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4

Moving Day for Antiki

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Antiki has moved into the socialization pen. She’s wearing a white wing tag number 77.

October can be a busy month at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Breeding Facility. This is the time of the year when we start to prepare for the next breeding season: clean nests, conduct routine health exams, and provide maintenance to flight pens that were previously off-limits to keepers because of the presence of our young chicks slated for release to the wild. But before we can start anything, we need to move the recently-fledged chicks to their new home— our socialization pen.

Our remote socialization pen is approximately one mile from the main part of the Safari Park. There, this year’s Condor Cam chick, Antiki, is isolated from any human activity and socialized with other fledglings her age. In the wild, condor chicks stay with or around their parents for up to 18 months. We don’t let them stay that long here at the Park. If we did, the next breeding season would probably be compromised; the presence of the fledgling may prevent the parents from breeding the next year, or the parents may turn aggressive to the chick if they try to nest again.

Before her move, we affixed a wing tag to Antiki’s right wing for identification purposes. She is now wearing wing tag White 77. She is now sharing this large pen with five other condors:

  • Xananan (ha-NA-nan): Female, 11 years old, wearing tag Blue 21 (left wing).
  • Sunan (SOO-nahn): Female, 1 ½ years old, wearing tag Blue 49 (right wing).
  • Eeuukey (ee-YOO-kee): Male, 6 months old, wearing tag Blue 84 (right wing).
  • Pali (PAH-lee): Male, 6 months old, wearing tag Yellow 96 (right wing).
  • Uqushtay (oo-KOOSH-tay): Female, 6 months old, wearing tag Red 97 (right wing).

Antiki, Eeuukey, Pali, and Uqushtay have been getting to know each other in an adjacent pen. On October 22, we opened the gate into the large pen where they were able to meet the older birds, Xananan and Sunan.

California condors that are expected to be released to the wild are called “release candidates.” We raise all of our condor chicks as if they are release candidates until we hear otherwise from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees the California Condor Recovery Program. We have yet to hear if and/or where any of this year’s fledglings will be released. Release candidates are isolated from humans. We offer their food through a chute in the wall. The pools are drained and rinsed from the outside of the pen. The only time the birds see us is during a medical procedure: affixing wing tags, pre-shipment examinations, or West Nile Virus inoculations. These generally are not enjoyable experiences for the young condors, and that is what we want them to learn from us before they are shipped to the wild. We don’t want them to associate humans with anything beneficial. We are hoping to foster behaviors that wild condors would have: avoiding human activity and hazardous, artificial situations. Survival rates for condors that become accustomed to humans and human activity are very low.

One of Antiki’s new pen-mates has a very important role. Xananan, the adult, is acting as the young birds’ new “mentor.” The mentor’s job is to facilitate the socialization of the fledglings. Condors are very social and, like us, need to learn the rules of how to interact in a group. The parent condors started this process when the chicks hatched, and continued it as the youngsters eventually fledged. Now that they are no longer living with their parents, the chicks’ “education” will be furthered by Xananan. She will be the dominant bird in the pen, often displacing the fledglings from perches or roost sites or pushing them from the food until she has eaten first. The dominant birds at a site are usually the biggest ones, and often the most experienced. The young condors need to learn how to interact with these dominant and pushy birds in order to be successful in the wild.

Viewers of last year’s Condor Cam will probably remember Sunan. She was raised on camera by her foster parents, Towich (TOE-witch) and Sulu (SOO-loo). Sunan seemed to be a little smaller than her pen-mates and more subordinate. It was decided, as a precaution, to keep her here at the Safari Park for one more year before releasing her to the wild in order to give her more time and experience with different birds. So, the good news is that her fans get more Sunan-viewing time!

