Thursday, September 15, 2016

The struggle of the California Condors of the Vermillion Cliffs of Arizona

John Sherman's view of a condor nest on the Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona

Flagstaff wildlife photographer John Sherman is on a mission. His subject was once on the brink of extinction. After being placed on the federal endangered species list in 1967, only 22 California condors were known to exist, and were extinct in the wild by 1987. But now 71 condors are alive in the wilds of northern Arizona and southern Utah. And Sherman has vowed to get at least one photo of every one of them. The point: to highlight the precarious nature of one of the largest birds in North America as they attempt to make a comeback from centuries of misfortune.

One of his new photographs demonstrates the incredible wingspan of a California condor, which can be nine feet or more. They are immense in size, sure. But there's also this: the largest birds in the wilds of North America are numbered with tags as well as GPS transmitters on their wings. These items make the bird appear to be some kind of football player, race car or at least racing plane, but these non-natural items are really indications of a species on life support.

That's because one of their biggest foes right now is lead poisoning from the ingestion of bullets not shot at them, but at the carrion they eat.

When a lead bullet strikes an animal target, it explodes into tiny particles. Thus, when a carrion bird, clean sweeper of the southwestern deserts, ingests those particles, they are in danger of lead poisoning. But copper bullets are different; when they hit the target, they generally stay intact. Just that one difference could mean everything for the survival of the California condor species.

The intention of Sherman's photography project is not only to show their odd beauty, but also their vulnerability.

"By showing every bird in the population, which is about the size of a deck of cards, you can put them up on a poster and see every one," he says. "By doing that I can divert people from the politics of condors and have them think about the biology and ecology. They are on a tipping point right now ... I hope I live long enough to see them without tags."

That one simple change in hunter's shooting habits in the protected area could make all of the difference. In most situations, in terms of protecting an endangered species, the issues can be far more complicated. Lead poisoning, which the birds are constantly being tested for, has been identified as the main thing that could prevent the condors from having a chance at self-sustaining survival. Lead shot in gut piles left by hunters is a big source of concern. Since the birds feed in groups, just one such carcass could potentially poison several birds. So hunters are being asked to not only switch to copper shot, but also to remove all carcasses and animal parts from the field.

"What does it say about us, as a species, if we can't make such a small sacrifice that pays such dividends?" Sherman says. "We really can get the lead out of the environment."

So far he has photographed 58 out of 72 (one, however, was recently shot dead). He has seen them at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, at Navajo Bridge on Highway 89A, and where they have been released into the wild, on Vermillion Cliffs, near Kaibab National Forest to the west and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to the east.

Photo by John Sherman

Sherman believes by capturing every one of them with his long lenses, he can make a strong statement about how few there are.

"I would like to be able to make a poster that says, 'This is it. This is all there is. Help us out.' "
The "us" in this case includes the biologists who are constantly observing and tracking the condors. For nearly 20 years, program personnel have released low numbers of condors into the wild every year, with the last release this past September. Each condor, fitted with radio transmitters and monitored daily by field biologists, is the beneficiary of a special provision of the Endangered Species Act that allows for the management of their reintroduction in the wild.

Decades, perhaps even centuries of decline, due to poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction during the settlement of the West, led to the point of thie rnear extinction by the late 1970s. Then in 1987 all remaining wild condors were captured, then bred at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Captive breeding increased their numbers and now there are slightly more than 400 condors total living in the wild or in captivity. They have been reintroduced in northern Arizona and have since migrated into southern Utah as well (including the Grand Canyon area and Zion National Park). They are also being reintroduced into the the coastal mountains of central and southern California, and northern Baja California.

In 2006, a condor pair was seen nesting in Northern California for the first time in a century. A decade later captive birds were also being bred at the Oregon Zoo and the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. Five years ago, the number of wild condors actually in California had increased to 100 individuals, with 73 more in Arizona. Three years ago, more than 200 of the estimated 400 California condors alive today were living in the wild.

The rugged Vermillion Cliffs provided every type of condition needed for the birds' survival, especially the ridges and caves condors need for nesting. But another big advantage is the isolation from humans.

For the average person, the best time to see the condors is in the spring and summer at the South Rim and Zion National Park. In the winter, they can be found at the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, as well as along the Colorado River corridor near Marble Canyon. Perhaps the easiest chance to see them is on the Navajo Bridge. In fact, several of the best closeup photos of the birds that Sherman has taken were shot at Navajo Bridge.

Sherman says it's a pretty good haul by four-wheel drive, with some hiking involved to get the photo equipment near enough to the birds, but not too close. The birds are naturally curious, and fairly unafraid.

"They are impressive in their statures, but not that hard to photograph," he says. "I make the assumption that 99 percent of the time the animal knows I'm there. I approach very slowly, but only close enough where I'm within the comfort zone for the bird. It's not a success if the animal runs away when I'm shooting."

He says he acquired the patience necessary to photograph these elusive, rare birds in rock climbing and bouldering, which also require intense study of the object for long periods of time. "Bird photography is the bouldering of the photography world," he says. "It taught me a lot I didn't know about myself, in terms of the patience I had." Sherman first began shooting photos of birds during a trip to the Colorado River wetlands, and then moved on to shooting peregrine falcons, which he says are far more difficult to capture than condors. At one point, during an assignment on peregrine falcons, he wondered if it would be easier to shoot penguins.

He believes himself to be a "staunch traditionalist," which means he doesn't use tricks, such as putting out bait to draw the animal in, or bird calls to trick the bird into coming closer. Sherman only wants a photo of what the birds will normally do. "You have to be dedicated to spend time with them and when something happens, I feel so enriched the photo becomes secondary. It's like, 'wow, that's so cool.' I don't even care about the photo."

His ideal behavior, he laughs, is to take on "the physique of a ruminant," which basically means appearing to be as non-threatening as possible.

On the face of it, getting a photo of every single condor in Arizona sounds like a pretty daunting task. The birds can fly anywhere from 150 to 200 miles in a day, and tips provided by biologists based on their GPS positioning can only help so much. They might be reading at one position at that moment, but who knows where they will be hours from now across some of the most isolated, rugged areas. Sherman says it helps that they are numbered, and therefore easy to identify to avoid any redundancy.

"If you find one, you often find more than one in a group," he says. "There are not an awful lot of loners. The biologists told me there were two I would never get, but I did. So that gives me the faith that I can get the rest. It's going to be more important to track down the leads (provided by the biologists) when I get down to 10."

But it's a game he plays, and it keeps him motivated.

"I'm sure that when there is one left I will be thinking of that one as Moby Dick," he says.

Photo by John Sherman

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