Greetings! This is my first blog post, and what more of a worthy first post than an account of my first month working with the critically endangered California condor? In August I began my six-month internship as an AmeriCorps volunteer, working in collaboration with Great Basin Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I am a field technician, aiding USFWS biologists in the recovery of the condor which involves radio-tracking wild birds, caring for captive pre-release birds, and monitoring nests in the mountains of Southern California. It is an absolute privilege to work with this amazing bird, and be part of one of the most well-known successful conservation efforts in the country, and indeed the world. I use the word “successful” because without human intervention in the 1980’s the species would almost certainly be extinct today; however, there is still much work to do to ensure the condor’s continued survival. And that’s where I come in!
So let me back up and give a brief synopsis on the natural history of the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus). The story begins in the last Ice Age– the Pleistocene– when large mammals like mammoths and giant ground sloths roamed the North American landscape. Big beasts called for big scavengers and condors were the prehistoric cleanup crew. Several species are thought to have soared over the Americas but today there are only two extant species: one in the American West and one in the South American Andes. Both species feed exclusively on dead animals, or carrion, and they have a very dynamic social hierarchy that dictates who gets to feed first at a kill. They can soar for hundreds of miles in a single day searching for food, using their keen eyesight and acute sense of smell to hone in on a carcass. The California condor was historically known to fly over vast areas of coastline, congregating at whale carcasses that had washed up on the beach. Once dominating the skies searching for carrion, the condor would quickly become one of many species to suffer rapid declines with the influx of humans to the landscape.
As American explorers and settlers began heading west in the 19th Century, North America’s largest bird began to disappear. The newcomers killed the birds for food and inadvertently poisoned them by leaving the lead-contaminated carcasses of their quarry out on the landscape where the birds could come and feed. By the early 1900’s it was clear that the California condor was on its way to extinction but it wasn’t until the 1930’s that serious scientific research and conservation efforts were taken for the species. In the early 1980’s the population dwindled so low that many thought there was no hope for this Ice Age relic and extinction was inevitable, but after an intense period of political debate the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to capture every surviving individual to begin a captive breeding colony. In 1987, the last bird was caught and brought into captivity at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. At the time there were 22 birds on the planet and zoos had had, up until then, mixed success breeding the species in captivity—this truly was a Hail Mary for the species. The failure of the captive breeding program would mean the extinction of a bird that had lived for thousands of years.
Through intensive husbandry efforts the captive population began to slowly increase. Starting in the 90’s the first birds were released back into the wild. In the early 2000’s the first successful nesting attempts in the wild were observed. Careful monitoring and breeding have yielded a current population of about 500 birds- half of which are flying wild over Southern and Central California, Baja, and the Grand Canyon region. About 30 years after the capture of the last wild condor, I find myself working on this historic program in the midst of true conservation heroes.
I am stationed at the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex in the mountains north of Los Angeles, the epicenter of the recovery program and the site where the last wild birds were captured in the 80’s. While on hitch, I stay at one of two wildlife refuges for ten days at a time, each with its different sceneries and tasks. Hopper Mountain NWR is a rugged landscape with rocky outcroppings, tall mountains covered in chaparral, and deep river canyons, while Bitter Creek NWR is a semiarid high-elevation grassland at the transition zone between the Coastal Ranges and the Great Central Valley. Our program oversees over 80 birds, some of which are currently in the care of the Los Angeles Zoo for various health checkups and medical procedures. Most of these birds are flying wild, but we currently have a few birds in the Bitter Creek Flight Pen, awaiting release into the wild.
