On December 15th, as record-breaking wildfires raged thru southern California’s Ventura County, flora and fauna biologists misplaced touch with California condor chick #871. The eight-month-old condor nonetheless hadn’t taken its first flight, and the fireplace used to be creeping down a ridge close to the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in opposition to its nest.
Joseph Brandt, a biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s California Condor Recovery Program, began to fear. The radio transmitter connected to the chick’s wing used to be silent, and the solar-powered digicam tracking its nest had long gone darkish in November, as the times were given too brief to stay it working. “The chick was at the verge of fledging with the fire breathing down the canyon and approaching the nest,” Brandt says. “While many chicks in the past have survived fires, it’s always a situation where you’re never sure.”
There are best 450 California condors on the earth — and best 276 of them are living within the wild. These endangered scavengers are the biggest birds in North America, however by way of 1982, there have been best 23 left. That’s most commonly on account of folks, who fragmented the condor’s habitat, strung up powerlines for the condors to run into, and poisoned the birds thru poisoned bait, in addition to carcasses infected with lead ammunition. The inhabitants is slowly improving thank you to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s in depth breeding program — however each new chick is treasured.
Chick #871 hatched within the wild in April 2017, and the California Condor Recovery Program’s crew connected a tiny radio transmitter to its wing. That means, they might observe the chook by way of climbing to a place within reach and the use of a tool that selections up the tag’s sign. If the chook doesn’t transfer for greater than 12 hours, then that sign hurries up — an indication that the chook is in bother. “We call that a mortality switch,” Brandt says.
So because the fires had been raging in mid-December, Nadya Seal Faith — a nest biologist with the Santa Barbara Zoo — attempted to pay attention for the chick’s radio sign. But she couldn’t pay attention the rest — no longer the common ping, but in addition no longer the mortality sign. That, Brandt says, used to be a excellent signal. It intended the chick may have made it out of the nest to protection, out of vary or the place the radio sign used to be blocked. “That made us a little more optimistic,” he says.
Over the following few weeks, there have been hints that the baby condor may nonetheless be alive: the crew noticed the chick’s folks flying in every other a part of the canyon that hadn’t been as badly burnt. And when Seal Faith went again on December 22nd, she controlled to select up the faint sign of the chick’s radio transmitter. Still, she attempted no longer to get her hopes up. “Sometimes we’ve got a normal signal and it’s a dead bird that’s just been dragged around by scavenger,” Seal Faith says. “I’ve recovered several dead chicks, and you get to the point where you expect the worst, just so you’re not let down by it.”
Finally, on January 2d, the fireplace division gave Seal Faith, Brandt, and the remainder of their crew permission to hike in the course of the charred canyon. The fireplace had stopped on the fringe of a creek, giving the panorama an eerie distinction. One aspect regarded customary, although the air smelled like smoke; the opposite, the place the nest were, used to be naked and blackened by way of the fireplace. The crew picked up the chick’s sign, and adopted it. “We kept hiking along, and I spotted this little black thing bouncing around, and it was the chick!” Seal Faith says.
They watched because the chick preened its feathers, and opened its wings to heat within the solar. That’s after they spotted the wear and tear, Brandt says. The pointers of the chick’s wings had been scorched and tough, broken by way of the fireplace — however nonetheless functioning. The burn marks counsel that “the chick’s first flight was fleeing its nest to save its own life,” he says. When the chick took an enormous jump to every other rock, the crew used to be relieved to see that its legs and wings weren’t damaged. And on January 18th, they in the end witnessed the baby condor fly. “It’s a good feeling to know she could survive on her own,” Seal Faith says. “Our little phoenix.”
Since 1992, best seven condors have died in wildfires, however over 70 had been killed by way of lead poisoning, Brandt says. Lead ammunition is partly banned presently, and a complete ban is deliberate to cross into impact in 2019. But condors nonetheless devour it, and the FWS is making an attempt to teach hunters and ranchers about its risks.
For Brandt, who lives in Ventura County, the baby condor’s survival used to be the excellent news he wanted after the Thomas Fire raged thru his neighborhood, he says. “Finally, something that’s not just all devastation and destruction.”