Big Progress at Santa Barbara Zoo Condor Exhibit

Posted at 5:32 pm February 10, 2009 by admin

I couldn’t be more excited about the progress we’ve made in the construction of the Santa Barbara Zoo’s new Condor Country exhibit. It really is coming along – to the point that we are ready to receive birds.

The exhibit’s rockwork are really works of art. We took fabricators from out to the Sespe area to see the type of cliffs where the wild condors nest. They took pictures and have managed to capture the distinctive coloration of that area. I told the the fabricators to get good pictures of the rockwork now, before it gets added coloration – in the form of condor whitewash!

The rockwork “cave” has three small jagged-framed windows that the public can use to view birds inside or near the entrance. The rest of the exhibit is viewed through mesh, from upper viewing area on two different levels, and from the boardwalk below, looking up the hillside. The inside of the exhibit is quite steep and we’ve had to stabilize soil prior to landscaping to keep it in place during the winter rains. We’ll remove the erosion prevention material before the birds get in the exhibit – though it is biodegradable, the birds could mess with it in a variety of ways.

One 25-foot and one 35-foot fabricated snag have been installed and the existing oak and redwood trees have been pruned. These, along with the rock work elements, provide for a variety of perching opportunities while still allowing significant glide paths. All the exterior stainless steel mesh is installed, having been hand “sewn” in place by workers. The structure supporting the mesh is exterior to the exhibit, making all the walls “elastic like” and without hard elements.

The new condor holding area has two large rooms that are ready for their new residents. We’ve made sure that the spaces are as flexible as possible, to give us plenty of options for facilitating introductions (through mesh openings) and managing the birds with the exhibit. There are actually two management spaces attached to the exhibit that will provide us with ample management flexibility.

The California Trails area, that the condors are a part of, also features other local endangered species, such as the Channel Island fox. Their renovated exhibit is on a steep hillside and is actually comprised of two separate outside spaces. They may have been hard to spot in the old, shady exhibit space – but their new space should provide them with comfortable spaces that are also very visible. We will continue our breeding program for these foxes, found only on the islands off the Santa Barbara coast, visible from our Zoo’s hilltop.

Our bald eagles will also have a renovated exhibit to return to. Today as I was walking through, workers were pruning the huge trees in the exhibit (and they sure did need it). One of our eagles likes to perch up high, and this will give him even more places to land. It will also be sunnier and allow for more air flow in and around the exhibit. Both of our eagles suffered injuries in the wild that have eliminated the possibility of returning to their native habitat.

The curbs for the walkways have all been poured and the adjacent new desert tortoise exhibit space is taking shape. We’ve decided to add some large lizard species to the exhibit, so we curved the exhibit walls inwards and smoothed them to keep the critters from escaping.

Construction is underway on several prefabricated exhibits for a small building once used for desert reptiles. The new exhibits showcase endangered amphibians found in the Los Padres National Forest, such as the red-legged frog. We’re involved in the conservation programs of these species and wanted the public to be able to see them.

Rich Block, our Zoo CEO, liked the rockwork on the condor exhibit so much, he asked workers to create some rocks on the exterior of this exhibit as well, tying it visually to the rest of the exhibit.

Our opening date for California Trails is tentatively set for Wednesday, April 22 – Earth Day. I’ll post a few times so you can follow our progress.

Alan Varsik, Assistant Zoo Director

Biologists Locate Dead Condor Chick in Big Sur

Posted at 1:05 pm December 22, 2008 by admin

For Immediate Release:
December 22, 2008
Big Sur, California

Biologists from Ventana Wildlife Society’s condor recovery project in Big Sur made a grim discovery on Sunday, Dec. 21.  They found the lifeless body of a wild California Condor chick lying in thick brush beneath a tall stand of redwoods, only one half mile from it’s coastal nest site.  The wild male chick, known as No. 475, was recently observed making short flights in the nest area, which is normal behavior for a 9-month-old condor.  Condor No. 475 was wearing a radio tag that alerted biologists there was trouble when it began emitting a mortality signal on the morning of Dec. 21. Ventana Wildlife Society biologists, Mike Tyner and Jessica Koning, tracked the signal through thick brush into a very steep coastal ravine and finally located the chick lying motionless on the ground.  Condor No. 475 will be examined more closely at San Diego Zoo’s pathology lab. The cause of death is unknown at this time.

