Just two weeks into a new school year, Principal John Wilber welcomed a crowd of more than 300 children, parents and community members to Mountain Vista Elementary School in the small foothill town of Fillmore, California.
The occasion: to celebrate a summer of experiential learning for more than 100 students who participated in CondorKids, an endangered species education program developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Santa Barbara Zoo. It was also a chance to present the students the recently launched first ever livestreaming webcam on a wild California condor nest in the nearby Sespe Wilderness. The Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex in partnership with Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Santa Barbara Zoo, and Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology went live to the public the day prior providing viewers with a live view into the world of nesting condors (allaboutbirds.org/condor).
Piloted in the summer of 2015, the mission of the CondorKids program is to connect predominantly under-served students and communities in Ventura County with real-world wildlife experts who work to prevent the extinction of one of the rarest birds in the world – the federally endangered California condor.
As part of the program, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students from schools across Fillmore Unified School District joined U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Santa Barbara Zoo biologists to make the off-road trek to Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge to learn how biologists work to recover North America's largest bird, and, to observe California condors flying free.
"We have the opportunity to foster a conservation ethic in future generations by providing opportunities to learn about and experience these majestic animals, while at the same time building public awareness, a critical component of any threatened or endangered species' recovery," said Mike Brady, project leader for Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge.
Laurie Merrill, 7th grade teacher at Fillmore Middle School and teacher for more than 30 years, says the CondorKids program holds a special place in her heart. "This program helps my students make a meaningful connection to one of the most endangered animals on earth – a species that lives in their backyards. By seeing these condors in the wild, they are inspired to learn and do more for condor conservation. My students will take these experiences with them for the rest of their lives and one day, may become wildlife biologists, scientists or veterinarians themselves."
CondorKids also visited the Santa Barbara Zoo to get an up close view of captive condors and learn from the Zoo staff and volunteers that work alongside the Service to monitor condor populations. Kids strapped on climbing gear to ascend the zoo's climbing wall to experience what it's like for biologists to repel up and down steep rock faces to monitor California condor nests in the wild, and, observed the behavior of California condors #327 and #544 using high magnification spotting scopes. These condors are part of the captive condor population at the Santa Barbara Zoo, a critical component to recovery efforts.
Following a CondorKids skit put on by 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade graduates of the pilot summer education program, the lights dimmed and the assembly room grew quiet. Live on the auditorium big-screen, wildlife biologist Joseph Brandt, unveiled the livestream camera on the nest of wild California condor pair #111 and #509, wherein rested a four-month-old California condor nestling.
"What started out as a way for biologists to monitor the health of endangered California condor chicks and the breeding success of the species has become an important tool for outreach about this incredibly rare bird," said Brandt.
This nestcam, known as the Koford's Ridge cam in the mountain above Fillmore, is one of two wild nestcams launched to the public this August. The second livestreaming nestcam is located in Big Sur along the central California coast and hosted by the Ventana Wildlife Society (http://www.ventanaws.org/condor_cam).
"The CondorKids program is a marriage between technology, science, environmental stewardship, and experiential learning," said Wilber. "We look forward to many more generations of CondorKids. This is just the beginning."
In the 1980s, California condor numbers dropped to a low of 22, primarily due to lead poisoning from ingesting fragmented lead bullets in animals shot by hunters. Today, due to the success of the California Condor Recovery Program, there are around 430 California condors in existence, with more than half of the population flying free.
CondorKids students in Fillmore will continue to participate in a class curriculum that promotes environmental literacy, with a specific focus on mathematics, science, technology and engineering as they continue to learn about the majestic California condor.
The CondorKids program was one of ten programs to receive funding as part of the Department of Interior's SoCal Urban Refuge Project announced by Secretary Sally Jewell in August 2014.