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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
December 2004 – January 2005
Chris Parish — in California Condor Restoration    ShareGreetings Notes from the Field readers. I left you last with news of the two new wild hatched fledglings here in northern Arizona, so I will just start there. Condor 350 (wild-hatched fledgling at the Grand Canyon) has been venturing out from the vicinity of the nest cave some 1.0 to 1.5 miles. Judging by these flights and the chick’s ability and willingness to roost away from the area of the nest cave, I would say that things are looking good for this chick. The parents are frequently visiting and are quite often a huge help in locating the tagless, transmitterless, young condor. Weather permitting, we can often view the chick from the rim, but when he or she is out of view, we like to hike into the canyon and make our observations. Consistent observation has been less than optimal this year due to bouts of bad weather, bringing more moisture than usual and causing the closure of the main trail into the Grand Canyon.

Some 50 miles north, near the Vermilion Cliffs Release Site, young Condor 342 (wild hatched fledgling – Vermilion Cliffs) has also become a strong flyer. With much opportunity for observation, our crew has documented Condor 342 as far as a mile to the north and nearly 1.5 miles to the east along the rim of the Paria Plateau. Days with as many as three feedings by the parents and ten or more short flights are not uncommon. At least one of the recorded flights lasted 17 minutes. With this chick’s newfound ability to travel about as it wishes, he/she has experienced many firsts, including first contacts with Golden Eagles, other condors in the flock, and the same old annoying ravens. With an eagle’s nest nearby and as many as three eagles in view at a time, our crew has had many tense moments, with eyes glued to spotting scopes, remembering that we have lost young, inexperienced condors to eagles in the past. Whether contact occurred or just another narrow escape, Condor 342 always seemed to fly away unharmed.

On Christmas Eve, however, Peregrine Fund biologist Eric Weis observed Condor 342 landing about 3m from a Golden Eagle perched on the rim. Condor 342 puffed up, raised its contour feathers, lowered its head, and began marching towards the eagle. As Condor 342 approached and Eric tensed up, the eagle fled. But for Eric, the excitement did not stop there. On Christmas Day, a Golden Eagle stooped from above to take a swipe at the bold youngster, hitting Condor 342 on the back. Eric could not tell whether or not Condor 342 was injured, but after a short aerial scuffle, during which Condor 342 did not fall out of the sky or even lose any altitude, it landed unconcerned on the rim. By this time, there were two eagles and parent Condor 114 circling overhead. Once again, young Condor 342 had escaped injury.

Our concern for this youngster continued into the New Year, with more questions and tense moments. Then, something unusual happened. Unlike any day since Condor 342 fledged, we did not have a visual for the entire first day of 2005. That night we made a regular carcass drop and expected the next morning that the parents would first feed at the site, then immediately journey to the southwest corner of the Paria to look for the chick. However, despite the fact that parent Condors 114 and 149 did just that, we were still unable to get a visual on the chick. Peregrine Fund biologist Jim Wilmarth, concerned about the chick’s recent encounters with the resident eagles and a less-than-desirable last roost location, made the trip up top to investigate. Jim walked in to the location of Condor 114’s signals and found live Condor 342. The odd thing was that the chick did not appear to have food in its crop, nor did it appear interested in its heavily-cropped parent. After more observation and increased suspicion that something was wrong with the chick, Jim moved in. The chick approached a small ledge separating it from Condor 114, but could not seem to muster the energy to jump up. He/she then moved towards the cliff’s edge, and while having every opportunity to jump, it instead turned, tucked itself in to a crack, and hid its head. Jim knew that when condors tuck their heads and ignore threats, something is very wrong. Because the young condor was terribly vulnerable to ground dwelling predators, namely coyotes, Jim decided to grab it. As he did so, the two eagles circled overhead and a concerned Condor 114 approached the scene. What had caused this problem?

