Condors, Lead poisoning and Stress- guest blog by Zeka Kuspa

Last Thursday I spent a whole day in Big Sur collecting poop samples from California condors. Why on earth am I doing this dirty work? Let me explain…

Numerous studies have found that lead poisoning from ingestion of spent lead ammunition is the primary cause of death in free-flying California condors. But what is happening to the condors that survive repeated lead exposures? I want to understand the potential adverse health effects of lead which may be accumulating in these individuals, as well as the potential impacts of these effects on survival and reproduction in the wild. Specifically I am interested in how chronic lead exposure can alter the response to stressors in the environment. Corticosterone, one of the hormones released during the condor stress response, is responsible for freeing up energetic resources for surviving a stressor and then storing energy stores for future recovery from that stressful event. In humans and other mammals, lead has been shown to impact the same brain region as chronic stress, and lead exposure can cause lasting alterations to the release patterns of corticosterone. In lead-exposed individuals the stress hormone can either be chronically elevated when no stressor is present, or the magnitude of change in hormone concentrations in response to a stressor is elevated, resulting in more corticosterone being released. This abnormal corticosterone release pattern can lead to changes in behavior, and inappropriate allocation of energy stores, both of which could impact the survival and/or reproductive output of these endangered birds.

So why condor poop? To assess the effects of lead on the condor stress response, I’ve been collecting blood, fecal, and feather samples from birds with different histories of lead exposure. Each sample type represents a different time scale of stress hormone released in response to a handling event: blood corticosterone is a direct and instantaneous measure of hormones in circulation, fecal corticosterone metabolites show a delay in elevation due to the time it takes for hormones to be eliminated via the gut, and feathers represent a longer-term integration of corticosterone release over 4-5 days. By looking at stress hormone responses in all three sample types, I will get a better overall picture of how the stress response might be altered in condors that have been exposed to lead more than others. As my experimental stressor, I use the capture and handling events already taking place for blood lead monitoring of the central California flock.

condor health check

condor undergoing a health check

 

sampling kennel

kennel for collecting condor poop

collecting poop

me collecting condor fecal samples

In order to collect fecal samples in a clean and timely manner with minimal stress to the condor, I developed a sampling kennel (pictured above) with a removable tray. This has allowed me to get sequential samples from individual birds and then map out and condor’s stress response to a handling event over time. I will collect enough samples to statistically compare stress response magnitudes in relation to individual lead exposure histories.

The free-flying condor population provides a unique opportunity to study this sub-lethal effect of lead since so much is known about each individual due to an intensive monitoring program, of which CondorWatch is an integral part!

Happy 1 Year Anniversary CondorWatch!

We want to give a huge THANK YOU to all the dedicated CondorWatchers who have helped us reach almost 340,000 classifications!  We also would like to commemorate this time with a little recognition of the condors that we lost over the last year as well as some of the new birds that have come to join the free-flying California population.

A big THANK YOU to wreness (our moderator extraordinaire) for her help compiling these photos and information and of course all she does for CondorWatch! 

We had five chicks that fledged from the wild in 2014,  including the unknown “Mystery”, who became famous for showing up for lunch one day at the Ventana Wildlife Society.   (http://www.ventanaws.org/)

And the best news yet – a record 16 pairs of condors have made nests in CA so far in 2015!  So, lets hope we have a record number of wild-fledged chicks in 2015!

And now the sad part — free-flying condors we lost this year from California:

We see them so frequently in the photos – sometimes 6 years in their lives – and they get to be familiar faces.   It is always heartbreaking to see in a condor’s Bio that it has died from lead poisoning but hits harder when you have seen this bird in hundreds of photos.   We sincerely appreciate your to help compiling data that can add a new tool to the arsenal in treating these condors before it’s too late.