Condor 475 is one of three wild chicks produced by the wild condor flock in Big Sur this year.  The other two surviving wild chicks, No. 470 and No. 477, continue to grow strong and are a little further along in development.

“It’s always very difficult to lose such a young condor like #475.  We really wish all of the chicks could make it”, commented Joe Burnett, Ventana Wildlife Society senior wildlife biologist.

Last year the Big Sur flock produced two wild condor chicks and one survived, which is expected naturally, a 50 percent survival rate for condor chicks in the wild.  This year three chicks were raised in wild nests and two are still alive.

“While the loss of a wild chick is never easy, we still feel very fortunate to have two of the three chicks surviving in the wild this year,” said Kelly Sorenson, Ventana Wildlife Society executive director.

Ventana Wildlife Society biologists believe that there could be as many as four wild condor chicks just in Big Sur in 2009. The condor population reached an all-time low of 22 in 1982. Through captive breeding and subsequent releases, the total condor population now stands at 326.  In central California, there are 47 free-flying condors (three of which are wild-born).

Phoenix Rising from the Ashes

Posted at 3:41 pm December 19, 2008 by admin

A message from the executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society:

We are excited to share with you a video update on our progress to rebuild our Condor Sanctuary in Big Sur.  To all of you who have supported us through this challenging time, we want to thank you and hope that you watch the video and share it with others.  We want to especially thank Oakland Zoo, Oregon Zoo, San Diego Zoo, San Francisco Zoo, Santa Barbara Zoo, Pinnacles National Monument, and US Fish and Wildlife Service as well as REI, Inc., Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, West Valley Bird Society, South Bay Bird Society, BBR, LLP, Mountain Tools and the many individuals who contributed to the Condor Emergency Fund.

In 2009, we will continue rebuilding the Sanctuary and will work to ensure the safety of wild condor chicks and the entire flock as a whole.  We will continue to protect the birds from threats such as lead poisoning.  Our ultimate goal is to return the condor to the wild so that they can survive on their own again.  As of today, there are 327 condors living and over half of those are in the wild.  In fact, for the first time in the history of the recovery effort there are now more condors in the wild than in captivity.

