Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Hi Notes

LOTS of Condor activity since my last posting! You already heard from Mike and Roger regarding the seven Condors who checked out the Colony/Condor Days Parade in Atascadero, Oct 18th. I was working at the Templeton Resource Conservation District’s Watershed Fair booth in the Atascadero Sunken Gardens and happened to look up at a group of “Turkey Vultures” flying overhead…WHOA!!! Those aren’t TVs! Those are Condors! Four of these beautiful birds flew over, circled and flew back over again. I guess they weren’t in the market for hand crocheted doilies or brochures on water conservation as they kept heading south and out of sight. DJ Funk was on the ball and whipped out his video camera and got some footage of the four birds.

Last Tuesday (Oct 21)as I was on my way up to the lookout I stopped to check out a huge kettle of TVs in Atascadero on Hwy 41 and picked up a signal for Y192. I couldn’t pick her out in the crowd, but Mike
Tyner checked Wed. morning and got a signal from her, still inAtascadero. I kept getting signals all day Wed. Oct 22 and found that she was still in Atas. Thursday morning. She was perched in some dead branches of a huge Gray Pine. Later that morning a friend reported seeing her flying East from Atascadero.
This morning, Tues. Oct 28th I spoke to Denise Stockton at Hopper Mt. checking on a bird who had been missing for about a week (156, a six year old female). The good news is that she has turned up and is fine. The unhappy news is that the Hopper Mt. facility was in the path of the terrible fires down south. None of the main buildings were burned but they think they have lost some of their holding pens and blinds for observing the Condors at Hopper Mt. Denise said they are going to try to get up to these areas today to check out the damage. Luckily, no birds were in captivity and as far as they know all the released birds are o.k.

Bye ’til next time,

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

AC8, AC9 and the last days of wild California condors by Jan Hamber and Bronwyn Davey, 2003

On a spring day in May 1982, in a remote cave atop a cliff in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, southern California, a tiny pink California condor chick pecked its way out of its hard egg shell that had protected it for nearly two months. He was greeted by his mother, a giant black bird, with a mottled orange head and a wing span of over 9 feet, who gently stroked him with her powerful beak and nestled him close under her warm body.

This same scene had been repeated for tens of thousands of years. However, after less than 200 years of direct contact with Europeans, this scene was about to end. The mother and chick were part of a species that without drastic measures would cease to exist forever. The California condor population had experienced significant declines for decades and less than 26 California condors remained in the world.

Neither the chick nor its mother were aware of how significant this event was for their species or how critical a part that each would play in efforts to save their kind from extinction. The chick, later named Xolxol (ho-ho), was captured as a chick in 1982 and became the first addition to the captive breeding program. This event marked the beginning of the California Condor Recovery Program. The mother, later known as Adult Condor #8 (AC8), was the last free flying wild female California condor captured for the recovery program.

After the capture of Xolxol, AC8 continued to nest successfully in the wild, with her unnamed partner. In 1983 and 1984 she laid several eggs, which were removed and now form a significant part of the captive breeding program at San Diego Wild Animal Park and Los Angeles Zoo. By late 1984 the numbers of wild California condors had dropped by nearly half. AC8 together with her partner was one of only 5 actively breeding pairs in a total population of 15 wild birds. Tragically, in November 1984, AC8’s partner disappeared and never returned. Although this was a serious set back for the condor program, biologists were still optimistic that California condors from the captive breeding program could still be released back into the wild where a wild condor population existed. The other wild pairs were breeding successfully and 14 eggs and chicks had already been produced to form the nucleus of the captive breeding population.

Jan Hamber, a condor biologist working on the program at the time recalls “all we needed was just one more successful breeding season and 1986 would then have been the year that young birds could be released from the captive group and used to augment the wild population”.

It appeared that the recovery plan was working and success was just around the corner. But it was not to be. As the biologists fanned out into the nesting areas in late January 1985, reports came filtering back that either one or both members of pairs were missing from the breeding territories. By April, when the missing mate of a new pair was found dead from lead poisoning on a ranch in the Sierra, it was clear that some disaster had struck. Six condors were missing from the population. Only 9 birds survived, and worse yet, only one pair remained to breed: the Santa Barbara pair known as AC2 and AC3.

The bottom had dropped out of their plans and the program entered a phase of acrimonious debate as to whether to take all the remaining 9 birds into captivity or leave some out to keep the wild population going. The battle raged during the remainder of 1985 and three birds were removed during the summer and fall until only 6 were left, 2 females: AC3 and AC8 and the rest males: AC2, AC5, AC6, and AC9.

