The great gift of working at the California condor field station in Baja California, Mexico, is that every single day is a day spent with nature. A typical day starts with a 7 a.m. breakfast and a pot of coffee, just like any day in the city. Unlike the city, however, we have no commute in traffic, we don’t have the luxury of a hot shower every morning, and we never quite know what the Sierra San Pedro Martir has prepared for us each day.
Nature can be full of surprises. On our daily hike to check on the condors we may meet a coyote or mule deer, see new flowers in bloom, catch a glimpse of a mountain lion running in the distance, or disturb a flock of mountain quail into flight. It is now in late spring that we have to be very alert about forest fires. Often, we find our roads blocked with fallen pine trees.
The morning of May 15, 2013, was such a day, and after navigating around a fallen tree, Juan Vargas and I started our way down the canyon to complete a nest inspection. We were carrying the climbing gear necessary to rappel close to the entrance of the condor nest. Just halfway along the route, we saw a fire northwest of the mountain, and looking to the horizon saw a second fire north of the first one, stronger and more threatening. The wind was bringing smoke to us. Immediately, we communicated by radio with the park rangers so they could give a call to the fire fighters.
Arriving at the edge of the cliff, Juan built the anchors and prepared the ropes to climb down to the nest. In our safety gear, we started to rappel in silence. As we approached the nest, adult male condor #269 came out from inside the cave to protect the nest from intruders. I moved toward the condor to distract him from Juan, who climbed into the cave to find a lovely, fluffy wild chick. A quick physical check was made to determine the chick was healthy and doing fine. The male condor was not happy, and despite my body blocking his view, he watched Juan through the space between my legs. In a rush, the aggressive condor pushed through my legs toward Juan to attack him. Juan was on his knees with his back facing the entrance of the cave, and luckily he heard my yelling and moved swiftly out of the condor’s reach Two years ago, Juan wasn’t that lucky—that same male condor pecked his behind!
With the adult male condor back in the nest, Juan and I worked quickly to install a remote camera with a motion sensor to capture the frequency of the parents’ entries to the nest. This will enable us to learn more about condor parental behavior in the wild.
On our way back to the field station, we could see the fires were under control. Exhausted, we returned like proud parents and celebrated our discovery of a new wild chick (#710). Two chicks hatched in the wild in 2012 have now fledged and are integrating well with the adult population in Baja California. This chick represents our third healthy living wild California condor offspring as well as the first chick of 2013.
Mohamed Saad is a field biologist with San Diego Zoo Global’s partner, COSTA SALVAjE.