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condor nest

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New Condor Chick in Mexico

Here's a look at the first wild condor chick in Mexico this year!

Here’s a look at the first wild condor chick in Mexico this year!

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.

Juan rappels to the condors' nest.

Juan rappels to the condors’ nest.

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.

The chick looks healthy and well cared for.

The chick looks healthy and well cared for.

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!

Father condor keeps a wary eye on the researchers in his nest.

Father condor keeps a wary eye on the researchers in his nest.

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.

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Chick Watching: Hatch to 1 Week

This California condor chick is being fed by a hand puppet. The chick you see on Condor Cam is fed by its parents.

Condor Cam at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park provides an opportunity to watch the inner workings of a condor nest, an experience usually limited to keepers and field biologists. We hope you are enjoying it as much as we are! Many viewers have expressed some concerns while watching the little California condor chick hatch and grow. Thank you so much for caring! The chick’s development and health are progressing perfectly. Parents Sisquoc and Shatash are doing an excellent job! Being able to determine if all is well in a nest can often be difficult, especially if you don’t have anything to which you can compare. I’d like to provide some developmental and behavioral guidelines that we consider to be normal for a healthy condor family.

The chick hatched on March 10, 2012, weighing around 190 grams (6.7 ounces). The hatching process can be grueling, so afterward the chick usually rests a lot and is brooded, or sat on, by the parents. We often call this “sitting tight,” as the parents are providing protection and warmth, especially while the newly hatched chick is drying off. With the chick being weak and wobbly, it often is hard to feed, but that is okay. The chick is getting nutrients from the yolk sac that it absorbed into its belly just before hatching. After about a day, the chick can hold its head steady, and the parents start providing food. They eat food that we offer out in the flight pen and then bring it to the chick in their crop (a bulge in their esophagus where they can store up to 3 pounds or 1.3 kilograms of food). The food is regurgitated for the chick, providing a warm and nutritious meal. Mmm! The diet we provide varies, depending on the day, but it can include rabbits, rats, trout, beef spleen, and ground meat. While the chick is very young, it is often difficult to witness a feeding, since the parent is standing directly above the chick, blocking the camera’s view. If you see a parent slightly bobbing its head while standing over the chick, feeding is occurring. Feeding sessions are fairly short for small chicks, since their crops are only about the size of a lima bean.

Both California condor parents provide care for the chick. This drive is very strong, and it’s not uncommon to see the parents vying for time with the chick, especially immediately after hatching. This happens in the form of leaning into each other, pushing one’s way onto the chick, scooping the chick from one parent to the other, or nipping at neck skin or tugging at feathers to get the other parent to move. Usually, one parent acts more dominantly and controls the interactions a little more than the other parent. This time, mother Shatash took this dominant role, despite her being much smaller than Sisquoc. Other years, we’ve seen Sisquoc take this role. We interpret this periodic shift in dominance, and the other bird’s acceptance of this shift, as a very good trait in a condor pair. As time passes after hatch, they settle into a routine, and the nest exchanges become much calmer.

One viewer concern was the number of times that the chick was stepped on by the parents. In many species, ranging from hummingbirds to elephants, babies get slightly squished by the parents. Usually, it’s just a minor misstep, and the baby lets the parent know with a brief vocalization. Condors are no different or no more fragile. They are very hearty little chicks! As young as four days of age, we have seen chicks sifting through the sand in the nest, picking up items on their own. We’ve even seen chicks swallowing small pieces of their eggshell for dietary calcium.

At the end of the condor chick’s first week of life it weighs around 300 grams (10.5 ounces). It is getting much stronger but is not venturing around the nest very much yet. Coordination is improving, and we can witness social interactions with the parents: nibbling, preening, and nuzzling. Every once in a while, you may see the chick quivering, almost like it has the hiccups. It is actually vocalizing. Condors don’t have a true voice box, or “syrinx,” like other birds, but they can make crude, primitive vocalizations. Adults may grunt, wheeze, or hiss. Chicks can make a high-pitched, scraping squawk, usually when begging or out from under the parents for too long.

The next few weeks of development are very exciting, not just for the condor family, but for any of us watching on the Condor Cam. Stay tuned!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condors: Big Day Approaching.

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Wild Condor Chick Gets Own TV Show

A California condor watches over his chick in the family's cave in Baja California, Mexico.

Recently, conservation scientists and managers from San Diego Zoo Global’s California Condor Recovery Team successfully installed an autonomous video camera system inside the cliff-face nest site of our new wild-hatched condor chick in Baja California, Mexico—for the very first time! This high-tech field video system consists of a tiny, low-light, weatherproof camera that sends images via cable to a separate recording box equipped with a memory card. The batteries powering the unit are constantly recharged by a portable solar panel, so once the unit is set up, it can record video footage for weeks at a time. We acquired the video recording unit through a generous grant provided by Judy Wheatley, a member of the Zoo’s board of trustees.

Okay, great, so you have a neat video camera – but how do you install one in a condor nest high up in the mountains? With a lot of sweat, grunt-work, and no fear of heights!

I acquired and set up the unit and transported it to the condor nest site with the assistance of program manager Mike Wallace and Mexican field staff Juan Vargas and Mohamed Saad. To minimize disturbance to the condor family, the camera installation trip coincided with the condor chick’s scheduled health exam and vaccination, so also present were the highly experienced and capable vets Jeff Zuba and Fernando Sanchez.

Early on a very hot Baja summer’s day, our team set off to inspect the chick and install the video camera. With pounds of scientific and veterinary equipment strapped to our backs, as well as climbing rope and gear and plenty of water, we slowly and carefully wended our way down a steep, cactus-covered scree slope toward the nest. The chick’s parents had chosen their real estate well, and it took us many hours of hard slog just to get to the top of the cliff where the nest was located. The chick has a spectacular view that looks out across a mountainous vista covering remote valleys and ranches all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

At the staging site, we set up our equipment in preparation for the descent into the nest and the health inspection. While the chick was being examined and vaccinated, Juan rappelled with the camera down into the nest and bolted it into the roof of the cave. The resulting panoramic view of the nest now enables us to monitor the chick’s development as well as the behaviors of its parents. In this short video clip, you can see the chick’s proud dad (condor #269) in the foreground. The chick then pops up behind him and flaps its short, stubby, developing wings. The video is in black and white because the camera is specialized for extremely low-light conditions, such as those experienced inside a cave.

The condor program has its fingers crossed that this chick will successfully fledge and make its first flight out of the nest in the coming months to join our wild condor population. This is just one example of how modern technology and scientific research is improving the San Diego Zoo’s ability to effectively manage and expand the reintroduced condor population in Mexico.

James Sheppard is an ecologist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Measuring Wind beneath Condor Wings.