The socialization pen is very large with lots of space to fly around and exercise wings. There are several large oak snags on which to perch or roost. Also, there are two pools from which to drink or bathe. There are several ground level perches and boulders to hop around on, as well. It is interesting to see the social development of each bird. They can choose to perch next to whichever bird they wish, so they really get to know each other well. We have learned that young condors that aren’t well-socialized tend not to be successful once they are released to the wild.

So far, Antiki is integrating well into the group. She has been seen eating near the older birds; she seems to be a very confident girl! She flies very well in the pen and interacts appropriately with her new pen-mates. Her parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, have done a great job preparing her for the big, wide world! As time passes, we should see the whole group settling in, perching, and feeding together. Feel free to post any comments or questions, and we’ll try to get them answered as soon as we can. Enjoy!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Fledged!

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“Ugly” Animals Need Love Too

Part of our mission is to educate people that every single organism in an ecosystem is equally important to the health of the ecosystem. A critter’s place on the cute scale doesn’t correlate to actual environmental value. Sadly, it can be difficult to garner support for animals that are not perceived as “cute,” but we’re hoping to change that. These are just a few of the animals that are unfortunate victims of “cute bias” and need more love.

Vultures

Vultures, including the California condor, are nature’s clean-up crew. Their bald heads and permanent “scowls” don’t make people swoon, but the world would be a much dirtier place without them.

California condor

Reptiles

There are more than 6,500 known species of reptiles. They play varied, pivotal roles in their respective environments but are often vilified due to their appearance and unfair reputation. Reptiles are actually pretty awesome. They have been around forever, some have crazy long life spans, and some are fully independent at birth.

Caiman lizard

Caiman lizard

Arthropods

Arthropods is a phylum of animals that includes insects and spiders. Famous biologist Jonas Salk said, “If all insects on Earth disappeared, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the Earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.” Still, arthropods don’t get much love. There are more kinds of beetles in the world than any other type of animal, and the weight of ants alone is roughly equal to the weight of all human beings on Earth. It’s time to give arthropods some credit.

Dragon-headed katydid

Naked Mole-rats

The naked mole-rat and the Damaraland mole-rat are the only two mammal species that are eusocial. This means they live in a colony that may have several generations living together and just a few individuals that produce all the offspring for the colony, much the way bees and ants live. We think that’s pretty awesome, but unfortunately, some people just can’t get down with them.

Ungulates

Ungulates are a diverse group of mammals, usually hoofed, that serve as seed-dispersers and food for the many predators that hunt them. While not exactly “ugly,” ungulates are rarely singled out as beautiful or especially worthy of conservation, but they’re just as important as the rest.

Male and Female Nilgai

Bats

Bats are important pollinators and can eat thousands of insects in a single night, but are still feared and reviled by many. If anything, bats deserve respect and admiration. One out of every five mammals in the world is a bat, and some seeds don’t sprout unless they’ve passed through a bat’s digestive system.

Rodrigues fruit bat

Warthogs

Warthogs may not be the most beautiful or graceful creatures in the Animal Kingdom, but they are remarkable for their strength, intelligence, and flexibility. Also, a warthog’s “warts” are not really warts, but just thick growths of skin. What’s not to love?

Did we miss any animals that deserve more love? Let us know in the comments.

Matt Steele is senior social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Summer Pool Party – Animal Style.

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West African Crowned Crane Pair Fosters Endangered East African Crowned Crane Chicks at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Two endangered East African crowned crane chicks, recently hatched at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, are now being fostered by a pair of West African crowned cranes.

A crowned crane mother feeds her young foster chick during early morning breakfast at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

A crowned crane mother feeds her young foster chick during early morning breakfast at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

The eggs were laid by inexperienced first-time parents on one of the islands in the Safari Park’s African Outpost. To safeguard and ensure that the eggs had the best possible chance of surviving, keepers moved the eggs to an incubator at the chick rearing facility.

A few days before the eggs were due to hatch, keepers placed them in the nest of a mated pair of West African crowned cranes with parenting experience, to complete the hatching process. Both eggs successfully hatched—one on Sept.17 and the other on Sept. 19. Today, the chicks are healthy and thriving under the watchful eyes of their foster parents.

