The winter months have come and gone (knock on wood), but in the process we experienced record snow deposited over much of our study area. January and February brought storm after storm that left us spinning our tires, literally, trying to get crew, equipment, and food up on the Paria Plateau to feed and monitor the condors at our release site.
Hauling carcasses and birds up in the snow
One storm in particular, dropped over 2 feet of snow during a 48 hour period, followed by another 18 inches just a week later. While still just two-thirds through our trapping list of birds, we still needed to trap and test birds daily as they arrived back at our baited trap site, as several birds were already treated for lead poisoning and this was no time to throw in the towel. But having zero access with our trucks to haul carcasses up to bait our trap, as well as feeding the current condors being held in our flight-pen for future release, we had to get crafty. Now I grew up in Wisconsin, where we are no strangers to a little snowfall, so I have great pride in my ability to navigate in inclement weather- but this was getting ridiculous. Realizing that none of our current equipment was going to handle the task, Project Director Chris Parish, who just may be one of the most resourceful individuals I have ever worked alongside, made some calls, cut some deals, and covered some ground procuring equipment that would get us access to our work area. And in a few days time, we were in possession of a snowmobile, thanks to funding from the Arizona Game and Fish Dept., a Snow-Cat machine that could probably crawl up the side of a redwood, also courtesy of the AZGFD, and two quads with specialized snow tracks in replacement of tires that could roll over any snowdrift in their way, on loan courtesy of the St. George BLM office. So now with equipment, and enough crew members willing to pilot these vehicles, we have been able to resume trapping, feeding, and monitoring our population daily as we await the snow-melt allowing truck access back up to the release site; and at the current time of this writing, we are still travelling via these snow machines as snow-pack still prevent any truck travel.
As I said, this season has been a scarring one for those of us involved in day-to-day management of this population with regard to lead levels that these birds are being exposed to, and more tragically- mortalities that have resulted from lead poisoning. It is never my intent to paint a grim scene of this program when writing of such events like the following- but I feel it is imperative that we all understand and are aware of both the good, and bad events that are recorded in the recovery of this species. Our first mortality of the season happened in late December, when we started receiving the dreaded mortality signal from one of our matriarchal condors in the population, 15 year-old female #127.
Condor 127 perched in a snag
This signal sounded deep in the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon, and after several triangulating long hikes in to narrow down a location, I recovered the carcass of this magnificent bird with help from the NPS helicopter crew. Once returning back to the house, I developed an x-ray of 127, and saw a fairly large radio-dense fragment in her system, and further necropsy results report that she died of lead poisoning. Condor 127 was the first female to successfully hatch, and fledge, a wild-produced condor in Arizona in close to a century back in 2003, when she and her mate, condor 123, fledged condor 305. The pair did it again in 2005, fledging condor 392. In 2008 they fledged their third wild condor, when condor 472 took flight from the same nest cave that housed his two previous siblings deep in a Grand Canyon red-wall cavern. Then adding insult to injury, we received our second mortality signal just a few weeks after recovering the carcass of 127, and it was from her wild-produced offspring, condor 472, also signaled deep in the canyon interior. Sure enough, after a few long hikes and one technical rappel on rope to traverse a snowy sheer incline of talus slope, the carcass of condor 472 was recovered and brought home to be put under x-ray- also revealing lead fragments in the dead condor. These two mortalities left male condor 123 isolated in their territorial canyon for 10 days, be it because he was also sickened from lead poisoning or just waiting for his mate to return and continue their breeding cycle, we can only speculate. Fortunately we were able to trap 123 a short time later, and a field test of his blood lead value rendered him fit for release with a low enough level that did not require treatment. Then on 29-Dec-2009 that tragic mortality signal struck one of our biologists telemetry receivers a third time, this coming from 6-year-old male condor 329’s transmitter. Severe storms hampered us from hiking in on his signal for a 24 hour period, but once the weather had passed, biologist Tim Hauck hiked in and recovered yet another dead condor that, after x-rayed, had contained lead fragments in its system. These mortalities are unfortunate, but provide accurate data for assessing and understanding what is going on with this population, allowing us to make management decisions and focus our time and energy on the major obstacle in recovery- reducing lead available in the environment from spent ammunition in carcass remains by educating the public on switching over to non-lead ammunition use. Over the past few years we have not recorded a lead mortality, but when birds go “missing” during the winter months following the hunting seasons and are not recovered due to failed transmitters, that data is lost, even though the past several years of data collection suggests the same cause of death. That is why having functioning transmitters to deploy on all birds is extremely important, in fact it is the foundation in field efforts to track, monitor, and assess management of this population during lead exposure events, otherwise there are no answers as data is just lost due to inability to recover stealth bird mortalities over this expansive range of rough terrain. Fortunately this year we have answers, although they seem grim, it is a better depiction of what is really happening.
As the trapping season comes to a close, with only a handful of birds left to trap for the season, we have begun shifting gears to release season. On Saturday 6-March-2010, we will have our 15th annual public condor release from our Vermilion Cliffs release site, as condors 442F and 484F are released for the first time to join the wild population. Condor 442F was hatched at our propagation facility in Boise, ID in 2007, and condor 484 was hatched at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in 2008 before being transferred to Arizona for release. This event can be witnessed by the public from the viewing location below the Vermilion Cliffs release site on the House Rock Valley floor from BLM road 1065, which is approximately 30 miles west of Navajo Bridge in Marble Canyon, AZ, off highway 89A; more details can be found on our website in the Press Room link.
The breeding season is gaining steam as daily displays are recorded by pairs jostling for position to attract mates and set up territories. To date we have already determined that the experienced pair of 114M/126F has laid an egg on 14-Feb-2010 in their same Vermilion Cliffs nest cave. Behavior observed from both birds indicated a regular incubation schedule taking place and is looking good so far. Several other birds are showing hopeful signs that they will attempt breeding this season, including 195F and 158M, 253F and 223M, and even 123M has been showing that he is taking a liking to available 316F after losing his mate to lead poisoning. Stay tuned to the NFTF to see which pairs are serious about breeding, and which are just going through the motions and hoping for next year…