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NATURE HAPPENINGS - December 2003

Of Condors and Christmas Counts
by Damian Fagan

California Condor
Some of the most special gifts that symbolize the spirit of Christmas are those that rise above the turmoil of our lives and bless us with a sense of hope and joy. They may be extraordinary rewards or simple pleasures - either may fulfill our souls.

During the month of October I followed the news of Arizona’s first wild born California condor with the eagerness of an expectant parent. I vicariously experienced the days of waiting, the days of watching. I gasped with the biologists, through their web site postings, as the chick would rush from the deep confines of its cave to its motionless position at the precipitous edge of the cave. Stretching out before this bird was the deep chasm of the Grand Canyon; its nest cave located high above in a sheer wall of limestone.

Hope lay in its survival. The offspring of two captive-breed birds that had been released into the wild, biologists were concerned that the parents might not be experienced enough to provide for the nestling’s needs. As the days turned into weeks, the six-month fledging date became closer. The avian-watching community paced back and forth, waiting for history to be made on an eight-foot wingspan.

I kept reading the weekly postings on the Peregrine Fund’s web site. I felt the weariness and exhilaration of the 24-mile round-trip hike that the biologists followed to reach a vantage point from which to view the nest site. Though each parent bird, numbers 123 and 127 as identified by their wing tags, would visit and feed the chick for a few minutes, there were interactions of cuddling and face nibbling between the parents and chick that set my paternal heart aflutter. I even called the biologist’s to set up a short interview, but really I just wanted to share in their excitement and joy.

On November 6, the young bird stepped away from its ledge and “ungracefully circled” to a landing zone some 600 feet below the cave. The parents soon discovered that their baby had left the nest and they located the young bird in the canyon below. Though this chick faces a steep uphill climb to adulthood, one cannot help feel uplifted by the significance of this event. Historic condor sightings are rare in Utah, one in 1932 and one in 1872. Though a sighting of female number 149 thrilled a group of birders near Arches National Park back in the late 1990s, other records are sparse. A lone pictograph found in Canyonlands National Park, which resembles a condor in profile, indicates that the birds did occur in this area.

Christmas Bird Count
As the cold winds glissade down the face of the La Sal Mountains, local birders are heating up for the 104th annual Christmas Bird Count, better known as the CBC. Scouring a 15-mile wide circle, teams of birders record the seasonal bag of sparrows and thrushes, ducks and geese. Sponsored by the National Audubon Society, the count is a nationwide event.

The CBC started as an alternative to the annual “harvesting” of wild game - he who shoots the most birds wins - and was a nonconsumptive way to enjoy birds during the holidays. That first winter, 27 participants counted birds in 25 locations from Massachusetts to Monterey, California. Together they counted some 90 species, and this was long before Peterson or National Geographic Field Guides. Turn-of-the-century bird watchers were probably a suspect lot, arousing the suspicion of local authorities.

In 2002, over 50,000 participants in more than 1,800 counts took to the field to record winter birds. This huge voluntary effort provides information to better understand the distribution and population status of wintering birds. This year’s count in Moab will be December 20, and in accordance with the Polar Wishes Act, I’ve made my decision for what I would like for Christmas - a condor soaring high over the Moab Valley, preferably within the confines of the Christmas Bird Count circle.

For additional information on the California condors in Arizona, check out The Peregrine Fund’s web site at http://www.peregrinefund.org. For information about participating on the CBC, contact Rick Boretti or Andrea Brand at 259-4050.

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