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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

HOPPER MOUNTAIN NWRC: Biologists and Partners Go to Great Lengths Treating Sick California Condor Chick

Region 8, October 10, 2012
Being raised and lowered from the search and rescue helicopter hovering above, a member of the Ventura county search and rescue team transports the chick safely to and from the nest
Being raised and lowered from the search and rescue helicopter hovering above, a member of the Ventura county search and rescue team transports the chick safely to and from the nest - Photo Credit: n/a
California condor chick back at the nest after treatment at the Los Angeles Zoo.
California condor chick back at the nest after treatment at the Los Angeles Zoo. - Photo Credit: n/a
USFWS Biological Technician and Pathways Intern, Katie Chaplin, safely descends to the condor nest cavity.
USFWS Biological Technician and Pathways Intern, Katie Chaplin, safely descends to the condor nest cavity. - Photo Credit: n/a

Before dawn on the morning of August 6, 2012, Joseph Brandt, wildlife biologist, and Katie Chaplin, biological technician intern, both with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex, began their trip into the Los Padres National Forest Sespe Condor Sanctuary. Its rocky cliffs and steep canyons have long been the home of nesting condors. Their destination, a California condor nest, would require navigating a mostly washed out trail and scrambling through a rocky creek bottom before arriving below the large cliffs where the condor nest and a very sick condor chick waited.

An earlier routine exam of the chick by Service biologists detected a dangerously high lead blood level. Lead poisoning, caused by ingesting carrion shot with lead ammunition, is the leading cause of death for wild condors. Chicks can be exposed to lead when fed contaminated food by their parents.

Normally, when a high blood lead level is detected in an adult condor, it is transported to the Los Angeles Zoo for veterinary care. However, when a chick is found to have an elevated lead level, treatment comes with additional challenges. Condor chicks are found in remote nest cavities on large cliffs or in the burnt out hollows of massive old growth conifers. These remote nests require long hours or even days of off-trail hiking to reach, and ropes and climbing techniques are often required to access the nest. Removing a condor chick from its nest for a prolonged amount of time can cause the parents to abandon the nest. Therefore, if the chick needs to be taken from the nest for treatment, its time away must be brief.

To save this condor chick, Service staff collaborated with veterinary staff at the Los Angeles Zoo and the Ventura County Search and Rescue Team to carry out a plan to treat the chick with the hope that it would still be able to fledge naturally from its nest.

After they arrived at the cliff, Brandt and Chaplin made the near vertical climb up to the nest using ropes and other climbing equipment for safety. While making their approach, another team consisting of a Service biologist, a Los Angeles Zoo veterinarian and a keeper, set up a staging area for the Ventura County Search and Rescue Helicopter Team. If needed, the helicopter could be used to evacuate the chick from the nest. With everyone in place and ready to act,  the chick’s blood was re-tested . Much to their dismay, the result showed that the chick continued to have an elevated blood lead level and would have to be sent to the Zoo for treatment.

The helicopter team took to the sky. Hovering above the nest, a search and rescue technician descended from the helicopter into the nest with a specially made container to transport the chick. The sound was deafening and the gusts from the spinning rotors blew dust and debris wildly about. Despite the turbulence, Brandt and Chaplin were able to quickly and carefully place the chick into the container and, only minutes after his arrival, the technician re-attached himself to a cable and was raised back into the helicopter with chick in hand. With the chick gone, the countdown began. Both condor parents were out foraging far away from the nest, it would only be a matter of time before they would return to find their chick missing. Time was of the essence.

The chick was transported back to the staging area and was given an exam and chelation agent by the veterinarian to help decrease its blood lead level. However, a portable x-ray found metal pieces inside the chick’s stomach. Fearing this was the source of the lead, the chick was then transported to the Los Angeles Zoo Health Center where surgery could be performed to remove these objects from the chick’s stomach.

Surgery meant the chick would have to spend the night away from its nest, so Brandt hiked out while Chaplin stayed behind at the nest to keep the parents at bay if they were to return while the chick was gone. She remained there for the night, sleeping in the nest, which was little more than a sandy ledge shadowed by an overhanging rock wall. Fortunately it was large enough to lay out a sleeping pad and sleeping bag. Unfortunately, condor nests also tend to smell like the large carrion eating birds and are crawling with bugs. Chaplin made the best of it, being on the very short list of people who can say they have slept in an active condor nest.

At the Zoo, surgery went well. The young condor was placed under anesthesia so its stomach contents could be surgically removed. Once its stomach was empty, the chick was sewn back up and given a strong dose of antibiotics to reduce the chance of infection and x-rayed again to make sure that nothing was missed. The chick’s first night away from its nest would be spent in the infirmary, recovering from surgery and the long, stressful day.

With a positive report of the chick’s condition the following morning, Brandt returned to the nest to meet Chaplin, who had survived the smelly, buggy night. Twenty-four hours had past and the chick’s parents were still out foraging, unaware of the ordeal their chick went through. Again with the assistance of the Search and Rescue helicopter crew, the chick was placed back in the nest. With chick returned and only the soft echo of a helicopter in the distance, the biologists rappelled from the nest and made the long hike back to civilization.

Since the chick’s removal and return, nest observers continue to monitor the chick from a distance. On the day following its return, an observer spotted one of the parents fly back to the nest and feed the hungry chick. The nest was entered on two other occasions to check the chick’s blood lead level and provide additional chelation treatments. During these entries the chick was found to be developing slower than normal, but healthy. The final entry into the nest was on September 25. The chick was 5-months-old, and it was healthy and nearly the size of a full grown condor. It was chelated one last time and given a number tag and a VHF transmitter which will allow the chick to be tracked.

The chick’s progress will continue to be observed. Its healthy condition and steady growth rate are a strong indication that the nest will be successful in spite of the lead exposure. Thanks to a dedicated team of people, this chick will one day fly across the skies of California adding to the recovering condor population. Hopefully, in its lifetime, as awareness about the impacts of lead ammunition grows and hunters and shooters choose non-lead alternatives, condors and other wildlife will no longer be at risk of lead exposure by ingesting fragmented lead ammunition.

Contact Info: Ken Convery, 805-644-5185, ken_convery@fws.gov