/ 9 July 2008

Rare condors threatened by California fires

Naturalists are fearing for endangered California condors caught up in a massive two-week-old blaze still sweeping through the scenic Big Sur area.

The fate of three condor chicks born in the wild in April — key to the reintroduction in California of the threatened species — was unknown by Tuesday. One nest was in the path of the fire and flames damaged an aviary where captive chicks are trained before being released into the wild.

”We have three mating condor pairs this year and three active nests that we are really concerned about. We don’t know if the chicks are dead or not,” said Cathy Keeran, of the Ventana Wildlife Society, the only non-profit group releasing and managing California condors in the wild.

Keeran said eight captive chicks had been rescued by helicopter just before flames destroyed their home in the society’s aviary in a remote Big Sur canyon last week.

The Big Sur fire, sparked by lightning strikes on June 21, has consumed more than 32 000 hectares and destroyed 48 homes and other buildings, fire officials said on Tuesday. Containment is not expected until the end of July.

A three-day heat wave forecast for central and southern California starting on Tuesday is expected to bring high temperatures and low humidity, further complicating efforts to control the Big Sur fire and another blaze further south near Santa Barbara that has charred 3 600 hectares in seven days.

Fire has already swept through a wild area where one of the condor chicks was nesting. ”We did fly over the nest and we saw the area was burned but the redwood tree [containing the nest] was still standing,” Keeran said.

The two other chicks have nests closer to the Pacific Ocean but their fate in the thick, acrid smoke covering the region is not known, she said. California condors have a low breeding rate, laying eggs only once every two years, and chicks depend on their parents for more than a year.

The Ventana Wildlife Society manages 43 wild condors in the Big Sur area. The birds are equipped with tracking devices and the society puts out food to supplement what the carrion-eaters find in the wild.

”We have a couple we have not been able to locate. Hopefully their transmitters are just not working properly,” Keeran said. ”Most are staying very low and towards the coast and in the fog line, so they are flying around the fire.”

Naturalists have been struggling to prevent the extinction of the California condor — the largest bird in North America — for more than 40 years.

The bird was declared an endangered species in 1967. Ten years later, there were only an estimated 25 to 30 birds in the wild until scientists began capturing and breeding them in captivity before releasing them, with mixed results, in the mid-1990s. — Reuters