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Condor Reintroduction Notes from the Field

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June 2014

Condor 405 trapped for first time since 2010
Condor 405 trapped for the first time since 2010
Condor nestling #753
Condor #753
Eco-week interns
Eco-week interns
SBZ puts in a new trail
SBZ puts in a new trail
VWS hosts the SBZ work crew
VWS hosts the SBZ trail crew

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!!!

Our newest recruit, Condor #753 (chick of Condors #167 and #190), had his first check-up this month. At thirty days old, VWS staff entered the nest to do a routine health check and give him his first West Nile vaccination. We are happy to report that he is healthy and growing quickly.

While we are hopeful about adding young birds like #753, the flock suffered another loss this month. During a routine nighttime carcass placement, Pinnacles National Park (PNP) Condor staff found Condor #401 lethargic and on the ground near the feeding site. He was rushed to the LA Zoo and treated for acute lead posing. Unfortunately, he was too weak, and died a week after arriving at the zoo. Condor #401 was a PNP released bird. He was not paired with anyone this year, but he was on his way to breed next season. We are sad this will not occur after years of investment in this bird. One more example of why lead is a deal killer for Condor recovery. Thank you to the LA Zoo staff for putting their all into trying to save this bird. R.I.P. Condor #401, you will be missed.

In the middle of this month VWS hosted our annual work party with staff members from the Santa Barbara Zoo (SBZ). This group of volunteers comes each year to help out with various projects at our release site. This year they helped us build a new trail to our water pump. This new trail bypasses an older route that was badly eroded and covered in Poison Oak. It not as steep as the old trail and has far fewer steps to maintain. Thanks again to the SBZ for your help, your time spent volunteering with us is appreciated!

We also welcomed the first Eco Week Interns this month. These interns had an opportunity to see what it is like doing conservation ecology in the field first hand shadowing VWS biologists and education staff. They even had the rare opportunity to see a Condor up close as staff handled a trapped bird for a health check. We will have a few more Eco-Week Interns this summer before we're done. Keep up the good work everyone!

Until next time,
The Condor Crew

Notes from the Field

May 2014

Condor 208 at her Redwood nest
Condor #208 at her Redwood Nest
Oakland Zoo staff start treatment on Condor #444 "Ventana"
Oakland Zoo staff start treatment on Condor #444 "Ventana"
Big Sur wildflowers
Big Sur wildflowers
Trash clean-up and sea shell placement for condor chicks
Trash clean-up and sea shell placement for condor chicks

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.

This month, a new partner joined the condor effort; the Oakland Zoo began treating lead poisoned condors from the field. Now, we have two places to treat sick condors, Oakland and LA Zoo. Until recent all lead poisoned condors were driven 6 hours south to LA Zoo for treatment, twice as long as a trip to Oakland Zoo. This drive time difference could be critical when we are transporting a very sick bird. You can watch birds that are being treated for lead poisoning at the Oakland Zoo on their new web cam. We extend a very big thank you to both Oakland and LA zoo for all their help in treating our sick wild condors.

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,
The VWS Condor Crew

Notes from the Field

April 2014

Condor #167 egg and micro-trash found at nestCondor #167 egg and micro-trash found at nest
Condor #729 checkup
Condor #729 checkup
Condor #729 chick checkup
Condor #729 chick checkup
RIP Condor #400
RIP Condor #400

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.

After exploring the southern Big Sur range for almost two weeks after her release, Condor #646, aka "Kodama," finally decided to follow Condor #208 north and head back to the release site to eat!! Upon her arrival she quickly found other birds her age and headed straight for an open spot at a carcass. After a young Condor is released one of the first success "benchmarks" we look for is that the bird feeds relatively soon and begins socializing to integrate into the flock. We could not be more proud of her!

Shortly after Condor #646 returned to our release site, we released her fellow cohort member #631. The crew decided to name him "Zephyr," which means, "a west or a light wind." We named him this because of the short, meandering flights he took during the couple of weeks he went exploring before his return to the release slope. After taking it all in for 19 days (and making VWS biologists a little nervous in the process) Condor #631 finally made it back to our release site to feed and get to know other Condors. He seems to be adjusting well to his new life, and we wish him well in his transition.

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!
In other good news, we have even more new additions to our flock. After monitoring the nests of Condors #219/#310 and #168/#208, we were determined that both pairs have hatched chicks! Towards the end of the month, VWS, Pinnacles National Park (PNP), and LA Zoo Condor staff made a joint effort to enter these two nests to check on the health of the chicks. Both chicks appeared healthy and growing normally. Welcome to the flock Condor #739 and Condor #729, we are excited to see you growing up!!!

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.

The end of this month marks the start of the spring trap up season. Wish us luck!

Until Next Time,
The VWS Condor Crew
Big Sur, CA

Notes from the Field

March 2014

Condor 400 & 569 share a snag
Condor 400 & 569 share a snag
Condor 646 waiting for her release
Condor #646 waiting for her release
Condor and Raven in the rain
Condor and Raven in the rain
Flight pen maintenance
Flight pen maintenance

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.

At the very end of the month however, our staff biologists ascended the redwood nest that is home to Condors #168 and #208 expecting to find an egg and were astounded to find a recently hatched chick!!! Kudos to this pair for pulling it off. This was also one of the earliest hatch dates on record for the Central California flock. Condors 219 and 310 weren't far behind though, their chick hatched just a few days after 168 and 208. The 2014 season has been one of the driest on record for California, so maybe this played a role in the early season hatches.

On the 25th this month our first release of the year took place. Condor #646 made an excellent transition to the wild. The crew is calling her, "Kodama," which means "Forest Spirit" in Japanese. This name is particularly fitting for #646 since she was originally hatched and raised in a Coast Redwood nest tree before being transferred to the LA zoo due to her wing injury. Watch her release here- RELEASE VIDEO. We wish her continued success as she "spirits" away with the wind over her redwood forest home.

Lastly, we have had so much monitoring success and public outreach and monitoring success with our release slope web cam that we installed another web cam at the bottom of the release slope to focus specifically on the release pen and adjacent feeding areas. Introducing our second new CONDOR PEN CAM.

That's it for now… Until next month ~
The Condor Crew

Notes from the Field

February 2014

Condor #477
Condor #477

Condors hanging out at the Sanctuary

Nesting Condor #209 displays to female #231

The new kids on the block

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 VWS Crew

Notes from the Field

January 2014

A helicopter replaces electric wires in Big Sur
A helicopter replaces electric wires in Big Sur
Work party!
Installing fencing at new feeding site
Sea perch for two!
Sea perch for two
Work party!
Work party!

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~
Until next time, The Condor Crew


Notes from the Field

Archived Condor field notes dating back to 1999

 


In-flight species comparison chart

In-flight species comparison chart - Print a copy to take with you when looking for condors

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