So, in Memory for these majestic birds (15 of them total) that we lost from the free-flying California population since CondorWatch launched:

*Orange63 (63 Male)    5/8/1991 – 9/28/2014   Age 23   cause of death: trauma – predation

Orange63

*Red25   (125 Male)     6/2/1995 – 7/18/2014   Age 18 years   cause of death: bobcat predation

Condor #125 hatched at the San Diego Safari Park in 1995 and was released the following year. He was an 18 year-old breeding male that had been paired with female condor #111 since 2003.   He paired with #111 eleven times over twelve years, making them the longest lasting and most prolific pair of condors in the southern California flock.   Despite many nest failures early on in their relationship, they successfully fledged four chicks.   Three of their four offspring are currently flying in the SoCal population

Red25

*400 (Female) –   wore tags: Black0 Underline, White0, White 00     4/11/2006 – 4/292014   8 years   cause of death: lead poisoning

400

*401 (Male) wore tags: Black 01 Underline, White 1     4/13/2006 – 6/15/2014 8 years  cause of death: lead poisoning

A true fighter, 401 was treated for lead poisoning at least five times including surviving being shot with lead bird shot.   The last and fatal poisoning event ended his life.   The whole story can be read on our blog here http://blog.condorwatch.org/2014/10/28/the-tragic-fate-of-condor-401/

401

*White11 (411 Male)     4/26/2006 – 12/6/14       cause of death: undetermined;, scavenged remains

411

*White44 (444 “Ventana”)   5/5/2007 – 8/26/2014  cause of death:  lead poisoning

#444 was known as “Ventana”   to the many condor spotters who searched the skies with their binoculars,   She was hatched from an egg laid at the Los Angeles Zoo and was the first to be raised in the wild by condor foster parents.

444

Also lost in the last year: Eight condors aged 3 weeks to almost 3 years of age to factors such as predation, trauma, and a few pending cases.

So, we would like to take a moment to remember these birds but also to thank you for all your efforts gathering data to help California condors become a healthy free-flying population in California and beyond!  We really do appreciate all you do so keep on carrion (as wreness would say)!

The Science Team

 

 

 

 

 

And the Winners for The Best 2014 Photo Contest are (drum roll please)….

We have the results from our Best of 2014 Condor Watch Photo Contest – thanks to our very own amazingly talented wreness!

We’d like to thank everyone who sent in all their favorite photo entries for the contest! We wish we could have had 4th and 5th and even 9th place winners – as it is we had several Ties! Most of all a huge Thank You Everyone who has taken their time not only to classify these photos for the project but who take the time to call attention to all the amazing and wonderful things found within them. Entire stories unfold with every new photo. Some have made us cry, some laugh, and some go “what?!”

Below are a few of the science team’s favorites, but please go to these links to view all the winners:

Condorwatch talk:  http://talk.condorwatch.org/#/boards/BCW0000004/discussions/DCW00003xy

The direct Photobucket page with the Contest album photos is:   http://s1381.photobucket.com/user/Condor_Watch/library/2014%20Photo%20Contest%20Winners

Direct link to the contest photo album with all the sheets:  http://s1381.photobucket.com/user/Condor_Watch/library/2014%20Photo%20Contest%20Winners/2014%20Photo%20Contest%20Winners-Sheets

 

1st place winner most beautiful condor

1st Place Winner Most Beautiful Condor

1st place winner - funniest photo

1st Place Winner – Funniest Photo

featured guest shot - best something else

Featured Guest Best Something Else

Best condor lining up for a golf shot

Best:: Condor Lining up for a Golf Shot

1st place winner - best cooperating condors  clearest tags

1st Place Winner – Best Cooperating Condors – Clearest Tags

 

CondorWatch photo contest extended until Jan 30th!

Hi everyone!  Due to some technical difficulties with the infamous “White Screen” – we have extended the First Annual Best 2014 CondorWatch Photos Contest until January 30th at 8pm Central Time, USA.

Here are the categories and instructions again, for your convenience.

Have fun everyone and as wreness our wonderful moderator extraordinaire would say “Carrion!”

Categories:

1} Most Beautiful Condor Photo

2} Most Beautiful Condors photo (more than one in a photo)

3} Best Action Photo (Condors)

4} Best “Something Else” Photo

5} Best “What The Heck Is That?” Photo

6} Best Coyote(s)

7} Most Disgusting Photo (oh we know what that will be)

8} Best Eagle

9} Best Turkey Vulture(s)

10} Funniest Photo

11} Best Cooperating Birds –  Clearest Tags

12}  Craziest Ravens

13} Best Photo Bomb

14} Happiest/Proudest Condor

15} Condor(s) With The Worst Attitude

16} What Were They Thinking?