“These East African crowned crane chicks are here in this exhibit because we feel it’s the best place at the Safari Park for them to grow and flourish, since they are an endangered species,” said Marci Rimlinger, lead keeper in the Bird department at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

East African crowned cranes get their name from the tall, stiff golden feathers that cover their head. Their long legs and neck, and excellent peripheral vision help these birds spot predators above the tall savanna grasses where they hunt for worms, insects, lizards and small mammals. They live near rivers and wetlands in Africa, where their habitats are being threatened due to habitat drainage, overgrazing and pesticide pollution.

Guests at the Safari Park can see the chicks at the crowned crane exhibit, located just past the main entrance to the park on the right side of the wooden walkway.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

Photo taken on Sept. 30, 2015, by Tammy Spratt, San Diego Zoo Safari Park

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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Partnership Preparing to Release Rare ‘Alalā Back into the Wild

Global_logo_color webAnimal care staff with the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program are getting ready for an important breeding season—the season that will see hatching of ‘alalā, or Hawaiian crow, chicks that will be released into the wild. The ‘alalā has been extinct in the wild since 2002, preserved only in the program run by San Diego Zoo Global at its bird centers in Hawai‘i.

“In collaboration with our partners, we have been working for many years to build up a large enough—and genetically diverse enough—population to allow us to begin putting the ‘alalā back in the wild,” said Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager of San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawai’i Endangered Bird Conservation Program. “We have achieved our goal and are now preparing to release ‘alalā into the wild in 2016.”

The program’s goal has been to increase the ‘alalā flock to 75 or more individuals before conducting a trial release of birds into their native forests on the island of Hawai‘i. The ‘alalā is a member of the crow family that was brought to brink of extinction by loss of habitat, introduced predators and diseases. The entire population today stands at 115 birds. A group of dedicated conservationists have been working in partnership to prepare habitat that they hope will support the species in the wild.

“‘Alalā will be released in the far and remote portions of the Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve, building upon many years of groundwork laid by many passionate individuals to protect and restore this significant forest,” said John Vetter, wildlife biologist with the State of Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

“Together, the agencies continue to collaborate with a wide variety of public and private partners as they work toward a better future for ‘alalā,” said Michelle Bogardus, team leader, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “These partnerships are integral to the successful reintroduction of this ecologically and culturally important species back into the wild.”

Returning ‘alalā to the wild is a significant step in the recovery of a number of native species on the Hawaiian Islands. Landscape-wide restoration has helped create healthy native forest that not only benefits ‘alalā, but many other native Hawaiian forest birds as well. Healthy native forests also provide many ecosystem services that benefit the people of Hawai’i, as well as cultural resources that ensure the continuation of countless traditions and unique ways of life.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

The mission of the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife is to responsibly manage and protect watersheds, native ecosystems and cultural resources, and provide outdoor recreation and sustainable forest products opportunities, while facilitating partnerships, community involvement and education.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The mission of the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office is to conserve and restore native biodiversity and ecological integrity of Pacific Island ecosystems for the benefit of present and future generations through leadership, science-based management and collaborative partnerships.

3

Fledged!

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Although she occasionally ducks into the nest box area, Antiki now spends most of her time practicing her flying skills outside.

We have switched the camera view of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam. Our faithful viewers have been able to watch our California condor chick, Antiki, hatch and grow in her nest box, but now they can view her out in her flight pen with her parents, father Sisquoc and mother Shatash, because she’s taken the next exciting step in her development—Antiki has fledged!

Fledging is the process in which a young bird leaves the nest. We consider a California condor chick to be fledged when they can fly to the higher perches in the pen—approximately 10 feet off the ground. When condor chicks fledge, they tend to be around 140 or 150 days old. The youngest bird to fledge here at the Safari Park was 123 days old. Antiki flew for the first time at 156 days of age.

