Thom Lord— 17 June 2005 — in California Condor Restoration ShareGreetings “Notes from the Field” readers! The condors in the Arizona population continued to travel a great deal in the warm May weather, and the last holdouts from the most recent group of releases finally left the release site to begin exploring their new world. Our two wild-hatched birds in Arizona also followed the trend, and continued to integrate into the rest of the population throughout the month. On 1 May, Condor 350, who fledged last year from a nest in the Grand Canyon, made its way to the release site in Vermilion Cliffs, at least 50 miles from its nest area. This was the first time that we had been able to document Condor 350 outside of Grand Canyon National Park, although we had suspected that Condor 350 had been traveling more and more widely for at least a few weeks. When Condor 350 arrived, it fed at leisure, perched with a variety of other birds, and generally seemed to make itself at home.
A few days later, Condor 350 showed up again in the Colorado River corridor at Navajo Bridge, then disappeared once more before being seen again in the Grand Canyon. All in all, this equaled a round trip of over 120 miles at the very least, but was almost certainly more than that. Hopefully Condor 350 will make a habit of returning to the release site to feed, as we will eventually need to trap the bird to take a blood sample for sexing and lead levels, as well as placing tags and transmitters on the bird’s wings. We’re all ambivalent about having to trap a completely wild bird, but the information we gain by placing tags and transmitters at this stage is invaluable in making management decisions on the road to a self-sustaining condor population.
Our other wild-fledged chick, Condor 342, also seemed to become very comfortable with the rest of his captive-bred flock, and spent most of the month at or near the release site interacting with a variety of individuals. He took a number of exploratory flights away from the site, but almost always returned shortly thereafter. This pattern is typical of young, newly-hatched or newly-released condors as they become increasingly familiar with their environment; it will be fascinating to see him develop his own preferences for particular locations to forage and roost. One of the most thrilling events of the month, if not the year so far, was crewmember Eric Weis’ observation of both of our wild-fledged birds, Condors 342 and 350, wrestling and playing with each other on one of the rock pinnacles of the release site. Having two of these birds in the population is a wonderful beginning in itself, but being able to see them at the same time, behaving and interacting just as wild condors certainly did hundreds and even thousands of years ago, held symbolic importance that was hard not to be touching.
With two wild-fledged condors already soaring over northern Arizona, it became evident in May that the population is well on its way to gaining a few more. Our three breeding pairs continued to exhibit nesting behavior, and by our calculations, all three eggs, if viable, should have hatched by the end of May. Based on observations of the breeding birds’ behavior, we should have a good idea by the end of June whether that actually occurred or not. Stay tuned…
As regular Notes from the Field readers are aware, the Arizona condor population has had some degree of bad luck each month this year, with the deaths of four birds due to various causes. Thankfully, that luck changed in May, and we were able to successfully rescue a bird that otherwise would have probably added to that number. On 30 May, crewmember Vince Frary noticed that we hadn’t received a signal on Condor 314 for a number of days. This was a bit concerning, as Condor 314 is a young, relatively newly released bird that has shown a penchant for traveling. Luckily, we had placed a GPS tranceiver on Condor 314 just one week before, so we were able to quickly map the last place Condor 314 had been. Everything about it was somewhat disconcerting, as it was in the middle of a large, flat area, and hadn’t moved much in a few days. We immediately went to check it out, a bit apprehensive about the possibility of finding a dead bird. After a few minutes of searching, crewmember Frank Nebenburgh was the first to spot her, hiding in a sandy crack near a wash. She was obviously in very bad condition, and actually allowed us to get near enough to grab her, which we did. We took her back to our treatment facility, noticing dried blood on and around her legs and tail feathers. We gave her subcutaneous fluids and something to eat, and she seemed much better within an hour, probably due to having been extremely dehydrated after sitting in the sun with no food or water for at least three days. Her blood lead levels turned out to be very low, so we immediately ruled out lead poisoning as a contributing factor. She was limping, however, and we couldn’t tell what else might be wrong.
After we stabilized Condor 314’s condition with another round of food and subcutaneous fluids, we transported her to Dr. Kathy Orr at the Phoenix Zoo, who time and time again has proven to be a great friend and help to the project. Dr. Orr could find no evidence of shooting or broken bones, but she did find a number of puncture wounds around Condor 314’s legs and rump. The verdict appeared to be that she had been attacked by something, most likely a coyote or golden eagle, and was compromised enough by the attack that she couldn’t leave the area that she happened to be in. Dr. Orr administered antibiotics, and Condor 314 was better and back at the release site just 18 days later. This was a perfect example of the value of the cooperation between all of the individuals and agencies involved in the California Condor reintroduction—if it hadn’t been for the GPS tranceivers supplied to us by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, or The Peregrine Fund’s field biologists on the ground, or Dr. Orr’s timely diagnosis and treatment, there is no doubt that this bird would have died. In this case, with a dash of timely good luck, the contributions of all involved combined seamlessly to keep one more condor in the population. Over years of hard work, these individuals saved, one at a time when necessary, will put us that much closer to our goal of a wild population that can sustain itself.
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