— 23 July 2007
— in California Condor Restoration
The May NFTF concluded with a hint of speculative hope for the Vermilion Cliffs pair; hope in anticipation of Condors 126 and 114 pulling off their second successful hatching of a wild-produced chick. Based on close observation and cognizant eyes from our field crew to recognize nesting behavior, we had a good idea when the pair should be showing the presence of a hatching chick from the depths of their nest cave. And as expected, by the end of the first week of June we were sure the Vermilion Cliffs nest cave was housing a very young condor. Subsequent behavior of the pair post-hatch date strengthened our assumptions, with both birds venturing out to forage (mainly to the release site due to close proximity with the nest cave), and then immediately returning back to the darkness of the cave; indicating urgency in feeding a needy condor nestling. This routine behavior continued for the following three weeks, with no observable changes or reasons for concern.
Eddie rappelling into nest cave.
Twenty-eight June started routine as well for me, with an early rise from the tent to observe/record feeding on top of the Vermilion Cliffs from the wild-flock following a late night carcass-drop in the evening prior. With only a few condors at the proffered food site (as is typical during the warm months in the low elevation), and being satisfied with recording all birds known to have been present feeding, I decided to continue observation from below and monitor the nesting pair. For the duration of the time spent observing, I noticed some abnormal behavior from both condors. They were perched just outside the entrance to the nest cave, peering in, neck-craning, and irritable in stance; all the while never once entering the cave to tend to the presumed 23-day old chick inside. Feeling a bit concerned for the nestling with the sudden change in behavior, I trekked back up to the top of the cliffs in hopes of getting a glance into the cave.
Eddie enters nest cave.
After a short hike out to the nest cave location, I instantly realized what was going on. As I approached the cliff’s rim, to peer down to the nest cave just 15m below, I spotted an adult Bighorn Sheep ram bedded in the shade of a juniper tree just above the perched pair of alarmed condors. The ram took to the hoof upon seeing me, and was followed by the condor pair until they deemed him a safe distance away from their protected nestling. Having both birds in the air soaring, I felt it to be the perfect time to take a quick peek inside the cave for a visual confirmation of a healthy chick, while the parents were temporarily distracted by the fleeing ram.
After a careful, but hurried, scramble down the cliff face, I peered into the shallow cave from an overhanging roof of sandstone. A chick! The gray, downy figure popped its head up as a small pebble of sandstone dropped from my location.
California Condor chick in nest cave.
After a quick 15-second assessment and a snap of a photo, I was instantly greeted by male Condor 114. He landed in the cave entrance, between myself and his fragile nestling, regurgitated some crop contents (a common defense mechanism of condors aimed to distract intruders/predators), and aggressively lunged at me with puffed up feathers and inflated air sacs. Realizing that I was not welcome, I made my way back up the cliff face, with Condor 114 defending his nest the whole time by following me at a distance of 1m with wings spread and bill open. This is behavior you wish for from a pair of captive-raised condors defending a remote nesting location in the wild. Given the experience of this pair in raising and fledging Condor 389 back in 2005, and male Condor 114 also raising and successfully fledging Condor 342 in 2004 with a different mate- female Condor 149; we are very optimistic in the chances of observing a third fledgling from the Vermilion Cliffs come December.
The status of the nesting attempt of condor pair 210 and 134 remained routine as well during the month of June, although we have not yet visually confirmed any nestling deep in the remote canyon assumed to be housing the potential nestling. Both birds are foraging daily and returning to the same location after feeding, thus hopefully keeping up with the needs of a very food-demanding 60-day-old condor. The third nesting attempt that was still active during May, that of condor pair 127 and 123, has resulted in failure, for unknown reasons. Based on observation and duration of behavioral changes, we feel that this pair never made it past the egg stage of the nesting cycle. They abandoned their nest cave just a short time after the assumed hatch date, and have blended into the rest of the wild flock of condors with no regard in maintaining nesting duties.
If nesting attempts do indeed fail, as condor biologists working to manage a species recovery effort, we like to answer two basic questions regarding the attempt: did the pair actually succeed in producing an egg?; and why did the pair fail? This is all dependent upon nest site location and accessibility into the nest cave itself. Once inside, we can then take cave measurements, contents of the cave, and perform a number of other duties that can help us better understand nesting behavior of this dynamic species.
Female Condor 195.
On 7 June crew member Tim Hauck and myself set out to enter the potential Marble Canyon nest cave of condor pair 253 and 223. This pair showed signs of incubating an egg for just two weeks, before abandoning the cave completely. After rappelling down into the site, I found no confirmed egg or any eggshell fragments, suggesting a broken egg as the cause for failure. On 23 June, crew members Tim Hauck, Evan Buechley, and I did the same for the potential nest cave of female Condor 195 on the Kaibab Plateau. Remember that this was part of the trio nesting scenario that was doomed for failure (see May 2007 NFTF). As with the Marble Canyon nest entry, this cave did not contain an egg or any eggshell fragments either. Both potential nest caves did exhibit quite a bit of condor excrement and each one had a noticeable depression similar to that formed by condors incubating eggs. With a number of potential causes of egg disappearance from the caves, both attempts are ruled as unknown and lacking any definitive proof of producing an egg. Until next time…
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