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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
September-October 2004
Chris Parish — in California Condor Restoration    ShareGreetings to readers of Notes from the Field! We are extremely busy with yet another critical stage in the yearly cycle of condor monitoring. I will fill in the gaps and bring you up-to-date for the past two months.

At the last update, I left you with information on our two nestlings, including Condor 342 at Vermilion Cliffs and Condor 350 at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Both chicks, with only about ten days’ difference in age, appear to be developing as expected. Daily observations reveal increasingly vigorous bouts of flapping and jumping about as they continue to explore their nest caves and as much of the areas immediately surrounding the cave as they possibly can without losing footing.

The observers, with clenched hands and tight throats, might offer a slightly different definition of the usable space in front of the nest cave. Project Field Manager Thom Lord described Condor 342’s antics last week as nearly “ready to go” as evidenced by the vigorous jumping and flapping he observed at the Vermilion Cliffs site. Observations recorded last year while monitoring wild-produced Condor 305 revealed much the same behavior just prior to first flight. However, based on the history of the parents’ behavior, our best age estimates for the chicks place them at nearly five months. Therefore, by our calculations, we should not witness fledging until mid-November or later.

The parents of both chicks (Condors 114 and 149 VC and Condors 119 and 122 South Rim) have been observed feeding at the release site and foraging on the Kaibab Plateau. Subsequent observations of nest visits and feeding suggest the chicks are well fed.

As for other wild-produced condors, last year’s Condor 305 seems to be doing well but has limited his travels to his home drainage in Salt Creek at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Most of the other condors that had been frequenting the South Rim have moved on to foraging on the Kaibab Plateau leaving Condor 305 home alone. Given that this is the first time we have reached this stage in observations of a wild-produced condor, there are many questions. Is this normal behavior? When will the chick be forced to forage on his own? Or has he already been doing so? The literature suggests that parent condors care for young for up to eighteen months. Will Condors 123 and 127 continue to visit and feed young Condor 305, or will the coming nesting season put a stop to the support?

An interesting observation in late October reflects upon these questions and adds others. After feeding at the release site, full-cropped Condor 123 visited Condor 305 in the Salt Creek drainage, and, as typical of his behavior since fledging, he began wing-begging, the latter involving a slow rowing or undulating wingbeat, usually followed by the adult feeding the youngster. This time though, the parent bird did not cater to Condor 305, but sat on a separate ledge for a few hours, finally leaving to roost elsewhere in the Grand Canyon. Was Condor 123 trying to encourage Condor 305 to follow, or will they continue feeding him at home in Salt Creek for months to come? Time will tell. . .

Each year we observe young condors extending their range and exploring their new world. On that note, I should also point out the increased utilization of the southwestern corner of Utah. The area that we refer to as the Zion/Kolob area has held an average of eight to 12 condors for the past several months. Great flying conditions and an ample food supply seem to be the draw. For two-year-old Condor 275 and others like him, his first trip to the Zion region last month involved tagging along with condors that already knew the area. A similar tendency for northwest expansion was probably thwarted last year by a trapping effort for behavior and lead testing that lead to holding several individuals in that group at Vermilion Cliffs. We are wondering if this will be the year when a portion of the population spends the winter away from the release site.

It is finally feeling cold in the mountains with weather patterns bringing rain to the valleys and snow to the high country. As in years past, the numbers of condors foraging on the Kaibab Plateau has increased. Close tracking during September and October has revealed at least seven carcasses of deer, elk, and cattle that the birds have fed on. Meanwhile, the deer hunting season began in early October with the Juniors’ Hunt offering 500 doe tags. The increased numbers of carcasses and gut piles associated with this and other hunts should hold the attention of a substantial portion of the condor flock through late November.

Due to this increased foraging on wild carcasses, this is the time of year when blood lead levels increase in the condor flock. The obvious sources of lead exposure are the remains of hunter-killed game such as deer and elk, and those animals that go unrecovered. To ready ourselves, we list the condors that have obtained full crops on unknown carcasses. Through the coming months, as in previous years, we will opportunistically trap condors and treat those with high lead levels with chelation therapy. Meanwhile, thanks to the information/education circulars of Arizona Game and Fish Department, we are encountering increased interest and voluntary cooperation on the part of hunters who are making efforts to reduce the threat of lead poisoning to wildlife. The best ways to do this include non-lead ammunition, burying gut piles, and making every effort to recover wounded animals.

Since so few condors currently use the release site, we took advantage of the lack of competition and began readying our next set of “waiting to be released” condors belonging to the 2003 cohort (based on behavioral evaluations, we sequentially release small groups as the year goes by). So, after affixing transmitters, weighing, and final evaluations, we transported Condors 291, 293 and 316 to the release pen on the edge of the Paria Plateau.

Female Condor 316 was standing next to the release pen door when crew member Frank Nebenburgh opened it at 0947 hours on 16 October. Rather than fly out, however, Condor 316, quickly retreated to the comfort of a high perch with the other two juveniles. During the next hour, each bird, and sometimes two together, would jump down from the perch and approach the door only to return to the familiar perch. Finally, at 1036, Condor 291 made the leap into the wild, or at least to the nearby carcass covertly placed the night before by our crew. By 1041, Condor 291 had made it to yet another feeding location we call Sunflower and continued to feed. This bird wasted no time, and soon the other two condors had left the release pen. All three spent that week familiarizing themselves with their newfound freedom.

Condors are most vulnerable to coyotes at this point in time. At the end of each day, our crew convenes at the release site with two-way radios and spotting scopes to locate each newly-released bird. Those not perched in areas safe from coyotes are hazed to higher ground. This can sometime take us well into the night, but it is due to these efforts that the birds are able to reach the next level in the art of survival. On 25 October 2004, all three condors made their way back to the feeding area, fed with other condors, and flew to a safe roost on the cliff face by nightfall. Congratulations to a most dedicated crew! Now, on to week two….

The 16 October 2004 release brought the free flying Arizona population to 49! And, if all goes well with three additional 2003-produced condors awaiting release, we will soon break the 50 mark.

Until next time . . .

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