Our condor nest boxes are elevated; they’re on the second floor of the condor breeding facility. The nests have one entrance that leads to the roost area. The entrance has an 18-inch barrier at the base to prevent young hatchlings from wandering out of our camera’s view. This barrier also provides exercise for the chick when it is big enough to start jumping up onto the barrier. The roost area is open to the flight pen and has a ledge that is about eight feet off of the ground. There is a five-inch-diameter pole leaning from the ground to the ledge; we call this the “pole ladder.” The condors can walk up or down this pole ladder to get to or from the nest. They can, of course, fly to the nest as well if they desire.

For a few weeks, Antiki was able to walk down the pole ladder to start exploring the flight pen. She would watch Sisquoc and Shatash eat, sometimes begging for them to feed her, sometimes playing tug-of-war trying to take food from them. She also got to drink from the pool for the first time. She would climb up onto an eight-foot-tall stump perch and up into the olive tree in the pen. She started to spend the night out in the pen, perched up in the tree, under the watchful eyes of her parents.

We still had not seen her actually fly to any of the perches, though, until September 13. That morning, after being warmed by the sun, she took a short flight from the olive tree to join Sisquoc on one of the 10-foot-tall perches. After that, she could deftly fly from perch to perch like a pro! Since that morning, Antiki spends the majority of the time out in the pen, sometimes returning to sit in the shade of the roost.

When condor chicks fledge in the wild, it can be a long process as well. They will often walk around the mouth of their nest cave, hopping about, testing their wings. They may hop or climb into nearby shrubs or trees to get a better vantage point. Very seldom do chicks just spring forth from their nest into the wild blue yonder. They usually need to exercise and develop their abilities before embarking on such a dangerous venture. Mom and dad are always present to escort or protect the chicks. Parent condors can be very vigilant and defensive of their chicks. After all, much energy and many resources went into producing just this one chick, so they try very hard to ensure success for their only nestling. One pair of condors in California actually chased a black bear away from their nest!

With this new camera view, you’ll be able to see the roost area, most of the perches in the pen, the feeding area (shift pen), shade areas created by plants, and the pool. The view is wide, so detail is a bit harder to discern. Also, we do minimal maintenance in the pen, so the pen has lots of plant growth and dried food (animal carcasses) in it. We limit our activities in/near chick pens so as not to expose Antiki to humans, thus desensitizing her to our presence. We have found that chicks raised in isolation from humans tend to be more successful once they are released to the wild. The flight pen won’t look as nice as an exhibit you might see at the Safari Park or the Zoo, but Sisquoc and Shatash prefer it that way, if it means we stay away from their precious chick!

If, by chance, you don’t see Antiki out in the pen, she could be resting in the shade of the roost, or she may have hopped back into the nest box. This is completely normal. The adult condors do the same thing. Just give her a little time; she’ll come back out into view later. We have a great volunteer staff that moves the camera for the nest box view, but we keepers move the camera when it is the pen view. We’ll do our best to zoom in to give you a good view of her when we can, but we are not always near the camera controls as we are also taking care of the other condors.

So what’s next for Antiki? She’ll stay in the pen with her parents for a little while longer. She is still learning from them. In the wild, condor chicks stay with or around their parents for up to 18 months. We don’t let them stay that long here at the Park. If we did, the next breeding season would probably be compromised; the presence of the fledgling may prevent the parents from breeding the next year, or the parents may act aggressively towards the chick if they try to nest again. Sometime in this fall, Antiki will be removed from her parents, so they can prepare for the next breeding season. She will be introduced to other birds her age in a group with an adult bird that acts as a behavioral mentor. In the meantime, it will be decided whether she will be a candidate for release to the wild (and where) or held for the captive breeding program. I’ll keep you informed when this happens. Until then, please continue to keep checking in on our big girl.

