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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

HOPPER MOUNTAIN NWR: On Hopper Mountain, Conservation is Done 'One Egg at a Time'

Region 8, April 9, 2013
Volunteer Biological Intern Marie McCann observing a California condor nest.
Volunteer Biological Intern Marie McCann observing a California condor nest. - Photo Credit: n/a
California condor #156 above her nest cavity.
California condor #156 above her nest cavity. - Photo Credit: n/a
Supervisory Wildlife Biologist Joseph Brandt hiking back with condor #156's fertile egg in the red portable incubator.
Supervisory Wildlife Biologist Joseph Brandt hiking back with condor #156's fertile egg in the red portable incubator. - Photo Credit: n/a
Condor #156's egg being weighed at the Los Angeles Zoo.
Condor #156's egg being weighed at the Los Angeles Zoo. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Marie McCann, intern with the Condor Recovery Program

“Marie, Marie, This is Joseph. Do you copy?”

As I heard those words from supervisory wildlife biologist Joseph Brandt, my thumb hovered over the radio receiver as I hesitated to reply. Brandt and biological technician Devon Lang Pryor had just hiked through the steep terrain and thick chaparral of Hopper Canyon. Relaying back to me from inside the suspected nest cavity of a California condor, Brandt had rappelled down the rugged cliff face to check if there was an egg. “Marie…there is an egg.”

Brandt’s confirmation of the nest was not only a relief on my part, but also another positive progression in the story of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s California Condor Recovery Program.

 As a volunteer biological intern for the program, I work to monitor and track the 67 individual condors of the Southern California population managed by the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Tracking these condors, including condor #21 (AC-9), the last condor to be trapped in 1987 and the only historically wild condor that flies free today, connects me with a long list of dedicated volunteers, biologists, and zoo employees. They are a family connected not by blood, but by their contributions in time and effort to ensure the survival of this endurably majestic endangered species. From the beginning days of the captive breeding program to today, the journey of condor conservation has taken place one egg at a time, with the ultimate goal of self-sustainability.

My work is in the field: hiking into the canyons of condor country, observing condor behavior, scanning for daily VHF radio signals, supplementing carcasses, and making sure that every individual condor is healthy. Like the native Chumash meaning for Xewe (gay-we), the first condor to be re-released back into the Sespe, my job is “to cast a shadow” following the condor’s 9.5 foot wingspan through the vast California sky. Even though the Recovery Program utilizes modern technology in tracking, blood treatments for lead poisoning, and a breeding program to maintain its success, old-fashioned biology in the form of observation still plays a central role. In 2012, biologists, technicians, volunteers, and volunteer interns clocked in 1,034 hours collecting nesting observational data. I learned for myself, on the ridges of Hopper Canyon, just how valuable time simply watching can lead to amazing discoveries.

Perched on a ridgeline shaded by a chaparral bush, searching unsuccessfully for a fledgling from the previous year, I scanned the cliffs through my spotting scope for any movement or flashes of a wing tag.  I incidentally located a trio of red-tagged adult condors high on a rock outcrop in lower Hopper Canyon. They were condor #107, his mate #161, and another female, #156. I witnessed the usual monogamous courtship behaviors between the pair: a display, mutual head rubbing and nibbling, and an eventual copulation. Then, to my surprise, #107 turned his attention to #156. Apparently it was now her turn to be courted. During this time of year, the other volunteer interns and I have focused our observations on courtship activity such as this in order to predict which pairs might soon initiate a nest.

A few weeks later, I was again assigned to investigate the lower region of Hopper Canyon. This time I was investigating a cluster of condor GPS transmitter hits in the area, which can be an indication of feeding activity. Even though there was no carrion to be found, the area was alive with activity, keeping me busy documenting the many condors soaring in my vicinity. I soon detected #156, which piqued my curiosity due to the previously observed courtship activity between her, #107, and #161. I followed her as she rode the wind currents straight into the entrance of a rock cavity near the peak of a ridge across the canyon. I sat and watched for as long as I could. She would remain tucked inside and out of view for one to two hour intervals, only emerging to peer out; searching, it seemed, for a partner to relieve her. Did #156 have a mate that I did not know about? None of the adult males in the area appeared to be concerned with her or vice versa. Was it #107 that she was looking for? I checked his signal and received a weak signal to the north, near one of the massive rock walls of the canyon indicating that he was not in sight. The sun was escaping. I made the long steep hike out of the canyon. All I could think of as I walked was returning the next day to resolve this mystery of #156 and her cavity.

The next morning I awoke with a different kind of itch. In an attempt to locate the perfect observation point, I must have either brushed by a mess of poison oak or rubbed my face with a contaminated hand because on the second day of observations my right eye was swelled nearly shut in crimson hives. Luckily, I still had one other eye that was working just fine and no one but the ravens would behold my inflamed face during my ten-day shift at the remote field site. Given that the slogan of the National Wildlife Refuge System is “Wildlife First,” I shrugged my shoulders and set out to see what clues I could piece together on the refuge.

