Thom Lord— 5 September 2006 — in California Condor Restoration ShareGreetings, Notes from the Field readers! Last month began relatively slowly, as we wrapped up our summer trapping and worked on a variety of projects to prepare for the upcoming hunting season. Fall is the time of year when the condor population in Arizona has seen the highest incidence of lead exposure, and these projects primarily involved readying and making improvements to our treatment facility in Vermilion Cliffs. Although these improvements will help us to be ready for anything, we hope to see a decline in lead exposure again this season, primarily due to the outstanding voluntary lead reduction program initiated by Arizona Game and Fish last year. The program, which offers two free boxes of non-lead ammunition to every big game tag holder in the condors’ primary foraging range in Arizona, will be continued again this season.
While the first couple of weeks of August were spent engaged in various construction projects and our typical day-to-day tracking of the California Condor population, an atypical event near the middle of the month caused us to change modes quickly. On 15 August, as Peregrine Fund biologist Frank Nebenburgh observed birds feeding near our Vermilion Cliffs release site, he noticed a juvenile condor without wing-tags. After watching the bird for a few minutes to confirm his observation, Frank called me with the exciting news: Condor 392, our youngest wild-fledged chick, had made it to the release site for the first time ever! Because the bird had never been trapped or tagged, all of our documentation of Condor 392’s movements to that point had been based upon incidental observations. The chick’s arrival at the site marked a major event, because there was a good chance that Condor 392 would now begin visiting the release site regularly, eventually affording us an opportunity to trap the bird, vaccinate against West Nile Virus, and place tags and radio-transmitters.
Condor 392 did, in fact, begin visiting the release site regularly, initially roosting there for two nights, leaving, and returning once again in the first five days. We intended to allow the bird to establish a pattern of visiting and feeding at the site, so that it would hopefully continue that pattern after being trapped there. On 20 August, however, we were forced to rethink our plans when Frank again confirmed a visual on Condor 392, this time on the Kaibab Plateau. When Frank followed the signals of three other condors (one of which was Condor 392’s mother) to a wild carcass, he caught a glimpse of the chick feeding there with a full crop, an indication that it had already eaten a substantial amount. Frank collected the carcass, of which there was very little left, and we radiographed it the next morning. There were very clearly some lead fragments in the carcass remains.
Because there was a good possibility that all four of the birds had fed on the contaminated carcass, we mobilized to begin trapping that night. We were able to catch two of the affected birds within three days, but Condor 392 remained elusive. Finally, ten days later, Condor 392 walked into the trap for the first time ever, with its mother, and biologist Eddie Feltes was able to trap them both. The chick’s blood lead levels were high enough to begin treatment, but it seemed in good health otherwise. Fortunately, the other three birds involved had very low blood lead levels, so Condor 392 is currently the only bird undergoing treatment. Although it’s always unfortunate to have to hold a bird for any reason, the hard work of condor project biologists in cases like this ensure that we give ourselves the best tools available to manage the condor population.
Speaking of the project biologists’ hard work, we said goodbye this month to project veteran Michael Maglione, who will be moving on to pursue other things. Mike spent well over two years with The Peregrine Fund, and consistently showed the determination and mindfulness necessary to make this project a success. We’ll miss you, Mike. Good luck!
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