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Condor Visits San Mateo County for First Time in 110 Years

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Animal cam capture of Condor 597 in the woods near Pescadero | Photo courtesy Ventana Wildlife Society

Some great news from condor biologists: the first confirmed California condor visit to San Mateo County in a century took place in late May. Condor 597, a three-year-old female who hatched in the San Diego Zoo Wild Animal Park in April 2011, was recorded by a motion-sensitive wildlife camera in a forested area near Pescadero. Pescadero is a small coastal town about 35 miles south of San Francisco and six miles from Año Nuevo State Park, a famed elephant seal rookery where occasional giant carcasses offer a potential prime source of condor chow.

The sighting marks the first confirmed sighting California condor sighting to the county on the San Francisco Peninsula since 1904. "Not only is this the first sighting of a condor in San Mateo County in 110 years, but it is an exciting new range expansion into an area that could support condors in the wild", said Kelly Sorenson, Ventana Wildlife Society's executive director. "The coast is really important for condors today because of the abundance of marine mammal carcasses for them to eat, and it will be interesting to see if additional visits by condors to San Mateo or Santa Cruz County occur in the future."

Condor 597, nicknamed "Lupine," apparently embarked on her Bay Area visit on May 30, leaving from the vicinity of Pinnacles National Park about 100 miles southeast of Pescadero. She then returned to Pinnacles two days later.

Condors were reasonably common in the Bay Area before their population collapsed in 20th Century. But poaching, habitat destruction, injuries from human technology such as power lines, and lead poisoning from hunters' shot nearly sent the species over the edge. By 1987, when the California condor recovery program began capturing the birds for breeding purposes, only 22 condors remained on a tiny fraction of their historic range.

Since captive-hatched chicks began being released in 1992 the species has gained in number, with close to 240 birds living wild in California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja, and another 195 in captivity.

Lupine isn't the first post-recovery condor to visit the San Francisco Bay Area: other condors have been sighted in the wildlands of Santa Clara and Alameda counties.

Of course, Lupine's visit to the forests of Pescadero doesn't mean her species is out of the woods. The California condor remains one of the most critically endangered occupants of the Federal Endangered Species list. Mortality in the wild is still very high. A ban on lead ammunition passed last year to protect condors and other scavengers won't take effect until 2019, and residual lead shot will remain in the landscape after the ban. Other threats such as power lines and wind turbines remain.

Until those threats are gone, it's likely that the California condor would eventually succumb to extinction without the continual influx of captive-bred hatchlings into the wild. Though a few condors have successfully been hatched in the wild since the releases started, the vast majority of new condor babies are hatched in captivity. The wild hatch rate is nowhere near replacement rate for adult mortalities. 2013 in particular was a bad year for Central California condors, with apparent total reproductive failure in all wild nests and a regional population decline.

Still, for a condor to venture to within reach of San Francisco, and especially of Año Nuevo, is a positive sign. Given the Ventana Wildlife Society's profile of Lupine this trip may be evidence of personal growth for the bird: the profile's description of her behavior before her release along the Big Sur coast last spring said that "tends to be more comfortable with the familiar and becomes quite agitated in stressful situations." Which just goes to show that spending some time in Big Sur can bring out the best in anyone.

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