17} BONUS CATEGORY!
Find a Funny, Bizarre or Strange Photo and Give It Your Own Category

The Scientists will then pick the winners based on if you Amuse And Entertain them and make them spit their coffee out of their noses, laughing. (No vulgarity! Behave or else!)

How to Instructions:

Look though the photos on the CondorWatch site to find your favorites for the listed categories below. You may enter 3 photos per category.

When you find the photos you want to enter, copy and paste the IMAGE NUMBER of the photo, found in the upper left corner of each photo) next to the category, next to the category:

Img1

An example, then, of an entry for Best action Photo might look like:

3} Best action Photo:

Image ACW00045qp
Image ACW0003rgr
Image  ACW00051jk

The Image number we ask you to enter comes from the entire URL of the Zooniverse page that the image is on. For example http://talk.condorwatch.org/#/subjects/ACW00045qp would be the first entry’s page.

When you’re done with your list of entries send your completed list, via the Zoo Talk message system, to CondorWatch Moderator wreness

You can find the best photos of the site in the CondorWatch Citizen Scientist’s Collections, since they have been saving all the great photos the last 8 months CondorWatch has been on Zoo! Click on a person’s name to go to their Profile Page and at the very bottom are their Collections. Names can be found on the message board posts and photo comments and also be found using the Search feature. The Image numbers can be seen in the bottom right corner each Collection thumbnail photo but they can be clicked to open up to full size but you can look through the whole Collection by magnifying your page and noting the Image Numbers this way.

Img2

On the upper right side of the Collection page is a scroll bar to forward though the pages. You can also use the SEARCH feature at the top of the page to look for specific animals. This will only work once (the search feature doesn’t work too well right now) so to use multiple times, Refresh the entire page then re-enter your search word to use again.

Announcing the First Annual Best 2014 CondorWatch Photos Contest

2014 marks the first year CondorWatch joined Zooniverse and we would like to take the opportunity to thank all the Citizen Scientists who put in all the time and hard work tirelessly squinting into their monitors at carcasses, unidentified parts, angry pigs, various butts, tipped camera angles, vicious battles, fog and yes!  beautiful condors  to classify the data for us.

Who could have imagined the incredible variety of situations, animals and emotions the cameras have captured?

To celebrate we’d like to invite you to take part in helping find what you think were the Best Photos of 2014 for the CondorWatch Photo Contest. Woohoo!

These are the categories for the photos. We hope they capture the majesty of the condors and also the humor that abounds on the site.

Categories:

1} Most Beautiful Condor Photo

2} Most Beautiful Condors photo (more than one in a photo)

3} Best Action Photo (Condors)

4} Best “Something Else” Photo

5} Best “What The Heck Is That?” Photo

6} Best Coyote(s)

7} Most Disgusting Photo (oh we know what that will be)

8} Best Eagle

9} Best Turkey Vulture(s)

10} Funniest Photo

11} Best Cooperating Birds –  Clearest Tags

12}  Craziest Ravens

13} Best Photo Bomb

14} Happiest/Proudest Condor

15} Condor(s) With The Worst Attitude

16} What Were They Thinking?

17} BONUS CATEGORY!
Find a Funny, Bizarre or Strange Photo and Give It Your Own Category

The Scientists will then pick the winners based on if you Amuse And Entertain them and make them spit their coffee out of their noses, laughing. (No vulgarity! Behave or else!)

How to Instructions:

Look though the photos on the CondorWatch site to find your favorites for the listed categories below. You may enter 3 photos per category.

When you find the photos you want to enter, copy and paste the IMAGE NUMBER of the photo, found in the upper left corner of each photo) next to the category, next to the category:

Img1

An example, then, of an entry for Best action Photo might look like:

3} Best action Photo:

Image ACW00045qp
Image ACW0003rgr
Image  ACW00051jk

The Image number we ask you to enter comes from the entire URL of the Zooniverse page that the image is on. For example http://talk.condorwatch.org/#/subjects/ACW00045qp would be the first entry’s page.

