Thom Lord— 18 April 2005 — in California Condor Restoration ShareGreetings, Notes from the Field Readers! The month of March started out on an exciting note, with the 1 March release of five new juvenile condors into Arizona’s free-flying population. Just two days later, the program’s first wild-fledged condor, Condor 305, returned to the release site for the first time in about seven months. After his first trip to the release site in July of 2004, he had spent the fall and winter near his nest cave in the Grand Canyon. We were elated upon seeing Condor 305 back at the release site, as we had observed him being chased extensively by his parents in the preceding weeks. This seemed to indicate that they were finally “cutting him off” of parental care to begin the process of producing another chick, forcing him to forage completely on his own for the first time.
Condor 305 stayed in the area of the release site for almost two weeks and was observed feeding on a number of occasions, so everything seemed to be going perfectly. He finally left on 15 March, and traveled widely for over a day before returning to the Grand Canyon. On 20 March, veteran crewmember Roger Benefield was tracking condors below the rim of the Canyon, and began receiving an unusual signal on Condor 305’s frequency. The radio-transmitters that the birds wear can sense motion, and begin pulsing more quickly when there is no movement over a certain time period. The transmitters sometimes malfunction, but it is always very concerning to receive this “mortality signal.” Roger immediately hiked toward the signal he was receiving, but eventually was stopped by a sheer wall rising toward the rim. He had no better luck once he hiked out of the canyon and checked from above. The signal seemed to be coming from an area inaccessible by foot.
In the following days, the signal did not seem to move at all, and the hope became the transmitter had simply fallen off of Condor 305. That became increasingly unlikely, however, as we received data from Condor 305’s GPS transmitter, indicating that his location was in roughly the same area that we were receiving the radio signal. We finally determined that we needed to get to wherever those transmitters were, if only to figure out what had happened to Condor 305.
With the financial assistance of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, we were able to secure a National Park Service helicopter to assist with the recovery effort. On the morning of 26 March, Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) Ranger Paul Austin, GCNP Raptor Biologist Chad Olson, and I boarded the helicopter with a full complement of climbing gear and were put down on a ledge in the Grand Canyon about 1,200 feet below Yavapai Point. After rappelling another one hundred feet, we were able to locate Condor 305’s body on a talus slope. Our trip was successful, but finding him was a somber moment. We took the bird out of the canyon with us, to be sent to the Pathology Lab at the San Diego Zoo to determine the cause of death.
We don’t yet have definitive results on the cause, but Condor 305’s death was a saddening event for all involved with the recovery project. Being the first wild-fledged condor in approximately two decades, Condor 305 held great symbolic importance for all of us. We have since had two more wild-fledged chicks in Arizona, but we will certainly always hold a special place for Condor 305, and all that he represents.
Although Condor 305’s death was upsetting, March also provided some very encouraging news, with two wild eggs laid and one more likely close behind. The 2004 wild-fledged chicks, Condors 342 and 350, also continued to do very well, traveling increasing distances away from their respective nest caves. With every notable event that occurs in the Condor Project, both good and bad, we learn a little bit more about this species, and how we can most effectively recover and manage wild California Condors in the future. Condor 305’s death is no exception, and our resolve to continue working hard for the condors’ comeback is as strong as ever.
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