This month served to remind the condor community that these birds still face incredible risks in their daily lives. We started the month with high hopes that newly-paired condors 312 and 313 would have a successful nest this year. Instead, the nest was checked in early April and found to be abandoned; at the time, we couldn’t ascertain what had caused the nest failure. A few days later, however, condor 312 dropped out of contact and was not picked up on telemetry for over a week. On April 10, Pinnacles reported that the bird’s carcass had been recovered near Pinnacles National Park. Lead poisoning is a very strong possibility for 312’s death, but the official necropsy is still pending. This would help explain the nest failure; 312 would have been unable to tend to her nest in such a weakened state. This wouldn’t be unprecedented, female condor 303, former mate of 313, died from lead poisoning while tending to a chick at this nest territory in 2009.
Although 340 and 444, another new pair, had started to incubate an egg in February, Pinnacles staff found that both birds were being signaled further and further away from their cavity. A closer inspection of the nest on April 17 found that this nest had failed, most likely after the egg hatched. Pinnacles condor crewmembers will continue to monitor the pair in the hope that the birds find a new nest site to “recycle” and raise another egg.
In better news, the nests in Big Sur have been more stable this season. 171 and 194 have welcomed a foster chick into their care after incubating a dummy egg for about a month. In the days following the chick’s hatching on April 17, the nest observers have seen the chick’s wobbly movements and its first feeding by a parent. We hope that this chick, now known officially as 686, will join our flock as a fledgling in the fall. Already the little bird is growing and is now the size of a small quail!
Although the egg of 222 and 251 was found to be infertile, a nest entry on the 12th of April deposited a dummy egg for their care. The adult birds have been seen going into and out of the cavity since then and we’re pleased to report that the pair is continuing to incubate the artificial egg. We’ll wait for an egg from one of the breeding centers, but we expect that this pair will raise another chick this year if all goes smoothly.
We’ve been observing 190 and 167 attending their nest for the past month or so, but it wasn’t until the 25th of April that the condor team was able to confirm the status of the egg. Joe Burnett and David Moen ascended to the tree cavity to “candle” the egg; this technique involves placing a light source beneath the egg to see if the embryo is visible. If nothing is seen, the egg has not been fertilized and a dummy egg is replaced for the parents to incubate. 190 was flushed and continued to monitor all interactions with her egg with anxious interest. Fortunately, the egg is fertile, and 190 was allowed to settle back on her egg.
Two additional condor nests (pairs 219 & 310 and 345 & 400), both located deep in the Big Sur Backcountry, are steadily moving along. Monitoring these nest sites in the field has been difficult due to their extreme remoteness, and, as a result, we tend to rely more heavily on GPS transmitters to monitor nesting activity. Based on the most recent GPS transmitter data, it appears pair 219 & 310’s egg has hatched; and that pair 345 & 400, our newest pair, and seventh documented nest attempt of the season, are incubating an egg. In summary, thus far, we have documented 7 nest attempts in central California this year and only 2 have failed.
In the middle of April, the condor crew welcomed two visiting biologists, Mark and Chris, who work for the Yurok Tribe and are scoping out the feasibility of releasing condors in northern California. The biologists surveyed the Ventana base camp and our procedures for caring for the flock before heading back North. The team hopes that there will be condors soaring in northern California in the next 5 years.
In the last week of April, the green hillsides of Big Sur turned brown in the sudden heat that has swept the coast. Fire will be a concern this season, and we hope that the flock will weather the drought.
It is with great pride that we have finally released our two captive birds, 597 and 615. They are now the newest members of the Big Sur flock and we look forward to seeing them soaring above the ridges of Ventana Wilderness. 597 chose to enter the double-door trap, or DDT, on the 14th of March and was emancipated with a “soft release.” Instead of forcibly capturing or corralling the target with hand-nets, this method gives the bird more flexibility and less stress when it enters the unencumbered world of free-flying condors. 597 chose to give the team a lesson in tracking as she caught the breeze and flew down the canyon from the get-go. It was over a week before the bird was seen again, but 597 was observed feeding and socializing with other condors on the release slope at the end of March. We have high hopes that she will become accustomed to flying and living on the coast.
