Posted at 4:09 pm October 20, 2008 by Yadira Galindo
One year after the Witch Creek wildfire burned the a condor breeding aviary at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, keepers Debbie Marlow and Sheila Murphy released a female California condor into the rebuilt facility. On Oct. 20, 2007 five California condors and two Andean condors were safely evacuated from the Wild Animal Park 12 hours before the fire burned through sections of the Park leaving the structure in piles of ash and melted metal. On Monday Ojja, the female condor, and her mate, Simerrye, were returned to their home along with an Andean condor pair and their 8-month-old chick.
Posted at 4:03 pm October 8, 2008 by Yadira Galindo
High on the top of a burnt redwood tree sits a nest large enough to hold a California condor. The tree lays in the path of this summer’s devastating wildfire that scorched thousands of acres in Big Sur, California, and in this case condor territory. The fire threatened the three condor nests in the area, each with a chick. The nest in the redwood felt the most heat – literally. Two chicks were accounted for soon after the fire, but for several weeks condor biologists couldn’t get to the nest to see if the chick in the redwood tree had survived. The outlook looked grim when biologists saw the redwood tree from a helicopter, burned nearly to the top. The paths were impassable for quite some time, but when the parent condors returned to the nest it was a good sign. The field biologists were optimistic because the parents would not return to a nest if the chick was dead. Recently, biologists with the Ventana Wildlife Society and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service climbed the three and got their first look at the surviving chick – a miracle in the depth of a devastating wildfire.
Posted at 4:34 pm October 1, 2008 by Yadira Galindo
Condor No. 336 died of lead poisoning in September despite the efforts of wildlife biologists to save the 4-year-old bird. The loss of this bird to lead poisoning is tragic as she was just about to reach breeding age. The loss of even one California condor, when the population is just a little more than 330 birds, is devastating to the California Condor Recovery Program.
Condor 336 hatched at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park in April 2004. She was released at Pinnacles National Monument three years ago. On Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008 biologists with the Ventana Wildlife Society were monitoring the condors in Big Sur, California. Immediately they knew something was wrong with No. 336. Over the course of three days they attempted to catch the bird to perform a health evaluation. On Sept. 5, in cooperation with the National Parks Service, a Ventana biologist caught the condor. She was rushed for veterinary care in Monterey and later transported to the Los Angeles Zoo where veterinarians have successfully treated condors for lead poisoning.
A few days later condor 336 died. The bird had already been underweight by the time she was caught. Her health had been compromised badly and she was not able to recover despite the heroic efforts of the biologists and veterinarians. Her death is not a loss for the California Condor Recovery Program. It is a loss for Californians and for North America.
The California condor is North America’s largest bird. This species was found from British Columbia to Baja California, Mexico when pioneers arrived on our shores. The birds began to loose ground quickly. The population dwindled to approximately 20 birds in the 1980s, but thanks to the efforts of conservationists and biologists the number has increased to more than 300 birds today. For this reason the loss of one bird hurts the efforts of this species’ recovery, but it should also affect us. We’ve made every effort to recover the California condor so let’s protect it and help reduce problems like lead poisoning from our environment.
To learn more about how lead poisoning affects the condor, click here.
When people hear about California condors at a captive breeding facility, they understandably assume that all birds there are involved in breeding pairs, or are chicks waiting to be released to the wild. In actuality, one of the most important roles a captive condor can play is the job of mentor.
A mentor is an adult or subadult bird that acts as a type of coach for the younger birds waiting to be released. Condors are very social, often perching, feeding, traveling, and roosting in groups. To perform well in a group, one needs to know how to interact with others. For our parent-reared chicks, the parents play this role, showing them where to perch/roost, when to avoid trouble, how to compete for food, and what areas are acceptable feeding sites. But for the chicks that have to be reared by a puppet, another mentor must be employed – because, after all, no matter how skilled a condor keeper may be with a puppet, we don’t know how to teach a bird to be a bird!
The mentor we use at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park is a 12-year-old female named Itaxmay (pronounced “ee-TOCKS-may”). Itaxmay was hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo in April 1996 and her studbook number is 141. Her name is a Chumash word meaning “to be surprised.” Before she hatched, the keepers at the LA Zoo noticed that she was positioned improperly in the shell. Her head was positioned in a way that always results in the chick suffocating before it hatches. The keepers were able to assist in the hatching, thus saving her life! When she hatched, her family was underrepresented in the condor population, so the decision was made to not release her and to use her in a breeding pair when she matured.
