16 - 31 December 2002
Sophie Osborn— 16 December 2002 — in California Condor Restoration ShareDecember 2002 ended much as it had begun: stormy skies, coupled with increasingly sedentary condors; excitement over re-releasing now-healthy condors, sobered by lingering concerns about lead; steadily accelerating condor courtship, accompanied by the field crew’s condor matchmaking and speculation about the upcoming breeding season.
On December 16, we re-released Condors 136, 210, and 235, all of which had finished their second round of chelation (treatment for lead poisoning) earlier in the month. Sadly, our delight in seeing these birds fly free again was quickly tempered by news regarding juvenile Condor 249. Condor 249 had been released for the first time on September 25, 2002. Showing himself to be far more adventurous than the other members of his release cohort, Condor 249 had stunned the field crew by leaving the release site and heading over to the west side of the Kaibab Plateau on October 21, a mere three weeks after his release. He had spent almost the next two months frequenting the Kaibab and its adjacent canyons before returning on December 10. Although lead-free when he was released, upon trapping Condor 249 and testing his blood for the presence of lead after his return to the release area, we discovered that he now had lead poisoning.
Early on December 16, Project Director Chris Parish took Condor 249 to get x-rayed in Page, Arizona. Condor 249’s x-ray revealed a small metallic fragment in his gizzard (stomach). Given his high blood-lead levels, the fact that we had seen him in the vicinity of several poached mule-deer carcasses, and later analysis of the fragment, we suspected that Condor 249 had ingested a piece of a lead bullet that he had encountered in a deer carcass. Chris transported Condor 249 to the Phoenix Zoo, where he would be treated for lead poisoning and monitored closely to ensure that he passed the metal fragment from his system. As we watched our free-flying condors cavorting over the Vermilion Cliffs, feeding on proffered carcasses, and loafing at the release site, thoughts of Condor 249 were never far from our minds. We couldn’t wait for him to come home.
In the meantime, most of our efforts were still focused on keeping a watchful eye on newly-released Condors 241 and 250. Despite Condor 241’s especially rocky start, the two youngsters flight skills and selection of safe roost perches continued to show daily improvement. Although they were a long way from exhibiting the characteristic grace of the older birds, Condors 241 and 250 had at least learned to control their speed (and not face-plant upon landing!) and were becoming stronger and more agile in the air. While we still hazed them to safe roost spots on occasional nights, the majority of the time, the two youngsters joined the older birds in the safety of “Africa” of their own accord.
While Condors 241 and 250 were developing their flight skills, learning to compete with the older birds at carcasses, and exploring the plateau surrounding the release area, many of the older birds were focused on trying to impress potential mates and exploring possible cave nest sites. It looked like we would have at least three pairs during the upcoming breeding season. Condors 119 and 122 who nested in the Battleship Cave at Grand Canyon National Park’s (GCNP) South Rim last year, spent most of the second half of December in the vicinity of their old nest cave. Indeed, much to our excitement, they spent several days re-exploring their cave and spending time perched in its enormous entrance.
Condors 123 and 127, who nested in last year’s Dana Butte Cave, also appeared to be ready to renew their commitment to each other, although they showed little interest in their former nest cave. The two divided their time in the canyon adjacent to Phantom Ranch and at the release site. While Condor 123 displayed frequently to Condor 127, we were unable to document any cave investigation by this pair.
By the end of December, it seemed more and more likely that soon-to-be-seven-year-old Condors 134 and 149 would also be a future breeding pair. In the minds of the field crew, these two birds were a perfect match. Both had always been a little bit “different” from the bulk of the condor flock. Both tended to be watchers rather than participators in many of their age cohort’s antics. In addition, both of these birds had interesting ties to California: Condor 134 was initially released in central California before being re-released in Arizona, while Condor 149, is a daughter of the famed AC-9, the last wild condor to be brought into captivity in 1987 to form part of the captive breeding program that was a last-ditch effort to save the species from extinction. (AC-9 was re-released in California, after fathering numerous young during his 15 years in captivity, in May 2002.)
