IT aids a condor's return to the wild

IT aids a condor's return to the wild

Polar satellite helps conservationists track an endangered bird's travels

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

A satellite tracking system is keeping tabs on an adult female California condor released into the wilderness after 14 years in captivity. The information Fish and Wildlife Service conservationists collect from the project could help boost the endangered bird's population in Southern California.

Fish and Wildlife Service conservationists are using a satellite-linked tracking system to keep tabs on a California condor set free in an effort to help boost the endangered bird's population.

Conservationists captured the condor for her protection in 1986, when the species population had dwindled to just 27 birds.

California condors, North America's largest birds, with a wingspan of up to 91'2 feet, currently number 155'60 in the wild and 95 in captivity.

The tracking system consists of a transmitter attached to the condor and linked to a satellite and data processing stations on the ground.

Satellites track the bird's location four or five times a day, giving conservationists constant updates on the condor's location, said Mike Wallace, a reintroduction specialist with the Zoological Society of San Diego's Ecology and Applied Conservation Department.

It is allowing a network of conservationists to monitor the bird as it travels hundreds of miles.

Heads for home

'She has been traveling a lot,' said John Brooks, a Fish and Wildlife information education specialist. 'She's gone to the Sierras, her old foraging grounds.'

Brooks said the condor was released to mentor young birds introduced into the wild as they reach breeding age. She has been reacquainting herself with landmarks she last saw in 1986.

Conservationists captured the condor in Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, Brooks said. She had nested in Sespe, near Filmore, Calif.

'When we released her, we wondered if she would remember where she was,' Brooks said. 'She instantly took off and flew to the Sierras, then back to the area where she used to roost, then back to Sespe, where she used to nest.'

Signals from the transmitter go to a receiver on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellite, Wallace said..

French assistance

The data collection system, from Service Argos Inc. of Landover, Md., provides global coverage and is administered under a joint agreement between NOAA and the French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales, he said.

The high-tech approach lets the aging condor teach a new breed of conservationists some tricks. 'This is a learning experience,' said Mike Clark, a biologist with the Los Angeles Zoo Condor Program.

'Never before have we been able to follow the movements of one of the condors with such accuracy,' he said.

'Before, there were just field biologists trying to keep up with them, and the terrain is brutal to try and track in. Now, we can sit at a computer and figure out where she is,' he said.

Way station

Conservationists released a California condor into the wild in
the Sierra Mountains
after 14 years of captivity.

The information from the receiver is stored on a magnetic tape and later transmitted to Argos' ground station, said Bill Woodward, Argos' chief scientist.

'It's like we are the phone company,' he said. 'We collect the data, then process it and send it to the users.'

Argos does minor information processing on a 500-MHz Compaq Alpha Server DS20 running Microsoft Windows NT. Argo then e-mails the data to NASA at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., Woodward said.

At NASA, some of the information is recompiled using Fortran on a 466-MHz Compaq Alpha Server DS10, said Jon Robinson of Raytheon Co., a NASA contractor.

Robinson processes the information twice a week on his custom-made system, which is comprised of a KSI Goliath motherboard from Koutech Systems Inc. of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., using four Pentium Pro CPUs and running NT. He then e-mails information on the bird's location to the conservationists involved in the reintroduction project, Clark among them.

With the coordinates from Robinson, Clark creates a map of the bird's travels on a Dell Computer Corp. desktop system running Windows 98.

He uses an interactive global positioning system, TopoGPS USA Version 2.5.2, from Wildflower Productions of San Francisco.

The condor's trail seemed to indicate that she still remembers her home, Clark said. 'We could tell what she was doing,' Brooks said. 'She was going back and visiting her old landmarks. These are very intelligent birds.'

The condor recovery program initially would have left birds in the wild to mentor captive birds as they were released, Brooks said.

'Because of the population crash, that was not possible,' he said. By 1987, all existing California condors had been captured for breeding purposes. Conservationists began gradually releasing them in 1992.

Returning the condor to the wild this year is especially important, he said.

'This next year, we are likely to see actual mating in captive-bred birds in the wild,' Brooks said. 'If it's successful and produces chicks in the wild, it will be a major milestone.'

Clark is especially interested because most of the young birds in the release program passed through the Los Angeles Zoo at some point.

The condor wears a traditional transmitter in addition to the high-tech one, Wallace said.

The standard device lets conservationists track her location using radio triangulation in the general area to which she'd been tracked via satellite.

Clark has taken the high-tech mapping process a step further. He uploads the information from the TopoGPS USA program into a Garmin GPS III global positioning system from Garmin International Inc., of Olathe, Kan.

In May, he and a Fish and Wildlife conservationist took the GPS tool to the wilderness to look for the elusive bird.

Traffic signal

'We got signals from her,' Clark recalled. 'But she was so high in the mountains that the signal bounced off the terrain. But when we were on the valley floor, we were getting signals.'

The satellite transmitter system was tested first on Andean condors in South America, Wallace said.

There are about 15 of the transmitters, manufactured by Microwave Telemetry Inc. of Columbia, Md.

The company gave the $3,300 satellite transmitter to Wallace, who donated it to the California condor program, he said.

Prior to 1940, the population of California condors was between 60 and 200, Brooks said.

By the mid-1980s, when conservationists started taking them from the wild, there were fewer than 30.


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