A typical day at Hopper Mountain NWR entails me driving up to the condor ridge observation point (CROP) and taking a set of radio signals with my yagi antenna and receiver. Nearly every bird has a VHF radio-transmitter attached to a feather on one or both wings. These transmitters are tuned to a specific frequency, that when detected by the receiver, they emit a consistent beeping signal. By turning my yagi in the direction of the bird, the beeping becomes louder. I call this part of my day the “radio ballet” because I stand poised with my yagi in the air, pivoting on point trying to detect the radio signals bouncing across the landscape. Sometimes these radio transmitters fall off of the birds and we must search for them. Unfortunately for us the birds tend to drop them in deep canyons or in snags surrounded by impenetrable shrubs of poison oak. My first week at Bitter Creek I was able to track down one transmitter at the base of a tree where the bird had been perching, but I’ve searched for others since that were too difficult or dangerous to obtain. Most of the birds have high-tech GPS units as well so it is not the end of the world if a transmitter is lost.
My other major task at Hopper is to hike out to observation points in the mountains to observe this year’s nests. This year we have had six successful nests, four of which are in and around Hopper Mountain NWR. Some of these nests require bushwhacking through dense vegetation and along steep cliff sides. Ahhh what we do for our beautiful birds! At the nest, which is always a cave in the side of a rocky cliffside, we observe the behavior of the chick and its parents, making notes of anything of concern. The biggest threats to condor chicks are predation and ingestion of micro-trash. Condor parents bring their young bones for calcium supplements but they often confuse shiny items of trash as bones. If the chick swallows too much micro-trash, the digestive system becomes impacted and the chick can starve to death. We watch for signs of this and any strange behaviors that the chick or parents might exhibit. Right now, most of our chicks have crossed the 120 day benchmark and are exercising their wings in preparation to fledge (leave the nest). In another month or two many of them will have fledged. However, even after fledging the chicks will still rely on their parents for supplemental feeding for several months. In fact, I have seen one young bird, who is well over a year old, approach his father and beg for food until his father obliged. This long and drawn out infancy, as well as the huge investment of parental care and low reproductive rate—condors only ever lay one egg at a time under natural conditions—has a time limiting factor on the recovery of this species. Still, we are doing everything we can to boost the nest success rate.
At Bitter Creek NWR one of my major tasks is to care for and monitor the birds we keep in the flight pen. Every other day while I’m there I spend four hours in an adjacent blind, recording their behaviors and making notes on their health status. While in the blind I often observe free-flying birds visiting the pen, as most of them were once housed here and it’s a familiar area for them to hang out. Often times while watching the antics of these great birds, I am struck by how similar they look to their ancestors, the dinosaurs. It’s almost a little unnerving when the wild birds land on top of the hide and noisily hop across the corrugated tin roof above my head. It’s even creepier when I have to go into the enclosure to clean the water at night and though I can’t see the birds with my dimmed headlamp, I can hear and feel their massive wingbeats as they fly right over my head. Just me and twelve gigantic vultures in an enclosed space at night—sounds like a scene that could come straight from a certain Alfred Hitchcock film!
Feeding the birds in the flight pen is an interesting affair. Once a hitch I go on what we call a “dairy run” in which I drive to a bunch of nearby dairy farms and stop at their designated carcass dumps, scrounging for suitable carcasses to bring back to our birds. I’m looking for a very specific food item: fresh stillborn calves with gel caps on their hooves, indicating they never lived long enough to stand on their legs and receive hormone or antibiotic injections. I take the calf carcasses back to Bitter Creek, wash them off and cut holes into their hind legs to tether them to the ground, and then store them inside a giant freezer until I’m ready to feed the birds. When it’s time to feed, I defrost a calf and haul it out to the flight pen in a wheelbarrow under the cover of darkness. I wear a black poncho so the birds can’t see me and I drop the carcass through a hidden door in the side of the enclosure. The whole process feels like some bizarre ritual, like I’m making a sacrifice to the thunderbird. Maybe I should start studying my Gregorian chants!
Well, so far this has been a summary of my life here on the refuges working with condors. In the next month or two my duties will start to change as we begin releasing our captive birds and capturing our wild birds for health checks and tagging. I’ll continue to post new updates and I promise they won’t all be as long as this one. Until then, Go Condors!