Friday, January 30, 2015

Number 23

Living so close to the Grand Canyon enables me to get up there for a quick weekend.  This was the case when Kristi's aunt & uncle came to visit from Boston.  At the end of the day we decided to see the sunset from Pima point.  A handful of people were there soaking in the last rays of the day, and clicking away.  I was set up on one side of the point trying to capture the sun as it was skipping off the top of some rocks and a juniper clinging to the cliff edge.  It all happened so quickly, but suddenly a California Condor emerged from the depths, buzzed our heads and promptly jetted off into the sky.  I had fired off two shots with a wide angle, then recomposed with a zoom as he was getting away.  There were other people there that were lucky enough to get close-ups with their zooms, and after sharing each others images we soon realized which condor we had captured.

For those who are not familiar with the Grand Canyon California Condor story, it's a success story for endangered animals that had been captured before extinction.  They have been endangered for some time, mostly as a result of mankind.  The combination of loss of habitat, shooting, egg collecting, poisoning by cyanide traps set for coyotes, power line collisions, and especially lead poisoning began to take a heavy toll. The condor is particularly susceptible to lead poisoning due to the fact that they are scavengers.  Related to the vulture, the condor commonly feeds on carrion.  With the combination of hunters shooting and killing and not retrieving the animal, as well as leaving some portion with the bullets in the animal's flesh it has been enough to impact the condor population.  They find themselves eating the flesh along with the lead.  It doesn't take much to overwhelm their systems and result in their demise.

The success story starts with the California Condor Restoration Project. The US fish & Wildlife service teamed up with the LA Zoo and the San Diego Wildlife park to begin the restoration. By 1982 the condor population had dwindled to as few as 22 animals, and by 1985 the number dwindled so low, that they decided to capture the remaining 9 condors left in the wild.   A few challenges that they had to face was their ability to reproduce. They only mate and lay one egg once every two years, and they can't begin to reproduce until age 6. In response to this, the breeders developed techniques in which eggs are removed as they are laid, sometimes causing the captive condors to lay a second and sometimes a third egg. The eggs are incubated and the chicks are raised by caretakers using hand puppets mimicking a condor head. The puppet head prevents the chicks  from imprinting on people, a phenomenon in which a bird will misidentify a human as their mother. Condor chicks can also be allowed to be raised by the captive parent birds. As a result, of this amazing project the captive condor population has increased to  177 or so. The amount of California condors today totals around 400, more than half of which are in the wild.

Number 23,  identified by the wing-tag, is the hero of the California Condor Restoration Project. Along with his mate, they were the first released condors to successfully raise a chick on their own. Today Number 23 flies alone. Two years ago, his mate was discovered dead succumbed by lead poisoning.  If you are lucky and in the vicinity of Pima point you might be able to catch a view of this amazing bird when he frequents the area.


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