wild condors


Condor Saticoy at Release Site

Condors Nechuwa, Sukilamu, and Saticoy take in the view.

Saticoy (far right) and his fellows are acclimating to their new home in the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

Some of our devoted condor fans have been asking about Saticoy, the California condor chick who hatched and was raised by his parents while on the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam last year. For those who are new to Condor Cam, Saticoy is the older sibling to this year’s chick, Cuyamaca.

On April 11, Saticoy was transported to his release site with two other condors who hatched at the Safari Park last year, Nechuwa and Sukilamu. These three young males are being housed in the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in a flight pen with a wonderful view of the quiet, wide-open spaces of the Refuge. Beautiful wildflowers growing all over the grassy, rolling hills lead to the canyons and mountains that provide prime condor nesting habitat. The Refuge is located just north of Santa Barbara in southern California’s Kern County.

The flight pen is visited by curious condor neighbors.

The flight pen acts as a hacking site, or a place where the young birds become familiar with their surroundings before they are released to the wild. They can acclimatize to the weather and wind. Also, there are 66 other condors flying free in this region, and many of them frequent the hillside where the flight pen is located. This allows the resident condors to meet the new, young release candidates; when the young birds are released, they won’t be complete strangers to the free-flying condors. When we put Saticoy (wearing wing tag #36), Nechuwa (wing tag #37), and Sukilamu (wing tag #43) in the flight pen, four wild condors were already watching from the outside, curious about their new neighbors.

Saticoy and his pen mates will stay in the flight pen through the summer. If all goes well, the field biologists will release them to the wild sometime in September, about 18 months after Saticoy’s hatch. As you can see, California condor development is a long and involved process!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Chick: 1st Exam.


Condor Chick: Lonely?

Saticoy continues to grow and thrive!

Some of our Condor Cam viewers have been worried that our growing chick, Saticoy, looks lonely and/or bored. California condors naturally have a one-egg clutch; in other words, there is never more than one chick in a nest. Although Saticoy may appear lonely to us, we need to keep in mind that his social requirements are much different from ours. Of course a human would be lonely being raised in isolation, but condors thrive in that situation: no competition from nest mates, ensuring plenty of food for growth; plenty of attention and preening and protection from both parents, facilitating the proper social skills for when it’s time to leave the nest; and reducing the amount of waste that can accumulate in a nest, reducing the possibilities for a parasite infestation.

Condor parents Sisquoc and Shatash visit Saticoy several times a day for feeding and social interaction, giving their youngster everything that he needs. If he was in distress, it would manifest in improper growth and unusual behaviors. Rest assured that he is in perfect health and showing excellent behaviors for a potential release candidate at this age, indicating to us that Sisquoc and Shatash are doing a textbook job!

As for giving him “toys” or enrichment items, the parents have provided several items in the nest for Saticoy to explore or play with: feathers, dried food items, bones, and cast hair pellets. We have seen Saticoy (as well as every other condor raised at the Safari Park) play with, sleep on, and re-distribute these items around the nest. Field observations have shown that condor chicks in wild nests in California, Arizona, and Mexico behave in the exact same manner. We don’t want to provide any unnaturally occurring items in the nest as playthings, as this would encourage him to seek out similar items if he is released to the wild, possibly putting him in harm’s way.

Please remember that we are trying 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. I hope you continue to enjoy watching Saticoy grow!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Chick: First Health Exam.


Measuring Wind beneath Condor Wings

A condor's eye view? Flying over condor habitat in Baja California, Mexico.

A condor's eye view? Flying over condor habitat in Baja California, Mexico.

Last month, we conducted an expedition to install a series of meteorological stations on the remote and inaccessible eastern escarpment of the Sierra Mountains of Baja California, Mexico. This rugged region of spectacular natural beauty is the release site for the San Diego Zoo’s California condor reintroduction program. This site was chosen because of its status as a pristine, protected area of the condor’s former range. Condors existed in the mountains of Baja until they disappeared in the 1940s, only to reappear in 2002 when the San Diego Zoo released captive-bred birds back into their former habitat.

The mountainous terrain of the Baja reintroduction site provides ideal habitat for the wild condors. The birds must range over extremely wide areas to detect the carcasses of the animals that they scavenge upon for food, such as mountain sheep, goats, and pigs. California condors are extremely efficient fliers, and they are able to glide for long distances without flapping their wings, much like an albatross does when flying across the open ocean. This efficient soaring enables the birds to successfully search for food without expending too much energy. Condors gain lift by catching thermal updrafts, and these wind currents often form alongside mountains. Thermal winds are especially frequent along the Baja Sierra ranges, when warm air from the valleys and deserts below forms a rising column. The strong winds and frequent thermals that occur in this area make it an ideal location for condor habitat, and the birds have been tracked making long-distance exploratory flights whenever wind conditions seem to be suitable.

Defining suitable (or even optimal) wind conditions in condor habitats is key to successfully managing wild condor populations and reintroduction programs. The importance of wind in determining condor foraging success means that a habitat that may seem ideal to conservation managers (i.e., due to high densities of food items or good roosting and nest sites) may actually be inferior in the eyes of a condor because the winds are too weak, erratic, or unstable to sustain efficient condor flight over long distances. In fact, the condor population that was released by the Zoo on the western escarpment of the Baja Sierras now makes frequent and unforeseen use of the eastern ridges 12 miles (19 kilometers) away, where strong, hot winds roar up from the scorching Laguna Salada desert below.

One of the remote-operated meteorological stations the author helped install.

One of the remote-operated meteorological stations the author helped install.

To gain a better understanding of the climate conditions that drive condor movement patterns and modify condor habitat preference, we installed remote-operated meteorological stations within the range of the released condors. These stations are solar-powered and mounted on 10-foot-tall (3-meter-tall) tripods. A logger records climate information from wind and air temperature sensors, and these data are then transmitted via a satellite phone network. This way, the stations can be installed in remote areas without the need to change batteries or download the data by hand, as the climate sensor information can be directly downloaded from the Internet.

A precarious perch for the helicopter!

A precarious perch for the helicopter!

The eastern escarpment of the Baja Sierras favored by the wild condors is so steep, rugged, and remote that it is inaccessible by foot. Hence, we had to employ a helicopter to install our meteorological stations (with the kind permission of the Mexican federal government, the local ejido (community), the management department of the Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Martir, and the Mexican military). After loading up the chopper with our scientific equipment at San Felipe airport, we flew directly across the desert and high up into the mountains. I had previously determined the location sites for each station using the combined home ranges of the birds themselves: that way, we would be collecting climate data within the areas that the condors actually use. These locations proved to be so steep and jagged that our expert pilot had to search hard for safe landing sites. Often we had to land on the edge of sheer precipices with the chaparral barely feet away from the spinning helicopter rotors!

Another typical day at the office...

Another typical day at the office...

As soon as we had set down safely, we rushed out to erect each tripod by bolting it onto the top of a flat rock; the incredibly strong winds that occur in the area mean that each station must be robustly secured. Setting up and activating each station took less than an hour, and we had successfully installed each unit by early afternoon. Upon our return, we were able to immediately begin downloading the climate data recorded by each station at five-minute intervals. These highly accurate, high-resolution data will provide invaluable information on how wind patterns shape and modify the movement patterns and habitat use of the reintroduced condors. This information will in turn help managers fine-tune the condor reintroduction program to the specific habitat requirements of this endangered, iconic species.

James Sheppard is a postdoctoral fellow for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Condors: Quest for the Egg.