When you’re done with your list of entries send your completed list, via the Zoo Talk message system, to CondorWatch Moderator wreness

You can find the best photos of the site in the CondorWatch Citizen Scientist’s Collections, since they have been saving all the great photos the last 8 months CondorWatch has been on Zoo! Click on a person’s name to go to their Profile Page and at the very bottom are their Collections. Names can be found on the message board posts and photo comments and also be found using the Search feature. The Image numbers can be seen in the bottom right corner each Collection thumbnail photo but they can be clicked to open up to full size but you can look through the whole Collection by magnifying your page and noting the Image Numbers this way.

Img2

On the upper right side of the Collection page is a scroll bar to forward though the pages. You can also use the SEARCH feature at the top of the page to look for specific animals. This will only work once (the search feature doesn’t work too well right now) so to use multiple times, Refresh the entire page then re-enter your search word to use again.

Contest runs from Dec. 31th to Jan 10th (midnight CT USA)

Winners will be announced on the message boards on Jan 13th and shared elsewhere ASAP also! Please enter only once.

Most of all, have fun and as always, carrion!

Thank you for all your wonderful work and ideas this year. We couldn’t be where we are without you!

Sharing your hard work with the world!

Dai with Condor Poster

Dr. Shizuka enthusiastically spreads the word about Condor Watch and the amazing contributions of our citizen scientists.

This Fall, Condor Watch researchers, Dr. Daizaburo Shizuka (University of Nebraska, Lincoln)  and Dr. Alexandra Rose (University of Colorado, Boulder) presented a poster on Condor Watch to over 900 Ornithologists (i.e. professional bird nerds!) at the joint meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union, the Cooper Ornithological Society, and the Society of Canadian Ornithologists.

The title of our poster was “CONDOR WATCH: Improving management of one of the world’s most endangered species with Citizen Science.” And it was extremely well-received. Our colleagues were excited to hear about how we’re using volunteers to help us extract valuable data about condor behavior from the thousands of photographs we’ve posted on line. We brought our iPads and showed people how to make classifications of images and some of the neat features of the site, like Talk. The poster featured a little history on the condor and the current threats to the species, as well as some statistics on how much progress we’ve made on analyzing the images, and some preliminary results based on early data from your work. One of the most fun parts of presenting the poster was talking to professors who might use Condor Watch in their Ornithology classes. What better way to teach students about condors–wonderful, charismatic birds that most people will never see outside a zoo.

Click here to see a pdf file of our poster! Condor Poster

 

The tragic fate of Condor 401

401

There is one condor I’ve gotten to know well over my time as a collaborator with the recovery program. The story of his life encapsulates the hopeful advances and the difficult challenges the species has experienced as a whole. California condor 401 hatched on April 13th 2006 at the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise Idaho. As opposed to being raised by zoo keepers wearing condor puppets (i.e., “puppet-reared”), 401 was reared by his mother, condor 56 “Kareya” and father, condor 71 “Tapu” and released to the wild when he was about a year old to fly over the hills of central California and help his species recover from near extinction. I first encountered 401 by way of his blood sample that was collected during routine health monitoring in the spring of 2009 and sent to my lab to be archived for future analysis of lead. Lead poisoning is the number one threat preventing California condor recovery in the wild and my research includes measuring lead isotopes in condor blood samples to identify sources and effects of lead exposure.

Condor 401’s blood sample came to my special attention ~ six months later because a radiograph taken of him when he was admitted to the Los Angeles Zoo for treatment of lead poisoning showed he had been shot.

His wounds had healed but he had four birdshot pellets embedded in his soft tissue and curiously, he was the third condor that had been found to have been shot within six months (to read about this case see http://www.fws.gov/cno/es/calcondor/PDF_files/2014-9-Finkelstein-Enviromental-Research.pdf). Condor 401 survived his lead poisoning treatment and was released back to the central California countryside.