In December 1996, she moved to the Wild Animal Park, and has been here ever since. As the release program grew and protocols evolved, we needed properly behaved birds to be mentors for recently fledged chicks. A few of the subadults were targeted for this role, but none showed more potential than Itaxmay. She was always uninterested in approaching the keepers, often acting frightened of our presence. She always competed well during feeding with her penmates and was never overly aggressive in her interactions. In 2000, Itaxmay was housed with her first cohort of release candidates.
Itaxmay turned out to be a great mentor. She was firm with the youngsters, but never tormented them. She would displace or move the kids just enough to show them who was in charge. By being displaced by a more experienced bird, the fledglings were learning how to best interact with older birds. Eventually, when they learned “the rules,” they would perch, feed, and roost with Itaxmay. This behavior has proven invaluable for birds that are released to the wild. The field biologists have reported that condors that are not socialized well often die, disappear, or have to be returned to captivity for behavioral reasons.
Itaxmay is currently housed with three youngsters waiting to be shipped to Baja California. This will be the last group of release candidates she will mentor. In early October 2008, we will be shipping her back to the Los Angeles Zoo. The California Condor Recovery Team has decided that it’s time for Itaxmay to contribute to the Recovery Program in a different capacity. She will be paired with a male condor, named Sequoia. So even though, we at the Park are losing a terrific mentor, the Condor Program is gaining an exciting new member to the breeding population. There is no doubt that Itaxmay and Sequoia will be producing excellent little release candidates in the near future!
Posted at 9:56 am September 24, 2008 by Bird Keeper
Like the other ten California condor eggs laid this season, egg #0810 was pulled to artificial incubation so its progress could be closely monitored. On day 8 of incubation, the signs of a possible embryo malposition (upside-down, opposite of what is normal) were noted in the records.
On day 53, we candled the egg to check its progress. We were excited to hear “clicking” which is the sound emitted when the chick is breathing in the air cell. We were unsure of the chick’s position so we decided to radiograph the egg as a precaution and to confirm its position in the egg. On day 54 we carefully placed the egg in a portable brooder and took it to the hospital where radiographs confirmed an upside-down malposition. We were ready to manually pip the egg on day 55, but the chick pipped on its own!
After 72 hours of carefully observing the chick’s progress, which was minimal, it was time to help our little chick out of its shell. We carefully pulled pieces of the shell away, checking for active blood vessels, there were none. Once the egg was capped, instead of the chick sliding out of the egg, it was still tightly stuck and we had to remove more shell to free the chick from the egg. Much to our surprise the yolk sac was completely drawn into the abdomen and the seal was puffy, but good. The chick also had a small laceration on the top of its beak from trying so hard to free itself from its egg. We had an adorable, healthy condor chick!
All of our hard work and stringent protocols really paid off for egg #0810. We named him “Awexa” which means “bee” in Barbareno Chumash. He is now 112 days old and is very energetic and enthusiastic. Soon he will receive his numbered wing tags, and be fledged into a pen with “Pismo” and three other puppet reared chicks. “Pismo” is our mentor condor, who will teach our young cohort how to act like a condor. Sometime next spring or summer the four chicks will be shipped to the Baja California release site where they will be released into the wild.
Posted at 12:47 pm September 23, 2008 by Bird Keeper
Exciting times with the Wild Animal Park’s condor conservation program! This year’s chicks are getting bigger and stronger, and the people doing the toughest work now are those rebuilding our burnt down facility. It took some time to get all the insurance issues and clean up taken care of, but since the construction started it has been going a thousand miles per hour.
The two-story central structure of the facility, which includes the keeper service area, 4 nest boxes, and 4 chick-rearing pens, is now plumbed, wired, and ready for insulation and dry wall. The new and improved pools in our 4 flight pens are completed and ready to be filled with water. All of this is currently engulfed in web-like scaffolding that will be used to install support poles and hang the wire for the outside flight pens.
The rebuilding of this facility has been very exciting for us keepers from the beginning. We were able to provide input on some of the details of the building; many of which were just simple things that we wished had been different in the old one. Some of these improvements include a more natural building exterior, and drains in the chick pens and nest boxes to make cleaning easier. The construction crew has welcomed our input every step of the way to ensure that the details of the facility are built to be the most functional for their daily use.
