The Research Opportunity of a Lifetime

The email from Joseph Brandt, Supervisory Biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s California Condor Recovery Program, arrived on a Monday morning. His crew had trapped condors at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge.

That Wednesday, they would receive their biannual check up and we were invited to collect blood samples for our research. I immediately started preparing. Blood tubes, labels, markers, extra syringes and a cooler for ice; it had been a while since I had put a field kit together, but one look at this one and I was sure I still “had it.”

Hopper Mountain is located in eastern Ventura County, north of Los Angeles. It was established in 1974 to protect the few remaining condors. Getting there is a challenge. The primary obstacle is that the refuge is closed to the public. If you do find yourself fortunate enough to go there, you are then faced with a 45-minute drive on a steep, partially paved, guard rail-less road that hugs the ridge’s edge with little below you besides the canyon floor hundreds of feet down.

Entering California condor territory!

 

When we arrived at the holding pen I began to realize what an unbelievable opportunity this was. The mountain views of this protected wilderness alone were stunning, but as I looked at the holding pen with 32 condors inside, I counted 8-10 birds sitting on top of the pen and circling overhead. With only 400 or so condors in existence, I was surrounded by 10% of the entire condor population!

 

Time to get to work

As I opened the back of the truck to get our gear, I immediately panicked. I tore through everything looking for field kit, but it wasn’t there. Where it was, was 200 miles away in San Diego. I cannot find all the words to describe how I bad I felt. Suffice it to say that any pride I felt preparing the kit vanished when explaining my embarrassing situation to the FWS folks. “No problem,” they said, because, as good field biologists, they not only pack extra supplies in case of emergency, but they actually remember to bring them with them.

Seeing condors gracefully soaring over the mountains was magical.

 

Once everyone was ready, we started working up birds. Condors would be brought from the capture pen into the field station where they would spend the next 15-20 minutes being held securely in someone’s lap. Blood was drawn, transmitters replaced, and the general health of each bird assessed. Some of the blood was immediately tested for the amount of lead it contained. The results of that test would determine each bird’s fate that day. If its levels were below the established cutoff of 35 micrograms per deciliter, the bird would be carried outside and set free. If above that level, the birds would be transported to the LA Zoo for treatment to remove the lead from their system.

Collecting blood samples from condors is key to monitoring their health.

 

Lead poisoning is the leading cause of death of wild condors and there is an effort to establish condors in habitats with low risk of lead exposure. Coastal habitats where marine mammal carcasses could serve as a rich food supply are attractive options for this. However, marine mammal tissues contain other chemicals that interfere with a condor’s hormones that control reproduction. By testing blood from wild condors that feed on marine mammals, we can determine which chemicals are most likely to affect their reproduction. Since the Hopper Mountain birds do not feed on marine mammals, their blood serves as critical reference samples for our studies.

When we got back to San Diego, 18 hours after our day started, I got into my car to head home. In the morning all the samples we collected needed to be processed. I drove in silence, reflecting on the incredible day I just had, with my field kit sitting in the passenger seat right where I left it, keeping me company.

Christopher Tubbs, PhD, Scientist Reproductive Physiology Division

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