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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
June/July 2009
Eddie Feltes — in California Condor Restoration    Share
Sheep in Kolob meadow
Sheep in Kolob meadow
The summer months in the high desert of northern Arizona and southern Utah have instilled the usual behavioral changes that we witness each year around the same time- the shift in foraging range into the higher elevations of southern Utah. By mid June, the majority of our population starts to gradually make the “scouting” flights up north to the Kolob range in search for presence of the abundant domestic sheep herds that are brought to the area of private ranches for summer grazing. Once enough sheep are localized by the birds, they start to key in on the fragmented herds, knowing that food is going to become available daily as sheep mortality starts to initialize.

This is foraging behavior that the California Condor has evolved to excel in—keying in on large mammalian herds thus leading to higher chance of mortality as herd size increases. And as opportunistic scavengers relying on vision and observation for survival, it is no wonder why these scavengers flock up while foraging. More sets of eyes patrolling the vast area increases success of locating carcasses and other scavengers exponentially. During the Pleistocene these birds exhibited the same behavior with the large mega-fauna herds available then; and today, although specific circumstances are different- the success and cause of this foraging technique is very similar.

The two newest additions to the southern Utah population include most recent released Condors 426F and 454M. Scouting missions include flights back and forth from our release site in the Vermilion Cliffs, Arizona to southern Utah, and each time individual or groups of birds make these trips, potential to attract other birds is very likely. This is exactly how these two young inexperienced birds made the 80+ mile trip in mid July, and have stayed since. This is great behavior to witness, and is a major attribute of having an established population to teach these inexperienced foragers the ropes of surviving in the wild.

Cleaning of the flight pen
Cleaning of the flight pen
During the slower summer months at our release site; slower by having most of the population foraging in other locations, and having no birds being held, we were able to perform some routine maintenance and cleaning of our flight-pen used to house pre-release condors atop the Paria Plateau. Several of our crew members got together and worked tirelessly to reinforce walls, rebuild perching structures, and clean waste material from the holding pen. This enabled Project Director Chris Parish and I to haul six new young condors to the flight-pen, while traveling back from project meetings at our facilities in Boise, Idaho on 1 July 2009. The six new condors- 442F, 466M, 484F, 485F, 486M, 496F will all be released by us throughout the next year.

I left off in last month’s NFTF with a breeding update on our two current and active nesting pairs, Condors 126F/114M in the Vermilion Cliffs, and the new pairing of Condors 210F/122M in the Tapeats area of the Grand Canyon. Since the May observation of the Vermilion Cliffs chick, now given the number 515, we have been able to observe the nestling daily as it becomes more active and confident in exploration of the immediate area of the nest cave porch. Everything is going great with the rearing of the now 111-day-old bird by both parent condors.

Nest cave with Condor 210 and chick
Nest cave with Condor 210 and chick
The other active nesting of Condors 210F and 122M that we suspect to be tending a developing chick, has had a positive chain of events resulting from our monitoring in the remote location. On 31 May 2009 condor project biologists Tim Hauck and Evan Buechley made the observational backpacking trip into the canyon, and observed both parent birds in the immediate vicinity both visually and with means of radio telemetry, but were unable to pin-point the actual nest cave location. Then, three weeks later, biologist Neil Paprocki planned a similar backpacking trip, with a slightly different route in hopes of getting observations of nest cave entry, and succeeded. Neil was able to observe both condors entering and exiting an immense cave formation in the canyon wall that we have suspected this activity on. Due to the size of the nest cave, the location of observation, and the young age of the suspected nestling with limited mobility- no visual was granted of the chick, but major progress was achieved in locating the exact cave.

Canyon wall of nest cave for Condor 210F and Condor 122M
Canyon wall of nest cave for Condor 210F and Condor 122M

Then a month later, biologist Evan Buechley made another trip down to the remote location, this time pooling together maps with routes and points of observation that may produce the best chance of getting a glimpse inside the now known nest cave of this reclusive pair. On 20 July 2009, after hiking in the night before and setting up camp, enduring a sleepless night from all of the anticipation, and setting up a scope at first light to observe—Evan was able to catch a first ever viewing of the long suspected condor chick, now numbered 527. During Evan’s observation, he was able to witness a feeding from parent Condor 210F, resulting in an extended crop or “splitter” as we call it on the young condor chick. Condor 527 is the first chick produced from this pair, and the second produced by each parent bird that had produced one apiece during past pairings with previous mates; and the 11th condor chick produced in the wild by this released population since the first fledging here in 2003. This now confirmed young bird brings the total free-flying population of condors to 75 in Arizona/Utah, with another six being held for future release it makes a grand total of 81 birds!

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