Everyone’s interest and enthusiasm over the hatch and growth of Antiki have been wonderful. We really appreciate all of the comments and questions we have received throughout her development. Thanks again for all of your support—we couldn’t do it without you!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, One Step Closer to Fledging.

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CSI: Coronado

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Feathers from a California least tern mark the scene of the crime. (Photo by Maggie Lee Post, courtesy Naval Base Coronado)

I never expected to gain detective skills on the California least tern and western snowy plover project. As field biologists, our observation skills are critical in assessing nest success, chick survival, and other aspects of population ecology throughout the season. There are times when we walk up to a nest and something is amiss: the eggs are missing, an egg is punctured, or sometimes we find only pieces of broken egg shell in the nest cup. This is when we get to an interesting aspect of our job: ‘crime scene’ investigation! Many predators try to take advantage of the hundreds of eggs in a tern colony and those in plover nests. We partner up with predator biologists to help solve these cases of nest predation and prevent more from happening.

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Can you make out the American crow tracks left at this crime scene? (Photo by Billy Smith, courtesy Naval Base Coronado)

Early in the season this year, when the first nests were being filled in the tern colony, the common raven and American crow (members of the Corvidae family) were the main threats. Clues left at the scene of the crime included tracks, pieces of egg shell, and sometimes even remnants of yolk in and around the nest cup. Once these clever birds figured out that we used small green sticks to mark each well-camouflaged nest, they found several other nests at one site. We quickly changed our marking tactics, and began using sea shells to mark nests.

In the middle of the season, when the tern chicks were reaching that stage when they were just beginning to fly, we saw an increase in predation by raptors. Peregrine falcons and great horned owls were linked to some of the crimes. These skilled hunters make swift kills but leave messy crime scenes containing tracks, feather piles, and sometimes leftover pieces of their prey.

Birds are not the only hunters in the area. Skunks and other small, opportunistic mammals use their keen senses to find and eat tern and plover eggs. Since most of these terrestrial creatures forage around dusk or at night, we are able to detect tracks and other signs during our morning patrol—and we definitely smelled a skunk’s presence at one of the beaches! Skunks are especially problematic because they are capable of digging under the exclosures we place over the plover nests to get to the eggs.

Predator management is no easy task, and the predator biologists do an excellent and professional job. They come up with inventive scare tactics and other methods to alleviate the pressure on our protected birds. Our partnership gives the terns and plovers a chance to incubate their eggs and raise their chicks in peace. This is why I’m out here using my detective skills to help the terns and plovers nest successfully on the beaches of Coronado. Case closed.

Melissa Murillo is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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One Step Closer To Fledging

Antiki has moved out of the nest box, spending her time on the ledge outside where her parents groom and feed her.

Antiki has moved out of the nest box and is spending her days on the ledge outside where her parents groom and feed her.

As many Condor Cam viewers have experienced, the rearing process for a California condor can be long and slow. It makes sense, though, for a condor to develop so slowly. She has lots of growing to do. When our chick, Antiki, hatched, she weighed approximately 6.35 ounces (180 grams). When she reaches her fledge weight of 17 pounds (8 kilograms) or more, she will have increased her hatch weight by 44 times! I, myself, have only increased my birth weight by 19 times.

On August 6, at 118 days of age, Antiki took her most recent step toward leaving the nest: she jumped up onto the barrier between her nest box and the adjoining roost area. She later hopped back into her nest, but that’s OK. There’s no hurry to fledge, or leave the nest, just yet. Her feathers still need time to fill in all of the way. In the meantime, hopping up and down from the barrier will exercise her muscles, as well as improve her balance. On August 11, she hopped into the roost area on the other side of the barrier for the first time. Here, she can warm herself in the sun, if she so chooses. While out in the roost, she can also rest or sleep in the shade, perch with her parents (if they are not perched out in the flight pen), or step out to the roost ledge to soak up the sun’s rays for the first time. The ledge is about 8 feet from the ground – high enough to make the parents feel comfortable and secure in their nest, but not as high as a condor nest in the wild. Antiki may get near the edge, but she will be cautious in doing so, so she doesn’t teeter off. It is natural for condor chicks to explore and exercise on the edge of their nest cavities. Rarely do they fall out; in 33 years of raising California condors here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we have never seen a chick fall from its nest area prematurely.