The other captive bird, 615, had lost six of his tail feathers due to unusual wear and tear in the flight pen. The loss of these feathers made flight impossible and special treatment was required before his release. Mike Clark came up from the LA Zoo to give the condor a special batch of new feathers with a falconry technique known as “imping.” Mike attached specially-prepared feathers with pieces of wood and glue to 615’s feather stumps to fashion a new tail for the bird. At base camp the next day, 615 was let out into the world and he took to the release slope with confidence and spunk. He immediately marched up the slope and spent the rest of the day socializing with the other birds and observing his new surroundings.
We have several new nests to report for the Big Sur coast: the condor trio consisting of 222, 251, and 306 have been seen entering the cliff cavity at Partington Canyon. Joe Burnett climbed up to the nest cavity on the 22nd of March and confirmed that the egg is present and the nest is active for the season. In addition, a condor was finally viewed in the cavity at Anderson Canyon on March 29th, indicating that 190 and 167 have started to incubate an egg for this year. The McWay nest was reported as failed on the 16th of March but the condor team was able to rescue the nest before the pair gave up for the season. Joe Burnett and David Moen climbed into the cavity on the 18th of March and deposited a dummy egg which 171, “Traveler,” accepted as her own. By replacing the crushed egg with a dummy egg, the team hopes that we can introduce a live egg at a later date. This ensures that a condor is raised in the wild, far more natural than raising a chick in a captive facility. Thus far, both 171 and 194 have been seen incubating the “dummy” egg, indicating that they are still committed to their nest this season.
The warm weather has brought butterflies and flowers to the coast and the Ventana Wilderness, but the meniscus of our rainfall meter hasn’t reached the average level of rainfall for the area, yet. In time, hopefully the skies will bring more rain but for now the hillsides and meadows have shown new shades of green as spring settles across Big Sur.
Condor nesting behavior alone would’ve guaranteed that February was never without a dull moment for the Ventana field crew. Yet, a more accurate synopsis would have to include delightfully warming temperatures, curious and ever-challenging condor behavior, and an industrious trail and facilities maintenance work party with our partners at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
We started February observing atypical behavior from 167 “Kingpin,” the oldest alpha male of the Big Sur flock. Despite his high status, 167 was repeatedly flushed off of carcasses by less dominate birds, like 171 and 199, but not by younger, 400-series birds. This provoked our curiosity as well as our worry. Uncharacteristic behavior from condors may represent hard-to-notice internal injuries, including our worst-feared scenario, lead poisoning. In lieu of trapping a long-time breeding adult and potentially interrupting a nest in the process of being established, we continue to keep a close eye on 167, watching in case his condition appears to worsen.
This month we received great news from Pinnacles National Monument, who recently gained National Park status. On the 14th the Pinnacles crew confirmed that Condors 340 and 444 have a nest with their first egg! This perfectly appropriate Valentine’s Day update marked the first confirmed nest for 2013! As mentioned in the previous post, this newly confirmed pair, 340, or “Kun-Wac-Shun,” and 444, “Ventana,” is quite a “power-couple,” each bringing their own ‘firsts’ with them for central coast Condor history: the first Condor hatched in the Oregon Zoo and the first hatched in the wild in Central California. Although first eggs can often have issues with infertility, we’re crossing our fingers for good news from this pair for rest of the season!
Furthermore, just shy of two weeks later, we had a thrilling update of our own. Condor 194, or “Whalewatcher,” was seen brooding on an egg confirming the fist coastal nest for the year! His mate, 171, “Traveler,” wasn’t far away the entire time, watching as he repositioned it with his beak and adjusted his incubating position over the egg. With these two confirmed nests in Central California, nesting season has officially kicked-off. We anticipate more nest sites will become active as new and old pairs settle into their cave and redwood homes. This is always an exciting time of the year to see how things shape up with our nesting pairs.