Then in mid-December 1985 disaster struck again. It was reported that AC3 was down on Hudson Ranch. It was obvious that she was sick. She was finally captured on January 3rd. Despite constant care and treatment at San Diego Zoo, AC3 died January 18, 1986, another victim of lead poisoning. Now no breeding pairs remained in the wild and only one female, AC8, was left with four males. The remaining adult males, whose partners had also disappeared, desperately tried to court AC8. However, she was uninterested and instead chose AC9 , a young male just coming into adulthood.

AC8’s breeding experience over AC9’s was obvious. She accepted his advances and immediately began inspecting various caves for a suitable nest site, with AC9 in pursuit. She eventually found one and together with AC9 produced 2 eggs. Their first egg was found to be so thin-shelled that it was crushed - a casualty of DDT. The second egg survived and was taken to the San Diego Wild Animal Park to be incubated and hatched.

With only 5 remaining wild birds, only one breeding pair and the ever present threat of potential death, 2 more condors were captured. First AC6 on April 20, 1986 and then AC8, on June 5, 1986. Now only AC2, AC5 and AC9, all males, remained.

Eventually the call came to take into captivity all the remaining 3 condors. AC2 was the first to go on December 13, 1986. You can imagine how condor biologist Jan Hamber felt as AC2 was captured, a male that she had watched, along with his now dead partner AC3, for 11 years at 11 nest sites. AC5 was next and was caught under a cannon net on February 27, 1987 in the late afternoon. For trapper, Pete Bloom, it was a moment never to be forgotten. As he placed AC5 in the sky kennel for the trip to the zoo, he noticed AC9 watching him. The last wild California condor in the world was perched in a large oak tree above the trap site, his body silhouetted against the setting sun.

And then came the fateful Easter Sunday when AC9 was captured. For the first time in tens of thousands of years there were no California condors soaring in the sunny skies of southern California. All 27 living birds were in captivity. At the time, it seemed that it was the end of the road for the wild population. All those involved in the program felt a pervasive sadness. Would these majestic birds of the sky ever soar again?

After their capture, AC8 and AC9 were separated and partnered with other condors to maximize the genetic diversity within the captive population. Both AC8 and AC9 are parents and grandparents to many of the young condors which have been released into the wild. AC8 is considered a genetic “founder bird” and is one of the oldest condors left. Her exact age is unknown, however, she is at least 26 years of age, but probably much older (ie. over 40).

Finally, on April 4, 2000, 14 years after her capture, AC8 was released and once again soared over her home territory in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary near the town of Fillmore in Ventura County, CA. She was the first wild born condor to be released back into the wild and it was the first time that a wild born California condor had flown free for almost 13 years. Two years later on May 1, 2002, AC9 the last wild California condor captured for the recovery program, was released after 15 years in captivity. AC9 was AC8’s last mate in the wild. AC8 had not successfully bred in captivity since 1995 and she is believed to be past her breeding age. AC9 is 22 years old and his genetics are well represented in the condor population.

Including AC8 and AC9, only nine original wild California condors are left. These precious nine hold the last of the wild knowledge that has been passed down through generations of wild California condors. It is hoped that with the release of original wild birds they will act as a mentors for the captive bred free flying condors and may provide them with additional skills for survival in the wild. It also gives them an opportunity to live out the rest of their life flying free. Three juvenile condors, approximately 12 months old, were also released on May 1, 2002. One of these juveniles is from an egg laid in the wild last year in the Santa Barbara back country. This chick was raised by AC9 in the Los Angeles Zoo. The juveniles spent several months in a flight pen at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge with AC9 and other adult birds. The young condors were placed into the flight pen with the adult birds to gain experience competing for food and to form social bonds prior to release. While in the flight pen, the birds undergo power pole aversion training to help them avoid deadly encounters with power poles once released. AC9 and the younger birds were transported to a holding facility at the Sespe Condor Sanctuary approximately one week before their release to give them time to acclimate themselves to their new surroundings. Since release AC9 has re-visited some of his old roosting sites and has integrated well into the captive bred population. So far AC8 and AC9 do not appear to have rekindled their former relationship.

AC8 was shot and killed in February 2003.