The next step of Antiki’s development will be to fledge. When she is ready, she will jump off of the 8-foot-high nest ledge. She will either slow her fall to the ground below the ledge, or fly to a nearby perch. We consider her fledged when she can get up on a perch by herself. The youngest we have seen a condor chick fledge here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is 123 days old. Sometimes chicks have waited until over 165 days. It all depends on the chick.

The parents tend to be very vigilant at this phase of their chick’s development. It might appear over-protective to us, but keep in mind that they have invested an entire breeding season and lots of energy into this one chick. It benefits them greatly to make sure that their sole offspring is safe, healthy, and strong. They usually don’t coax or pressure their chick to leave the nest; on the contrary, we have seen parents make sure that it doesn’t stray too far from the nest if it’s not ready yet. The parents will usually perch and/or roost near the fledgling. They also will join her when she finally starts going to the feeding area of the flight pen. Most of the time, though, they will push her aside and they will eat first, feeding her when they are done. In “condor culture,” the bigger, more dominant birds usually eat first, while the subordinate birds wait their turn. The earlier Antiki learns this from her parents, the better she will assimilate into a wild population after she is released. Don’t worry—Sisquoc and Shatash won’t let Antiki starve. They will continue to feed her even when she is out in the flight pen. Eventually, she will eat more and more on her own.

Depending on Antiki’s development and activity levels, we will try to switch the Condor Cam view from the nest box/roost area to the flight pen. You’ll be able to see the roost area, most of the perches in the pen, the feeding area, shade areas created by plants, and the pool, where she can either drink on her own or bathe (one of my favorite condor activities to observe!). The view will be wide, so detail will be harder to discern. Also, we do minimal maintenance in the pen once the chick is large enough to look over the nest box barrier and into the pen. So the pen has lots of plant growth and dried food (animal carcasses) in it. We limit our activities in/near chick pens so as not to expose the chick to humans, thus desensitizing her to our presence. We have found that chicks raised in isolation from humans tend to be more successful once they are released to the wild. The flight pen won’t look as nice as an exhibit you might see at the Zoo or the Safari Park, but Sisquoc and Shatash prefer it that way, if it means we stay away from their precious chick!

Thanks so much to all of our faithful and dedicated Condor Cam viewers. Soon, your support and devotion will be rewarded when our “little big girl” spreads her wings and takes that next step. Rest assured, though, that Antiki’s story will be far from over!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Condor Chick: Getting Big!

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Terns, Plovers, and People: Living in Harmony

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This beach on Naval Base Coronado is one site where field biologists are studying California least tern and snowy plover populations (U.S. Navy photo by S. McLaughlin, SDZG)

As field biologists, we are lucky to have some of the most beautiful offices in the world. Every day, my coworkers and I get to enjoy long walks on the beach, warm sunshine and the occasional passing dolphin pod. Of course with views like the one in the photo, we are working alongside many other people enjoying a day at the Pacific Ocean. It’s wonderful to see people appreciating the beach habitat we all love so much, especially when it’s done in a respectful and responsible way. So, here are a couple of thoughts from a field biologist.

Both the California least tern and western snowy plover are sensitive to human disturbance. While some bird species will remain on their nest until you are very nearly upon it, terns and plovers seem to hop off at the first sign of danger. Plovers can be seen in the vicinity of the nest, performing the broken-wing display to draw perceived predators away from their nest. Terns take a more aggressive approach, screeching at and dive-bombing anyone that approaches their nest; sometimes several members of the colony will join in to drive the threat away. With the numbers of terns and plovers at critically low levels, it’s important that the birds are able to spend their energy caring for their young, instead of chasing off disturbances.

