Chris Parish— 27 October 2004 — in California Condor Restoration ShareGreetings to readers of Notes from the Field! We are extremely busy with yet another critical stage in the yearly cycle of condor monitoring. I will fill in the gaps and bring you up-to-date for the past two months.
At the last update, I left you with information on our two nestlings, including Condor 342 at Vermilion Cliffs and Condor 350 at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Both chicks, with only about ten days’ difference in age, appear to be developing as expected. Daily observations reveal increasingly vigorous bouts of flapping and jumping about as they continue to explore their nest caves and as much of the areas immediately surrounding the cave as they possibly can without losing footing.
The observers, with clenched hands and tight throats, might offer a slightly different definition of the usable space in front of the nest cave. Project Field Manager Thom Lord described Condor 342’s antics last week as nearly “ready to go” as evidenced by the vigorous jumping and flapping he observed at the Vermilion Cliffs site. Observations recorded last year while monitoring wild-produced Condor 305 revealed much the same behavior just prior to first flight. However, based on the history of the parents’ behavior, our best age estimates for the chicks place them at nearly five months. Therefore, by our calculations, we should not witness fledging until mid-November or later.
The parents of both chicks (Condors 114 and 149 VC and Condors 119 and 122 South Rim) have been observed feeding at the release site and foraging on the Kaibab Plateau. Subsequent observations of nest visits and feeding suggest the chicks are well fed.
An interesting observation in late October reflects upon these questions and adds others. After feeding at the release site, full-cropped Condor 123 visited Condor 305 in the Salt Creek drainage, and, as typical of his behavior since fledging, he began wing-begging, the latter involving a slow rowing or undulating wingbeat, usually followed by the adult feeding the youngster. This time though, the parent bird did not cater to Condor 305, but sat on a separate ledge for a few hours, finally leaving to roost elsewhere in the Grand Canyon. Was Condor 123 trying to encourage Condor 305 to follow, or will they continue feeding him at home in Salt Creek for months to come? Time will tell. . .
It is finally feeling cold in the mountains with weather patterns bringing rain to the valleys and snow to the high country. As in years past, the numbers of condors foraging on the Kaibab Plateau has increased. Close tracking during September and October has revealed at least seven carcasses of deer, elk, and cattle that the birds have fed on. Meanwhile, the deer hunting season began in early October with the Juniors’ Hunt offering 500 doe tags. The increased numbers of carcasses and gut piles associated with this and other hunts should hold the attention of a substantial portion of the condor flock through late November.
Female Condor 316 was standing next to the release pen door when crew member Frank Nebenburgh opened it at 0947 hours on 16 October. Rather than fly out, however, Condor 316, quickly retreated to the comfort of a high perch with the other two juveniles. During the next hour, each bird, and sometimes two together, would jump down from the perch and approach the door only to return to the familiar perch. Finally, at 1036, Condor 291 made the leap into the wild, or at least to the nearby carcass covertly placed the night before by our crew. By 1041, Condor 291 had made it to yet another feeding location we call Sunflower and continued to feed. This bird wasted no time, and soon the other two condors had left the release pen. All three spent that week familiarizing themselves with their newfound freedom.
Condors are most vulnerable to coyotes at this point in time. At the end of each day, our crew convenes at the release site with two-way radios and spotting scopes to locate each newly-released bird. Those not perched in areas safe from coyotes are hazed to higher ground. This can sometime take us well into the night, but it is due to these efforts that the birds are able to reach the next level in the art of survival. On 25 October 2004, all three condors made their way back to the feeding area, fed with other condors, and flew to a safe roost on the cliff face by nightfall. Congratulations to a most dedicated crew! Now, on to week two….
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