Sixty-two and Counting

December 08, 2015  •  4 Comments

This is the condor release site atop the Vermillion Cliffs on a cold windy November morning.

Those little black specks in the sky are giant birds. 


Anytime I'm granted access to the site I jump at the chance to photograph the condors and help tell the story of their reintroduction into the wild.  As many of you know I'm on a mission to photograph every individual in the Arizona/Utah wild condor population.  I was thrilled to see Condor 266 up there, one of the condors I had yet to photograph.

Here's the 13-year old 266 flying in tandem with fellow male 388, a ten year old.


Sometimes the tandem flying produces interesting photo ops.


And here's Condor 193 doing a dragonfly imitation.  193 is a dominant male, who with his woman 241 pretty much enforce the pecking order at the release site.


One bit of tandem flying the condors could do without is this:


Here a juvenile Bald Eagle is hassling Condor 354.  The eagle made several passes at 354 but stopped short of hitting him.  I've also seen juvenile Peregrines dive at the condors.  The juvenile birds of prey seem to practice their hunting techniques on anything that moves, regardless of whether that something could kick their butt. 


Before the condors were reintroduced to the Grand Canyon area, the Golden Eagle was the biggest bird around.  Several Golden Eagles nest along the Vermillion Cliffs escarpment.  Even though they're no longer the baddest bird on the block, they are still very impressive, especially when in a vertical dive, or stoop, like this.


In such a stoop a Golden Eagle can hit speeds of 150 mph.  Not sure if this one hit that speed but it was sure going helluv fast when I took this pic.



Biologist Mark taking notes of all the goings on around the release site.  Which birds are showing up, who's bossing who around, if an eagle attacks and whatnot. The biologists spend long days alone hidden inside this 5'x5'x8' wooden blind.  I really admire their dedication to saving this species.


The biologists drop off fresh calf carcasses at the site so the birds will have a clean, lead-free meal whenever they want.  Some of the population take advantage of the MacCarcasses while others prefer to scavenge in the wild.  Here is Condor 114, a 20-year old male who is the eldest member of the Arizona-Utah population.


After the condors pick a carcass clean guess who gets to dispose of the remains?  Erik the biologist! 


Eagle or condor?  The bent wings look like an eagle, but that quick flash of white under the wing identifies this as a condor.  Usually condors will soar with outstretched wings, but the high winds this day caused them to tuck their wings lest they get blown half way to Salt Lake.



Adults and wild-born juveniles have the experience to fly in high winds that keep the captive-bred juveniles grounded.


Condors in calmer conditions.


Condor 618 is captive-bred and four years old.  She was released into the wild this year (most captive bred release candidates are about a year and a half old when they get released so she was a late bloomer).  See my previous blog about the public release - she was one of the birds that took to the wild that day.  It was good to see her adjusting well to her new surroundings.


Prior to release the captive-bred birds get fitted with a transmitter.  I was honored when asked to lend a hand while Condor 752 got his transmitter.

Ah, smell the love.  Holding a condor is an experience I won't soon forget.  As you can see they would make a pretty big lap dog and like a lap dog they are very warm.  My right hand is holding his wing still so they can remove his old tag.  My left is cradling his body and I could feel the strong steady beating of his heart.


P2 is 752's new tag number.  Why don't they have all three digits on the tags to avoid confusion?  Because the tags would be too big and flap too much while flying.  Why not leg bands like other birds?  Because condors, like vultures, urinate on their legs to help cool themselves.  Bands would interfere with this.  The white color of the legs is evaporated urine.  The piercing of the wing is akin to getting one's ear pierced.


Here's my boy 752 dropping in to a carcass to feed.  Go get 'em 752!


Condor 721 is a relaxed sort who seems content to eat then just perch atop the release pen all day instead of flying about like the other condors.  Come sunset the other condors had all found safe roosts on the cliff face below.  However 721 was still hanging around atop the cliff and seemed disinclined to leave.  Part of the biologist's job is to ensure the safety of the birds.  Spending the night atop the cliff would put 721 in danger of predation by coyotes so Mark had to haze her from her roost so she would find a safe spot to spend the night.  The biologists don't go home until they know the birds are safe for the night.


My last trip to condor country started slow.  I didn't see a condor until day three.  Later on though I saw five I hadn't photographed before and now have shots of 62 of the 76 wild-flying condors in Arizona and Utah.  With winter coming in the birds will be leaving the high country in Utah and heading to Arizona.  I'll be waiting for them.


All text and photos ©John Sherman, no reproduction without prior written permission.







Nice shots!
That shot of #68 (or 268, or 768, whoever it is) on the wing in the wind is the closest thing I've seen to a sexy condor cheesecake shot. Would not have thought it possible!
BIRDs the word and your pictures are a mouthful ! LOVE seeing the series and learning about their habitat and different air space. VERY cool - but hey you're the VERM! ; ) nice work twin ; )
you are the best condor photogeek out there .... what a great project....go get all 76
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