Condors are nesting in coastal redwood Northern California has first sighting in more than century

Carl T. Hall, Chronicle Staff Writer

A pair of captive-bred California condors has established a nest and appears to be nursing an egg in a Big Sur redwood tree -- Northern California's first documented condor nesting site in 101 years.

Biologists working to rescue the giant condor from threat of extinction used radio telemetry, satellite signals and a morning of bushwhacking through poison oak and stinging nettles to track the banded birds to a remote coastal canyon in Monterey County.

As far as anyone knows, it's the first time condors have been found nesting anywhere in a coastal redwood, rather than in the giant sequoias or cliffside rock crevasses they typically choose.

The last known condor nest in Monterey County, or anywhere else in Northern California, was recorded on April 12, 1905, when collectors gathered an egg for the Western Foundation for Vertebrate Zoology.

This week's find establishes a new beachhead for California's famed condor-recovery program, still struggling to overcome a long list of challenges, including heavy fatalities from such hazards as lead poisoning, attributed to consumption of ammunition when the carrion-eating birds clean up after hunters.

At last count 271 condors are being observed in the wild, mostly in Southern and Central California, and including 57 in Arizona.

The newfound nest is on private property, 40 feet above ground in the hollow of a damaged old redwood.

Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, a Salinas group overseeing the Big Sur condor project, said the nest is within easy flying range of the birds' release point into the wilds of Big Sur. The precise location is being held secret.

A 27-year-old field biologist, Joseph Brandt, set out to find the nest before dawn Monday, after three days of tracking. He had to scramble down a steep hillside to reach the birds' chosen redwood grove. From the hillside, he had seen what appeared to be the most likely tree, bigger than the others, its top missing. He circled around until he could find a vantage point a safe distance away.

There, with his camera and binoculars, he waited. Brandt was equipped for an overnight stay in the woods, but before lunch, he saw the male condor -- a 9-year-old born at the Los Angeles Zoo and released into the wild in 1997 -- fly out of the nest, light on a nearby branch, then promptly return to the hollow.

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Condor nesting in Big Sur
Photo by Joseph Brandt, Ventana Wildlife Society

Condor 167 peers out of the nest cavity of a giant Redwood tree. Condor 167 and his mate, 190, could be incubating an egg inside. This is the first condor nest in Monterey County in 101 years and the first documented nest in a redwood tree.

"I was thinking the nest would be much higher in the tree, but then the male kind of hops out, where I could see him," Brandt said. "It was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is what we've been waiting for.' And your heart just kind of jumps right up into your throat."

When the bird, known as No. 167, re-entered the hole in the tree, it turned around and poked its head out for a moment, allowing Brandt to snap a photograph, which has cheered biologists and condor fanciers throughout the West.

The female, No. 190, an 8-year-old released in 1999, had been observed lingering in the same area for several days before the nest was found. The biologists are continuing to monitor the site from various points Brandt scouted in the drainage.

Condor eggs, about the size of a goose egg, take 56 days to incubate. The parents typically crouch over the egg, keeping it warm by gently clasping it with their gigantic, featherless feet. The birds lay only one egg every full mating cycle, which may include six months of constant care and feeding of the helpless nestling before it can fly on its own, then another six or eight months of condor adolescence.


How to track a wild condor

By CHRIS COUNTS
Published: March 31, 2006

SEARCHING FOR a condor's nest in the vastness of Big Sur must be a little like looking for a needle in a hundred haystacks.

But Joseph Brandt &emdash; a 27-year-old biologist hired by the local nonprofit Ventana Wildlife Society to locate California condor nests &emdash; found the elusive needle this week, and in the process discovered the first evidence in more than 100 years that condors are trying to breed in Monterey County.

Considering the nest is one of only three in the wild in the Northern Hemisphere, the event made national news. But for Brandt, it was all in a day's work. Or at least all in a muddy, sweaty and buggy day's work.

Brandt declined to give the exact location of the nest, which is on private property, but he did offer a brief description of the odyssey he undertook to reach it.

"The terrain in Big Sur is very steep," described Brandt, who graduated in 2003 from the University of Oregon with a B.S. in biology and environmental science. "The brush is just insane. You end up bushwhacking and crawling on your belly."

The notion of creeping long distances through thick, damp and often tick-infested brush in search of a biological Holy Grail may sound foolhardy, if not futile. But thanks modern technology, Brandt was confident he would eventually find the elusive nest.

Using a global positioning satellite tracking system, he was able to locate a pair of condors who seemed to be spending a lot of time together. After hacking through some of Big Sur's back country, he eventually stumbled upon the nest, which is located in the hollow of a burned-out redwood tree.

"The condors were taking turns attending it," he said.

Brandt managed to get close enough to take some photographs of the male condor in the nest before notifying jubilant officials at the wildlife society of his discovery.

While Brandt was unable to see an egg, the behavior of the condors would seem to indicate one exists. The birds never left the nest for more than a few minutes at a time while he observed them.

