Thom Lord— 7 February 2007 — in California Condor Restoration ShareGreetings, Notes from the Field readers! The first month of the new year proved to be both productive and challenging for the Condor Project. We were able to complete our seasonal trapping of the entire Arizona population, and all of the birds being temporarily held in our treatment facility were re-released into the wild. We did, however, have additional lead-related fatalities in the population, an unfortunate end to a season in which the field crew put forth an incredible effort to protect as many birds and gather as much data as possible. The advent of the breeding season in the last weeks of the month, though, helped to end January on a very positive note.
While we had been able to trap the majority of the Arizona population by the end of December, a few birds had remained elusive well after the hunting season ended. Because we had seen a significant amount of lead exposure in the condors that we had trapped throughout the season, we were eager to capture the remaining birds for testing as well. Finally, on 10 January, biologist Eddie Feltes closed the trap door on the final untested bird in the population, Condor 274. Condor 274 did show evidence of lead poisoning, as many others had this season, and was treated accordingly. He was held and treated until the end of the month, when he was deemed suitable for release. His release marked the end of the trapping and treatment cycle for the 2006 hunting season, although project biologists will continue to monitor for any indication of lead exposure in individual birds throughout the year.
Although the vast majority of the birds in the Arizona population were either treated successfully for lead poisoning or did not show significant exposure to lead during the past season, we did have three additional condor fatalities last month related to lead. Two birds, Condors 227 and 232, were undergoing treatment for acute poisoning, and had been sent to the Phoenix Zoo for treatment. Despite the best efforts of Zoo staff, however, both died. The third, Condor 248, had been missing for over one month in the Kolob region of southern Utah. Heavy snows had limited access to the area during that time, preventing us from completing a thorough search for the adult female.
In early January, project supervisor Chris Parish, Eddie Feltes, and I left from the airport in Kanab, Utah, to search for a signal on Condor 248 from the air. After confirming the rough location of the signal one day, we spent most of the next day searching the ground by snowmobile. After almost 50 miles of riding and walking in deep snow, we were able to recover Condor 248’s body for analysis. Initial X-rays indicated the presence of a number of metallic fragments in her digestive tract, consistent with the lead fragments we’ve seen in a number of other cases. Final results of the necropsy analysis are pending.
In the midst of our bustling efforts in trapping and tracking, the birds, as they always do, continued on about their seasonal routines. This is one of the most enjoyable times of year to observe condors closely, as breeding season begins in earnest and the soap opera of mate selection and courtship unfolds. Things are looking promising on many levels so far, with experienced pairs beginning nest site selection as expected, and many inexperienced breeding-age birds showing exploratory courtship behavior. This is an important and exciting process, as the pairs that emerge during this time could be mates for the rest of their lives. Watching this new season develop certainly highlights the resilience of this bird, and is a pleasant counterpoint to the intensive management that we currently have to do during the lead season. We are continuing to work toward the reduction of lead available in the condors’ food supply. It’s nice to know that, in the meantime, they’ll continue going about the business of just being condors.
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