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Condor Reintroduction Notes from the Field
“A human animal is far more wild, unpredictable, dangerous and destructive than any other animal.” -Jeff Corwin
“As long as I live, I'll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can".”
Most coyotes are depredated by ranchers, we can only hope this one was taken with a non-lead bullet, otherwise 317 could be in for a world of hurt. As the days continue to grow shorter it is likely that these further flights and remote feedings will start tapering off, but it is very encouraging to see Condors using more of the northern and southern coastal foraging areas where the lead risk is much lower.
The month of August was a busy one for the crew in Big Sur. This month, we wrapped up our Ecoweek program, through which participants got the privilege to shadow our field biologists. This included visiting the Condor Sanctuary, spending time at our release site and assisting in important tasks such as tracking, nest observations, carcasses placements and helping out our education team with Condor Camp. We enjoyed sharing our passion and getting to know these future conservation leaders and we look forward to our 2015 Ecoweek program.
Our two Big Sur wild chicks, 729 and 753, were fitted with radio-transmitters and green-colored ID tags this month. Both chicks were strong and healthy, weighing in the 18 lb range. VWS Biologists can now radio track movements once the chicks fledge, which we anticipate will occur sometime in October/November, keep your fingers crossed for these two.
There were several observations of Condors feeding on sea lion carcasses along the coast this month, including SB#s 208, 219, 222, 317, 375, 559, 564, 569, 567, 583, 606, 652 and possibly others that were not detected. This is an exciting event to witness for two reasons: First, Big Sur is currently the only place in the world where you can see California condors feeding on the carcasses of marine mammals. Second, when Condors feed ocean derived food sources (i.e. dead whales, sea lions) it increases their life expectancy! Even despite the presence of Persistent Organic Pollutants such as DDT and PCBs that still exist within the marine food web, marine mammals pose less risk to scavengers than terrestrial food sources (such as deer, pigs, and ground squirrels) because lead contamination is so widespread in terrestrial mammals. Condors cannot survive if they continue to depend on a terrestrial food base laced with lead.
This month brought a painful testament to this reality. The entire Condor Program was dealt a hard blow with the death of the first wild-fledged Condor of the Central California flock. Condor #444, affectionately known as "Ventana," was hatched from a Coast redwood nest deep in the wilds of Big Sur in 2007. Five years later as she reached her breeding age, she accepted the advances of the dominant male at Pinnacles National Park, Condor #340, known by his Wasco Indian name as "Kun-Wac-Shun," or, "Thunder and Lightening." In 2004 Kun-Wac-Shun became the first Condor hatched in Oregon - the first from the Oregon Zoo breeding program. Together #340 and #444 were a powerful pair. When they chose each other as mates, it represented not only unity between release sites, but a unique hope for the species within their offspring: the next generation of truly wild Condors. Ventana hatched her first chick in 2013 and both parents attended to it with vigilance, unfortunately this nesting attempt failed. We believe that she attempted to nest again in 2014, but it was never confirmed.
Late in the afternoon on August 15th VWS Biologist, Melissa Clark, was watching Condors feed on the webcam and noticed Ventana acting clumsy and lethargic, clinical behavior consistent with lead poisoning. Melissa and VWS Biologist, David Moen, immediately mobilized and drove to the feeding area in hopes of catching her before sunset. Unfortunately, she evaded capture and flew into a nearby tree to roost for the night. Early the next day, Ventana finally left her perch and landed in a gully near the release slope. The location was ideal. When David and Melissa moved in on her with hoop nets they found she was hemmed in by chaparral below and too weak to fly up slope. They captured her without incident and immediately transferred her to the LA Zoo for emergency treatment. She was fighting for her life with every passing minute. Even with two blood transfusions and the best care possible she was just too sick to make it. After clinging to life for a little over a week Ventana died. Along with the LA Zoo vet staff we at VWS were crushed. Our thanks goes out to the LA Zoo for their inspiring effort and noble attempt. Note- Although her clinical signs are consistent with lead poisoning, Ventana's official cause of death has yet to be confirmed and is still under investigation by US fish and Wildlife Service officials.
R.I.P. Ventana, may your struggle to live poison-free ultimately prevail for the health and hope of your species, and ours.
Until Next Time,
The month of July finally brought summer to Big Sur. With the morning coast fog burning off and leaving the afternoons hot, the condor crew (and the condors) have all been trying to keep cool. It has been an exciting month, and the crew has been keeping very busy with nest entries, assisting in education camps, our Eco-Week adventure program, and tracking.
