Chris Parish— 20 September 2004 — in California Condor Restoration ShareRight when you believe that another week of the sometimes-intolerable summer heat will do you in, you find yourself following a condor to a place you’ve never been. Like any job, just when you begin to think you have a handle on the daily tasks, a curve ball slips by.
We begin our job of tracking and observing condors each day by making sure we have all the essential equipment. The coffee will last a few hours and, oh yeah, you might need food and water. Well… how much is enough? How long will I be out today? What will the weather bring? Whether you are a minimalist with granola, binoculars, and water, or a gadget geek like me, you pile your gear into a vehicle and head down the road. The day’s tasks associated with tracking condors may be the same, but condors are wild animals directed by completely different stimuli. By days end, we may find ourselves three hours and several hundred miles from the field station.
In winter 2000-2001, a gentleman from just south of Zion National Park in southern Utah called to say he had observed a condor feeding on a deer carcass near Smith Mesa. I was routinely skeptical, considering that frequent phone calls from as far north as British Columbia have reported “condors” that turn out to be Turkey Vultures and Golden Eagles. This time, the caller gave a pretty good description of a condor feeding alongside a second-year Bald Eagle. I immediately wondered of it might be Condor 176, the two-year-old female missing since early November 2000, so I loaded up the truck and headed that way. Upon arriving, I found the deer carcass just as reported, but the blip, blip, blipping I so wanted to hear from the radio receiver wasn’t there. This was the first report of a condor in the Zion area but, by the looks of the habitat, I didn’t think it would be the last. I returned home gloomy about Condor 176 and had pretty much written her off when, on 27 February 2001, after nearly five months of absence, she suddenly appeared on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Well, in fact, that wasn’t the last time condors would visit the Zion area, nor was it the last time Condor 176 would take an epic journey. However, with the exception of a possible signal received five months ago from the release site by veteran crewmember Jonna Weidmaier, Condor 176 has been missing without contact since 11 February 2004. Nearly three days of airplane tracking by The Peregrine Fund and National Park Service, and hundreds of hours and miles of ground tracking revealed nothing. On 10 September 2004, I received a report of a condor near Prescott Valley, some two hundred miles from the release area. Always holding out hope for Condor 176, I made the trip down, but again heard nothing but the steady hiss of the radio receiver. If any condor could make it for so long alone, it would be Condor 176, and while it seems quite possible she is dead, we will keep her transmitters programmed in our radio receivers in hopes of her joyous signal.
The new PTT/GPS transmitters on birds of different ages and habits help us track birds to remote, unmonitored areas. For example, if one condor among a group of missing birds is equipped with a GPS transmitter, we can check the GPS data that evening to find out for sure. This has greatly sharpened our focus on areas that condors are utilizing. We found, for example, that numerous condors took liking to the Zion region this summer. Where first it was an occasional exploratory trip by one or two condors, we have recently found as many as ten or twelve foraging there. Weather patterns, mountainous terrain, and food abundance are the drawing cards. Notes from the Field readers may remember me referring to this area a banana belt during the winter months due to slightly warmer temperatures and large numbers of wintering deer. Will this be the year they remain there through the winter months?
With fall just around the corner, weather finally breaking, and the aspens on the Kaibab Plateau beginning to turn, the condor crew flips yet another page in the journal of condor recovery. We have finished treating all the free-flying condors in Arizona for West Nile Virus. Now, a month later, we must ready ourselves by making sure that all have working transmitters. Fall is the time we expect to see incidents of lead exposure, and tracking individual movements is the key to keeping condors cleared of any lead they may ingest.
And do not forget about the two nestlings, Condor 342 (Vermillion Cliffs) and Condor 350 (South Rim), growing in strength for their first flights. The parents continue the steady pattern of food-bringing, and they preen and cuddle their nestlings during visits. We’ll keep you posted!
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