Arriving early for a day of surveillance, I winced my tingling red eye against the backdrop of spacious crags and cliffs and saw the contours of #156 and #107’s primaries shifting through the streams of mountain air. Were these two a pair now? I could not classify their flight formation as a pair flight, but #107’s previously established partner, #161, was not in the area. After a half hour, #156 withdrew into her cavity. I followed #107 as his glide also lost steam to the north in the canyon. Circling around the canyon brook, he finally landed at the entrance of a hollow cleft on the lower canyon edge. He perched, preened, and walked inside, staying for the duration of three hours. I had two condors in two separate cavities. My hunch now was that #107 had sired two nests.

The next couple of days were more of the same. Every so often, #107 would come out to fly and stretch his wings. Then condor #156 would appear at the entrance of her cavity, tempted to fly only by the sight of #107, her otherwise occupied and uninterested presumed sire. Condor #156 would pursue the fellow, but could never convince him to share her cavity, forced to retreat, eventually, to her cavity alone.

I was returning every day, obsessed with the need to verify a nest. Since I could not see into the cavities to catch a glimpse of an egg, I could only confirm with a visual of one condor “switching out” with another as the species shares incubation and parenting duties. At last I received #161’s signal, weak but consistent in the distance. Her signal grew stronger until finally I saw her soaring into my range of sight. She landed at the opening of #107’s cavity. Leisurely, he strolled out and exchanged with #161 the role of nurturing parent. We had the first nest of the season.

Back at the office in Ventura, a plan to enter #156’s cavity was being prepared. If she was tending to an egg, she would not be able to care for it on her own. Without a mate to share the incubating responsibilities, she could not leave to find food. If she left the suspected egg to go forage, the egg would become cold and surely fail. I was anxious to discover if there actually was an egg hidden inside that tiny hole in the cliff and that my observations were not futile. I would also feel tremendous guilt if, after a long sweaty climb by our wildlife biologists, they turned up empty handed. Having spent a number of days examining the steep and exigent structure of the canyon’s walls and drainages, I knew the long trek would prove to be quite challenging. I prayed that the journey into the cavity would result with an egg that could increase the current total California condor population of 400 by one more priceless individual.

I could see the dust spread and dissipate as Joseph Brandt’s rappelling rope smacked against the side of the sandstone cliff after being tossed over the edge. Slowly leaning back on his weight, he lowered himself down, equipped with a portable incubator. Condor #156 flushed and studied the scene from nearby. I was watching with my good left eye and my itchy, yet recuperating, right eye from my same observation point, helping relay radio communication between the nest entry team and the office in Ventura. Once inside, Brandt candled the egg. Huddled under a black garbage bag to create a dark space, he shined a light through the egg and found it fertile. Brandt placed the egg in the incubator and let Pryor know that he was prepared to ascend the cliff. Devon slowly raised the incubator via rope while Brandt followed, all the while, gently keeping the fragile cargo steady until safely arriving at the top of the cliff, where he radioed “off rope.”

Devon and Joseph gradually made their way back from the nest, keeping the incubator connected to a battery and as stable as possible. I met them while hiking back from my observation point. We walked together until we reached parked ATVs located on the ridge. Once aboard our humming ATVs, Brandt still carefully held the box steadily against his lap, preventing the egg from being shaken and traveling very slowly over the bumpy trail. Riding back to the car, I thought about all the unaware drivers on Interstate 5 who would pass by Brandt and Pryor as they drove to the Los Angeles Zoo. The red cooler-like incubator sitting in Pryor’s lap in the front seat looked so unassuming. The passers-by might think that it carried cold beverages or food to be enjoyed while tailgating before that night’s Clipper’s game. Never would they guess the precious cargo was actually a fragile egg of our most endangered bird species. All of the time, people, and resources that have gone into saving the California condor from extinction most likely would not be crossing their minds. How many people get the opportunity to be so close to that kind of world wonder and not even realize it?

As I write this, #156’s egg is incubating at the Los Angeles Zoo, one of many participating partners that have made the California Condor Recovery Program’s achievements possible. If the egg hatches, to strengthen the genetic lineages of the species, the chick will be destined to eventually fly free over the red rock and colossal gorges of the Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Canyon.

My hope is the bird will join a community of its own kind, able to maintain itself egg by egg. It will surely face threats it cannot understand, while simply doing what comes naturally. It will soar, searching far and wide for carrion to support itself. Each time it helps clean the dead from the landscape, it will risk consuming a gut-pile or carcass that has been polluted with a score of fragments from toxic lead ammunition. This reality can change for the condor with the simple choice to do our part to keep the animals we hunt free of lead by using alternative types of ammunition. The California Condor Recovery Program’s goal of self-sustainability relies on people making that choice. To me, #156’s egg is the promise of life that I, as a young conservation biologist, will steward. It represents my hope for the future. It follows in the persistent tradition of the program of giving aid to the California condor and its preservation.

Contact Info: Devon Pryor, 805-644-5185, Devon_Pryor@fws.gov