California Condors largely escaped harm during southern California's recent wildfires.
A chick that had not yet fledged from its nest in the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge appears to be the sole casualty for the endangered species. (We reported on the optimism regarding the latest wild-hatched chicks in our December issue.) The chick's death has not been confirmed yet, but “we’re getting a mortality signal from its transmitter,” Jesse Grantham, condor program coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told me. The nest was in an area burned by the Ranch Fire, which scorched more than 70 percent of the refuge.
Condor biologists had not been allowed back into the canyon where the nest was located due to concerns about possible flare-ups. Five other chicks hatched in California this year are alive and well. The parents of the missing chick also were accounted for. “Both parents were down in the canyon after the fire, probably looking for their chick,” Grantham said.
Most of the wild condors in southern California were 45 miles away from the refuge when the fire began and were not in danger. The refuge hadn’t burned in 40 years, so the fire actually did the birds a favor. “It opened up a lot of areas for nest sites,” Grantham said.
The fire likely would have destroyed the historic Hopper Ranch, an isolated house that provides equipment storage and housing for the refuge’s condor biologists, had fire Capt. Paul Gaines not stepped in. According to the Associated Press, he “singlehandedly beat back the flames” when the fire raged through the area.
The San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, one of four captive breeding centers for the condor, lost one of its breeding facilities but none of its birds. Zoo staff members worked throughout the night and early morning of October 21-22 to capture and move 23 condors to safety. They also moved dozens of other birds of 32 other species, said Mike Mace, curator of birds.
Ten Micronesian Kingfishers — one-tenth of the world population — were among the 13 endangered species that staffers moved out of harm’s way.
Mace praised the employees who helped save the condors and other animals. Many worked tirelessly despite knowing that their own homes could be in danger. "What they did was amazing," he said.
The park has airline kennels on hand for each condor in its collection in the event of an evacuation, Mace said. When the birds were being retrieved, they climbed to the sides of their enclosures, but the workers used 20-foot capture nets to grab them one by one and put them in their kennels. “They have been captured before for health checks, and so the birds know where the best spot is in their cages where they’re least likely to get captured,” he said.
To transport the birds and other animals to the Harter Veterinary Clinic on the south side of the park, staffers loaded the cages onto flatbed trucks typically used to ferry around park visitors searching for photos of giraffes and rhinos.
“Twelve hours before, five California Condors and a pair of Andean Condors were inside” the breeding facility that burned, Mace said. Because a new nesting season is just around the corner, the park’s seven breeding pairs of California Condors were returned to breeding facilities within 48 hours. Courtship behaviors are likely to begin later this month, and the first eggs of the season may be laid in late December or early January.
A chick that hatched earlier this year in the Grand Canyon has now fledged. Another in the Vermilion Cliffs area is expected to take its first flight in December. — M.M.