Flight of the condors

Thursday , June 12, 2014 - 12:00 AM

Utah’s condors have made a comeback. 

Wildlife officials have been abuzz about the birds ever since they saw signs that a California condor chick may have hatched high on a cliff over Zion National Park. Because the nesting cavity is so high — roughly 1,000 feet above the canyon floor — biologists won’t be able to see or confirm the chick’s presence until it begins exercising its wings and venturing beyond its perch around six months from now. Still, for those who have caught condor fever, the park offers some the best chances for spotting the elusive birds. 

“It’s got good, suitable habitat for nesting cavities, areas away from hazards and not much development,” said Fred Armstrong, superintendent at Zion National Park. “Yet there are things they can scavenge.” 

While condors are highly endangered, they’re relatively easy to identify, according to Eddie Feltes, field manager for the Peregrine Fund condor recovery effort.

“No other bird matches their size,” he said. “It looks like a hang glider, literally.”

Most condors’ wingspans reach 9.5 feet, making them the largest flying bird native to North America. Condor fossils have been found throughout the continent since the Ice Age. But by 1982, only 22 birds remained alive. The Peregrine Fund swooped in to save them, collaborating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and other agencies. They breed condors in captivity, fit them with radio transmitters, then release and track them in the wild. They’ve brought up the birds’ numbers to around 75.

Feltes said it’s not uncommon to have all those birds in southern Utah at the same time. That’s because condors can fly hundreds of miles in an average day, efficiently gliding through the sky in search of food.

“They have a wide range, covering Bryce Canyon all the way to the Grand Canyon,” Feltes said. “They could easily be in one in the morning, the other in the afternoon.”

The condors spend much of their time on the Colorado Plateau searching for large animals to scavenge, which often leads the birds to private ranches. That’s why national parks like Zion offer the public one of the few chances to see a condor.

“For the average birdwatcher, Zion is the best spot,” Feltes said.

According to Armstrong at Zion National Park, the best places for visitors to spot condors are on the Observation Point Trail, the West Rim Trail and at Scouts Lookout, located along the Angel’s Landing hike. That’s because the birds like to hang out at high points where they can scan for food. The canyon walls and desert heat also help produce the conditions condors use to soar.  

“They rely on the sun to generate the updrafts and air currents to help them stay aloft,” Armstrong said. “They’re such a large bird that they conserve a lot of their energy by gliding on thermally produced air currents.”

They’re so efficient at using those air currents that condors rarely flap their wings, which makes them easier to spot from a distance. The birds also have a characteristic pattern of white feathers on the underside of their wings, setting them apart from other large scavengers like turkey vultures. Late morning through midday are often the best times to see them sailing in the sky. 

“If you hike up to Angel’s Landing or drive the main canyons, keep your eyes peeled up top,” Feltes said. “If you see one, you’ll know.”

Even as their numbers build, condors face a troubled future. Their primary threat, according to Feltes, is lead poisoning. The Arizona Game and Fish Department reports at least 15 condors have died from lead toxicity since 2000. That lead comes from tainted game. When hunters use lead ammunition and leave behind the gut piles, condors scavenge the remains, consuming lead fragments in the process. Feltes said the solution is simple.

“Instead of using lead ammunition, use copper,” he said. “Lead is the number one thing stopping the recovery of the species, but all you’ve got to do is switch bullets.”

Zion’s condor chick remains a positive sign in condor recovery. It’s the first to hatch in Utah since condors were reintroduced in the 1990s. While the baby bird won’t be ready to take to Zion’s skies for a year or so, it at least means the birds have taken to the area. 

“It’s one of the rarest birds in the world, and we’re really excited about nest in Zion,” Feltes said. “It’s the first recorded nest in Utah and the fact it’s in a national park makes it even more exciting.”

Contact outdoors and environment reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter @LeiaLarsen or on Facebook at facebook.com/leiaoutside.

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