Kelly Sorenson
Executive Director

Wild-hatched Chicks Add to Growing Flock of California Condors

Posted at 2:15 pm December 16, 2008 by admin


DECEMBER 16, 2008

The Peregrine Fund

BOISE, Idaho - Two California Condor chicks fledged from their nests in the Grand Canyon in December, bringing the world’s population of endangered California Condors now flying free in the wild to 169. This is the first year that there are more condors flying free than are in captivity for breeding purposes.
“This shows that we are making real progress in bringing this ecologically significant bird back from the brink of extinction,” said Bill Heinrich, who oversees the condor recovery program for The Peregrine Fund, a Boise-based conservation organization for birds of prey. “I am thrilled that these two chicks appear to be doing well and I hope they will survive to become productive members of the flock.”
Currently, the total number of California Condors is 327, with 158 in captivity. Of the 169 condors in the wild, 67 are in Arizona and 83 are in California. There also are 19 California Condors flying free in Mexico. The goal is to produce at least 150 members in each of the U.S. populations, including at least 15 breeding pairs.
The Peregrine Fund breeds and produces condors at its World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise and releases them to the wild in northern Arizona. Eight wild condor chicks also hatched this year in California, where a geographically separate population is being produced by zoos, along with The Peregrine Fund.
California Condors are some of the world’s rarest birds. Their numbers had dropped to just 22 individuals when the recovery program began in the 1980s. Because condors eat carrion, they help fulfill the role that scavengers play in the environment by consuming dead animal carcasses that might otherwise spread disease and foul land and water resources.
The Grand Canyon chicks, which hatched in May, were produced by two sets of condor parents nesting in the canyon’s remote ledges and caves. The chicks were first observed testing their wings with short flights in September and October. One of the chicks was produced by the same adult pair that in 2003 hatched the first wild condor chick in the Grand Canyon in more than 100 years. The other chick belongs to first-time parents. The adult female is the last bird remaining from the group that was released when the Arizona
recovery program began in 1996.
This month’s fledglings make a total of nine wild chicks hatched in the Grand Canyon since 1996. Eight are still alive.
The largest survival challenge facing the two new chicks and all condors is lead poisoning from lost or unretrieved remains of animals shot with lead ammunition, Heinrich said. The Peregrine Fund works with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and local hunting groups on an awareness campaign that has produced a dramatic increase in the number of hunters who voluntarily switch to copper bullets or other non-lead alternatives in condor country, with a corresponding drop in condor deaths due to lead poisoning.
“We are grateful to all the hunters who are valued partners in restoring California Condors to their historic range,” Heinrich said.
Nevertheless, every condor must be captured twice each year and tested for
lead poisoning. Because they are social eaters, it is possible for just one carcass to poison several birds. Condors are treated with chelation, a process that removes lead from a bird’s body, and re-released to the wild. None treated this year have yet died from lead poisoning.
“Until we significantly reduce the amount of lead they are exposed to, we will never have a self-sustaining population of condors,” Heinrich said. “We look forward to the day when they no longer need us to survive.”

Did you know?
*    Prior to reintroduction, the last wild condor in Arizona was sighted just south of the Grand Canyon in 1924.
*    Condors reach maturity at about six years of age. They usually produce one egg every other year.
*    Recovery and reintroduction cooperators include The Peregrine Fund, Arizona Game and Fish Department, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Name that Bird!

Posted at 4:29 pm December 2, 2008 by Ron Webb

           We get many questions regarding the names (or ID’s) of California condors. “What’s that one’s name?” “What language is it and what does it mean?” “Why did the one I saw at the Grand Canyon have a number instead of a name?” For all intents and purposes, it really doesn’t matter what we call each condor; they could really care less! But, we, as humans, like to label each being and object, hence the creation and use of Taxonomy, the science of labeling and naming every living thing on earth. (more…)

Xananan the Traveler

Posted at 12:14 pm December 2, 2008 by Ron Webb

            Fans of the California Condor Recovery Program may be familiar with Condor #321. She was the condor who, in April 2007, flew north from her release site in the Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park, in Baja California, Mexico, across the international border into California. This marked the first time that a California condor had been seen flying free in San Diego County since 1910! (more…)

New Condor Exhibit Taking Shape

Posted at 4:38 pm November 17, 2008 by admin

Santa Barbara Zoo’s “California Trails”

santa-barbara-zoo-california-trails-1108.jpgConstruction on the Santa Barbara Zoo’s new California Trails exhibit complex is well underway and some areas of the Zoo have already reopened, including the boardwalk, restrooms, and a portion of the hilltop. Visitors can actually watch the new exhibits take shape from the boardwalk and from a new circular “North America Landing” area near the Zoo’s Barnyard.