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With chicks this cute and helpless, it’s easy to see why we want to protect California least tern populations. (U.S. Navy photo by S. McLaughlin, SDZG)

The most common instances of disturbance we see out in the field are people walking through the colony and dogs being allowed off leash in areas with nesting birds. In addition to upsetting the adult birds, these types of disturbances can result in trampled eggs and chicks, and stressed-out young. Luckily for all the recreational beach users out there, avoiding creating a disturbance is very easy! The most important step to take is observing and abiding by posted signs. If you are ever approached by a game warden or field biologist, don’t be afraid to ask questions. We love to talk about the terns and plovers, and outreach is an important part of our jobs!

The beaches of southern California and the birds that live there offer amazing opportunities for people to engage with nature. If we enjoy these resources respectfully and responsibly they will hopefully be here for many more years to come.

 

Stephanie McLaughlin is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Plover Hide and Seek

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A snowy plover chick’s cryptic coloring helps it hide from predators. (Photo: Rachel Smith, SDZG at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton)

Well it’s finally here, SUMMER! As a born-and-raised San Diegan, I know that one thing is for certain this time of year: the beaches become a popular place to visit for some fun in the sun. Besides having to share the sometimes-crowded beaches with other humans, we need to remember that there are other animals that also live on the beach. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with two of those wonderful animals, the threatened western snowy plover and the endangered California least tern.

The snowy plover can be seen year round in San Diego, but the California least tern only comes to our shores during the breeding season, which is April through August. I’m sure if you’ve been anywhere near the tern breeding colonies, you will have seen these small white birds flying around like fighter pilots chasing one another and sounding like storm trooper ray guns. The plovers are small, sandy brown shorebirds with gray legs that hang out in the wrack line of kelp, eating as many bugs as they can get in their bills.

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Can you spot the snowy plover chick hiding in this vegetation? Click on the image to enlarge it. (Photo: Rachel Smith, SDZG at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton)

During the summer at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, the beaches are full of plovers and terns nesting and raising their chicks. For both terns and plovers, it takes about four weeks for chicks to be able to fly. Thus, they have to rely on camouflage to evade the eyes of predators; as biologists and monitors, this camouflage can make it challenging for us to locate them. Plover chicks are particularly good at hiding. First off, for lack of a better description, they are adorable. They look like freckled gray cotton balls with legs. Those legs come in handy when evading land predators, especially as the chicks get closer and closer to fledging (meaning they can fly). Their first defense is hiding, especially when they are young, and these little guys are experts at hide and seek.

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There it is! Click on the image for a better look. (Photo: Rachel Smith, SDZG at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton)

We are always keeping an eye out for them, looking for clues based on the behavior of the adult plovers (especially adult males) but we don’t always find them. It’s amazing how well the chicks blend into the sand and vegetation. They practically disappear and you often have to be right over them to see them. Often, our best chance of seeing the chicks when we are out monitoring is using our truck as a makeshift blind to watch for them out foraging around in the dunes and along the water’s edge. Amazingly, the birds do not perceive the truck as a threat and we can get much closer when we are inside the truck than outside of it.

Another technique we use is to blend in by staying a long distance away and using a spotting scope or binoculars to watch the behavior of the adult male (who does the rearing of the chicks) to find out where the chicks are hanging out. Watching these chicks grow up to become fledglings is a real treat, especially when I see them trying out their wings and getting a little air for the first time. It just puts a smile on my face knowing they have made it and are pretty much all grown up.

So, while I’m out with my fellow biologists doing our part to help protect these amazing animals, you as beach goers can do your part by respecting closed beach areas even when it is crowded, and keeping the beaches clean not only for each other but for all the animals that live there too. By doing this you can be a hero for wildlife and go home happy knowing that you are giving plovers and terns a safe place to grow up for future generations to enjoy.

