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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

BITTER CREEK NWR: A Day in the Field at Bitter Creek NWR

Region 8, June 9, 2010
Recovery partner Mike Clark, condor keeper for the Los Angeles Zoo, and Service biologist Lena Chang with California condor AC-9. (photo: USFWS) 
Recovery partner Mike Clark, condor keeper for the Los Angeles Zoo, and Service biologist Lena Chang with California condor AC-9. (photo: USFWS)  - Photo Credit: n/a
Joseph Brandt, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist for the Hopper Mountain NWRC, releases a condor over Bitter Creek NWR (photo: Lena Chang, USFWS)
Joseph Brandt, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist for the Hopper Mountain NWRC, releases a condor over Bitter Creek NWR (photo: Lena Chang, USFWS) - Photo Credit: n/a
A California condor flies over Bitter Creek National Widlife Refuge. (photo: Lena Chang, USFWS) 
A California condor flies over Bitter Creek National Widlife Refuge. (photo: Lena Chang, USFWS)  - Photo Credit: n/a

by Lena Chang, Ventura FWO
On June 9, 2010, I attended a California condor “work-up” at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge , part of the Hopper Mountain refuge complex in Kern County, California. A condor work-up involves a thorough assessment of the health of each individual condor in the population, including on-the-spot blood sampling for lead levels, refitting of wing tags and radio transmitters used to monitor the population, weighing, and other analyses, before releasing the condors back into the wild. The work-up was led by refuge biologists from the Hopper Mountain NWR Complex, and recovery program partners from the Santa Barbara and Los Angeles Zoos, all experts in the biology and handling of the giant birds. Refuge internship volunteers, a veterinarian, and I, also assisted in the health assessment. As a biologist based at the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office, it was a great opportunity to work hands-on with our refuge neighbors and one of our most critically endangered species.

The flight pen at the refuge was full of approximately 30 California condors that had recently been trapped and brought in from the wild, most needing to be worked up and released that day. Not having ever seen a live condor before, it was overwhelming to see so many in one place at one time. Once the equipment and people were ready, a few of the biologists entered the flight pen to net the first birds to be worked up.

The powerful condors were brought out and strategically held by two people (one holding the body and the other controlling the feet). A third person took blood samples, measurements, replaced transmitters, wing tags, etc., while another person recorded the data. The blood was given to the veterinarian who instantly checked for lead levels using refuge blood test kits. It was surprising to learn that all of these birds would have some level of lead in their system; some with levels elevated enough that warranted treatment for lead poisoning. This treatment would require a trip to the Los Angeles Zoo for chelation to reduce the level of lead in the blood. For the condors whose blood lead levels were within the range of not requiring treatment, health work-ups were completed, transmitters and wing tags replaced, and the birds were weighed and released.

The dangers to condors from elevated lead levels are well documented.  Lead poisoning from ingestion of lead bullet fragments in carrion is a serious threat to the recovery of the California condor. Condors and other species of scavenging birds eat the meat of dead animals, including those that may have been shot and left behind by hunters. The remains of the dead animal can contain lead fragments from the impact of a bullet hitting bone. If scavengers consume lead shot or lead bullet fragments, poisoning can result.

I had the opportunity to learn how to handle the amazing condors - first with holding the feet, and eventually a whole bird. Condors can stand 45-55 inches tall, have a wingspan of about 9 ½ feet, and can weigh between 17 and 25 pounds. One condor in particular that was brought out of the flight pen had everyone’s attention. I was introduced to AC-9 while holding his feet, and learned his remarkable story. AC-9 was the last wild condor to be captured and brought into the California Condor Recovery Program on Easter Sunday, 1987, when condor numbers dwindled to only 27 birds. AC-9 spent 15 years in captivity, successfully reproducing and helping to build a captive population.  He has since been returned to the wild where he has mated with another condor and continues to reproduce. AC-9 is one of the approximately 180 free-flying California condors in the wild. It was an honor. 

AC-9 along with 20 or so condors were worked up and released, and the condors with elevated blood lead levels were transported to the L.A. Zoo for treatment. Both personally and as a Service biologist, it was a wonderful experience to get first-hand look at the marvelous birds, and to observe recovery program partners and volunteers dedicating their time and expertise to work alongside our Service employees; all with the common goal of protection and recovery of the endangered California condor. I was inspired by the collaboration of everyone involved and appreciated the opportunity to be a part of this dedicated recovery team. 

  

Contact Info: Lena Chang, 805-644-1766 x 302, lena_chang@fws.gov