In the mountains above Fillmore, a 5-month-old condor is the only wild chick to survive in southern California flocks this season.
The nest cam captured the first moments after hatching and months of a young condor exploring its cliff-side nest, giving the public a front-row seat to a critically endangered species.
“When you feel a connection with a species, it’s much easier to care for it,” said condor biologist Arianna Punzalan.
Punzalan, a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in Ventura County, had 11 sets of condors nest on steep cliffs or tall trees in Southern California this spring, but only one chick reached the four-month mark.
This slow reproductive rate makes critically endangered birds more vulnerable to population crashes.
Agencies have worked for decades to help the species recover. The largest flying land bird in North America – known for its bald head and black feathers – disappeared from the wild in the early 1980s.
In 1982, the population had declined to only 22 birds in the wild. Five years later, all remaining wild condors were placed in a captive breeding program to save the species from extinction.
“Then the condor became extinct in the wild,” Punzalan said last week during a virtual chat hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Thanks to the captive breeding program, we are starting to release condors back into the wild.”
More:The Ventura County flag is not the first, authorities have discovered
By the end of 2021, 334 condors lived in the wild. That’s up from 329 a year ago, one of the deadliest since efforts to save the species began.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service reported 42 condor deaths in 2020, including 34 in California. That’s nearly three times the dozen deaths reported in the state a year ago.
The biggest threat to condors is lead poisoning, which accounts for about half of all known causes of death for the species because the birds feed on carcasses containing bullet fragments. This was also true in 2020, but the Central California Wildfire took a close second.
About 10% of the Central California population — 10 adult condors and two chicks — died in a fire that started about a mile south of the Big Sur Condor Sanctuary in Monterey County.
“We’re rebuilding from a bit of a population drop that year, but we’re slowly coming back,” Punzalan said.
For now, condors continue to rely on captive-bred birds released into the wild. The first two releases this year in Southern California took place last week. Four more condors will be launched in the next few weeks, according to Punzalan.
Joe Burnett, senior wildlife biologist with the Ventana Wildlife Society, which manages this population in conjunction with Pinnacles National Park, said he has hatched three chicks in the wild this year from the flock in Central California. Eight captive-bred condors are expected to be released near Pinnacles and San Simeon in the next few weeks.
More:Ventura County will mail out ballots next week. How to make sure your vote counts
In Toms Canyon above Fillmore, chick #1160 expected to fly in the next few weeks. A new camera was installed to capture those first flights.
“One of the hopes of having the new cross-canyon camera is that we can catch it doing training flights, hopping and flapping its wings,” says Punzalan, who climbed down steep cliffs to reach its Toms Canyon nest earlier this year.
Launched in May, the nest cam captured the moment both adults attempted to incubate a newly hatched chick.
“They were trying to warm their chicks,” Punzalan said. “I think the woman won and sat on the chick. Then the male moved over a piece of eggshell and finally incubated and sat on that eggshell.
It’s hard for people to care about what they don’t know, he said, but moments like these can bond people to a nesting pair.
“Condors and vultures aren’t the most fuzzy, cuddly creatures,” he said. “But showing that they have different sides and that they can be very kind to each other, I think is really helpful in getting people excited about their conservation and recovery.”
To learn more about the condor, visit allaboutbirds.org/cams/california-condor/.
Cheri Carlson covers the environment for the Ventura County Star. Contact her at email@example.com or 805-437-0260.