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Catching Condors: Treasured Quest for Biologists

November 23, 1986|DAVID SMOLLAR | Times Staff Writer and

MARICOPA, Calif. — Someday soon, thousands of years of free flight for the California condor will end on an isolated foothill ridge near here, probably in the hands of Pete Bloom.

For much of the last two months, "home" for Bloom has been a four-foot hole beneath the sun-baked golden grass ranch lands on the hilly southwestern edge of the San Joaquin Valley.

There, in a straw-covered pit, he kneels on a pillow from dawn to dusk, with a two-way radio, a copy of Newsweek, a couple of books, a flask of water, some fruit and cookies and a urine bottle, and waits for one of the three California condors still in the wild.

Inches in front of a narrow slit letting in light lies a freshly killed calf carcass to attract the vultures. Should a condor land and feed close enough to the opening, Bloom will slide his hands through the slit and grab the condor by its legs, pull the bird into the pit and hold it until other trapping team members scramble in from nearby observation points.

Take Ills in Stride

Team members take in stride the alternating heat and cold, the ants, the constant hum of flies buzzing around the carcass, the occasional rattlesnake, and the long periods of waiting. The pay is low and the recognition is limited to a small circle of wildlife experts.

But all that is a small price to pay for what they consider to be the high privilege available only to these few field biologists: the chance to save a what they see as a majestic, almost mystical species from otherwise certain extinction.

The ridge where Bloom and the others patiently wait day after day is a traditional feeding site for the magnificent bird. But with its 9 1/2-foot wingspan, the condor can fly up to 100 miles a day--from Ventura to eastern Tulare County--soaring eight to 10 miles at a stretch on a thermal air current without so much as flapping its wings.

And this time of year--through the fall and winter--there is other food available throughout its range, particularly game shot and left by hunters.

So there have been no condors lured to capture since trapping resumed in early September, following a monthslong hiatus because of policy disagreements among top officials of the condor program. The only visits have been those of golden eagles, who alight on carcasses early in the morning to feed at leisure.

The three remaining condors--known as AC-2, AC-5, and AC-9, the AC standing for "adult condor"--all carry radio transmitters, having been caught, tagged and released under an earlier program. Several team members sit daily on mountain ridges or maneuver four-wheel-drive trucks over narrow roads, pointing portable antennas into the sky to try to pick up the distinctive "beep-beep-beep" of the condors' radio packs.

Each time a condor's signal grows strong near the trapping site, the jokes and idle conversations over the biologists' radios cease, and the rushing adrenaline of team members can almost be heard over the crackle of radio instructions.

Esoteric Rewards

But when the sound becomes faint, indicating that the bird has banked to another portion of its range, the long wait resumes. Occasionally, the team traps a golden eagle at the end of the day and takes blood tests to compare lead content in the eagles' blood with that measured in the condors.

"This job has rewards that people making $30,000 or $40,0000 or $50,000 a year do not understand," said Bloom, a 4-year veteran of the program and an expert in trapping a wide variety of bird species.

"You take a lot of your pay in (seeing) sunsets, bald eagles, mountain lions," said Vicky Meretsky, a team member making $16,600 a year for working 12- to 14-hour days.

While Bloom crouches in his pit, other members sit in a blind overlooking a backup trap site where a carcass rests upon the ground under a net poised to drop when triggered from the blind. As with the pit, there is no leaving the blind until trapping has ended for the day.

"Very few people can put up with the monotony, hours upon hours," said Dave Clendenon, an ornithologist who began with the program as a nest-watcher in 1982 after his excitement over seeing 14 condors in one day during a college field trip refused to dissipate.

"You learn patience as a field biologist," Bloom said. "But when the excitement does come, it comes hard and fast. . . . It's the most exciting place in the world because you are literally just inches away from wild animals, dozens of eagles fighting in front of you . . . and occasionally a condor landing in just the right position for you to capture.

'Most Intensive Thing'

"It's the most intensive thing I've ever done (when in the pit), listening to AC-5 breathing for 15 minutes right beside me, with my arm out waiting, an eagle running across and stamping on it but my having to remain still, my heart pounding so hard, my mouth open and hearing the guttural pumps of my heart; it's phenomenal.

"And then AC-5 takes off and you just slump down in the pit; such an incredible letdown."

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