for us to ready a few more condors for the wild! After several weeks of monitoring the behavior of the juvenile condors that had been delivered to the Vermilion Cliffs on 18 January, we decided that a few of the youngsters were ready to fly free. On 19 February, the field crew netted and weighed the eight juveniles that had been residing in our flight pen for the last month. The capture and handling of each youngster confirmed our impression that Condors 272, 274, and 281 were currently our best release candidates. All three birds had shown themselves to be dominant members of their cohort. Male condors 272 and 274 were extremely wary of people, launching themselves into a panicked flight across the pen upon seeing us and fighting hard when we had them in the hand. Female Condor 281 was also very wary of us and aggressive in the hand.
However, despite our favorable impression of these three youngsters, upon weighing Condor 272, we found him to be slightly underweight. We nonetheless decided to transport him to the release pen with Condors 274 and 281. Prior to release day, which was scheduled for 3 March, we would re-weigh Condor 272. If he had gained weight during his time in the release pen, then he would fly free with the other two youngsters.
On 27 February, the condor field crew trooped down to the release pen, a driving snowfall pelting our chilled faces. We netted Condors 272, 274, and 281 for the last time to outfit each bird with radio-transmitters and to check its weight. We were particularly anxious to determine if Condor 272 had gained enough weight for us to deem him releasable. As we began processing Condor 272, a bright beam of sun suddenly penetrated the thick storm clouds and reigned down on us, making the fallen snowflakes sparkle and dance. Nervously, I stepped onto the scale with the struggling young condor in my arms. Seconds later, smiles exploded on everyone’s faces. Condor 272 had put on approximately one pound. On March 3, Condors 272, 274, and 281 would all take their first flight as wild condors!
Until next time …
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