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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
February - March 2009
Eddie Feltes — in California Condor Restoration    ShareGreetings NFTF readers! The warm and windy weather has moved into northern Arizona, signaling a change in season as winter weather fades and mild, gusty air sweeps across the high desert. With this change in season, our crew has changed gears as well, shifting from population trapping to releasing new, inexperienced condors to boost numbers of this free-flying population. We concluded our winter trapping of the entire population in early February, allowing us to change transmitters, administer a field test of blood-lead values for each bird, and treat individuals as necessary. To date, we have had contact on all but two individual condors, 13 year-old male Condor 134 and young three-year-old female Condor 404 are presumed to have not made it through the winter.

As breeding season starts heating up with the free-flying population, we start paying close attention to those younger birds that may be forming pair bonds with perspective mates by noting the frequency of displays, copulations, and potential nest-site visitations; that when looked at over the years almost always enable us to predict breeding potential and success each spring. During this past trapping season, we affixed GPS tracking transmitters to a few birds that tend to seek out remote nesting territories, and render us unable to monitor their behavior by tracking on the ground.

One bird in particular, 10 year-old female Condor 210, is always the perfect condor for this kind of monitoring. She is a very wayward condor that forages, roosts, and breeds in some of the most distant terrain available. Condor 210 successfully nested and fledged Condor 441 in 2007 with Condor 134M in a very remote canyon in Grand Canyon National Park; so she became the perfect candidate for GPS monitoring to allow us to better understand if she was going to breed again on schedule this spring, and more importantly, give us a better idea if Condor 134M was still alive. Once the GPS transmitter was applied on 31 January 2009, several clues started to make sense of our assumptions that Condor 134M was no longer alive. At first, when her GPS locations consistently had her in the area of her nesting territory, we all had hope that Condor 134 was with her, and getting ready to start nesting once again. Then, in looking at our roost data, we had another male that was available, dominant, and missing on the same days as Condor 210F, 14 year-old male Condor 122. And then, when both birds began showing up to our release site in unison, and leaving together, time and time again, we decided it was pretty safe to assume that Condor 134M had not made it through the lead season. To this day, Condor 134’s fate will remain unknown/missing, as we have not recovered him, and his death will remain just an educated assumption. Unfortunate, but fitting for such a wild and self-sustaining condor that, to me, symbolized the goal and recovery of this species by exhibiting each and every behavioral trait that is expected of such a dynamic and magnificent species as the California Condor.

This year we were able to document the earliest egg lay-date for a wild pair, when the experienced pair of Condors 126F and 114M began incubating on 17 February 2009 inside their familiar nest cave in the Vermilion Cliffs. The pair has been making routine incubation switches, and all looks good at the time of writing and half-way through the incubation period. Another pair that had high expectations of breeding together is the pairing of Condors 195F and 158M. We believe this pair began egg incubation on 1 March 2009. This would be the second consecutive year that the pair has attempted to nest, and unfortunately is doing so in a nest ledge that is in very close proximity to the communal roosting area in the Vermilion Cliffs, just adjacent to our release site. With all of the activity around the nest site by other free-flying condors, we expect to see aggression from the pair intensify as they develop a stronger bond with the egg they are incubating, thus leading to more time spent away from the egg to chase away other birds, and as we have observed in recent years past, leading to ultimate failure of an egg to hatch from lack of incubation needed for development. But time will tell, and our observation will continue, in hopes that we are proved wrong and the pair will pull off a successful nesting attempt.

Nest ledge of Condors 253 and 223.
Nest ledge of Condors 253 and 223.
A third pair laid an egg on 2 March 2009 in the river corridor of Marble Canyon, near Navajo Bridge. This was confirmed when biologist Eric Weis was able to observe the pair of Condors 253F and 223M being very attentive to “something” on a protected ledge in the canyon wall, and then Eric was able to observe through a spotting scope Condor 253F roll an egg and sit back down on it, and remain for the rest of the day. Then we began to notice longer incubation breaks from the inexperienced pair, some lasting a few hours, that we just knew would result in nesting failure. And sure enough, on 5 March 2009 I received a call that the nesting pair had traveled to the release site together, an estimated 30 miles away, prompting us to go ahead and climb down to the ledge for a closer look. In doing so, we were able to collect a freshly broken egg on the ledge. Hopefully the pair will have enough time to recycle and attempt nesting again before the season is over.

The fourth nesting attempt that we are confident has begun, is that of the previously mentioned pairing of Condors 210F and 122M, in the same remote canyon that fledged Condor 441 in 2007. In analyzing the GPS data for Condor 210F, an egg looks to have been laid on 7 March 2009. The exact location remains unknown due to our inability to travel to the site for observation, but a score of past GPS locations makes it appear that the pair is attempting in the same territory as 2007. Stay tuned to later NFTF to see this potential pair’s progress once we are able to travel in for closer observation.

California Condor crew observing newly-<br />released condors at the Vermilion Cliffs.
California Condor crew observing newly-
released condors at the Vermilion Cliffs.

Our first release of 2009 took place on 14 February 2009, when we released for the first time condors 378F, 380M, and 393F. All three birds have been doing well so far, as they are integrating into the free-flying population and learning the ways of being wild condors. The weather has not been the most cooperative for the new birds that are managing to hone their new flight skills daily in the strong winds, but at the time of writing the three are doing good and still being observed closely by our biologists on the ground.

March 2009 release.
March 2009 release.
We were also able to release four more new condors for our 14th annual public condor release on 7-March-09 from our Vermilion Cliffs release site high atop the Paria Plateau. The gates opened up at 11 a.m., much to the delight of an estimated 250 spectators down below on the valley floor. These four newest releases are condors 372F, 379M, 447F, and 455F. All four birds are doing great so far, and are requiring minimal hazing by our biologists to keep up in safe roosting locations away from ground dwelling predators like coyotes. Keep up with next month’s NFTF to see how these young birds are taking to being the newest members of the world’s largest population of free-flying California Condors…

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