Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Flight of the Condor

On a good given day I can witness this magnificent bird flying over where I live. It is a California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus)with a wing span of roughly 9 1/2 feet. Usually they are so far up in the sky that sometimes you aren't sure if you are looking at a small plane or a condor. Usually, capturing a photo this close isn't feasible, but I have contacts.

This is the start of the spring trap-up. The program captures all the birds (or attempts to) for medical checkups. Yep, just like you are supposed to go to the doctor once a year for your annual physical, the condors must go through the same.

Once they are trapped into a facility, they are captured with a net and then a serious of tests are conducted. The condors have blood drawn and a sample of that is tested for lead. Condors can die if they have a thumbnail size of lead in their system. If they have lead in their system then they are given a treatment to remove it. If their lead levels are extremely high, they are put into a dog kennel and whisked away to the zoo for more intense treatment. Besides the blood work, the entire body is check over and the feathers are measured and counted.

Do I need to give you a history? In the 80s, there were 22 condors left in the United States. Depending on who you talk to the number will vary, but I'll go with 22. They decided to save the bird by having a captive breeding program. Today, in the wild and captivity there are roughly 350. And more wild condors are starting to produce offspring. Matter of fact, where I work has a nest for the first time in 100 years. Progress is slow, but it is progress nonetheless.

So on Tuesday, I heard the radio call that a couple of birds had been trapped. Knowing that most of the crew was in SAR training, I volunteered my time to help out with their physicals.

And that is where photo above came from. As we approached the facility, there was a bird on the roof and it took off flying. The condor was about 20 feet above me when I snapped this photo. But it isn't so much the size of the bird that awes you. When a 9 1/2 foot wing span flies over you, the sound that is whistling through its wings is amazing and breathtaking. At that moment in time, every thing else in the world ceases and you hold your breath. Peace.

They are vultures. They eat dead things. And they aren't really handsome or beautiful. But after working with them for years they still take my breath away. People will often say they are ugly. The videographer said "they are so cute" and I had to chuckle because they do tend to be cute at times.

After we were able to get one adult male trapped up, he was held by one person as I head the feet and tail. He was beautiful. Yes, beautiful. His head was various colors--some red, some orange, flecks of black. Really it is hard to explain fully. Just as we were finishing up, he decided it would be a good thing to poop on my hand. Lets just say thank goodness for gloves.

But not many people can say that they have had an endangered species poop on their hand. Both birds came back with high lead levels and one was whisked to the zoo for further treatments.

So where are they getting the lead? Well since they are vultures, they eat dead things. And around here, we have hunters and ranchers galore. There is a ban on using lead ammunition for hunting in the area, but as always there have to be a couple of bad apples in the group. And when they leave their kill for the vultures (coyotes, turkey vultures, etc), the condors find it and ingest it. The program has had numerous condors die from lead poisoning. The ammunition battle is just one of many the condors face in becoming a population not regulated by humans.

I think this bird flying above was 375. They are all numbered and radio tagged so crew members can find them usually. Some of the birds even have GPS units on them which allows crew members to pinpoint their locations from downloaded data. In 2005, I had the great opportunity to work on the project for an entire year. But during that entire time, I never had a condor poop on my hand.

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