GC VILLAGE — Eighteen years ago, a California condor egg hatched in the wild, the last such occurrence for the endangered species.
California condor No. 23 is an expecting father at one of the nest sites.
In the years since, an aggressive condor recovery program was established when the population dipped to only 27 birds in 1987. They were captured, reared in captivity and eventually reintroduced to the wild in Arizona and California with the first release coming in 1992. For the past seven years, condors have been released annually.
The program could take a huge step forward this year if any of five pairs of condors can successfully incubate and hatch their single eggs. At Grand Canyon National Park, two sets of condors have paired up and officials hope they’re on their way to making history.
"All we can do right now is faithfully watch and wait," said Chad Olson, National Park Service raptor biologist who is monitoring the birds and recently joined the Grand Canyon staff.
"The parental behavior has us assuming that they’re caring for eggs," he added. "As the condors continue to trade nest guarding and incubation shifts, we’ll become anxious to see them succeed. Hopefully, sometime in early summer, we’ll see a chick peek out of a cave opening."
Each of the two pairs selected cave locations on two cliff faces on the South Rim. Both cave entrances can be monitored by biologists from a plateau in the Canyon and can be seen by park visitors, but the shear walls make the nests inaccessible to climbers and verification of the eggs uncertain.
GCNP biologists have been monitoring the condor nests and their activity since mid-February.
"All observations point to two eggs being incubated by two separate pairs of condors at this time," said Elaine Leslie, GCNP wildlife biologist. "As the nests are located in the redwall, they are generally inaccessible to the public."
To ensure protection of the nest sites, Leslie said the Battleship and Dana Butte formations were closed to hiking and rock climbing.
"NPS has also altered flight corridors for administrative use of the helicopter in order to protect the nest sites and the future flight paths of condors as they fly back and forth from the nest site to feed the chicks once they hatch," Leslie said.
The Grand Canyon pairs are comprised of females hatched at San Diego Wild Animal Park and males hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo in spring 1995. All four birds were released to the wild in May 1997 at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, 50 miles north of their current South Rim location.
Along with NPS staff, Peregrine Fund biologists have been monitoring the daily movement of the condors since their release. Leslie said that since mid-February the paired males and females have been trading off incubation shifts at their nests, with off-time usually spent soaring in the nest area or returning to a supplemental feeding location at the Vermilion Cliffs.
California condors normally lay a single egg between late January and early April. The egg is incubated by both parents and hatches after approximately 56 days. Both parents share responsibility for feeding the nestling.
At two or three months of age, the chick leaves the nest cavity but remains in the area where it is fed by its parents. The chick takes its first flight at six or seven months of age, but may not become fully independent of its parents until the following year.
The park expects the South Rim eggs, if viable, to hatch sometime this month. But again, it could be several months before the chicks peek out of their protective cave sites and well into late summer or early fall before taking that first flight.
"This accomplishment is the result of the 45 employees we asked to give a significant part of their lives so this species could have another chance," said Bill Burnham, Peregrine Fund president. "This is a great day for conservation and the team who made it happen."
Last spring a pair of condors at the Grand Canyon produced the first wild-laid condor egg since 1986. Nesting attempts by condors in both Arizona and California produced two eggs that failed to hatch, which is typical for first reproduction attempts. A single California hatchling perished despite having been removed from the nest as an egg, captive-incubated, and returned to the nest just prior to hatching.
"This species is at a real benchmark in its recovery from near-extinction," said Andi Rogers, Arizona Game and Fish Department’s condor biologist. "Failed nesting attempts are not uncommon in the wild when young birds are trying to figure out reproduction and parenting for the first time."
With GCNP having only two permanent wildlife biologists for over 1.2 million acres of land, Leslie said the wildlife staff relies heavily upon seasonals, term and volunteer positions.
"We also rely heavily upon the Grand Canyon National Park Foundation to assist in funding our wildlife programs," she added. "They have enabled us to purchase much-needed telemetry equipment for monitoring the condors, as well as paid for the Chad’s position working with the condors."
Olson recently joined the park’s wildlife staff and besides monitoring condors, he will also be working on golden eagle population studies.
In the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, northwest of Los Angeles, California biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and San Diego Zoological Society are monitoring two nest caves, each known to contain an egg, and another cave where a condor pair is demonstrating nest visits that are consistent with birds trading incubation shifts.
Concerned that the male of one pair was initially not sharing incubation duties with the female, biologists monitoring the confirmed egg decided to maximize the egg’s chance of survival by removing it from the nest and substituting an artificial egg.
This process has been routinely successful with condors and with captive breeding programs for other birds such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons. The real egg was to be cared for at the Los Angeles Zoo until hatching was imminent and then biologists would return the egg to the nest.
When Zoological Society of San Diego Wildlife Scientist Mike Wallace was lowered into the Sespe pair’s nest area, the male had finally begun incubating the egg and refused to budge from it.
As for Grand Canyon, the condors make a trip extra special.
"Visitors repeatedly express that seeing condors here at the Canyon has enhanced their experience," said Joe Alston, Grand Canyon National Park superintendent.
Leslie is organizing a Condor Nest Watch Program and volunteers are needed.
There are two condor sites within the park and volunteers would assist with collecting observations of the birds and sites from sunrise to sunset each day. Observations will be done from the rim and Indian Gardens.
The endangered California condor is trying to make a comeback in the wild through a reintroduction program in northern Arizona and California.
NPS employees, community residents and students are welcomed to assist. For those interested in volunteering, contact Leslie at 638-7904 to set up a schedule.