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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Spring 2010
Eddie Feltes — in California Condor Restoration    ShareGreetings NFTF readers! The melting of snow in condor country is welcomed by an amicable sigh from our field crew, as winter moved out and the spring months settled in. We have been monitoring our newest releases, condors 442F and 484F, very closely since their initial release back on 6-March-10. The 15th annual public release was met with less than favorable weather, as high wind, rain, and snow all passed through on release day causing me to make the call to close the release-pen atop the Vermilion Cliffs early and try again the following day; a decision made to lessen the chance of mishap as bad weather always opens up avenues of misfortune when you mix low visibility, young condors in their most critical time for survival, and hungry coyotes on the prowl in twilight seeking out that next meal. On 7-March-10 both birds took flight from the release-pen into the perennial wind of northern Arizona in spring. The high wind really intensified the following week, making flight and roosting ability for these two new birds very tough, but our vigilant field crew put in the observation and work necessary to see that they survived night after night. Our observations led us to realize that 442 just wasn’t quite ready for the unfamiliar high wind/flight combo, and her will to stay grounded in the wind, even at night, left me with no choice but to trap her and curb any chance of falling victim to coyote predation; so we trapped and placed her back in our flight-pen to hold until September when she will be released into more favorable weather conditions. Condor 484F handled the weather just the opposite, navigating perfectly in flight and roosting very comfortably in safe zones up on the cliff wall away from ground dwelling predators; and to this day she is doing great integrating into the wild flock allowing us to shift our observation to pairs that are currently nesting.

The first pair to nest this season was the veteran pair of 126F and 114M in the Vermilion Cliffs, laying our earliest recorded egg on 14-Feb-2010. This pair is exhibiting behavior observed by our biologists that suggests the egg has hatched on or around 12-April-2010, and both birds are tending to the assumed chick daily. Our second pair to commit to nesting, that of the first season pairing of 296F and 162M, has begun incubation in a cave a few miles east of 114M/126F, and we believe they laid their egg on 10-March-2010. Both birds have been switching out in incubation duties perfectly, and are approaching a hatch date near 6-May-2010. Although first time nesting events are rarely successful in our wild population due to infertility of eggs, or inexperience in incubation, we have recorded a first year pair hatching and fledging a chick in the past, so we remain hopeful with fingers crossed that this pair pulls it off. The third pair to nest was that of 195F and 158M, who have incubated but not hatched eggs in the three previous seasons. This pair hinted at a lay date of 12-March-2010 by 158M showing up to our release site independently, instead of the constant pairing displayed during this time of year.

Nest cave of 195F and 158M
Nest cave of 195F and 158M
So we set out to try and track them down by traveling to all of their old haunts, but turned up no signals received from our biologists suggesting incubation in a cave. Because the snow was still too deep to allow travel over much of the terrain, we decided to place a satellite GPS unit on 195F in hopes she will reveal the nesting location in a more efficient manner. After a few weeks of non-stimulating data collection from the unit, we still had no solid leads to go investigate this mystery location. And then on 27-April-2010, seasoned biologist Neil Paprocki went out on a leisurely hike during a day off to go explore some new territory that he was yet to see. Knowing the canyon he selected to hike was in close proximity to one of the pair’s previous nesting locations, Neil was particularly observant of any peculiar locations that could be housing this incubating pair. As Neil winded down canyon deeper into the Snake Gulch area of the Kaibab Plateau, he happened to look back at a towering wall that had two small caves in its face. With a raise of his binoculars in the glaring heat, he located a dark object on one side of the cavern.. a shadow? Neil moved further up slope and tried to look in from a new angle, and now the shape has moved to the opposite side… and then a tag…95! Instant excitement thwarted the planned over-night trip, and Neil hurried back to the house to report the un-intended discovery of his hike that has had us puzzled for weeks. The fact that the pair chose this remote location an estimated 20 miles away “as the condor flies” from their previous location directly at our release site, had us all elated with excitement that they would finally pull of a nestling without the disturbance associated with activity at the release site. Then on 3-May-2010, the pair traveled together to the release site, abandoning their egg 20 miles away. At the time of writing we are investigating this abandonment to try and recover clues to what may have caused this change in behavior so far into the incubation cycle.