Brandt said the discovery represents a milestone for the local condor population.

"It's a landmark for this species, especially in Big Sur, which historically was a hot spot of condor activity. It's a great indication we are on the right path" to restoring the wild condor population.

But Brandt downplayed his own efforts.

"I was just the right person in the right place at the right time," he explained. "A lot of people have worked really hard on this project."

And Brandt told The Pine Cone he looks forward to searching for more condor nests.

"There are two other potential breeding pairs in Big Sur that could nest this season," he said. "I need to track them."

Brandt said it's hard to tell if either couple is ready to settle down. Condors, like humans, are capable of being selective and even fickle before they commit to a mate.

"They're courting right now," he said. "But they could be doing that for a couple years."

But once two condors finally do decide to settle down, they rarely stray from their partnership.

"They usually stick together for the rest of their lives," Brandt explained.

While Brandt certainly doesn't have the most conventional of occupations, he seems to enjoy what he's doing.

"What I do is hard work," he said. "At times I ask myself what I'm doing out here in the cold. It even snowed last week. But in the end I love what I'm doing. I'm kind of blown away that this is what I'm doing for a living."

As recently as 1987, only 27 California Condors survived, all in captivity. With the species on the brink of extinction, the VWS began releasing condors into the wild in 1997 and now monitors 38 wild condors in Central California.

Researchers spy condor feeding
on whale in Big Sur

Posted Thursday, May 4, 2006
By KEVIN HOWE Monterey Herald Staff Writer

The first recorded sighting of a California condor feasting on a dead beached whale in 200 years was made over the weekend on the Big Sur Coast.

A California gray whale, stranded on the shore south of Point Sur, was seen from a helicopter and the sighting was reported to the state Department of Fish and Game, said Kelly Sorenson of the Ventana Wildlife Society.

Fish and Game officials were unable to reach the site because of tides, but members of the Ventana Wildlife Society on Sunday climbed down the cliffs to the beach, where senior wildlife biologist Joe Burnett took photos of the event.

Clearly visible in his pictures is Condor No. 22, a 6-year-old female, Burnett said.

The Ventana Wildlife Society has been releasing condors that were hatched in zoos and raised by humans into the wilds of Big Sur since 1996, and at Pinnacles National Monument since 2004.

"The birds are becoming more and more independent," Sorenson said. "They're feeding and breeding on their own. It's like bringing back prehistoric times. Seeing a condor feeding on a 40-foot beached gray whale in Big Sur conjures up a pretty incredible image."

Condor 22 is on the brink of breeding age, Burnett said. Since Sunday, the society has logged seven of the 25 Big Sur condors at the whale carcass.

"We've always known and suspected the ocean would produce a food source for these birds," he said. The first confirmation of that presumption came in 1999, when condors were found feeding on a dead sea lion, "another magical day."

A priest who sailed with Gaspar de Portola's expedition along the California coast in 1602, Father Antonio de la Ascencion, reported seeing "large vultures" with an estimated wingspan of 10 to 12 feet feeding on a beached whale carcass, Burnett said. In 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition came upon a condor doing the same at the mouth of the Columbia River.

They described "a remarkably large buzzard, feeding on the remains of a whale," Burnett said, and one of them shot the condor as a specimen for the expedition's scientific collection.

The whale feeding puts the birds "one step closer to being self-sustaining," he said, adding that he and other society biologists still supplement-feed the young birds after release.

The first wild condor chick to take flight in California in 22 years left its nest in Ventura County in October 2004. That bird was hatched the previous April near Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and the mother had been released in Big Sur by the Ventana Wildlife Society.

Most condors continue to be bred in captivity. There are an estimated 276 living. Some released birds died from lead poisoning after ingesting bullets or shotgun pellets while eating the carcasses of game shot by hunters. Other birds were electrocuted after landing on high-tension power lines.

The society, the only nonprofit organization in California releasing condors into the wild, is a member of the California Condor Recovery Program, which consists of government and nongovernment agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, San Diego Wild Animal Park, the Los Angeles Zoo and the state Department of Fish and Game.

About 50 condors, the largest land birds in North America, have been turned loose during annual releases in Big Sur.

In October, the carcass of a male, Condor No. 164, was discovered in Ventura County, the eighth released by the society to have died.

That bird's death was a setback for the society's goal of establishing breeding pairs in the wild, Sorenson said, because the condor had reached breeding age and its aggressive nature made it a natural candidate to be a breeder.

There are 38 condors in the wild in Central California, Sorenson said, and the society has set a goal of establishing 150 in the wild with 15 breeding pairs.

In March, the first nesting pair seen in Monterey County in more than a century was sighted in a hollow redwood tree in Big Sur and photographed by biologist Joseph Brandt, Burnett said. A second nesting pair has been found nearby since.

"It shows things are working," Burnett said. "Things are coming together."