In nesting news, 168/208's chick, #729, was radio tagged during his 120 day health check up this month and he is in great health! We have officially determined that Condor #729 is a male, and we look forward to when he fledges this fall to join the flock. 167/190’s chick, #753, also had a check up this month. He is about a month younger than #729. He is also growing up quickly, and also a boy.
In other exiting news, this month we confirmed that the flock found our newest feeding site. With help from our partners at Monterey County Regional Parks District we established a feeding site on the north end of the Big Sur range. After only a few months of baiting and waiting, we were rewarded when we got a series of photos showing Condors feeding on our trail camera. This is just one step forward in our goal to extend Condor coastal foraging patterns north and south. This will also encourage more coastal territories and home ranges in the future. A recent Study has shown Condors that stick closer to the coast are safer from lead.
This month we also hosted several Eco-Week Interns. These interns get an opportunity to job shadow and assist VWS Staff as they go about their work. Eco-Week interns are an important part of the program, and we appreciate their participation. We hope that they learned a lot and will be able to share their knowledge about Condor Recovery with others.
Until Next Time,
The month of June brought with it the end of the Spring Trap up. After a few months of trapping birds to replace malfunctioning transmitters, do health checks, and test for lead poising, the crew succeeded in capturing most of the flock. Only a few birds are still receiving treatment at various zoos and most of the birds are flying free!!!
May Madness is back here in Big Sur. This month marked the official beginning of the spring "trap up" season for the flock and so far we've had a disappointing start. We ended up having to hold half of our first trapped batch of Condors captive for chelation treatment. This was due to several coming in with "high" lead levels, or levels that registered above our 35 micrograms per deciliter cutoff.
At the beginning of the month, Condor #219 was trapped, and tested "high" for lead. As a result, he was transported to the LA Zoo for treatment. Both Pinnacles National Park (PNP) and VWS biologists nervously waited to see if his mate, Condor #310, would be able to take care of their chick on her own. At the end of the month, PNP and VWS staff entered the nest for a routine health check and found the chick plump and healthy. Good job Condor #310! About a week later Condor #219 was finished with his treatment and released. The first thing that he did after he was released was load up his crop with food, and then head back in the direction of his nest. Welcome back Condor #219.
We are happy to report that we have three healthy chicks in our flock. The chicks belonging to Condor pairs #219/#310 and #168/#208 are both healthy and growing fast. At the very beginning of the month, condor pair #167/#190 finally hatched their egg! The chick seems healthy and is due for its first checkup in early June. Welcome to the flock Condor #753.
This is the time of year when micro-trash becomes a threat for growing chicks in nests. Condor chicks reach full adult size (avg. 20 lbs) in about 5 months before they fledge from their nests in the fall. Because the bones of the chick grow so fast, they need extra calcium in their diet. The chick's parents assist with this by picking up bits of bone and sea shells to feed them as important sources of calcium. Unfortunately, some condor parents confuse bits of trash for bone and shell. The most frequent items we find in nests are glass or plastic shards, plastic and mettle bottle caps, pop can tabs and broken road reflectors- all of which easily mimic the bone fragments and shiny, attractive, shells that they would normally pick up. At this early age (60-90 days) condor chicks are able to swallow these bits of trash, but not pass or regurgitate them. If not caught by biologists, this trash can get impacted in the young bird's ventriculus and cause the chick to die. This is one of the main reasons chicks get health check-ups this time of year.
To further mitigate this concern, our staff biologists do routine trash clean-ups along roadside pull-outs in Big Sur, especially after summer weekends when the tourists tend to pile up. We also set out crushed bones (normally produced at carcasses by top predators like wolves and bears) and broken up shells in places that adult condors can easily access them, such as feeding sites or high points above sea cliffs. We have found this "calcium banquet" strategy dilutes the trash pool and increases the chances that parents feed their chicks normally. If you are driving along the coast here, please help condor chicks, and all of Big Sur's wildlife, by picking up any micro-trash items that you come across and letting others know the cost of littering. Remember, "take only photos, leave only footprints."
Fly on Friends,
Once again, it has been an eventful month in Central Coast Condor Country! We have completed our 2014 releases, we have started spring trap up, and we're in full swing with nesting.