Written by Jan Hamber and Bronwyn Davey

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Atascadero Condors

Hello all,

Saturday Oct. 18, on my way to a meet a friend for lunch in San Luis Obispo I got a message from Kathleen one of are volunteers at Hi Mountain. She had four condors fly overhead in downtown Atascadero. 30 minutes later from a hill by my house in Paso I picked up signals for 5 condors (108, 192, 194, 208, & 209) towards Atascadero. I was able to quickly locate 5 Condors perched in some Foothill Pines off of Hwy 41 on the east side of town around noon. One of the birds with adult coloration, dark tag#56, was not one of
the birds I was picking up on my receiver. I assumed due to head and neck color this to be adult 156 and not the younger 256. Eventually the 5 birds left the perch and began soaring together joined by 2 other condors making a total of 7 huge condors over Atascadero. I’m not sure who the seventh mystery condor was. The day before from west Cuesta Ridge I had signals from 219 & 242 towards Shandon and Black Mtn.

Check out some pics of the birds in Atascadero at: http://f2.pg.photos.yahoo.com/himountainlookout3


Thursday, October 16, 2003

Cal Poly Mammalogy Trip To Hi Mt.

This last weekend, Oct. 10-12, mystical mammal man Dr. Villablanca and his mammoth Mammalogy class of nearly 60 students spent the weekend at Hi Mountain. The entire class stayed down the road and filled Hi Mountain Campground to capacity. Live traps were set Friday and Saturday night along Hi Valley trail, and at 3 locations around the Little Falls/Rinconada connector trail off Hi Mountain road. Species captured: Chaetodipus californicus (California pocket mouse), Reithrodontomys megalotus (Western Harvest mouse), Peromyscus californicus (Parasitic mouse), P. maniculatus (Deer mouse), P. boylii (Brush mouse), P. Truei (Pinyon mouse), Neotoma lepida (Desert woodrat), Urocyon cinereoargeneius (Gray fox).
Mike Tyner


Friday, October 10, 2003

Hi Notes

Following the very successful Open House Sat. Oct 4th, I again made the trip up to the lookout to check out the Condor activity. We weren’t treated to any sightings on Saturday, but, as Steve Schubert
reported, Y179, a 5 year old male Condor from the Ventana Wilderness area, made an appearance at Montano de Oro on Tuesday, Oct 7th. I didn’t pick up signals that evening from the lookout, but he headed
toward the lookout Wednesday afternoon. I kept receiving signals all afternoon, until he headed back toward the ocean and roosted somewhere to the West of the lookout, maybe MdO again. Any more
sightings, anyone? That same afternoon I began getting strong signals from W222, a 3 year old female, also from Ventana. The signals remained strong and FINALLY, at about 1830 I began getting ‘perching’ signals and so I headed back down the mountain. I checked for signals several times on my way home trying to pinpoint her location. I got a weak signal at the Santa Margarita Lake, Pozo Rd. junction.

Well, I couldn’t let it go there, so I began my first mobile tracking expedition Thursday morning. To make a long story short, I did locate her at Santa Margarita Lake circling near the ridge at the southern shore of the lake with some Turkey Vultures and at least one Golden Eagle. I didn’t actually see her numbered wing tag, but as the birds flew to the other side of the ridge her signal began fading. That was proof enough for me! She continued to head south toward the lookout until I lost her signal. I also learned that one needs to start with a full tank of gas, a full stomach and no commitments for the day!

Bye ’til next week,

Tuesday, October 7, 2003

California Condor in Montana De Oro State Park

I was leading a Camp KEEP walk with our 6th grade students at Islay
Creek in MDO this afternoon when the radio we carry for emergencies was
suddenly crackling with an excited voice- although the reception was
very poor I was barely able to make out the phrases “condor flying!’ and
then ‘yellow tag’ in the broken-up communications from my co-worker
Cathy Chambers. That got my attention. I was ‘trapped’ beneath the
willow canopy at the creek without the chance to see the condor in
flight somewhere above, but up on the Valencia Peak Trail at 700 feet
elevation Cathy and her students were watching in astonishment as a
yellow-tagged California Condor glided by along the slopes just below
eye-level only about 40 feet away and continued north, over the dunes
and towards the eucalyptus forest 1 mile away, before apparently turning
inland and eastward through the Irish Hills and was gone.
Others on the KEEP staff had also heard the radio communications and a
total of 5 staff members and dozens more of our students on their hikes
saw the condor in flight (some of the kids took photos). The condor
sighting was the talk of the day, overshadowing the excitement of a
possible flight of Pinyon Jays from the desert here along the coast.
Cathy had also reported the jays on her earlier morning hike up the same
mountain trail, seeing a dispersed flight of about 40 jays flying south
towards the Field’s Ranch- they were not Scrub or Steller’s Jays in her
estimation, but confirmation of this I.D. by other experienced birders
is needed if the flock can be refound.
The last condor report from Montana De Oro State Park that I am aware
of dates back about 30 years ago. MDO SP is on the coast south of Morro
Steve Schubert

