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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
February 2006
Thom Lord — in California Condor Restoration    ShareGreetings, Notes from the Field readers! The breeding season fell into full swing once again in February, with five California Condor pairs in the Arizona population exhibiting very promising behavior. Two of the five pairs have produced chicks in the past, and there is no reason to expect that they won’t be successful again this year. Two more of the pairs have attempted to breed previously; as it’s not uncommon for condor pairs to try for one or two years before producing a viable chick, we’re hopeful that this is the year that they’re able to pull it off. The last pair showing encouraging breeding behavior, two slightly younger birds, came as a pleasant surprise to all of us.

Unfortunately, one of the pairs that we had expected to make a breeding attempt this year faced some unforeseen hardships, and the fate of the pair remains uncertain. The female of this pair, Condor 210, was captured in January during routine trapping and found to have elevated blood lead levels. We immediately transported her to our treatment facility to bring these levels down. Her particularly savvy mate, Condor 134, refused to go into our trap, and stayed away from our release site for most of the period that Condor 210 was undergoing treatment. By the time that Condor 210 was ready to be released again, it had been nearly two weeks since we had had any contact with Condor 134. This wasn’t entirely surprising, as the area in which Condors 134 and 210 most often reside is extremely rugged and remote, preventing consistent visual or signal contact. Nevertheless, the fact that Condor 210 had obviously been exposed to lead, and had been with Condor 134 for a significant amount of time before her capture, made each day without contact increasingly worrisome.

The call that set us in motion came from a local resident and friend of the project. His wife, on a river trip through the Grand Canyon in late January, happened to see Condor 134 on a beach in the Canyon. He called promptly to report the sighting, giving us a precise location in which to focus our efforts. Veteran crewmember Eddie Feltes was the first to make the arduous hike into the Kanab Creek Wilderness, and was able to obtain a radio signal on Condor 134. The signal seemed normal, not the quickened “mortality mode” that we hear when a bird hasn’t moved for more than a day. This was encouraging, but Eddie wasn’t able to obtain a visual on the bird, and was prevented from getting any closer by a series of 1000-foot cliffs. He made the even more difficult hike out the next day, and drove for hours to the other side of the Grand Canyon to try for a visual from the other side of the river. Frustratingly, his view was again foiled by the extreme topography, and we determined that we would need to make the longer, roundabout hike all the way down to the beach.

I set out from Monument Point, on the southwest corner of the Kaibab Plateau, around midday on 16 February, making it almost to the river that night. I found Condor 134 early the next morning, still on the same beach that our neighbor had seen him on a few weeks earlier. He was alive, but seemingly unable to fly and obviously compromised. Because it would be practically impossible to carry the twenty-pound bird twelve miles uphill (even if he could survive such a traumatic journey), I immediately set out again for the rim to call in for help. When I reached the rim that night, project supervisor Chris Parish and I reviewed our options, and Chris called Mike Ebersol of Grand Canyon National Park to discuss the situation. Mike was exceedingly helpful, and was able to get us a helicopter flight early the next morning. Our GCNP helicopter pilots skillfully landed us right on the narrow strip of beach on which I had seen Condor 134 the previous day, and within minutes we had given the bird subcutaneous fluids, loaded him into a travel kennel, and returned to the South Rim helibase.

The next stage of the journey was getting Condor 134 to the Phoenix Zoo, and under the expert care of Dr. Kathy Orr. Knowing that even minutes could be precious to such a sick bird, we enlisted the help of Kathy Sullivan, the Condor Biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. She quickly made some calls and acquired the use of an AZGFD pilot and plane. I drove to the Flagstaff airport with Condor 134, met Kathy and the pilot, and we immediately flew to Phoenix, where volunteers were waiting to transport the bird to the Zoo. Fortunately, Condor 134 managed to survive this whirlwind of a day, going from a remote beach in the Grand Canyon to the Phoenix Zoo in a matter of a few hours. Despite the fact that Dr. Orr and her staff are providing excellent care, Condor 134’s fate remains in question. As of this writing, he is still in critical condition.

Even after a few years of working on the California Condor Reintroduction, I continue to be impressed with the hard work and dedication of the diversity of groups and individuals involved in this project. A situation like this requires the seamless cooperation of a number of people and organizations, and it is inspiring to see everyone strive to make it run as smoothly as possible. There is no question as to the importance of a breeding-age bird like Condor 134 to the California Condor population, and we can now only hope that our efforts result in his recovery and eventual return to his mate.

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