FLYING FREEDOM


Amanda J. Fox

The beginning of this journey begins between the pages of a magazine. “I have received Arizona Highways magazine at my office for many, many years,” Bill Weller began. “Having lived in Arizona in the early 70s and late 80s I have always been fond of this part of our world.” It was in the August 2015 edition that he read an article titled “Wing Commander.” This story featured Chris Parish, a wildlife biologist for The Peregrine Fund. While Parish is “well versed” in several species, he is a true expert on California Condors. For the past two decades, Parish has been working with this endangered species. His efforts culminate in the release of these massive condors back into the wild. While the progress takes time, Parish says that he’d “like to put myself out or work.”

“In 1982, just 22 condors remained in the wild. At that point they were all caught and put into captive breeding programs at area zoos,” states Wes Kitner, a local birder. You may be wondering how this population dropped to the very threshold of extinction. “They found that the majority of deaths were caused by lead poisoning,” Kitner states.

The release of these birds is a public event, but has relatively low attendance due to the remoteness of its location. After deciding to attend a release in September, Weller approach Kitner’s father, a good friend of his, and invited him to come along. Although Kitner’s father could not attend he recommended that his son Wes consider going. After giving him a few days to think about it, Wes “succumbed to my pressure” and our plans and tickets were finalized. “He knew that I was a birder, and a zoology major,” Wes said. It was also his experience in camping and the outdoors that made it a good fit.

Weller and Kitner’s adventure began in a 4×4 jeep after a flight to Phoenix in late September. Their destination was the Vermillion Cliffs of Northern Arizona. “I had been to the area before and was familiar with it,” stated Weller. Their first night was spent in a small clearing in the north rim of the Grand Canyon. The next day they visited the location of the release. “We were greeted by a sign with silhouettes of a Red-Tailed Hawk, a Golden Eagle and the massive California Condor. With a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, and a bald head ideal for digging around in carcasses, these condors are one of North America’s largest and most unique birds. Continuing on their journey, they followed a challenging route that evening and got stuck in deep sand, even with their 4 wheel drive jeep. “I had to take a run just to get up to the campsite,” Bill commented. After unloading their gear they decided to explore the cliff edge before it turned dark. “The sand was undisturbed by humans, but was covered in animal tracks,” Wes said. As they studied the tracks of mountain lions, turkeys and other animals, they looked up to see 2 large birds flying on the thermals above. After watching the birds with binoculars, they confirmed their suspicions. It was their first condor sighting. That evening, as it happened, they experienced the “super moon” but were just a day shy of seeing the total lunar eclipse.

The following morning they arrived at the release, observation area. They quickly found that shade was hard to come by, but managed to squeeze in amongst the other observers. “I had read that some released birds take as long as 24 hours to take flight, and we were a quarter of a mile away from the release location,” Weller said. While watching these releases was something to behold, it was their experience the previous day on the cliff that proved to be the most memorable.

Before they are released, each of the condors is fitted with a radio transmitter and a GPS tracker, allowing The Peregrine Fund to monitor their progress. “They can tell if a bird hasn’t moved for some time and can follow the signal to see what has happened,” says Kitner. “Because of the size and wingspan of these birds, electrocution on power lines is a real threat. However, the birds have been successfully ‘conditioned’ in their cages to avoid this danger. Using a light shock the birds quickly learn to avoid them and this technique has proven very successful.” Another approach that is helping these magnificent birds to thrive is a voluntary lead-reduction program. Parish, an avid hunter himself, believes the problem of a lead-ammo ban has become too politicized between conservationists and gun-rights advocates. The response has been very promising with more than 80 perfect of the local hunters voluntarily participating in the program. In 2014, participation reached a high of 91 percent. While condors are still dying of lead poisoning, Parish believes that more awareness will continue to help combat the problem.

When asked what they enjoyed most about the experience Wes replied, “For me it’s the connection to the Pleistocene age. These birds lived with Wooly Mammoths and Saber-tooth tigers. They are a living link to the last Ice Age.” Bill reiterated the same, but it was his love of Arizona and these “beautifully-ugly” birds that left the biggest impression.

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