Later that evening, we examined Condor 342. Feeding rates had seemed normal, and the bird’s weight was a decent eighteen pounds. However, while holding Condor 342, we realized that such a large-framed bird should weigh more. We found nothing in checks and double-checks of musculature and bone structure. We wanted to take a blood sample to begin ruling out potential problems, but Condor 342 was dehydrated. After consulting with Dr. Kathy Orr of the Phoenix Zoo, we administered fluids, offered the chick some food, and planned to try again in the morning.

Just as Dr. Orr predicted, we were able to draw a blood sample the next morning and rule out lead toxicosis. Our next stop was with yet another true friend of the Condor Project, the Canyon Pet Hospital in Flagstaff where an x-ray revealed something out of place in the gizzard (ventriculus) – an apparent blockage. We needed more help, so I headed to Phoenix with Condor 342 in the back seat. Dr. Orr and the staff at Phoenix Zoo have successfully treated many of our birds for lead toxicity, but this was a problem we had yet to encounter.

After consulting with several other veterinarians, Dr. Orr and Dr. Avery Bennet, a visiting specialist in avian surgery, decided to remove the blockage. After the surgery, Dr. Orr reported that Condor 342 was standing up, bright and alert, and would soon be offered a small meal. Flushing the stomach had failed to remove some large gray rocks, hair balls, and three large sticks from the gizzard. The sticks had tangled with the hair, causing an obstruction that prevented the rocks from being flushed out.

After a rapid and complete recovery, the sutures were removed, and we had the green light to get Condor 342 back to the wild. However, another set of problems were upon us. The parents had apparently ceased searching their territory for the chick, and male Condor 114 had even been observed displaying to female Condor 149. Could this mean they were attempting another go at reproduction? Had they given up and moved on? Would they recognize their chick, or would they now defend their territory against Condor 342? Would the chick be able to fend for itself if they did not resume feeding it? Surely they will recognize him/her... right? So, step one: we would make sure the chick would feed on a carcass alone in the release pen. This would also allow the adults to visit and maybe give us some indication of a response to seeing their chick again.

At least fifteen condors moved in to the release pen upon finding Condor 342 within. But, upon the parents’ initial visit to the release pen on 18 January, it wasn’t clear that they were concerned or interested in the chick. Even more disappointing, they were the first to leave the area at the end of the day. Meanwhile, the chick raised our spirits by feeding on the carcass we had placed in the release pen the night before. So at least we had the answer to question number one. Then, just when we had nearly given up hope for parental reinvolvement, the pair began trying to find a way into the release pen. Male Condor 114 (dad) was soon successful in feeding the chick through the chain link!

Ok, now to the next uncertainty. What would happen when we released the tagged, transmittered, and vaccinated chick back in the area of the nest cave, a mile south of the release site?

During the dark hours before sunrise on 20 January 2005, we transported Condor 342 to the area on the Paria Plateau directly above the nest cave. Once again, we had placed carcasses out the evening before in hopes that once the adults fed up, they would begin looking for the chick. Indeed, they did so at the release pen. After waiting and waiting until we couldn’t stand it any longer, Field Manager Thom Lord hazed the birds from the empty release pen, and, minutes later, both parents were on their way.

At the proper moment, crewmember Beau Fairchild, who had witnessed Condor 342’s fledging, opened the door of the kennel, and Condor 342 jumped out and began sunning. All seemed right, but then we realized there were three adults in the area. The first bird to approach the now wing-begging chick was female Condor 126, not one of its parents. She had been obsessed with the pair from the beginning and, more recently, obsessed with the chick. Male Condor 114 apparently didn’t like Condor 126’s forwardness, and slammed into her, separating her from his offspring. Within the next 20 minutes, Condor 114 twice fed the chick. I am sure our cheers were audible for miles. A few minutes more to savor the moment, and we pulled out of the area. After being fed, the chick comfortably flew about, revisited some of its known haunts, and roosted in a familiar area.

I reflect that every day in this project brings new questions, hopefully new answers, new highs, new lows. But for just a moment, or perhaps even an hour or so, everything was just right that day!

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