Chris Parish— 1 June 2004 — in California Condor Restoration ShareBefore we begin this month’s installment of Notes from the Field, I would like to give a sincere thank you and a warmest goodbye to a valued friend and coworker. Sophie Osborn, our Field Manager for the past four years, has moved down the road of her career to another chapter in the life of a fantastic biologist. For those of you who have followed her “Notes from the Field,” you will know what I mean when I say we have lost a tremendous asset to the California Condor Restoration Project. Her contributions go far beyond her wonderful writing talents. To write that way, she did have to be there, and Sophie was there indeed!
As a person that would never ask any of her staff to attack a task she wouldn’t do herself, Sophie often shocked and bewildered those around her by her dedication and commitment to seeing the condors through another day in the wild by whatever means necessary. I once joked that, if I could carry the proportion of my body weight that Sophie could, I wouldn’t have to carry carcasses and water to the rim for the condors. I would just haul the truck down to the rim and shake the contents out onto the ground. Her physical strength was mirrored by brilliance and intuition when it came to field work. Thank you Sophie A. H. Osborn. I hope you hold on to that portion of your heart now etched with the energy and grace of the condor for the rest of your life.
The months of April and May marked a major change for the 2004 field season. Juvenile condors released March 20th were soon following behavior patterns of new release cohorts of the past. Like previous years, the first attraction outside the release site was Navajo Bridge on the Colorado River. On 11 April, Condors 273 and 275 (released in October 2003) made their way to the South Rim for the first time, marking an early beginning to a long field season of radio-tracking. Condor 273’s behavior wasn’t exactly what we would have hoped for, and we knew by previous observations that we would have to stick close to this two-year-old when he ventured from the release area. Condor 275 stayed out of reach of our telemetry equipment for seven days before returning to the release site. We hold our breaths during such periods.
While Condor 275 came back to the release site, Condor 273 had other plans. On the evening of 18 April, Condor 273 roosted on the cliffs behind a small community in the Marble Canyon area just east of the release site. This may have seemed like another step in the wrong direction, but not for those of us that have been through this before. We thought this was a golden opportunity to work with a bird that would require more attention to ensure its success in the wild. However, after several days of hazing from areas inhabited by humans and human related structures, we made the decision to return Condor 273 to the holding facility to break this pattern of overly inquisitive behavior. The good news for this bird and others that come along from year to year is that they all seem to grow beyond this short-term focus and move on to activities more essential to their long-term survival in the wild.
Another area of recent excitement has been the nesting activities of two breeding pairs (Condors 119 and 122 and Condors 114 and 149). Observations by The Peregrine Fund, the National Park Service, and volunteers continue to be encouraging. Although behavior of the two pairs differs greatly, the fact that they both continue to make regular incubation switches looks good. But we can’t be sure because the contents of neither nest is visible, and similar behavior by Condors 119 and 122 in two previous years culminated in failure. Even so, observations in captive pairs show that lack of success in the first few attempts is not terribly unusual, so we keep our fingers crossed. Based on our best assessments, both pairs have made it through the projected incubation period of 56 days. (The eggs have now hatched! See the Press Release on this exciting occurrence. There will be more details in the next update.)
The month of May was one of firsts for some of the newly released condors. One standout was Condor 304’s first trip to the South Rim. This one-year-old male traveled there with a group of condors that eventually fed on a cow elk carcass in the forest south of the National Park. Finding carcasses away from the release site is something all condors must learn if we are to achieve our goal of a self-sustaining population. However, it is in this department that other threats sometimes appear. As young Condor 304 fed upon the elk carcass, at least four others were found near a scavenged coyote carcass on the north Kaibab Plateau. In years past, condors have ingested lead fragments from shot coyotes left in the field. To play it safe the crew quickly set up to trap at Vermilion Cliffs, and just two days later, veteran crew member Roger Benefield pulled the door on 11 condors, including three of the four target birds. Fortunately, none showed high lead levels in blood samples.
Before release, we took advantage of having them in hand and performed a few tune-ups, including replacements of the battery-powered conventional transmitters that each condor wears. Thanks to the Arizona Game and Fish Department and with the help of the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund and Steve Martin/Natural Encounters, we now have state-of-the-art solar-powered GPS transmitters on some of the birds. These transmitters report very precise condor locations to a satellite network every evening or so, and we receive the data as email. That really solves the problem of keeping up with some of the birds. With standard transmitters, a biologist with a receiver has to be within range (in the field) of the condor to determine its location. Only so many people can be in the field on a given day, whereas the condors forage and fly wherever they may choose. For example, veteran crew member Jonna Weidmaier initially found Condor 196 near the coyote carcass. Such observations have helped save condors in the past. By our conventional methods, we knew of at least three condors in the area that may have ingested all or part of the coyote. Condors 133 and 196 however, were equipped with the GPS transmitters. I checked the data that evening and found that Condor 133 was also in the area with Condors 196, 235, and 246. So, we added Condor 133 to the list and set out to trap those four birds, as well as to test the scavenged carcass for lead fragments. Luckily, all was well with this first incident of the 2004 season.
With the aid of this type of technology, we can dig even deeper into understanding condor behavior in hopes of improving our methods for reestablishing the species. With 45 condors now in the wilds of Arizona, this technology has come just in time.
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