Autumn is in full swing, and with it comes new challenges. Two weeks ago I had to leave Hopper Mountain NWR early to beat an impending rainstorm that threatened to make the windy dirt roads impassable, an event that would have left me stranded at the bunk house for several days. The nights have been getting colder as well, and the fall colors are beginning to appear in the foliage.
The condors are all doing well and we are continuing to monitor the nestlings, who are all approaching the time when they make their first flight and leave the nest! We already had our first fledgling make his maiden voyage from Hutton’s Bowl, which can be seen here in this video:
Even after fledging the chicks will rely on their parents for supplemental feedings for months or even a year after, in which we will still keep careful tabs on them. As for the chicks who are still waiting for their big moment, we continue to hike out to the nest sites and conduct intensive observations of them.
I had a very cool, albeit slightly disconcerting, experience one day while doing a four hour observation at one of our more remote nest sites at Hopper Mountain. I was staring through my scope at the nest on the other side of the canyon when I heard what sounded like a small aircraft flying overhead. As the shadow passed over me I looked up and saw the nine foot wingspan of a condor circling just twenty feet above my head! It was #594, the father of the chick, effortlessly soaring above and curiously checking me out to make sure that I posed no threat to his offspring. It was an exhilarating experience, but also slightly uncomfortable knowing that I was cornered on the edge of a cliff with nowhere to go should he decide to land and show aggression.
While I have been observing the different birds throughout the refuges, I have gotten to know many of them by their different behaviors or social status in the flock. Each bird has a vinyl tag with a unique color and number to identify the individual. The tag color corresponds to the hundreds place, so for example the 300’s birds all have blue tags, where a blue 26 tag codes for condor #326. Here is a brief look at some of our birds:
Condor #20 (AC-4)
20 is one of the original 22 wild birds captured in the 1980’s and brought into captivity to kick start an intensive captive breeding program for the recovery effort. He was only five years old at the time of capture. Today he is the oldest member of our flock at 38 years old (the condor lifespan is up to 60 years)! He has sired many offspring, playing a critical part in boosting his species population. This year he is raising a chick with #654 in the rugged Santa Barbara backcountry. You go #20!
Here is a good post by USFWS about 20’s bio:
328 is our most dominant bird, sometimes nicknamed “The Bully of Bitter Creek”. He establishes the pecking order at every condor congregation by chasing off subordinates when they don’t wait their turn. He controls who gets to perch on top of the flight pen, who gets to take a bath, and who gets to feed at a carcass first. 328 is never overtly aggressive with the intention to injure or kill another bird, but he will chase or nip at those who disobey condor etiquette. Condors are incredibly social animals and have a well-established hierarchy where usually everyone knows their place. Other than the occasional scuffle, they do not engage in violent behavior. On the contrary, allopreening, or mutual grooming to establish social bonds, is more common.
895 is one of our younger birds, having hatched in April, 2017. He is the offspring of the dominant pair, 328 and 216. 895 still sometimes wing begs when around his parents, and I’ve personally seen him get fed by his father, 328 on two different occasions. At eighteen months old, he is perfectly capable of fending for himself but when given the chance he will assume the role of a needy baby. 895 is testament to just how much parental investment can go into raising a young condor.
Condor #949 (“X”)
949 has a particularly interesting background story. 949 hatched in January of last year, unbeknownst to our biologists. The nest was in a difficult-to-access cave known as “Hole in the Wall” and the parents, 467 and 576, were very secretive about their nesting habits so nobody even knew that they had laid an egg. After a few months, our team started seeing an untagged bird flying around Hopper Mountain—a “ghost bird” without an identity. After some head scratching the team figured out that the bird was a new fledgling and set about trying to capture it. Upon capture, there were no numbered tags ready for use, so a black makeshift tag with the bold letter “X” was attached to the bird’s wing. Today this young bird is known by her new number, 949 but many of us still affectionately refer to her as X.