On the very last day of this month, we released the rest of our pre-release cohort: Condors #650 and #652. They were released together so that neither of them would be left alone in the flight pen, something a social species like Condors would not appreciate. The crew has named Condor #652 "Ferdinand" after the bull in the children's book Flowers for Ferdinand. This is a very appropriate name for him because he is a particularly large Condor (his release weight was 21 lbs!) and he has a sweet disposition. His release went very smoothly. Instead of flying off, as 646 did, he turned and hiked straight up the release slope to a feeding area with other birds, seemingly stopping to smell the flowers along the way. Condor #547 hiked half way down the hill to greet the new comer and seemingly escort him up to where the others were feeding! He accepted the kind gesture and they both went to feed!
Condor #650 was released several hours later, and the crew has named him "Zenith." This name comes from his first flight, which was immediately toward the "Pen Cam" and straight up to get a view of his surroundings. We wish these boys the best of luck on their way into the wild!
Regrettably, we suffered the loss of Condor #400 this month in nearly the same way that her mate died last year around this time. VWS staff first noticed she was not acting normal while hanging out at the release slope to feed and socialize. She had a "sluggish" look; her wings were flailing and she had a hard time standing up straight. Soon she was flushed by other birds to a lone tree where she wobbled and perched for about 12 hours. We tried to cut our way through the Chaparral to her with a long hoop net, but by the time we got close she flew off and headed directly to Pinnacles National Park.
After several days of close monitoring by Park biologists they were able to capture her on the ground and transport her right away to the LA Zoo care facility. Her blood lead value was at a severely toxic level and X-rays showed she had metal fragments in both her crop and stomach. Although she received a blood transfusion within days, she was unfortunately too sick to take it and she died a day later. We are incredibly appreciative of the LA Zoo staff for trying to save her life- a routine story all too familiar. We will miss you Condor #400 thank you for your time with us- R.I.P.
Until Next Time,
Rain!!! March was full of rainstorms in Big Sur, adding the green blanket to the hill sides that usually sets in over the winter months here. Several deluges lasting 2-3 days each converted our brown landscape and it was interesting to see how the Condors handled it. One would think that the birds in the flight pen would naturally move under the overhanging ledge to shelter themselves during stormy weather, but from watching these four pre-release birds we have found they prefer exposure to the elements.
There are even observations from the Oregon Zoo captive breeding program detailing that Condors will have icicles hanging from their tails foregoing the heated rooms available to them. These are very hardy birds and they are made to face the elements boldly. Curiously, with all the wet weather, several Condors were seen visiting the hides and bones of left over, dried-up carcass remains. Upon lengthier observation, it turned out these birds were picking through leftovers that had apparently been rehydrated from the recent rains. Another great display of condor resourcefulness!
We have several new nests to report for the Big Sur coast. We have at least two pairs currently incubating eggs and two rearing chicks. Two of these pairs are experienced parents, Condors #167 and #190 (who, interestingly, switch up nest sites for the first time ever this year), and Condors #219 and #310. The third couple, Condors #351 and #418, is a new pair on their first egg!!! Our field staff also found that Condors #251 and #222 tried to recycle by laying a second egg this month, but like the first egg, its shell was too fragile and immediately cracked and broke inside the nest. Sadly, this pair is finished for the 2014 nesting year.
That's it for now… Until next month ~
February broke the unusual dry spell that has cursed California this winter. Two storms each delivered ~7 inches of rain to basecamp and the Big Sur coast. Good enough to finally green the local slopes this winter, but not enough to put a dent in the amount of water needed to get our state out of the severe drought we're in. We are crossing our fingers that there will be much more rain to come in the rest of the season.
This month, we celebrated the installation of a second internet camera on our release slope. This web-cam is placed on the lower slope and allows viewers to see our pre-release birds in the flight pen and the free-flying Condors that come visit them regularly. The official public debut of this operation will be in early March, coinciding with the celebration of our release of Condors #631, #646, #650 and #652 (view profiles at www.mycondor.org).
Partway through the month, the VWS staff fitted this pre-release cohort with their new patagial transmitters and ID tags. Now all four juveniles have purple vinyl tags with the last two digits of their studbook numbers printed in white text. These Condors are almost ready to be released into the wild. They seem ready and excited to join the flock!