All the excavating and grading on the new California condor exhibit (Condor Country) is complete, extensive retaining walls have been constructed and two-levels of walkways are established. The two condor holding buildings, located under the boardwalk, are nearly complete. Six major supports, three on the east side (as tall as 70 feet) and three on the west side are in place. They will eventually hold the nearly transparent mesh barriers for the 6,085-square foot enclosure (174,000 cubic feet). The water feature is complete and includes two separate streams and pools. Research shows that condors bathe in the wild, so we’ve given them that opportunity here as well.
santa-barbara-zoo-california-trails-2-1108.jpgWe kept an existing oak and a redwood within the new exhibit and will soon install two 35-foot “snags” for perching. the condors will have one of the best views in our scenic area, with the Los Padres National Forest (part of their historic range) to the north, Andree Clark Bird Refuge below, the Pacific to the south, and the city of Santa Barbara spreading west and east. The condor enclosure also features a rockwork “cave” which visitors will be able to peek into, perhaps getting a very close up view of a condor. The cave will be decorated with traditional Chumash rock drawings, similar to those in the Painted Cave just a few miles away on San Marcos Pass. The Chumash have always revered the condor; the local Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians are among the many donors for this exhibit.

This is going to be a dynamic environment for the birds to exhibit different behaviors. They’ll be able to choose where they want to be: on the rockwork, in real trees or in the snags, or bathing in the pools below. They can spread their wings and glide within the exhibit. Specific birds for the Santa Barbara Zoo have not been identified, but the exhibit can accommodate up to six adult birds. There are no current plans for breeding, but how we manage the birds will depend on the individuals we receive and their specific goals within the California Condor Recovery Plan.

California Trails also exhibits other local endangered species such the Channel Island fox. Renovation of their enclosure continues, and we’ve expanded it to two hillside exhibits. A new California desert tortoise exhibit is also under construction. It was once the site of the playground – these creatures will make quieter neighbors for the condors. There are plans for us to exhibit several species of local endangered amphibians, including the red-legged frog, in an existing building within this area.We expect to open California Trails in March 2009 and look forward to connecting the 450,000 guests we get each year, most of whom live adjacent to condor country, with California condors. These birds have a very special conservation story and are incredible creatures. I can’t wait for them to arrive at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

–Alan Varsik, Director of Animal Programs and Conservation, Santa Barbara Zoo

California Condors to Be Released Nov. 1

Posted at 11:18 am October 28, 2008 by Yadira Galindo

A wonderful experience awaits bird lovers. Two juvenile California condors will be released at Pinnacles National Monument in Monterey County at 10 a.m. on Saturday, November 1. The public can witness the first free flight of these birds from a viewing area located approximately three-quarters of a mile from the release site. Even if you’ve seen a condor in flight, seeing a juvenile bird spread its wings and use thermals to maneuver its new surroundings for the first time is an unforgettable moment. And at moments a bit comedic!

These condors were hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo and the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey, two of the four California Condor Recovery Program’s breeding centers. The San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park and Oregon Zoo make up the other two breeding sites.

The release will take place on the east side of Pinnacles National Monument off of Highway 25. Shuttle services from designated parking areas will transport guests to within 1.5 miles of the viewing area. The National Park Service suggests bringing spotting scopes, binoculars, water, layered clothing, and good hiking shoes, and carpooling is recommended, as parking is limited. Arrival between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. is advisable in order to reach the viewing area before 10 a.m. Entrance fees for the day have been waived for the release.

The newly released condors will join 15 other wild California condors already living in the national park. Today, there are approximately 160 condors flying free in California, Arizona, and Baja California, Mexico. The birds will be “soft released” through a double-door trap, but because condors have been known to sit still despite seeing the doors open, there is a chance that no birds will enter the trap and fly out on the day of the release.

On one such occasion at the Baja California release site, I waited with condor biologists for hours before the first bird finally exited through the trap doors. Once he was out he seemed a bit clumsy in the air with long, hard flaps of his wings. He was followed shortly thereafter by a second and third bird both of which seemed to land with a thump on a pine tree. The fourth and final bird seemed destined to remain indoors until the sight of other flying condors seemed to finally coax it out of its slumber. It was a long day of waiting so please have patience. This is, after all, like leaving for college for the first time, and by the looks of it, like taking their training wheels off. Happy condor watching!


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.

First Look at Miracle Condor 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.