Zoo Keeper Notes

California Trails Opens at Santa Barbara Zoo

Posted at 1:41 pm May 6, 2009 by admin

By Alan Varsik, Assistant Zoo Director

I’ve waited for this day for a long time: I am elated to report that California condors are now on view at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

California Trails is the largest project in the Zoo’s nearly 50-year history. We reconfigured an entire section of the Zoo to feature endangered or threatened species from right here in our own backyard including four juvenile condors.

block-grantham-varsik-at-dedication-copy.jpgOn Wednesday, Aprill 22, our partners and collaborators gathered to cut the ribbon and formally open the exhibit. We had members of the California Condor Recovery Program, including the coordinator, Jesse Grantham, representatives from the San Ynez Tribe of the Mission Indians (Chumash), plus state, county and city officials. Several volunteers from our nest monitoring program with the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service were there. Friends of the California Condor Flying Free attended in their blue tee-shirts. Longtime supporters of both the Zoo and of the condor program talked about what a great day it was.

cutting-the-ribbon-copy.jpgYou couldn’t miss the condors: all four were sitting on a central perch in the exhibit, basking in the sunshine, often extending their wings.

“Back in the early days of the recovery, in the 1980s, if you had told me we would be here today opening this exhibit – I wouldn’t have believed it!” said Jesse in his remarks to the crowd. “The trajectory here is an upward curve. We’re not going to lose the condor.”

I recalled how I saw condors in the wild while I was a student at Cal Poly – and how that experience, seeing condors in person, changed my life. I think that experience  helped direct the course of my life.

Now, more than ever, it is important for young people to make that connection. That is one of the reasons we built California Trails. We want our community and visitors to  see the magnificent birds, brought back from the brink of extinction, and discover that they too can make a difference in the natural world. That they are the stewards of the future.

On Saturday, I came to the public opening to see how the public reacted to the exhibits. We have “Passport” stations where kids learn about the birds (and the other animals of California Trails) and learn about them and their challenges in the wild. The kids were fascinated by the collection of microtrash we have on display, which was collected by zoo staff on a clean-up day in the Sespe. I hope they’ll make the connection between not littering and helping condors.

It’s been great observing guests who see the birds they’ve heard about for so long, for the first time. Many people simply stop in their tracks when first seeing the birds.  It seems as if the condors significantly capture the attention of our guests for unusual amounts of time. Last Friday I noticed one gentleman first thing in morning at the exhibit. He was still there at the end of the day. I mentioned to him that I saw him in the morning and he explained that he couldn’t stop watching the birds. It’s been said that condors are like glue. That once you experience them, they stay with you. I hope that many of our guests have that experience.

As for the condors themselves, I couldn’t be happier with how comfortable they appear in their new home. They take advantage of all the various activities and perching opportunities. They’ve been digging and wading into the water. They have even done some landscaping, picking the flowers.

The privilege of sharing the story of California condor with our zoo guests is unparalleled. It signifies the essence of the role of the modern zoo, to connect, and to inspire.

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Three Oregon Zoo Condors to be Released into Wild

Posted at 3:12 pm March 12, 2009 by admin

Meriwether, Nootka and Atya ready to fly free in Arizona

condorraw0309post.jpgPORTLAND, Ore. — Three California condors from the Oregon Zoo will be released into the Vermilion Cliffs Monument in northern Arizona March 7, soaring into the open skies that will finally be their home.

Meriwether (No. 379), Nootka (No. 447) and Atya (No. 455) were hatched and raised at the Zoo before being transferred to the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, to prepare for their release. Meriwether was transferred in January 2007, Nootka and Atya in October 2008.

This trio will be the second group of Oregon Zoo condors released in the 293,000-acre Arizona monument. They will join Tatoosh (No. 367), Ursa (No. 404) and Wiley (No. 420), who were successfully released in March 2008.

“With every successful condor release we’re another step closer to seeing condors fly over the skies of Oregon,” said Tony Vecchio, Zoo director. “One day Oregonians may again see what Lewis and Clark saw as they traveled along the Columbia River over 200 years ago.”

This will be the 14th release of condors in Arizona since the Peregrine Fund began its recovery program in 1996. Currently, 67 condors are flying free in Arizona, including two wild-hatched chicks that left their nests in the Grand Canyon in December.

“These monumental strides give us great hope for the survival of this species,” Vecchio said.

Condors, the largest land birds in North America, have wingspans of up to 10 feet and weigh 18 to 30 pounds. They are highly intelligent and inquisitive, often engaging in play. Their range extended across much of North America during the Pleistocene era, which ended about 10,000 years ago. By 1940, that range had been reduced to the coastal mountains of Southern California, and in 1967 condors were added to the first federal list of endangered species. In 1987, the 17 condors remaining in the wild were brought into captivity and a captive-breeding program was developed. The world’s total population of endangered condors flying free in the wild is 169 in Arizona, California and Mexico.

The Oregon Zoo’s condor recovery efforts take place at the Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, located in rural Clackamas County on Metro-owned open space. The remoteness of the facility minimizes the exposure of young condors to people, increasing the chances for captive-hatched birds to survive and breed in the wild.

