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California and the West

2 Young Condors Drown in Wilderness Water Hole

Nature: Deaths called 'minor setback' to recovery program, which releases the endangered birds into wild.

July 23, 1998|NICK GREEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — Two young California condors have been found drowned in a natural water hole in the rugged back country of Los Padres National Forest, wildlife officials said Wednesday.

The accidental deaths dealt what one researcher called a "minor setback" to the ambitious Ventura-based Condor Recovery Program that is attempting to save the majestic birds from extinction.

"To have two of them found dead at once, it's sort of a knock-down," said Jane Hendron, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "However, we do account within the program for some natural mortalities. . . . That is part of nature."

Field biologist Adam Brown became concerned that there could be trouble last week, when he detected a steady signal from a radio transmitter that indicated that one of the birds had not moved for a couple of days.

After a strenuous 1 1/2-hour climb Friday, Brown discovered the two juvenile birds--one 16 months old, the other 26 months--lying in a pool of water that had collected in a pothole atop a sandstone rock formation in a remote canyon in Santa Barbara County.

Blood and tissue samples are being analyzed to rule out other possible causes of death, such as poisoning. But a necropsy conducted at the San Diego Zoo showed that the birds probably drowned in about 20 inches of water that had collected in the bottom of the pothole.

The hole had smooth vertical walls, covered with slippery algae, that rose 2 1/2 feet to 6 feet above the water and would have made escape difficult, said Mike Barth, supervising field biologist.

Researchers speculate that the two birds, which typically weigh about 20 pounds and have 9-foot wing spans, had visited the area regularly to drink. However, the water that had accumulated in the depression from this winter's heavy rains had undoubtedly begun to evaporate in the summer heat, making it harder for the birds to reach it, Hendron said.

"One bird could have lost its balance and, in flailing, knocked the other bird in--we don't know," she said. "They both may have slipped in.

"They could struggle until they were utterly exhausted and not be able to get out. . . . They are not designed to float on water, and their bodies and their feathers will become very heavy once they are immersed."

The older of the two birds was released into the wild in November 1996, the younger a year later.

The death of the two condors leaves 35 of the birds still in the wild--15 in Los Padres National Forest on the Central California coast, five near Big Sur and 15 in Arizona.

They are the first condor fatalities in the forest since one of the vultures struck a power line in Santa Barbara County's Cuyama Valley last year, Hendron said. Two other condors also died last year in Arizona.

A condor wounded by a bullet last month in the Santa Barbara County wilderness is doing well, although it is questionable whether the bird will be able to return to the wild.

The young bird has undergone two surgical procedures at the Los Angeles Zoo to repair a broken leg.

Barth took some solace in the fact that the latest deaths were natural.

"It's kind of an unusual circumstance," he said. "But we keep going on. . . . It's just kind of a shock when it happens with an endangered species."

Scientists hope to release as many as three dozen more condors this fall. The first condors released in the program, which began in 1992, could begin to breed as soon as 2000, Hendron said.

"This was an unfortunate accident," she said of the deaths, "but it certainly does not affect the overall progress of the program. We are still increasing the number of condors out there every year."

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