VERMILLION CLIFFS, Ariz. - Dozens of spotting scopes were trained on the high rocky bluff at the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument as people from as far away as Florida and throughout the West awaited the release three young California condors.
More than 100 people arrived at this remote area on Sept. 24 for the 17th annual public release of the huge endangered birds by the non-profit Peregrine Fund.
The one 2-year-old and two 3-year-old condors were hatched and raised at The Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. They now will join about 70 others that have been released in the Grand Canyon area since 1996.
Moments before the scheduled release, an adult condor that has adapted to the area soared overhead in the sun heading west to the Kaibab Plateau, its nine-foot wingspan carrying it effortlessly on a thermal updraft.
"There's five birds flying at a mile away, a thousand feet up, and you can see them with the naked eye. That's pretty impressive," said Chris Parish, field director of the Peregrine Fund's Condor Project. "We've had 25-to-30 birds in the air at the release site. That's more than was in the wild in 1982."
High on the distant cliff, the field crew from the Peregrine Fund hid in a blind to limit human exposure as they prepared to open a large cage to give these young birds their freedom.
Parish said the condors had some practice learning to fly in a 40-by-60 foot flight pen in Idaho but that this would be the first time they soared. He said the public's interest in seeing these huge birds continues to grow.
"We release birds throughout the year and we have a public event each year just to invite the public out," he said. "It's amazing that each year I think, well, it's going to wane at some point, you know, and people aren't going to be as interested. And every year we get over 100 people and sometimes up to 300."
In the 1980s, there were just 22 condors left in the wild when efforts began to save them from extinction. Now, the Condor Project is considered a remarkable scientific success. This year for the first time in one breeding season, three chicks hatched in remote areas of the Grand Canyon and the Kaibab Plateau.
Eddie Feltes, field manager for The Peregrine Fund in northern Arizona and southern Utah, said the crew is delighted to see the wild population reproducing and increasing their numbers on their own.
"Three chicks in one year increases our confidence that this endangered species will thrive again someday without our assistance," he said.
The first chick was confirmed soon after it hatched in April because the nest was located in a place that allowed easier access for monitoring than the other two suspected nests, Feltes said. The other two nests were in caves deep in the Grand Canyon, he said.
"The chicks were finally old enough to venture to the opening of the caves where we were able to see them with our own eyes," he said.
The three young condors - now about 6-months-old - bring to 15 the number of chicks hatched in the wild since condors were first released in Arizona in 1996. The newest members of the wild flock are expected to take their first flights in October. They will remain dependent on their parents for about another year.
These chicks bring the total number of California condors in the world to 396. Of those, 196 are in the wild, with 67 in the Arizona-Utah population.
Jeff Langford said he drove here from Salt Lake City to see these young condors fly in the wild for the first time. He said he's been a serious birder for 10 years.
"My first view of a condor was in 2006. I remember the exact point and the exact day," Langford said. "You hear about peregrine falcons and their stoop dives, and they're fast and everything like that, but to see a condor catch a breeze is simply one of the most magnificent sights you can see in nature."
The Vermillion Cliff condors tend to have a home range of about 75 miles and also roost in Zion National Park. But these have flown as far away as Moab, Utah, and Wyoming, Parish said.
Because condors are scavengers and not hunters, they eat dead carcasses wherever they can find them. To help establish and maintain this population, the Peregrine Fund leaves dead game for the birds to feed on.
The Condor Project field crew will now spend the next several weeks monitoring the newly-introduced birds, Parish said.
"It's just a constant process of evaluating their behavior, release them, monitor them," he said. "If they should roost in poor spots, we'll be up there pushing the birds up the cliffs to get them to get them high so they're not on the ground because that's where the coyotes find them at night."
Once they've been in the wild for five or six months, Parish said, they're pretty solid.
"When you look at survival rates of birds that have been in the wild for six months, they're much higher survival rates than the first two or three months," he said.
Yet despite the success of the recovery effort to save California condors from extinction, the birds are not out of danger. Although these birds can live to 60 or 70 years of age, Parish says the number one cause of condor deaths is lead poisoning from ingesting bullet fragments from carcasses and gut piles left behind by hunters.
An avid hunter, Parish credits the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their success in educating hunters to switch to non-lead ammunition, and providing free ammunition on the Kaibab and Paria plateaus since 2005.
The response by hunters to Arizona's non-lead bullet program has been overwhelmingly favorable, with approximately 80 percent participation in reducing the availability of ammunition lead to condors and other scavengers, Parish said.
The condor recovery effort is a cooperative program by federal, state, and private partners, including the Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Division, and Kaibab National Forest.