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Famous wayward condor that visited Montezuma County is growing up

Condor that visited Montezuma County is staying put, but hasn’t quite settled down

Nate, the young California condor that became famous after his wayward flight to Montezuma County from the Grand Canyon in 2014, is alive and well.

Nicknamed “Nate” based on wing tag number, N8, the then-2-year-old male condor became well-known as readers throughout the Southwest followed his epic 640-mile flight from the Grand Canyon, through the Four Corners then back, over nine days.

Midway through his flight, he landed in a field on Summit Ridge south of Dolores and was photographed by local birder Franz Carver, who was taking a day off from his seasonal park ranger job at Mesa Verde National Park.

After a foray into New Mexico, Nate returned home to the Grand Canyon and Vermillion Cliffs area of northern Arizona. Listed as missing and feared dead, biologists were relieved to hear about the sighting, reported first by The Journal.

Because of his long-distance travels and media attention, Nate has become “fairly famous,” said Tim Hauck, California Condor program manager for The Peregrine Fund.

Now, Nate is a healthy 6-year-old adult. He has stayed closer to home, Hauck said.

“He is in the wild doing great,” he said.

Nate is socializing and hanging out with fellow condors as they fly between the Grand Canyon, the Vermilion Cliffs and the northern edge of Zion National Park, in Utah.

This time of year, most of the 92 condors in the Grand Canyon population fly north to monitor wildlife and domestic herds in southern Utah, gorging on the animals when they die.

“Nate has not done any more big exploratory flights, and has been staying with the flock,” Hauck said. “As soon has he returned from his trip to the Four Corners, we put a new GPS device on him.”

Although the GPS device stopped working last summer, Nate still wears a radio transmitter.

Still, it seems Nate has not quite settled down. He has reached breeding age but has not found a mate.

“We’ve been keeping an eye on him. There is a good chance he will pair up with a mate in January or February, then hopefully, breed in the wild,” Hauck said.

So far, 40 condor chicks have been born in the wild in the Southwest population. Mating pairs usually take two or three years before the chicks successfully fledge. Eggs are incubated for 57 days in nests tucked into cliffside alcoves.

The birds’ biggest threat is by lead poisoning from eating carcasses shot with lead bullets. A volunteer program encouraging hunters to use copper bullets instead of lead ones has been 85% successful, said Chris Parish, condor field project supervisor with The Peregrine Fund.

If lead bullets are used, more hunters have gotten the message to bury or remove the slain animal’s gut pile to protect the condor and other scavenging birds and animals.

“Not using lead bullets protects other wildlife and humans too,” Parish said. He said the volunteer, non-lead bullet program for hunters has expanded into northern Arizona and southern Utah, and discussions are ongoing with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“We’re spreading the word: the more people learn about it, the more the understanding of the unique needs of scavengers,” Parish said.

Biologists attempt to capture each Grand Canyon condor annually to test for lead poisoning. If they have dangerous levels, they receive a blood treatment called chelation to remove the lead.

Since the volunteer non-lead ammunition program, incidents of lead poisoning have leveled off or dropped.

Nate was most recently tested about a year ago, and results showed he did not have elevated lead levels, Hauck said.

He was bred in captivity and hatched at the San Diego Zoo, then released into the wild in 2014.

It’s not uncommon to lose contact of birds, Parish said, especially in the spring when storm fronts allow birds to take extended trips. They can cruise at an altitude of 15,000 feet.

Parish said the birds have been spotted as far north as the Flaming Gorge in Wyoming.

Hauck said Nate’s long-distance flight in 2014 is related to the evolutionary branching out of juveniles seeking new territory.

He said the Four Corners has good condor habitat and it’s possible that one day a population could be established there.

The California condor is the largest North American land bird, with a wingspan of 9.8 feet. They went extinct in the wild in 1987 and were reintroduced in northern Arizona and southern Utah after being bred in captivity. They are the rarest bird species, and their population has been slowly growing to about 500 today. More than half of them flying free in Arizona, Utah, California and Baja Mexico.

Public release this month

The 23rd annual public condor release is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 28. The public is invited to join the recovery effort by witnessing firsthand a release into the wild of several captive-bred young condors on National Public Lands Day.

As many as four California Condors will be released by The Peregrine Fund from atop the spectacular ledges of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in northern Arizona at 11 a.m. Mountain time. The public is welcome to observe the release from a viewing area where spotting scopes provided by partners and Swarovski Optik will be set up, and project personnel will be available to answer questions.

Driving directions: Take Highway 89A from Kanab or Page to the Vermilion Cliffs (from Flagstaff take Highway 89 to Highway 89A). Turn north onto BLM Road 1065 (a dirt road next to the small house just east of the Kaibab Plateau) and continue almost 3 miles.Bring: Spotting scope or binoculars, sunscreen, water, snack, chair and layered clothingDetails: Informational kiosk, shade structure and restroom at the site.For more information about California Condors in Arizona at: http://www.peregrinefund.org/condor.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com

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