4:00 a.m.…20 degrees F… total darkness… total silence… the crystalline stillness of an isolated alpine wilderness in winter. Nothing for company but me and the smelly carcass of an old goat that has been chained to the rocks just outside my camouflaged blind. Condors are late risers, preferring to sun themselves and preen on their roosts until the morning has warmed their wings and the thermal air currents that enable them to soar for hours without a single wing flap.
At every stage of the condor conservation management and reintroduction program, great care is taken to prevent condors from associating humans with food. Otherwise, the insatiable curiosity of these birds will inevitably lead them into trouble and into garbage dumpsters and alleyways looking for an easy meal. Hence, we get up unseen under the cover of darkness to shift the carcasses that we have sourced the day before to an escarpment where we know the condors can later “find” a recently dead animal for brunch.
I am in this blind with the carcass outside waiting for the condors to arrive so that I can ground-truth the location data we receive from the GPS-tags attached to the birds wings and analyze the dominance hierarchy (or pecking order) of their social structure. That way we will be able to interpret the birds spatial patterns and habitat use within the context of the lurid soap opera that is the condor’s social system.
One-way glass in the walls of the blind lets me peer out into the condor’s world without them analyzing me back. With a few more hours to go before it is anticipated that the birds will start arriving to check out the meal we have left for them, I check that my camera, binoculars, and field gear are all in order then settle down to snatch a few moments of snooze as the sun begins to splash over the horizon.
Was that the rustling of an animal outside or just my imagination playing sleepy tricks? No, that’s definitely something moving. Or, should I say something munching? Far too early for a condor! I creep over to the view port to check out the carcass. Not a condor, a bobcat (top photo). A very appealing critter but an unwanted guest at our condor “restaurant”; we’re here to feed the critically endangered birds, after all. Bobcats are extremely cautious and wary animals but their presence at a carcass will deter any condor from coming down to feed. Indeed, a bobcat will have a go at a condor if given the opportunity and one of our birds is sans a few tail feathers from just such an encounter.
I open the door to the blind to quickly scare the bobcat off the carcass before I’m spotted by the condors, but with a flash it is gone before I can even say,
“Boo!” Back inside. Back to snoozing. Less than an hour later: same munching noise from outside. Back outside to scare off the same bobcat. And yet again, half an hour later. The third time scaring the bobcat was the trick and it didn’t reappear. Unfortunately, a couple of coyotes then decided to check out the tantalizing odors wafting from our goaty condor treat. Unlike the bobcat, the coyotes couldn’t get through the fence surrounding our condor compound and onto the carcass. However, their presence would be more than enough to scare off the birds. This morning, will the birds stop by to feed and will I have the chance to observe their behavior? More to come on the adventures in the blind!
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