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PACIFIC SOUTHWEST REGION: A Young Birder's Story: The Historic Release of California Condor AC-4 into the Wild at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge
California-Nevada Offices , January 6, 2016
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California condor #20 (AC-4) flies across the ridge at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge on December 29, 2015.
California condor #20 (AC-4) flies across the ridge at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge on December 29, 2015. - Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Beatrix Schwarz
Diego working on his field notebook as he observes California condor #20 fly free at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge.
Diego working on his field notebook as he observes California condor #20 fly free at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. - Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Susan Gilliland
Conservation partners view California condor #20 (AC-4) through spotting scope across the ridge as he flies free over Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge.
Conservation partners view California condor #20 (AC-4) through spotting scope across the ridge as he flies free over Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. - Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Kristy Clougherty
Pasadena Young Birders Club, along with conservation partners at Bitter Creek to view release of California condor.
Pasadena Young Birders Club, along with conservation partners at Bitter Creek to view release of California condor. - Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Anthony Prieto
Alex Cho and Dessi Dieburth, members of the Pasadena Young Birders Club experience the historic release of California condor #20 (AC-4) on December 29, 2015 at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge.
Alex Cho and Dessi Dieburth, members of the Pasadena Young Birders Club experience the historic release of California condor #20 (AC-4) on December 29, 2015 at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. - Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Susan Gilliard
Pasadena Young Birds Celia (left) and Emmie (right) with California condor biologist Joseph Brandt after the release of a California condor into the wild at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge.
Pasadena Young Birds Celia (left) and Emmie (right) with California condor biologist Joseph Brandt after the release of a California condor into the wild at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. - Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Susan Gilliland

By Diego Blanco, Pasadena Young Birders Club

Today I was lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to be a part of an historic event in the ongoing story of California Condor conservation: the release of Condor AC4, an adult condor over 30 years old, back into the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge where he was first captured in the 1980's as part of a last attempt to save the species. AC4 was determined to no longer be needed for the captive breeding program, as his DNA was already well represented in the new supplemental population of captive-bred condors.

AC4 was one of the few surviving California Condors that remained in the wild as the last of their species in the 1980's, and spent 30 years in captivity following his removal from the wild at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, which was formerly the Hudson Ranch.

We arrived at Bitter Creek early in the morning, around 9:00am, and were greeted by the biologists and FWS officers who gave us some basic information about the day's schedule. After brief introductions, we assembled ourselves into van groups and headed up the mountain to an area where we could see the flight pen that AC4 was being held in. Right as we arrived at the top of the mountain, we immediately saw four California Condors and one Golden Eagle soaring in the distance, not far from where AC4 was being held across the canyon. We set up on a ridge across from AC4's pen and continued watching the increasing numbers of condors passing above our heads, recording the color and number of the tag placed on each individual's wing for as many birds as possible.

Condor conservationists and biologists Dr. Pete Bloom, who tracked and trapped condors in the initial stages of the conservation effort, Jesse Grantham, who was largely responsible for the conversion of the Hudson Ranch into the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge and also participated in conservation work with condors, and Jan Hamber, another biologist who has been of great importance to the recovery program for California Condors since its inception, who were all instrumental in the preservation of the California Condor and critical to the success of the captive breeding program, gave us a thorough history of AC4's life.

Before the last remaining condors were trapped, wildlife biologists like Dr. Bloom, Grantham, and Hamber identified individual condors by distinctive markings on their primary feathers. AC4 came to be recognized by a hole in one of his primaries. Before capture, he was frequently seen traveling to the Santa Barbara backcountry, and was eventually trapped at the then Hudson Ranch.

After being given the history of AC4's own life story, the moment of his release drew closer. Preparations were made to ensure the safety of his release, including the scaring off of a coyote that was near the flight pen and the maintenance of radio contact between the biologists at the flight pen and across the canyon.

AC4 was released through a procedure known as a "soft release," whereby the gate of his pen was opened and he was allowed to wander out and fly off on his own, as opposed to a regular release where the biologists would remove him from the pen themselves and release him by hand. The date of the release had to be rescheduled to the 29th from about a week before due to less-than-optimal weather patterns, but on the morning of the 29th, all the conditions were ideal for AC4 to be released.

What followed was a period of anxious observation and communication among our group about what was going on inside and around the flight pen. As we watched from far across the canyon, we first saw the gate of AC4's pen tentatively opened.

AC4 dropped to the ground of his pen, but didn't venture outside of the enclosure, prompting the biologists to close the gate and reopen it in an attempt to entice the condor towards it. Soon after the gate was reopened, AC4 quickly jumped out of the pen and began running and flapping along the ground outside the fight pen, ignoring the carcass nearby which had earlier sported several condors. AC4 shortly took flight and and soared to our left, away from the pen and over the canyon. He crossed a ravine, passed over several ridges, and continued his leftward flight, following the canyon as he went. Finally, AC4 was last seen by our group as he disappeared behind the top of the hill where he was initially caught, returning to his old haunts towards the valley.

AC4 represents a thin, but unbroken link to the 10,000 years of condors in North America, and witnessing his release was a truly inspirational moment, not in the least because of all the amazing and phenomenally dedicated people who have worked and continue to work to preserve this icon of the North American wilderness.


Home for the Holidays: California Condor AC-4 Returns to the Wild after 30 Years
https://www.flickr.com/gp/usfws_pacificsw/NL0w5v
Contact Info: Ashley Spratt, 805-644-1766 ext. 369, ashley_spratt@fws.gov



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