Monday, October 6, 2003


Hi all,
The Oct. 4th-5th event was a great opportunity for many of us to
reconnect with friends, talk with colleagues and make new acquaintances.
70 people attended the 2nd annual open house events, and long-distance
travelers included Mike and Bronwyn (surprise!) driving down from Pt.
Reyes on their way south following their summer work in Alaska, Carole
from Cupertino, Kathy Ball from Sequoia National Forest in the central
Sierras, John Schmitt from Wofford Heights at Lake Isabella in the
southern Sierras, and from the south Marti Jenkins up from the Los
Angeles area, along with other folks attending from many points in
between from Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey
Counties. Agencies, staff, and volunteers were represented from the U.S.
Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Hopper Mountain
National Wildlife Refuge, Morro Coast Audubon Society, Cal Poly
Biological Sciences Department and Wildlife Club, Ventana Wilderness
Society, Buck Rock Lookout Foundation, National Parks Service at
Pinnacles National Monument, Camp Roberts National Guard, and the Los
Angeles Zoo, among many other distinguished guests.
One uninvited but noted visitor arrived at 4am in the morning before
I was suddenly awakened in my sleeping bag by a distinct but soft ‘woof’
sound, then opened my eyes to see the silhouette of the head of a bear
in the darkness peering in at me from the open tail gate of my truck. My
startled wake-up call caused the bear to run a short distance away, but
as I sat up motionless and watched, I could see the form of the bear now
rambling away towards other campsites and parked vehicles with their
sleeping occupants, making a commotion along the way, so that several
others also had bear stories to tell as we gathered at breakfast time.
‘Thank-you’ to all of you who attended and the many staff and volunteers
who helped to make this such a successful event! Kathy Ball represented
the Forest Fire Lookout Association and presented a certificate and
plaque for the recent listing of Hi Mountain Lookout on the National
Historic Lookout Register.
John Schmitt donated his original 1978 Huff’s Hole peregrine falcon art
print and raffled another as a fund-raising donation to the lookout
project.The afternoon geology and native plant field trips were
well-attended, and about 40 people remained late into the evening -
after dinner and a nice sunset- for the power point and slide shows
presented by our guest speakers, followed by high-powered telescope and
binocular astronomical observations conducted by three members of the
Central Coast Astronomical Society. The quarter moon, Mars, twin stars
and star clusters, gaseous nebulae and the Andromeda Galaxy- two million
light years away- were spectacular to view in the starry night sky.
A number of those who camped out overnight gathered again at the lookout
in the morning for some good conversation, nostalgic remembrances, and
in-depth talk about the condor recovery program’s high points and lows,
until our final departures at noon. As time (and condors) continues to
fly by so fast, there is already talk about organizing next year’s 3rd
annual open house and campout. So, until next year…
Steve Schubert

Thursday, October 2, 2003

Hi Notes

Once again, I have about 3 weeks to catch up on. But to get right to
the Really Good Stuff…Yesterday after picking up signals from two
birds; OR209, a 4 1/2 year old male and W231, a 3 1/2 year old
female, and tracking them for about two hours, suddenly the signals
were coming from every direction, loud and strong. I frantically
looked for them with my binoculars but couldn’t find them. The
signals began to fade, along with my hopes. Then the signals came in
strong again and W231 flew right over my head as I stood on the cat-
walk of the lookout. I could read her wing tags!!! She was huge and
beautiful, white triangles under her wings and all. I can’t describe
the thrill of FINALLY seeing a Condor from the lookout!
Earlier that morning as I was out checking out the flora and fauna, I
saw a doe and her two fawns with a covey of Calif. Quail scurrying
around at their feet. I started to walk back up the road, then turned
around to take a picture, just in time to see a Bobcat meander across
the road behind them. Then a Northern Flicker circled around them and
flew off over the canyon. My reward for turning around breifly!
Speaking of flying, last week I watched a helicopter scour the
canyons and ridges to the East of the lookout for about two hours.
This week it was a small airplane…presumedly looking for evidence
of the pot farmers. Hi Mountain…hummmm.
And, speaking of Hi Mountain…looking forward to seeing many of you
this Saturday for all the festivies and great views of our beautiful
countryside. Come up and see what we are so fascinated with, week
after week!