Back at our field site, two
big developments kept us busy when we weren’t focusing on the wild flock. First, we hosted the Santa Barbara Zoo (SBZ), to assist us with our on-going facility projects. The SBZ has a small Condor crew but they play a vital role in the program collecting field data and helping out partners like us from time to time. We greatly appreciated having their extra hands to camo-paint our trailers, restore our trails, maintain our water lines and deconstruct our former flight pen that burned down in the massive Basin Complex fire of 2008. A big thanks to those guys for all the major work they helped us achieve!
The other news from our field site is that we attempted to release one of our young captive Condors, 597, into the wild after several long months of being socialized in our flight pen. We attempted a “soft release” which requires her participation, but she refused to willingly leave, requiring that we continue our efforts in March. A soft release is much less stressful to the bird and, thus, the preferred method to directly handling the bird to let it go.
February was jam-packed full Condor news and we’re pretty sure March will be too!
Until then-The Condor Crew
January has brought the blanketing cold of winter interspersed with the warmth of the summer sun. With the variability in the weather, we’ve found that local song birds have oddly begun singing to stake out their territories for the coming breeding season.
Winter is a time for maintenance. Typically during this period of low condor activity we send in our optic equipment to get cleaned and refurbished, we take our field vehicles in for safety inspections and tune ups, and we work on trails and domestic upkeep. This month included pruning back the trail to one of the coastal canyon nest sites in preparation for future nest observations and entries. The nest tree was entered briefly to conduct safety checks on the climbing system and inspect the nest cavity in anticipation of an egg in the coming months.
Male condors have been displaying in greater numbers recently; Condors 345 and 340 in particular have been eager to find a mate, so we’re hopeful that more nesting pairs will form this season. “Kun-Wac-Shun,” Condor 340, has been seen courting Condor 444, “Ventana,” this year. As you probably know these are both very special birds. Ventana is the first Condor to hatch and fledge as a completely wild and free Condor in the Central California flock. It remains to be seen if they will form a pair bond, but if they do decide to nest together this year it would be a power-couple in the making with two major firsts under each of their belts- first Condor hatched in Oregon and first Condor hatched in the wild in Central California. Let’s all wish them luck!
We trapped a number of birds this month, including 311, 345, 194, and 501. New transmitters and tags were finally attached to 501, who has been “stealth” for over a month and a half and has eluded our trapping efforts. We were relieved to find that none of the birds trapped in the new year had high lead levels; fortunately they were trapped, processed and released all on the same day! With the recent Condor lead deaths (298 and 318) last year, it’s critical to test blood lead levels, especially with nesting season fast approaching since a lethal dose requires immediate evacuation to the LA Zoo for chelation to remove the toxins. Thus far, no birds have had to be treated and we’re crossing our fingers that it stays that way as long as possible in 2013.
Our quest continues to capture the elusive, untagged fledgling from last year’s most remote backcountry nesting territory: 209 and 236’s chick 663. This bird was finally seen on the release slope after 49 days of no observations on the 23rd. As 209 and 236 continue to aid her acceptance into the larger flock, we hope we will trap 663 for new tags and a radio transmitter soon. 664 took her first flight to the release slope this month and continued to grow under the close watch of 306 and 251! 665, has also been doing well, although he has not decided to leave his natal canyon yet.
These winter months continue to bring slippery roads and rock slides. While tracking Condors coming around a big turn on Hwy 1, they found a car flipped around and smashed blocking traffic in the on-coming lane. They were the first responders and waited with the shaken driver that they found sitting by the side of the road while the ambulance arrived. She seemed alright, but it was one more vivid reminder to us all to drive carefully even as you enjoy the views! Before you head to Big Sur, always check out the latest on Highway 1 closures and other activity at the Cal Trans web site- http://www.dot.ca.gov/cgi-bin/roads.cgi
Until next time- be safe in Big Sur and enjoy the Condors!
The Condor Crew