Rachel Smith is a senior research associate at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Condor Chick: Getting Big!

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There she grows! Antiki is feathering out nicely.

Antiki, our California condor chick featured on this year’s San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam, is now over 100 days old and starting to get her “big bird” feathers! As many of our regular viewers have noticed, her flight feathers are growing in. Some of the first feathers that start to grow are the wing feathers. It is easy to see the feathers growing through the chick’s down—the down feathers are gray, but the new flight feathers are black. The long feathers that grow from the tip of the wing are called “primary feathers” and the feathers from the wrist to the armpit are “secondary feathers.” Primary and secondary feathers are the giant feathers that make the California condor’s wing so large and impressive; an adult can have a wingspan of up to 9 ½ feet! We are estimating our chick’s wingspan to be around 5 feet right now—between the size of a red-tailed hawk’s and a bald eagle’s. Her tail feathers are also starting to grow. They’re a little harder to see on camera, but you should be able to spot them soon.

After the wing and tail feathers fill in, the feathers on the chick’s back will start to grow, as well as the small feathers on the top of the wing (called “coverts”). Even though many new, black feathers will be covering parts of her body, she will still have lots of gray down showing, making it easy to differentiate her from her parents. Eventually, her light-colored skin will turn dark grey or black and be covered with fine, fuzzy feathers, but this won’t happen until well after she leaves the nest. Her skin will stay dark until she reaches maturity at 6 years and it turns pink-orange, just like her parents’, Sisquoc and Shatash.

The chick had her second health exam on June 25 during which our veterinary staff were able to administer her second, and final, West Nile virus inoculation. A blood sample was obtained and she weighed in at 13 pounds, 7 ounces (6.1 kilograms), over half of her projected adult weight. Even though our little girl is getting big, she still has room to grow!

The adult condors normally are fed four days per week. The other three days of the week, they are fasted. They often will not eat every day in the wild, sometimes fasting for up to two weeks, so our nutritionists recommend not feeding them every day to prevent obesity and food waste. Their diet, depending on the day, can consist of rats, rabbits, trout, beef spleen, or ground meat. We offer two to three pounds of food per bird per feeding day. When the condors are raising a chick, in addition to their normal diet, we offer extra food every day: 1 rat, 1.5 pounds of beef spleen, 1 trout, and half a pound of ground meat. They don’t end up feeding all of this food to the chick, but we want to be sure that they have enough for the growing baby. It’s difficult to calculate exactly how much food the chick is eating each day, but we estimate that she could be eating 1.5-2.5 pounds of food per day.

Many Condor Cam viewers have seen some rough-looking interactions between the chick and her parents. What may have been happening was a form of discipline. As the chick has gotten bigger, her begging displays and efforts have gotten more vigorous. These efforts can sometimes be bothersome or problematic for parents that just want some peace and quiet. The parents have two ways to make sure that the chick does not cause too much trouble while begging. They can leave immediately after providing food, which is what we’ve seen a lot of on Condor Cam; or they can discipline the unruly chick. This discipline can come in the form of the parent sitting or standing on the chick, or the parent may nip or tug at it. Either of these behaviors results in the chick being put in its place by the dominant bird in the nest, thus ending the undesired behavior. Sometimes, this discipline may occur before the chick acts up. Be mindful that this is perfectly normal for condors to do, even though it would be cruel for us to treat our own babies like that! When condors fledge, or leave the nest, they need to know how to interact with dominant birds at a feeding or roost site. This seemingly rough behavior from the parents will benefit the chick later when it encounters a big, unrelated bird that might not be as gentle.

There have been many questions regarding the chick being able to jump up on the nest box barrier. She hasn’t jumped up yet, but she may soon. Stay tuned for our next blog that will discuss this next big milestone!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Say Hello to Antiki!