The goal, set soon after the Witch Creek Fire destroyed our old condor facility, was to have the new facility ready to house condors by the beginning of October 2008. This timing is crucial because courtship displays are usually first observed towards the end of October. As the weeks go by and construction continues, it appears that our goal will be reached.
On our second day in Big Sur, Calif. we traveled to the Ventana Wildlife Society’s base camp to meet the staff and see the damage from the summer wildfires. As we changed gears into 4×4, we began to see veins of vegetation surrounded by scorched earth or ash everywhere. How did the fire decide to burn this section but not the next? It moved like a river, meandering through the hillsides. Even in August, there was still ash several inches deep.
We stopped periodically along the mountainsides looking for what was turning out to be a very elusive bird—the California condor. We saw small animals and a variety of small birds throughout, an indicator that some life survived the fire, or perhaps that life was slowly returning to normal. We encountered animal tracks. It appeared that a wild pig had recently been through the area, with what looked like a mountain lion following it. I guess we were not the only ones on the chase.
Upon arriving at the Ventana Wildlife Society’s condor base camp, we were awestruck. The fire’s rage and its discrimination in what did and did not remain standing was unmistakable. The staff cabin was left standing, although some windows cracked with the intensity of the heat. The ground was burned literally a few feet from the cabin, but a few storage units were reduced to piles of melted metal, forming eclectic artwork. A mosquito tent used to enjoy lunch outdoors stood vigilant. I assumed that it was new and had been placed there after the fire, but I was wrong.
In fact, Ventana Wildlife Society staff members and guests had been having lunch in that very spot the day the fire began. Kelly Sorenson, executive director for the society, said the day began with beautiful clear skies. Without warning, lightning began to strike the ground, far too close for comfort. The group packed up and decided to head out of the mountains for safety, and it turned out to be a lifesaving move. Hear it in Kelly’s own words by clicking here.
After listening to the story of how the condors in the nearby holding pens were rescued, we began a descent out of the mountains, hoping to find the now irritatingly elusive condors. Time and time again we spotted turkey vultures, and I was giving up hope. On one patch of scenic mountainside, I could see the ocean. I was admiring the view when I saw two large black birds. I figured they were turkey vultures, but I pointed them out to the others just in case. I was right. But since we had stopped, we got off the cars to look around. And there below us were four California condors flying near the coastline. Yes!
I have seen California condors flying in Baja California, Mexico, but this was beyond words. You could see the birds using thermals to get higher and higher. “They’re coming to see us,” said Kelly. “They’re going to come check us out.” Sure enough, they did. They flew over our heads time and time again, then continued higher up the mountains before they disappeared. It was magnificent. It was truly an amazing scene—North America’s largest flying bird with the most spectacular backdrops of pines, redwoods, and the glistening Pacific coast. It was 3 p.m. on day two before we finally saw the birds, but even if we didn’t see another condor, it was enough. The image will be forever with me.
Luckily, however, it wasn’t our only chance. When we arrived on Highway 1, we spotted more condors perched in a pine tree on a cliff over the ocean. It was 5 p.m. at this point, and they were getting ready to settle in for the day. But before they did, the birds began to fly from one tree to another, giving us the opportunity to capture a few more images of these large birds in flight.
As we stood there with our cameras and binoculars in hand, other cars pulled off the road and people asked us, did you find a condor? It was amazing that people from Italy, South America, and Holland stopped and knew exactly what we were doing. They knew of the plight of the California condor and they wanted to see this endangered species for themselves. With only 150 condors in the wild, seeing this bird flying is a unique experience not shared by the rest of the world. I feel very lucky to be part of this great conservation story and even luckier to have seen this bird fly in my own backyard.
It has been quite surreal and a nightmarish déjà vu for keepers here at the Wild Animal Park to see all that our Condor Partners from the Ventana Wildlife Society have been through in the last couple of months because of the Basin Fire in the Big Sur area.
It seems like it was just yesterday that we were walking through our incinerated Condor Facility after the Witch Creek fire, wondering a million and one “What Ifs” while at the same time feeling immensely thankful that were we able to get all our birds out in time. Read the rest of this entry »