Condors 253F and 223M at cave
Condors 253F and 223M at cave
Our 4th confirmed nesting was observed by biologist Julia Nadal from pair 253F and 223M in the Colorado River corridor of Marble Canyon. On 2-April-2010, after noting that the pair had split up in roosting locations based on telemetry signals the night before, Julia tracked the birds down to a canyon wall that they used back in 2007, but while just receiving the constant “blip...blip…blip” from the telemetry receiver, Julia was anxiously awaiting some movement to reveal the nest cave location, as she was unaware of the cave used back in 2007 by this same pair. Then, just minutes before I pull up to the observation area in my truck to check on Julia’s progress, she observed male 223 arrive, and female 253 fly out from the nest cave! There is a certain feeling that overtakes a field biologist when a new nesting location is tracked down and discovered for the first time, I know, I have recorded a few of my own over the years, and that very feeling was radiating from Julia’s expression as I approached her in my walk from the truck. Unfortunately this pair also abandoned their incubation on 24-April-2010. They did the same thing last year, but then recycled and laid a second egg a month later, so we are hoping they repeat and try again.

The 5th confirmed nesting is that of a trio involving condors 241F, 193M, and 243M. These two males have been jostling for position to possess sole breeding rights to female 241 over the past few years, and based on observation, we believed 193M had finally succeeded, as the pair began incubating 241’s first documented egg on 2-April-2010 in a small canyon on the east Kaibab Plateau. Then just a few weeks into the incubation cycle, 243M was permitted to incubate the egg, and all three have been sharing duties ever since. We are expecting this attempt to end up unsuccessful, but we are presently waiting and observing to document the outcome. And lastly, we are suspecting the previous pairing of 210F and 122M to have begun incubation on or around 26-March-2010, based on behavior and movement patterns by the pair, but our access to observation points to better gauge this suspicion has been halted by snowpack preventing access to the extremely remote nesting location. A recent backpacking trip by biologist Neil Paprocki revealed a dropped transmitter from 122M, so due to his “stealth” status, the incubation inside the suspected cave of previous use has not yet been confirmed.

This past winter we had experienced a significant amount of lead exposures, and recorded mortalities for our population, and now I would like to report on a major story of success, teamwork, and perseverance that makes me proud to be part of this recovery effort even during our most frustrating of seasons. On 5-Jan-2010, we were doing routine trapping for blood lead testing following the hunting seasons, and were hauling birds to our treatment facility daily. One bird in particular, 14-year-old condor 133F tested at a high level on our field tester, indicating her lead level was greater than 65ug/dL. So along with 6 other condors that all tested high that morning, we kenneled her up and hauled her down to our treatment facility at our house. Just a few days into treatment, I began to realize something just wasn’t right with 133.

Condor 133
Condor 133
Her feeding routine wasn’t normal and her crop wasn’t passing food periodically as the other birds observed alongside her also in treatment. So I called Project Director Chris Parish and suggested we get this bird to our veterinarian, Dr. Kathy Orr down in Phoenix as quick as possible, as 133’s behavior was definitely suggesting the need for more experienced veterinary care. Now some birds are just docile in hand, for whatever reason, and 133 was always one of those birds. She seems to be a perennial treatment bird for lead each season, so maybe that plays a role, but this behavior makes it difficult to guess if her calmness is due to illness, or just because that’s just the way she is. But I have handled condor 133 for 7 years now, seasonally, and this was the worst I have seen. Within hours of the phone call, Chris was waiting in Flagstaff for us to transport 133 to him, and he was on his way to Dr. Orr in Phoenix. The day we moved the bird, her blood lead lab value came back from the initial test at 370ug/dL, which is extremely toxic. Dr. Orr took 133 under her care, like she has done with each bird we have sent down to her in the past, and was hopefully going to work her magic once again and keep this poisoned bird alive. A little history on 133- she is the last condor remaining from our initial release here in Arizona back on 12-Dec-1996, that alone sets her above the rest. In 2008, she hatched and fledged her first wild produced offspring with mate 187M deep in the Grand Canyon interior, and was scheduled to breed again this season. So as each condor in the population is of value, 133 has always had a bit more reverence than most of the others. She was under the round-the-clock, vigilant eye of Dr. Orr for just over 3 months, when we finally got the call we had feared would never occur… “ 133 has made a full recovery and I feel she is ready to be transported back up to you guys for release!”. After holding her in our observation pen for a few weeks, for muscle building and weight gain, 133 was released back out into the wild on 24-April-2010, where she immediately took flight and joined her mate, 187M, miles away back in their territory of the Grand Canyon.

To learn more about Dr. Orr and her non-profit veterinary practice, Liberty Wildlife Rehabilitation Foundation, please visit the following link:

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