Public condor release tomorrow

Tomorrow at 11 a.m., seven captive-born condors will take wing for the first time from the release site at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in an annual event that is open to the public.

"People are welcome to come and enjoy the release," said Kathy Sullivan, a condor biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "The observation point is about a mile from the actual release site, so those interested may want to bring binoculars or a spotting scope."

There is also a good chance of seeing other condors, as the release site is a supplemental feeding station.

"There are usually at least two dozen birds hanging out around the site," she said.

The seven young condors hatched last spring and were reared at the Peregrine Fund Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. They will join two chicks born in the wild last year, both of whom are doing well, Sullivan said.

"The one that hatched at Vermilion Cliffs has been seen feeding on his own," she said. "They are both doing well."

Until they are trapped the first time, they remain the only two condors in Arizona without wing tags, though they do have numbers ­ 389 for the chick hatched at Vermilion Cliffs and 392 for the one that hatched at Grand Canyon. Biologists must wait until they can capture and test the birds before knowing their gender, as there is no visual difference between male and female condors.

In all there are 59 condors flying free over northern Arizona. These young birds have several years to mature before they reach breeding age, Sullivan said.

According to Thom Lord of the Peregrine Fund, in his Notes from the Field weblog, prospects are looking good as breeding season appraoches.

"We're beginning to see consistent courtship behavior in quite a few adult pairs," he wrote. "We have at least five well-established pairs so far this year, all of which have the potential to produce a chick. We have a few unpaired adults that have shown courtship behavior, any of which could surprise us and breed this season."

"This is a chance to see an incredibly rare moment, when these birds take flight in the wild for the first time," says Chris Parish, condor field project supervisor with The Peregrine Fund, the group releasing the birds. "The moment marks progress toward bringing these condors back from the brink of extinction."

To view the condor release, drive to Cameron via Desert View Drive/State Route 64 then go north on Highway 89. Turn left (west) onto Highway 89A toward Jacob Lake and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Drive about 40 miles past Marble Canyon until you turn right onto House Rock Valley Road (BLM Road 1065). Travel about three miles to a shaded viewing area on the right. On top of the cliffs to your east will be the location where the condors are released.

In 1982, only 22 California condors were left in the world. The birds were captured in an effort to breed and save the species. Captive-reared condors are now periodically released at sites in California, Mexico as well as here in Arizona.

Condors have been federally listed as endangered since 1967. The condor is the largest flying land bird in North America. The birds can weigh up to 26 pounds and have a wingspan of up to 9 1/2 feet. Condors were first reintroduced in Arizona in 1996. Fifty-nine now fly free in the wilds of our state. Visitors at the Grand Canyon and Vermilion Cliffs may be able to observe the birds, especially during the spring and summer.

The condor reintroduction in Arizona is a joint project of many partners, including Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Peregrine Fund, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Kaibab National Forest and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

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