Chris Parish, Beau Fairchild— 22 December 2004 — in California Condor Restoration ShareGreetings Notes from the Field readers. Well, November truly played out as a month for giving thanks. Although this time of year tends to bring our spirits down a bit due to necessary lead testing, trapping and often cases of lead poisoning, we are now experiencing a new occurrence in the “to be expected” category—fledging! Those of you that have been following the Notes from the Field and possibly the recent media attention know what I am talking about. We have been waiting a little more than six months for two wild hatched condor chicks (Condors 350 and 342) to fledge in their respective nest caves in the Grand Canyon and the Vermilion Cliffs.
On 23 November 2004 Condor 114 and 149’s chick, Condor 342, left the comforts of its nest cave in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument only to be followed two days later by the fledging of Condor 119 and 122’s chick, Condor 350, in the Grand Canyon. This brings the total number of wild fledged chicks alive and well in the wilds of Arizona to three. In addition, the USFWS reported the first successful fledging of a condor chick in California. We would like to extend our congratulations and thanks to all involved in this recovery effort and hope that the recent successes are only a hint of what the future holds for condors.
The following is a detailed description of Condor 342’s fledging by crewmember Beau Fairchild. Beau was blessed with the observations of each of the fledglings’ first flights.
As witnessed by Beau Fairchild on 23 November 2004.
For most of Tuesday, 23 November 2004, Condor 342 was very inactive and sedentary. The condor spent most of the morning and early afternoon hours preening, sunning, and looking around the area surrounding the nest cave. While there were occasional bursts of vigorous wing-flapping and impressive movement within the cave’s borders, it did not seem like the day that Condor 342 was going to fledge. This, however, did not turn out to be the case.
Around 1550 I noticed Condor 342 getting very excited, flapping his/her wings and looking to the skies overhead. About five minutes later I observed Condor 149 (Condor 342’s mother) flying low over the nest cave. Condor 342 started to get very anxious. Condor 149 flew over the nest cave again about two minutes later and, on her next approach, landed on the nest cave patio approximately 10 feet away from Condor 342. She only stayed at the nest cave for about 15 seconds before taking to the air again. In hindsight, it seems as though Condor 149 may have been coaxing Condor 342 out of the nest.
After Condor 149’s departure, Condor 342 continued the vigorous flapping and coordinated hopping around the nest that it exhibited earlier. In addition, on several occasions, Condor 342 fully stretched out its now massive wings and held them high over its back in what seemed to be preparation for the big leap. As it turned out, it was during one of these exaggerated wing-stretches that Condor 342 leapt from the cave and became the 3rd wild-fledged California Condor produced by captive-bred birds.
At approximately 1620, Condor 342 spread its wings for the final time in the nest cave. With wings fully extended and stretched over its back, Condor 342 jumped out of the nest cave on its own accord. The moment was surreal. Seeing this condor, which has never left the confines of its nest cave, suddenly take to the skies for the first time and fly on its own will was the privilege of my life.
I think it is important to reiterate that Condor 342 left the nest cave on its own beyond a doubt. It did not slip and was not forcefully fledged by an outside source. It flew because of its own desire to do so. With wings extended, Condor 342 jumped out of the nest to the north and was fairly stable in the air for a short while after its feet left the ground. The young bird was able to maintain a mostly constant altitude for a few seconds (approx. 12 seconds) and then started to wobble a little in flight. About 75 meters to the north of the cave, Condor 342 started to descend rather rapidly. Shortly after this sudden descent, Condor 342 tried to land on a very small ledge that was on a completely vertical cliff face. Its feet grasped the perch for only a few seconds and, with wings flapping rapidly, Condor 342 turned away from the face and started flying lower. The condor remained in the air for approximately eight more seconds and then landed on a small piece of talus halfway up the cliff face. This area, about 100-150 meters north of the cave and 50-75 meters below, was were Condor 342 would spend its first night as a wild, free-flying condor. And, thankfully, it would be safe from any ground predation.
Almost immediately upon its final landing, Condor 342 began walking up higher on the cliff and looking around for a good spot to perch on. It hiked up about 10-15 meters and went out of view behind a protruding cliff face. Not more than a minute later, an adult Golden Eagle swooped down behind the cliff face where Condor 342 was perched. It did not, however, appear to strike Condor 342 as the Golden Eagle reappeared very quickly and could not have gotten low enough to do any real harm. The Golden Eagle went out of view and reappeared again, only for a second, before Condor 149 flew down and chased it out of the area. The young condor remained behind the cliff face.
Condor 342 did come back into view until about seven minutes after the Golden Eagle incident. The young condor flew out from behind the cliff and landed about 20 meters away, blocked by a tree. Soon Condor 342 began hopping up to higher perches and appeared that it wanted to get off of the small talus segment it was on. It could not get much higher up, however, as the cliff face was too vertical and there were no obvious perches it could get to. It then proceeded to walk behind the cliff face where it had been earlier. It would remain there for as long as I could see.
The young condor’s fledging day had finally come. It was a remarkable moment and an amazing phenomenon to be able to witness.
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