Less than a year later, in June 2010, condor 401 was back at the Los Angeles Zoo being treated for one of the highest blood leads we had seen up to that point – ~560 µg/dL! (Unfortunately in the past few years we have seen several other condors with equivalently high and lethal blood lead levels). Another radiograph showed that condor 401 had eaten a lead buckshot. 401 was fed rabbit fur to get him to expel the lead item without surgery. Luckily the rabbit fur worked and 401 regurgitated the buckshot! After a few months of intensive treatment by his amazing and talented medical staff, condor 401 recovered and was released again to fly free above the hills of central California.

Presentation1

Radiograph of condor 401 taken 21 June 2010 shows three radio-opaque objects embedded in the wing (assumed to be birdshot) and one larger radio-opaque object in digestive tract, later identified as lead buckshot after regurgitation and analysis. Insert panel, lower right: comparison of one of the surgically removed birdshot with the regurgitated buckshot pellets. Figure adapted from Finkelstein et al. (2014).

But 401 was not going to be free for long – over the course of his short life in the wild he was treated for lead poisoning at least five times with the last and fatal poisoning event ending his life on June 15th 2014. Condor 401 was only eight years old when he died – just a teenager and well below his ‘normal’ lifespan of ~ about 50 years of age. Importantly, in terms of his species’ future survival, he would also never have the chance to reproduce.

I wish I could say that 401’s case was unique, but sadly it is not. Approximately half the condors free-flying in California have been treated for lead poisoning at least once, with many birds being treated more than once. Lead poisoning is the number one cause of mortality for free-flying juvenile and adult condors and our research has shown that condors are primarily lead poisoned by eating animals that have been shot with lead-based ammunition. With so many alternatives to lead ammunition available we are hopeful that one day a condor (or any scavenger) can eat their dinner without risk of being poisoned by lead. May 401’s suffering and death be a reminder to us all about the health risks from lead ammunition (for more information see https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6dq3h64x).

For more information on hunting with non-lead ammunition please see http://huntingwithnonlead.org/.

The Color of Condors

California condor juveniles have darkish grey heads and necks and then around four years of age start to become more and more pinkish/orange/red (see the field guide for more information and photos of examples here and at the bottom of the wreness’s slidshow here) until they are about six years old when they obtain the full coloring of a mature adult.  However, like everything, a condor’s color is not so simple. We have some special thoughts and tips about a condor’s ability to change their coloring from Mike Clark (aka the Condor Whisperer) who works at the Los Angeles Zoo and is truly one of the heroes of the condor recovery movement.

Here are Mike’s thoughts/observations:

In my opinion females have a yellower coloration from the malar stripe forward than males. Of course it varies from bird to bird. but if you put them side by side I find the females have a yellower face generally from the malar stripe forward. Males can have the same yellow in this place but it is usually shaded with a little more flushed coloration mixed in . This is not a hard and fast rule obviously.

Here are some examples of the male/female difference:

Topa Topa, stud book #1, he is a male. Topa Topa is the first condor brought into captivity – he was brought into captivity when he was very young (~1 years old) on 12 Feb.1967 as he was found injured and in poor health. He is too imprinted to be released to the wild but is the king of the condors at the Los Angeles Zoo and has fathered many of the free-flying birds you see in the photos!

Topa Topa, stud book #1, he is a male. Topa Topa is the first condor brought into captivity – he was brought into captivity when he was very young (~1 years old) on 12 Feb.1967 as he was found injured and in poor health. He is too imprinted to be released to the wild but is the king of the condors at the Los Angeles Zoo and has fathered many of the free-flying birds you see in the photos!

Malibu – a mature female condor and paired with Topa for many years as part of the Los Angeles Zoo’s condor breeding program.

Malibu – a mature female condor and paired with Topa for many years as part of the Los Angeles Zoo’s condor breeding program.