Shunning the activities of the other condors, Condors 134 and 149 jetted off on their own and spent the second half of December together in the extremely remote Tapeat’s Canyon area, adjacent to the northwest flank of the Kaibab. While we suspected the two were investigating caves in this area, often impassable roads and the remoteness of the area made monitoring these birds and confirming their activities extremely difficult.
Back at the Vermilion Cliffs, soon-to-be-eight-year-old Condors 114 and 126 kept disappearing around the southwest corner of the cliffs during the end of December. We suspected that they might be investigating a cave in this area. They were increasingly joined by Condors 133 and 162. Because of this foursome’s interactions, we were soon referring to these birds as our “quad” (as opposed to two pairs). We couldn’t begin to guess how a quad scenario might evolve! Last year, male Condors 114 and 162 had, to our dismay, been quite fixated on one another. While both males had yet to relinquish their interest in each other this year, both were also keen to show off their vibrant colors and masterful courtship dancing to female Condors 126 and 133. Would this foursome split into two pairs as we fervently hoped or would we have to intervene at some later date, to encourage and speed up appropriate pair formation among these highly endangered birds. Only 2003 would tell….
Courtship activities by the older birds seemed to motivate increasingly younger birds to begin partaking in the condor mating game. Soon-to-be-six-year-old Condor 158, one of our most dominant male condors continued to display to Condor 176, our beloved, independent traveler. The whole field crew was united in their belief that only a condor as dominant as Condor 158 was truly worthy of Condor 176! Condor 187, however, had other ideas and began pursuing Condor 176 with the same intensity as Condor 158. Unfortunately, Condor 187 happens to be Condor 176’s brother, so we fervently hoped that Condor 176 would shun his attentions. Meanwhile, Condor 193 (a male), who had been Condor 158’s erstwhile companion for the last two years was slow to relinquish his former “friend.” Sticking close to Condor 158, he frequently disrupted Condor 158’s displays to Condor 176 and often tried to garner Condor 158’s attentions by displaying to him. There is never a dull moment on the Vermilion Cliffs during the beginning of breeding season!
As we look to the unveiling of a new year in “Condorland,” it seems fitting to recap some of the highs (and touch on some of the lows) of 2002. At the beginning of 2002, we had 25 condors flying free in Arizona. As the year came to its inevitable close, an unprecedented 32 condors graced Arizona’s skies. (As soon as young Condor 249 returned to the Vermilion Cliffs after his recuperative trip to Phoenix, Arizona we would have 33 condors.) Rather than releasing all young birds at once this year as we had in the past, we opted for a new strategy of having multiple, smaller releases, comprised of birds that we deemed most ready to fly free. We released a total of 11 young condors by year’s end, in three different releases, and re-released two condors (Condors 195 and 232) that had been recaptured soon after their initial releases.
Unfortunately, our progress was tempered by some heartbreaking losses: four-year-old Condor 186 was shot on the Kaibab, as was juvenile Condor 258. Condor 240 died of lead poisoning up in Utah, while Condor 252 was killed by coyotes a few days after his release. Sadly, the field crew also had to say its goodbyes to Condor 224, who was returned to captivity because her genes were needed in the captive breeding flock. Nevertheless, despite some heart wrenching setbacks, our condor flock continues to grow. In January, we will receive our newest batch of eight youngsters, all of which were raised at The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey. They will be released over the course of 2003.
Although we continued to put out supplemental food for our condors during 2002 to provide food for newly-released youngsters and to serve as a “clean” (lead-free) food source for our older condors, the Arizona condors proved to be spectacular food-finders. We were able to document 65 carcasses found by our condors during 2002. These carcasses most likely represented a fraction of the carcasses the birds actually found, since the birds all too often forage in areas that are inaccessible to us.
Also in 2002, two pairs of captive-raised condors made Arizona history by laying one egg each in spectacular caves in the Grand Canyon. While both pairs diligently incubated their respective egg, they were not successful in hatching young. (This is typical for young, inexperienced pairs.) We are all hoping that this coming year we may see the first wild-hatched condor to soar over the Grand Canyon in almost 100 years. We sincerely hope that many of our field notes readers will come and visit the condors that you’ve read so much about this past year!
Happy 2003 to all of you and keep your fingers crossed that the coming year will be good to the Arizona condors!
Until next time …
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