Meanwhile, egg-laying season has just started here on the coast!! This is the time of year we confirm which birds are newly paired and if established pairs will nest again. Halfway through the month, #242 and #171 surprised everyone by preferring each other's company. It appears that they may be in the process of pair-bonding, but we have not been able to confirm their status yet. We hope this will be a new established pair since 242 has been a longsuffering bachelor and 171 had her mate die last year. We also have suspicions about a new Big Sur redwood nest between Pinnacles released Condors #351 and #418 who were detected frequently in the same area around nesting time last year…
Unfortunately, during a nest check for #251 and #222, VWS staff discovered a crushed egg. This fragmented egg shell was documented, and replaced with a fake egg in the hope that the two will adopt it to start their incubating cycle. This would allow for VWS biologists to replace the fake egg with a fertile egg from the zoo when hatching time comes. By employing the management technique, we help ensure viable nest opportunities with fostered chicks for the parents who might not otherwise have the chance; a stop-gap measure that has helped nests susceptible to egg shell thinning in the past. The pair didn't take to the fake egg this time, but biologists are optimistic the pair could "recycle" and lay a replacement egg this season. Keeping our fingers crossed!
Until Next Time,
The New Year has started off very well for Big Sur Condors. After both being treated at the LA Zoo for lead poisoning, Condors #444 and #340 were released back into the wild on January 4th. We were pleased that they recovered so quickly and are back out just as breeding season is swinging into gear. VWS staff has been paying close attention to the GPS signals for our breeding birds, watching birds on the web cam, and observing them around Big Sur to see if we will have any new pairs this year. So far, almost all of our mature Condors have been in on the action displaying and copulating. Even a few of the sub adults, like Condor #559, have been observed picking up tips from the older pros trying to emulate courtship behavior. All in all, we have high hopes that our flock will continue to naturally expand this year with more fledglings.
This month we helped the Central Coast flock get a jump start on expansion by introducing four new pre-release birds to the flight pen! Condors #631, #646, #650, and #652 arrived in Big Sur just after New Years Day. So far they seem to be adjusting fine to their new surroundings. They will remain there until they are officially ready to join the rest of the flock in the wild. From our web cam, wild Condors can sometimes be seen perching on the flight pen or sticking their heads through the mesh to the inside where they can investigate the newcomers. This is when we often trap a mentor to stay for several weeks with them inside the pen. The socialization that occurs during this time of investigation is foundational to the successful integration of the new birds into the flock.
If for some reason new birds are socially ostracized by the free-flying Condors the chances that they will survive are narrow. In the wild, the high level of parental investment both adults show their chick usually ensures its social inclusion in the hierarchy. Since pre-release birds do not have this help from their parents we design our release strategy to compensate for this as much as possible. We are really excited to have Condor #646 back in the mix and ready for release after she was removed from a nest in 2012 along the coast due to a broken wrist. She is all healed up now and getting ready to join her parents again in the flock! Get to know our latest arrivals' histories here My Condor
In the middle of the month, we established another new feeding site. In collaboration with the Big Sur Land Trust and Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District, we now have two Condor baiting stations in the coastal mountains just south of Carmel. This is part of VWS's strategic plan to expand Condor foraging and nesting throughout the entire Big Sur coast range from Carmel to San Simeon.
Along with help from a member of Parks Department, VWS field staff put in a hard day of work setting up fencing and carcass anchors at our latest coast-ridge feeding installment. There are many large and beautiful redwoods near this untapped foraging habitat that we hope will one day be used for nesting. Our field biologists have observed Condors feeding on natural wild carcasses relatively near this site, so we anticipate the Condors will find it soon and begin to occupy the northern habitat available to them.
Toward the end of the month, our full time field staff was hired for two days of Condor monitoring at powerline site in Big Sur. The power line utility once again threw their weight behind Condor conservation by replacing a dangerous stretch of power lines with more condor-friendly insulated lines. Condors were particularly vulnerable to this line since it was not insulated and posed the threat of electrocution. Now, thanks to all hands on deck, the line is insulated with "tree-wire"; slightly thicker gauged lines that cannot electrocute the Condors and are more easily distinguishable to the birds.
Finally, we were sad to see Robin's tenure on the crew come to an end this month. Robin's positive outlook and deep commitment to this project has been instrumental since starting with us in May. It's been a long haul and her contributions on behalf of helping Big Sur Condors fly high will surely be missed. We wish you all the best Robin on your future endeavors!
Fly on, friends~
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