Intensity of color varies widely. When birds are upset or angry around the nest or young the colors intensify.  They also go starkly pale when in fear or being pursued (like by someone with a net when being trapped for health check-ups). [We don’t know what happened before this photo was taken, but Condor Watchers observed a remarkably pale female 190, aka Red 90, here]

Another observation is that the mature adults tend to have a bluish neck. [Again, CondorWatchers recently noted a particularly blue neck here] When they get a hold of food and start to dig in on the food the neck flushes (if its exposed and the ruff isn’t up) and the neck turns more purple than blue.

I think the bird’s diet, and beta carotene in particular, has very drastic effect on coloration of the birds’ faces. [Although we think of orange vegetables as sources of beta carotene, it is also found in meat and especially liver]

Can you guess from the descriptions above who here is the male and female of a current breeding pair at the Los Angeles Zoo?

pair for coloring 2

pair for coloring

Let us know if you see any extreme examples of these color variations by tagging the photos – especially if you see a condor with a bluish/purplish color when feeding!  Who knows, maybe we will learn something new about condors and colors!

Condor News (9/6/2014)


International Vulture Awareness Day is today! All across the globe, zoos and conservation organizations are holding special activities to honor these charismatic and often threatened scavengers. For more information: http://www.vultureday.org/2014/index.php

International Vulture Awareness Day - Saturday 6th September 2014

 

 

 

 


 

Slide shows. Our amazing moderator wreness has put together slide shows of condors and other species from various angles and in different lighting to aid with identification. She even highlighted body parts — condor feet anyone? http://goo.gl/Jtg3GV. enter image description here

Her nice contribution was showcased by the DailyZoo here: http://daily.zooniverse.org/2014/08/26/condor-images-slide-show/


 

New study. Led by 2 scientists on the Condor Watch science team, a new study investigates and links the illegal shootings of 3 condors: 286 (Black86-2dots), 375 (Black75-3dots and Blue75), 401 (Black01underline and White1). Read it here: http://goo.gl/kZ24dE


 

In Memorium

Female 444. We were all rooting for 444, a female condor nicknamed “Ventana”. The oldest wild-reared condor in the central California flock, Ventana was badly lead poisoned last month. LA Zookeeper Mike Clark posted this report on his team’s efforts to save her life:

Photo: Latest case of lead poisoning female condor 444. A wild fledged bird from Big Sur clinging to life currently. Just finished her second blood transfusion. At an impossible weight of 10.3 pounds she is a fighter. Unfortunately she has lost most of her appetite and has to have a small amount of food placed in her mouth bit by bit. All hands are on deck for this girl and we won't give up until she does. Wish us luck. Chandra David Debbie Ciani Melissa Clark Jenny Schmidt  Deanna Rocca

444 in treatment at the LA Zoo. Photo Michael Clark

“Latest case of lead poisoning female condor 444. A wild fledged bird from Big Sur clinging to life currently. Just finished her second blood transfusion. At an impossible weight of 10.3 pounds she is a fighter. Unfortunately she has lost most of her appetite and has to have a small amount of food placed in her mouth bit by bit. All hands are on deck for this girl and we won’t give up until she does. Wish us luck.”

Despite their hard work on her behalf, she died on August 26th. At her passing, Ventana Wildlife Society noted “Ventana…was invaluable to the condor recovery effort in that she did not grow up in captivity and was raised in the wild by condor foster parents with minimal human intervention. RIP Ventana.”

Male 125.  Earlier in the summer, on July 18, 2014, the southern California flock lost male 125, who died of suspected bobcat predation. At 19 years old, he was a seasoned and successful breeder with a chick in the nest, making his loss particularly difficult. Fortunately, his partner, female 111 has been able to continue to rear their 2014 chick.

Koford's Ridge male #125. Photo by Joseph Brandt 3/13/2014.

Koford’s Ridge male #125. Photo by Joseph Brandt 3/13/2014.

Condor #125 peeking into his nest cavity. Photo by Joseph Brandt 2014.

Here is a nice writeup on his contributions to condor recovery: http://goo.gl/FT0Wfo.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has a webcam trained on his nest and has posted numerous videos of his charming chick, prompting one condor biologist to assert #condorsarecuterthankittens. See whether you agree here: http://goo.gl/II86MJ, http://goo.gl/o3nvds, http://goo.gl/VMJ3UC, http://goo.gl/cKPyid.

