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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
July 2004
Chris Parish — in California Condor Restoration    ShareI began last month’s update with a peek into July by describing the visual confirmation of Condor 342, the Vermilion Cliffs' nestling from 2004. Had I waited another day or two, I could have included the following information from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon—just three days after we visually confirmed the Vermilion Cliffs' chick (Condor 342), biologists and Grand Canyon nest watch volunteers were treated to the first sighting of Condor 350, also produced in 2004. Its parents are nine-year-old female Condor 119 and nine-year-old male Condor 122. For those of you with long memories of these notes, you may remember that these two adult condors were first released in May of 1997 at the Vermilion Cliffs release site. Cheers and sighs of relief greeted the reproduction of a chick by this pair that has tried without success to breed during the past two years. It brings us to the next level of concern (and crossed fingers) for the next important stage: fledging. By the time of this posting, both chicks will have made it roughly halfway through the six-month pre-fledging period. Observations from both nest caves continue to show daily visits, many times including feedings, by the parents. Nearly everyday, reports come in from biologists and volunteers exclaiming about very healthy and active chicks exploring their respective caves.

Wild-hatched Condor 305, hatched in 2003, made its first long trip away from the South Rim and ended up on the west flank of the Kaibab Plateau nearly 40 miles from its nest site in the Salt Creek drainage early in June. On 21 July, it flew even further away from home by flying over the release pen at the Vermilion Cliffs release site. Already trapping for continuing West Nile Virus vaccinations, crewmember Beau Fairchild quickly reset the trap, and we captured Condor 305. Finally, we would have the opportunity to vaccinate, tag, and blood test the first wild-hatched, wild-fledged condor resulting from a reintroduction effort.

Since 5 November 2003, when Condor 305 fledged, we have acted like new parents and worried about its every move. Despite our ultimate goal of a self-sustaining population, free of tags and supplemental releases, we must still rely upon having number tags and transmitters on all condors. A clearer understanding of condor biology and the factors affecting their survival is only possible by tracking them closely with radio telemetry and visual observation. Seeing a wild-hatched condor without tags provided a glimpse into what the future might hold.

Not surprisingly, Condor 305 behaved much like the others while processing. We did find that it had a high enough lead level in its blood to warrant holding it for a day to determine whether or not lead was on the increase (indicative of possible lead poisoning) or on the decrease. After a day spent with other condors in our holding facility, Condor 305’s blood lead concentration fell more than ten points, and we decided to return it to the wild. Now with the transmitters we could follow and document its movements and behavior. Blood samples taken will determine sex, so I will likely be able to post that in the next report. Condor 305 marks the closing of a chapter in the history of this effort and the opening of another. With some luck and continued determination by all in the years to come, it is my hope that we will look back on this and remember that Condor 305 was only the first of many condors hatched and fledged in the wild.

Condor 305 with wing tags.
Condor 305 with wing tags.

As the field season flies by, the weather patterns are producing some muggy, hot mornings, with tremendous thunderstorms by afternoon. Do not think we are complaining though. The moisture is welcomed. The strange thing about moisture in northern Arizona is how spotty the rainfall can be. Just fifteen to twenty miles southwest of the Grand Canyon, for example, the high desert is in poor condition.

Seven condors in the Arizona population now have satellite tracked GPS transmitters affixed to their wings. As you saw in the last installment, the points on a map can tell quite a story. Not only do we know where the condors were, but how long they spent in a particular area. Early in July, I decided to head towards the Hualapai Mountains to investigate why several condors were spending time concentrated near the rim just west of Havasupai. Loading the coordinates into a handheld GPS, packing up the truck with supplies, and heading west, following the GPS arrow, I felt like I was on a treasure hunt. This is a feeling that every field biologist has experienced while tracking condors. Usually though, we are following in the direction of beeps from a conventional transmitter. Those beeps, emitting from transmitters on the wings of condors, come and go and can be picked up line-of-sight for up to 50 miles. Losing contact by signal can mean different things. The condor could have flown into a side canyon, dropped into the depths of the Grand Canyon, or have just flown out of the range of our receivers. This time, though, I was directed to a new area the condors were exploring.

Driving directly to the points recorded by satellites and stored on my GPS, I envisioned that a carcass was very likely at the end of the search. Well, not just one, but nine horse carcasses were scattered about the rim, and very much explained the recent interest in the area. The group of points towards the left side of the image below represents the area of investigation. A Bureau of Indian Affairs ecologist I met in the area said he expected the condors would find many more carcasses in coming months if the rains were not forthcoming. The earthen tanks that usually hold enough water to sustain animals through the summer months were bone dry. Although not quite my kind of treasure at the end of the trail, the condors likely interpreted their own findings as a treasure indeed!

Condor 203's GPS movements for July 2004
Condor 203's GPS movements for July 2004

Male Condor 203, whose July itinerary is shown above, hatched at The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey on 23 April 1999 and was released at the Vermilion Cliffs release site in December of 1999. This five-year-old male is almost old enough to breed. He is well-traveled and frequently finds carcasses on the Kaibab Plateau. As you can see by the map image, he was also likely to have been involved in the discovery of the horses on the Hualapai.

Until next time...

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