Posted by: James Wapotich | September 7, 2013

Trail Quest: Friends of California Condors

The California Condor is for many people an iconic symbol of our local backcountry. With a wing span of nine and half feet, condors can be an impressive sight. One can find representations of the condor in Chumash cave paintings.

California Condors date back to the Pleistocene Era and feed exclusively on carrion. With their large wing span they are able to ride thermals much in the same way as hang gliders, often covering 150 miles a day looking for food and new territory, and moving between nesting and roosting sites.

The first recorded condor sighting by westerners was in 1805 during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. And it’s tragic to consider that the demise of the condor has been largely precipitated by humans. Adult condors have no natural predators.

Since the late 1800s the California condor’s population has been steadily declining. Factors include urban encroachment on traditional habitat, egg collecting for museums, DDT poisoning, micro-trash ingestion, and lead poisoning from lead ammunition.

Historically the condor’s range in North America extended from British Columbia to Baja California and into parts of the southwestern United States. By the 1940s their range had been reduced to just the coastal mountains of southern California.

In 1982 the number of California condors both in the wild and in captivity reached its lowest point of 22 total birds. And by 1987 with the wild population down to just 9 birds the drastic step was taken to begin a captive breeding program.

In 1992 the first condors were released back into the wild. Over the past 10 years close to a hundred condors have been released back into the wild in California.

In addition to the release of birds into the wild, another key component of the recovery has been the monitoring of condor nests. Condors do not reach sexual maturity until they’re 5-7 years old. Condor pairs mate for life and typically only produce one egg every other year. And so nest monitoring has proven instrumental in reducing infant mortality, particularly from the ingestion of micro-trash that has been brought back to the nest by its parents. Micro-trash include bits of glass, bottle caps and other types of liter found in our backcountry. It’s still not clear why the parents bring the items to the nest.

However, the single biggest obstacle to the recovery of the California condor is lead poisoning from lead ammunition. Unlike copper bullets, lead bullets fragment on impact, these fragments are left in whatever was shot. The fragments are then consumed by condors when they feed on the gut piles from animals left by hunters, or the carcasses of animals put down by ranchers, such as coyotes.

All of the California condors in the wild have some level of lead poisoning in their system, and more than half of them have been captured at one time or another and taken to the Los Angeles Zoo to undergo chelation therapy.

The outcome California State Assembly Bill 711 in many ways will define the future of the California condor. The bill would ban lead in all types of hunting. The bill would expand on the provisions of the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, which bans hunters from using lead ammunition in areas designated as part of the California condor’s range. AB 711 was passed by the State Assembly in May, and now awaits a vote by the State Senate.

“If we can get the lead out, the condor would become self-sustaining, and their numbers would increase dramatically on their own, in the wild.” Vince Gerwe, Vice President, Friends of California Condor Wild and Free told the News-Press. “If we just maintain the status quo, and continue to treat birds, the population will still grow because of the breeding programs and birds we’re putting out there.”

However that growth is dependent of the recovery program being funded and the active, ongoing intervention of the biologists managing the program. “If the recovery program were to just stop, with lead [bullets] still in use, I would venture to say the condor would become extinct within 20-30 years.” Mr. Gerwe added.

Mr. Gerwe emphasizes that Friends of California Condors is not opposed to hunting or hunters. The group’s focus is to see lead removed from the food chain to support the condor’s recovery.

Today there are more than 400 condors, with roughly half of those living wild and free. The remainder of the population is found in a half dozen zoos in North America including five condors at the Santa Barbara Zoo. Several zoos are involved in the captive breeding program, and a percentage of the condors in captivity are there temporarily, typically for treatment for lead poisoning.

A monthly update on the condor’s population and distribution can be found on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hopper Mountain website, http://www.fws.gov/hoppermountain/, under California Condor Recovery Program.

Currently there are six sites where condors have been released back into the wild and have nesting sites. In California the sites are Hopper Mountain and Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuges, Pinnacles National Park, and the Big Sur area. In Arizona at Vermillion Cliffs, and in Mexico at Sierra de San Pedro Mártir National Park in Baja California.

In our local area one can tour Hopper Mountain and Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuges. Tours are arranged by Friends of California Condors Wild and Free, a non-profit organization which offers 2-3 tours a year at each of the two sites. The tours are free and open to the public.

Recently I joined the tour of Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. Located in the mountains behind Fillmore, the 2,471 acre refuge is adjacent to and just south of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and Los Padres National Forest.

Visitors for the tour meet with the volunteers from Friends of California Condors in Fillmore, and from there carpool and caravan to the site. Tours typically have 20-30 visitors, and Friends of California Condors tries to have enough volunteers to have one for each vehicle to be available for questions.

The tour can often include an opportunity to see condors in flight and view one of the nesting sites. Nesting sites are typically located in steep sandstone canyons, as condors do not actually build nests, but make use of small natural caves.

The tour I was on provided an opportunity to view a nesting site in Pole Canyon. From the observation post regularly used by volunteers monitoring nests in Pole Canyon, visitors, with the aid of a viewing scope, were able to see a condor chick in its nest. Later, at the field station, we would see that same condor chick on a computer monitor. Several of the nests now have a webcam in them, which has greatly eased and improved nest monitoring.

There is a plan to make the Pole Canyon nest webcam available online within the next year. Clips from the webcam can be seen on The Condor Cave Facebook Page, which is managed by the Santa Barbara Zoo.

Another interesting resource regarding the California condor is Jeff McLoughlin’s recent documentary The Condor’s Shadow, which premiered at this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The documentary is an excellent summary of the condor’s plight and the recovery effort. The documentary is expected to air on PBS this fall and can also be purchased online at http://www.thecondorsshadow.com.

Surprisingly one of the easiest places to see condors flying in the wild is near Lake Piru. The lake is just east of Sespe Condor Sanctuary and Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge.

The next tours of Hopper Mountain and Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuges are in October. For more information about Friends of California Condors Wild and Free, and upcoming tours, go to http://www.friendsofcondors.org.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 7th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


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