While walking recently on an Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary trail past the power line tower near Allen Marsh and South G Street, I saw a large vulture (Cathartes aura) perched on top of the tower with its wings outstretched to dry in the morning sun. Looking through my telephoto lens, I noticed a large white spot with the number 80 on top of the vulture’s left wing – the first time I saw this.
Eliminating the possibility that local vultures formed sports teams and now wore jersey numbers, I contacted local wildlife experts and bird watchers to find out why this vulture wore a number. Eventually, I reached out to Chris West, manager of the Yurok Tribe Condor Restoration Program in Northern California, which is a collaboration between the Yurok Tribe and Redwood State and National Parks.
The goal of the restoration program, which the Yurok tribe began in 2008, is to locally reintroduce the culturally and ecologically significant condor into the wild. The bird has been absent from the northern California and southern Oregon region for over 100 years.
âThis is definitely our # 80 marked vulture,â West said in an email response. Trapped and marked on July 13, 2011 in Korbel, he was a medium-sized adult in good condition, but a little early. “No. 80 had a sufficiently high blood lead at the time we considered it to have been exposed to a point source of lead. Other research on vultures found it most likely from fragments of ammunition in lead found in salvaged carcasses. ” West said the Turkey Vulture’s years of proximity to the ocean could mean fishing gear is a possible culprit, but “their mercury load was low, indicating that they don’t often feed on marine resources “.
The reason West trapped and tagged local vultures (sometimes referred to as “outdoor janitors”) was to see how much lead-exposed condors would face if they were to be released in our area. Early studies looked at lead levels in turkey vultures during the hunting season and found that they were lower here than in other places where condors have been relocated.
California condors in the wild were rapidly declining in numbers by the mid-1980s due to lead contamination and the effects of DDT, which led to thinning of eggshells. Biologists therefore captured the last 22 condors remaining in the wild to breed them in captivity. In April 1987, they caught the last critically endangered wild condor.
In one of the most successful captive breeding programs of all time, there are now over 500 condors in the wild or awaiting release. According to Tiana Williams-Claussen of the Yurok Tribe Wildlife Department, plans are underway to release the first condors into the wild locally in the spring of 2022.
A recent Yurok Tribe Facebook post reported that construction has started on the Northern California Condor Restoration Program’s condor release and management facility to protect the condors as they acclimatize to a new environment.
And back to Vulture # 80: âOver the years, # 80 has been our most flashy individual,â West said. âYour sighting is the 27th reported to us. When we started this project, many people told us that there were resident vultures, although no one could tell us if they were really residents and winter birds were not just different individuals. those of the summer. birds just at the southern end of the migration from further north. No.80 has shown that they are true residents, seen throughout the year. The only month we lack observational data for is April, so stay tuned next spring! “
Indeed, I can’t wait to watch in 2022 to see a wild condor soar over our local skies – perhaps even perched on a power line tower at Arcata Marsh.
Mark Larson (he / him) is a retired journalism professor at Humboldt State University and an active freelance photographer who enjoys walking.