The center is currently home to 31 condors and has produced 15 eggs since it was established. Of the 15 eggs produced, 14 chicks have survived.

In 2001, the Oregon Zoo became the third zoo in the nation to join the California Condor Recovery Program. California condor captive-breeding programs are also operated at San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, the Los Angeles Zoo and the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey. The Oregon Zoo was the recipient of the Wildlife Society’s Conservation Award for creating the nation’s fourth California condor breeding facility in April 2005.

The Oregon zoo is a service of Metro and is dedicated to its mission to inspire the community to create a better future for wildlife. Committed to conservation, the Zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Washington’s pygmy rabbits, Oregon silverspot butterflies, western pond turtles, Oregon spotted frogs and Kincaid’s lupine. Other projects include studies on black rhinos, Asian elephants, polar bears and bats.

The Zoo opens at 9 a.m. daily and is located five minutes from downtown Portland, just off Highway 26. The zoo is also accessible by MAX light rail line. Zoo visitors are encouraged to ride MAX or take TriMet bus No. 63. Visitors who take the bus or MAX receive $1 off zoo admission. Call TriMet Customer Service, 503-238-RIDE (7433), or visit www.trimet.org for fare and route information.

General admission is $9.75 (12-64), seniors $8.25 (65+), children $6.75 (3-11), and infants 2 and under are free; 25 cents of the admission price helps fund regional conservation projects through the zoo’s Future for Wildlife program. A parking fee of $2 per car is also required. Additional information is available at www.oregonzoo.org or by calling 503-226-1561.

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Oregon Zoo ” 4001 SW Canyon Rd. ” Portland, Oregon 97221 ” 503-226-1561 ” www.oregonzoo.org

Contacts: Bill LaMarche 503-220-2448 or 503-497-5812 (pager)
Linda D’Ae-Smith 503-220-5716 or 503-441-7573 (pager)

Condors En Route to Santa Barbara Zoo

Posted at 4:04 pm March 6, 2009 by admin

Yesterday afternoon (Wednesday, March 4), Santa Barbara Zoo Assistant Zoo Director Alan Varsik and Director of Conservation Estelle Sandhaus arrived in a snowstorm in Boise, Idaho and met up with Zoo CEO Rich Block and Zoo Veterinarian Karl Hill, DVM, who had flown up from Santa Barbara that morning. They  were visiting The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey to pick up the four juvenile condors who are coming to Santa Barbara.

“It was emotionally moving to go to the World Center and see all the condors,” said Block yesterday when he was checking into the hotel in Boise. I could hear in his voice that it was.

“We saw 18 breeding pairs and a ton of young birds — nearly 60 condors total — and we’re bringing four home. This is the result of discussions with the California Condor Recovery Program team that started 10 years ago. We’ve built relationships and created a remarkable program and now condors are coming to Santa Barbara. We are making a difference.”

Today, “at first light,” according to Sandhaus, they picked up the birds. Block adds, “It took about 90 minutes to get the birds loaded this morning. The Peregrine Fund staff definitely got a workout catching and crating the condors! Alan got some terrific video of this.”

The birds are being transported in large crates, two in the Santa Barbara Zoo’s Conservation Land Rover and two in a rented van.

They are driving nonstop, straight through, stopping only for gas, food, and comfort, for at least 15 hours to return to Santa Barbara. It may take longer. Sandhaus told me that they were driving with the windows open to keep air flow to the birds, “to keep them cool.” Everyone was quite cool as it was snowing in Boise.

Here’s a report from noon, sent by Block on his Blackberry: “We just crossed into Nevada. The roads are clear, though it’s cold and windy. We’re under partly cloudy skies with billowing clouds casting irregular shadows on the surrounding snow covered slopes. It’s quite beautiful… The condors appear to be good travelers, so far. We’re keeping the vehicles cool so the heated seats are definitely an advantage in the Land Rover.”

Alan called me later to say, “We expect to arrive in the middle of the night in Santa Barbara. We’ll offload the crates into the new condor holding area and then transfer the birds in the morning. All four birds will initially share one holding area but eventually we will give them access to the adjacent holding area during their quarantine.”

The four birds coming to Santa Barbara are: No. 432 (male), 433 (female), 439 (male) and 440 (female). They were all born in Boise within a two week period, from April 12 through 24, 2007. All were reared by their parents except 433, who was raised by foster condor parents.

Three of the birds (432, 433, 439) are descended from AC3 (10 in the studbook) — the female bird that is hanging in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.  AC3 was never captured, but died in the wild of lead poisoning in 1984. AC3 is their great-grand dam – a nice connection. I don’t know how many thousands of kids have looked up, awestruck, at that bird over the years. I know mine have. Now, Santa Barbara kids and visitors are going to get to see live condors “up close and personal.”

All four birds are related to AC8 (12 in the studbook), the last free flying female condor captured in the wild; she is also a great-grand dam.

All of the staff at the Zoo was talking about the condors today, anticipating their arrival. The other big news today: a brand new baby titi monkey produced by our two relatively new titis. It was seen as a good omen.

