Fan-tailed Warbler

Fan-tailed Warbler

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Flight of the Condor

This past weekend was a pretty special birding weekend in Arizona.  Being a member of the Arizona Field Ornithologists group, I had the honor of taking part in a field expedition to the Kaibab Plateau in the far northern part of the state which is located on the north rim of the Grand Canyon at an elevation of about 8000'.  This was going to be 2 nights of camping out in a remote part of the forest, (with no facilities, I might add), but a chance to escape crowds of people and enjoy nature.  There were a total of 11 people taking part in this expedition with 2 members staying in the inn at Jacob Lake and other 9 camping out.

Birding bud, Chris Rohrer traveled with me and of course we did some birding on the way.  And the prime spot that I had on my list was he Navajo Bridge at Marble Canyon, which is known as one of the best spots to find the majestic and rare California Condor.  In 1987 the remaining 22 condors living in the wild were captured and a very extensive captive breeding program was started.  Today the total population has increased to less then 500 with less than 300 in the wild.  The captive breeding program has led to releases of these birds at 3 different sites; 1 in California, 1 in Baja California, and 1 at the Grand Canyon area in Arizona.  They only breed once every 2 years and only lay one egg, which results in a very slow reproductive rate.  They have a lifespan of up to 60 years.  Their numbers will always be low as they require huge areas of land to subsist and live.  The biggest threat to those in the wild today is lead poisoning and every bird is tested every year for lead toxicity, with some having to be taken into rehabilitation.  The lead poisoning is due to the use of lead ammunition used in hunting and left in the carcasses left in the wild.

As we pulled up the Navajo Bridge, I immediately saw one soaring near the bridge and could not hardly get parked quickly enough so I could get out and gaze at it in awe.  As it was, there were 2 of them there on Friday, numbers 11 and 83.  (All of the birds are tagged, numbered and monitored closely every year.)  With a wingspan of about 9½ feet, they are the largest land bird in North America.  What a thrill to see such a rare bird soaring and riding the thermals in the wild!

 California Condor - # 11

 California Condor - #83, hatched 2005, released in the wild 2008

California Condors - # 11 and 83

When we returned home on Sunday we stopped by the bridge one more time and this time we found 4 of them in the area.  Number 11 was still there but numbers 53, L3, and H3 had joined 11 and 83 was absent.

We finally had to tear ourselves away from this grandeur and continue our trip to the Kaibab Plateau.  Once we reached the community of Jacob Lake, we took a lunch break and enjoyed the birds in and around their water fountain.  The Cassin's Finches were the most notable in the fountain.  This is a bird that Chris and I had the pleasure of observing for the first time back in February, but this time they were much closer to observe and photograph, both males and females.

Cassin's Finch - Male

 Cassin's Finch - Female

  Cassin's Finches

A male Western Tanager also paid a visit to partake in a sip or two of water.  This is one of Arizona's most colorful birds in the summer, especially in the higher elevations.

Western Tanager

We had made an appointment to meet another vehicle of participants in mid afternoon near the DeMotte Campground, so after lunch we headed to the spot and along the way, we stopped at few spots along the road and one was a pond that was being used by Brewer's Blackbirds for nesting and some of them were busy collecting insects to feed their young.  Kind of look like gluttons, but those babies get hungry!

 Brewer's Blackbird

Brewer's Blackbird

After meeting some of the other members, we set out to find a remote campsite to set up our tents and prepare for the night and the possibility of hearing some owls.  With daytime temps in the 70's and nighttime temps in the low 40's and upper 30's we knew it was going to be a pretty chilly night.  But just being in a remote spot with no other campers around made this an enjoyable start to this expedition.  

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