Sunday, March 28, 2010

In Search of Condors

If you have followed the story of the California Condors over the last few decades then you know how close this species came to extinction. I couldn’t even begin to tell the whole story here, but I have provided links to some relevant reading material below. In short, it was over twenty years ago when it was realized that only 22 wild condors were known to be living. At that time a handful of scientists had been tracking the condors in an attempt to reverse the trend and discover their secrets. Their conservation efforts had been failing, and America’s largest bird was still diminishing in numbers. To make matters worse, nobody fully understood why the birds were dying. There were some obvious factors contributing to their death toll. The usual suspects in bird species decline such as habitat destruction and pesticides, but there was still more. As the downward spiral continued, the only thing left for the recovery program to do was to capture the remaining condors in order to study them, and to initiate a controversial captive breeding program in order to save the species from total collapse. It was eventually learned that the major cause of death in wild condors was lead poisoning. The slow accumulation of lead building up to toxic levels was causing their digestive systems to shut down, eventually leading to starvation. But where was all that lead coming from? Studies have proven the primary source to be lead bullets! Condors being scavengers are known to feed on carcasses of dead animals. When hunters indiscriminately shoot wild creatures for the sheer sport of it, using lead bullets, and leave the carcasses or entrails lying around, the condors find them. The impact of the rifling bullet causes fragmentation of the projectile and spreads microscopic fragments of lead throughout the body of the prey. The effect of lead contamination on the unique makeup of the condor’s digestive system renders it paralyzed. Condors are especially susceptible too due to their long life, and slow reproductive rate.

But there have been some encouraging successes for the recovery program(s) to celebrate. The latest being the first wild condor breeding at Pinnacles National Monument in 100 years. Pinnacles, in central California, has been one of the designated release sites for condors from the captive breeding program. The site has miles of high rocky peaks and ledges perfect for condors to live in. Our group had an opportunity to hike up to a view point where the nest is visible, albeit from great distance. We had the privilege of meeting with a talented lady called Jess, who is a biologist with the Pinnacles Condor Program. Jess is a young veteran of the successful Yellowstone wolf project. She and others from the team have been spending a great many hours using a powerful spotting scope to keep an eye on the parenting couple and their nest. Condors breed for life, and all of the released condors at Pinnacles have tags for identification. We were invited to take turns looking into the scope to see the nest, and in this case, the male, sitting on the baby condor. They take turns approximately every 3 days. I don’t know how they did it, but the team actually removed the real egg from the nest, which was discovered to be dead, and replaced it with a viable captive bred egg. This is an important step in their eventual self reliance as it will allow the parent birds to raise a chick in the wild. Something they must re-learn in order for the species to truely survive.

We waited around and spent some time talking to Jess, and eventually were treated to a great spectacle. First, one condor was spotted on the wing far away above where the nest is. It then landed high on the rocks, but another one was spotted still too far away for identification. Soon another large black shape was spotted soaring down below and eventually flew directly in front of our location at about 50 yards; a large adult condor with all the classic markings. That got us pretty excited, but awhile later, two adult condors were spotted soaring along the rocky ledge to the west. They followed the rocks gliding gracefully, and soon came into view directly above us. Their flight path was solid and true with level wings and the classic long, splayed out, flight feathers. Later on there were a total of 4 condors in the sky around us, 2 adults, and two younger birds. Some of them flew so close we could read their tags with the naked eye. We saw tag (3)17, and tag (4)63 for sure. They circled above us as though they were curious, and the group of hikers around us was spellbound. Jess was a flurry of activity as she scrambled to take notes and spot tags. Sue and I were amazed remembering all the times we hiked here before and had not had any condor sightings, and now we were seeing an awesome flying display. Later on as we hiked on to complete the high peaks loop, we spotted more condors on the wing at distance, and saw one land in a tall pine tree. Sue and I sat observing it across a ravine with binoculars while it sat and watched hikers pass below on the trail unaware of the rare bird that was perched above. It was such a great day for watching condors we were almost forgetting to appreciate the landscape and wildflowers all around. This was an unforgettable day on which we had experienced exactly what we came seeking. We could not have scripted it much better. Other local areas where condors are frequently spotted include the Ventana Wilderness, and the Big Sur coast.

Click here to see my pictures on flickr
Click here to see Dave’s pictures on
Recommended book: Return of the Condor by John Moir
Recommended website: Pinnacles Condor Program
Recommended website: Ventana Wildlife Society
Recovery Program Partners and Collaborators links page (Santa Barbara Zoo)

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