USFWS also compiled a video collage of 125’s parenting moments here: http://goo.gl/xCjuKF and a fabulous set of photos spotlighting 125 here : http://goo.gl/OlC4Mq


 

Lead testing. US Fish and Wildlife Service distributed this excellent short video that describes blood lead testing, lead poisoning, and chelation treatment of wild California condors. Look for Condor Watch feeding site photos at 1:51!  http://goo.gl/0jClU4


 

 

Summer travels. The US Fish and Wildlife Service shared the GPS tracks of condor 567 over a 3-week period. Although this degree of wanderlust is somewhat unusual, the condor’s huge wingspan is custom-made to enable them to range widely in search of food. USFWS notes:

Check this out! Condor #567, a 4-year old wild-fledged male condor, took a trip on the wild side over a three week period in July – from just north of Los Angeles early in the month to 12 miles south of Livermore in northern California later in the month — sightseeing the Coast range soaring…..

 

 

Tracking Condors, One Day at a Time by Zeka Kuspa

It is the job of California condor release site managers to monitor the condor flock. What this means is that they must attempt to locate every condor in their region on a daily basis. This kind of monitoring is above and beyond what is done for other species. Can you imagine trying to locate every single bluebird or coyote on earth, every day of the year? Such a feat is made possible only by the year-round work of biologists and volunteers, technologies such as radio and satellite telemetry (a.k.a. GPS), the regular capture of individuals for wing-tagging and blood lead tests, and the restricted condor population and range. Even with these advantages, it is a rare day that every individual bird is contacted. Once a condor has been off the radar for more than three days, targeted attempts are made to get a “visual” (visual observation) or a “signal” (radio-transmitter signal). After 5-7 days flights are chartered to search the remote parts of the condor range for the missing bird. Finding missing condors is important whether they are living or dead. If a condor is sick or injured, then they can be captured and treated. If they have been killed, determining the causes of death is also vital to the success of the program.

As an intern for Ventana Wildlife Society and Pinnacles National Park, I got the opportunity to track these amazing birds in the wild. Here’s an abridged description of a tracking day, one of the essential management responsibilities of California condor recovery partners:

A day of tracking usually starts at 9 a.m. or later, when condors are up and moving. Thermal updrafts, which occur when the ground is warmed by the sun and the surrounding air rises, are a boon to a foraging condor. So condor watching doesn’t require the pre-dawn motivation that other bird watchers must muster. Once at the office, we look at our records for the previous day’s condor activity and set our game plan for the day based on specific individuals we are looking for, or where a wild carcass may have been spotted.

As we drive or hike through condor territory we stop often to “take signals.” We receive the signals emitted by radio-transmitters on the birds wings or tail feathers, using a directional antenna and handheld receiver (as pictured). Since each condor has its own unique frequencies, we can tell who we’re hearing, and in what direction they are from our location. Additionally, by listening closely to the intensity of the signal we can make some assumptions about distance from the observer, and whether the bird is perched or flying. Over the course of the day we may get multiple signals from the same bird that may indicate longer range movements within their range (between canyons or even between release sites). Over the course of a tracking day we will also make visual observations of the condors we come across. These observations may just be a flyby, but when we’re lucky we might get to see the birds feed, or display mating behavior. All of this information is recorded in order to document the relative health of the bird (e.g. no symptoms of lead poisoning), monitor breeding efforts, and provide insight into location of the bird if they do go missing.

A tracking day usually ends at about 4 when condors are starting to seek out their roost for the night. When we make it back to the office we input this data and eventually incorporate it with GPS data downloaded from satellites. Hopefully, we contacted all the birds we were looking for! If not, we will increase our efforts to contact missing birds the following day.

tracking photo

Condor biologist Erin Brannon tracks condors in the mountains of Big Sur, CA.

recording data

Me taking signals from basecamp within Ventana Wildlife Society Sanctuary in Big Sur, CA.

group tracking

Volunteers and visitors taking signals and getting visuals of condors along the Highway 1 in Big Sur, CA.

 

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