We’ll report more after the condors get settled in. I’m considering getting up at 2 a.m. to meet the travelers when they arrive at the Zoo. We’ll see if that still seems like a good idea at 1:30 a.m. when the alarm rings.

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Oregon Zoo Receives Three Condors With Colorful Pasts

Posted at 5:53 pm February 12, 2009 by admin

New female birds expected to enhance zoo’s already successful breeding program

PORTLAND, Ore. — Three California condors — a would-be homewrecker, the survivor of a shotgun blast to the face, and a bitter old maid — will make a fresh start in the Northwest, looking to find love in the Oregon Zoo’s condor program.

Despite these birds’ soap-opera pasts, the zoo recently welcomed them to its facility at the Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, where the notorious trio will augment an already successful program for breeding the endangered condor. The birds arrived from the Los Angeles Zoo.

Kojjati, a female condor from California, had been involved in several love triangles while in the wild and was always dumped for the other female. The drama that inevitably ensues in these situations endangers the eggs and young chicks — the primary reason Kojjati was taken out of the wild.

“Condors are normally quite careful around the eggs and chicks, but when they’re upset the birds become reckless,” said Shawn St. Michael, condor curator. “While Kojjati is in our breeding program, she will be paired alone, which will eliminate any possibility of her interfering in another pair’s relationship.”

St. Michael is hopeful that a young, single condor can mend Kojjati’s broken heart and that she will soon begin laying eggs with a mate of her own.

Timocho was taken out of the wild a few years ago after reports that she had possibly sustained an injury while in a national wildlife refuge. Upon her capture, it was discovered that Timocho had been shot in the face by a shotgun. Pellets from the blast had damaged one of her eyes and her tongue, and fractured bones in and around her mouth. (To see video of Timocho click here.)

Although her situation appeared bleak, Timocho was taken to the Los Angeles Zoo and nursed back to health. She was hand-fed at first, but now is able to eat standard food without assistance.

“Timocho has come along way since her injury,” St. Michael said. “She can never be released back into the wild, but she is healthy and has learned to overcome her disabilities and permanent injuries.”

Timocho will be paired with Willie, a condor who can sympathize with Timocho’s situation. As a young chick, Willie was accidentally injured by his parents and lost the use of one of his eyes. Timocho has laid eggs that have hatched in the wild, and St. Michael is very optimistic that the condor program will see chicks from the pair.

The third condor acquired by the zoo is Elewese, a relatively old bird who has lived most of her life in a condor center. St. Michael is uncertain whether they will try to pair her with a male, but says Elewese has embraced her matronly role and is content serving as a mentor to the other young condors in the program.

The zoo’s condor recovery efforts take place at the Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, located in Clackamas County on Metro-owned open space. The remoteness of the facility minimizes the exposure of young condors to people, increasing the chances for birds to survive and breed in the wild.

Condors, the largest land birds in North America, have wingspans of up to 10 feet and weigh 18 to 30 pounds. They are highly intelligent and inquisitive, often engaging in play. Their range extended across much of North America during the Pleistocene Era, which ended about 10,000 years ago. By 1940, that range had been reduced to the coastal mountains of Southern California, and in 1967 condors were added to the first federal list of endangered species. In 1987, the 17 condors remaining in the wild were brought into captivity and a captive-breeding program was developed.

In 2001, the Oregon Zoo became the third zoo in the nation to join the California Condor Recovery Program. California condor breeding programs are also operated at San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, the Los Angeles Zoo and the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey. The Oregon Zoo was the recipient of the Wildlife Society’s Conservation Award for “creating the nation’s fourth California condor breeding facility” in April 2005.

The condor recovery goal is to establish a captive population of 150 birds and two separate wild populations of condors, one in California and the other in Arizona. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Condor Recovery Program coordinate and implement the recovery program and provide oversight of all program partners.

The zoo is a service of Metro and is dedicated to its mission to inspire the community to create a better future for wildlife. Committed to conservation, the zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Washington’s pygmy rabbits, Oregon silverspot butterflies, western pond turtles and Oregon spotted frogs. Other projects include studies on black rhinos, Asian elephants, polar bears and bats.

The zoo opens at 9 a.m. daily and is located five minutes from downtown Portland, just off Highway 26. The zoo is also accessible by MAX light rail line. Zoo visitors are encouraged to ride MAX or take TriMet bus No. 63. Visitors who take the bus or MAX receive $1 off zoo admission. Call TriMet Customer Service, 503-238-RIDE (7433), or visit www.trimet.org for fare and route information.

General admission is $9.75 (12-64), seniors $8.25 (65+), children $6.75 (3-11), and infants 2 and under are free; 25 cents of the admission price helps fund regional conservation projects through the zoo’s Future for Wildlife program. A parking fee of $2 per car is also required. Additional information is available at www.oregonzoo.org or by calling 503-226-1561.

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Oregon Zoo
4001 SW Canyon Rd.
Portland, Oregon 97221
503-226-1561
www.oregonzoo.org

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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

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

Walking on Egg Shells During Incubation

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.

Rebuild It and They Will Come

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.