September 30, 2015

Lab of Ornithology Sets Up Live ‘Condor Cam’

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Today, live-streaming webcams are giving people all around the world the unprecedented chance to watch California Condors nest and raise their young in real time, thanks to work by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. These cams are located in Southern California close to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and along the central California coast at the Ventana Wildlife’s Condor Sanctuary.

The thought to install the webcams was originally conceived by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 as a way to monitor the health of California Condors. Though the population has rebounded from only 12 specimens to more than 400, the birds remain one of the most endangered species in the world, according to Charles Eldermire, bird cams project leader.

“They’re the largest bird in North America and so it’s kind of crazy that that was something that almost slipped away from us 30 years ago when there were only a few left in the wild,” Eldermire said.

According to Eldermire, this is due to several factors, including their reproductive behavior. California Condors typically lay a single egg, often every other year. Additionally, a major source of their mortality is lead ammunition, which shatters after hitting a target, allowing these scavenging birds to easily consume. This past April, California legislators placed a ban on the use of lead ammunition for the 2015 hunting season.

Pg 9 Science Condor

The new California Condor livestream will provide the public a real-time look at endangered California Condors, of which there are only 400 left in the world.

The webcams had never been connected to the internet; over the last three years, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been working with the Service to create this live-streaming experience for the general public.

However, this was no easy task. The past three years have been used to set up the cameras, a timeline that much longer than what was previously thought. Heavy cameras had to be hiked along sharp ridgelines in order to be installed into the nest cavities.

“The biggest issue was we had to beam that signal over 25 miles to actually reach the internet,” Eldemire said. “Finding the right spot to make that link where there wasn’t a lot of interference and for everything to work took a lot longer than we had expected.”

There are about 12 successful nests in California this year, three of which are on camera, but only one is actually being recorded, for a variety of reasons.

“They are actually very curious, so they’ll interact with the camera sometimes,” Eldermire said. “As birds will do, sometimes they will poop on the cameras, which doesn’t help the view, just because the cameras are fairly close to where they are.”

People did not always have the ability to view these birds, the largest bird in North America in the wild. During the 1980s, the remaining dozen or so California Condors that still existed in the wild were brought into captivity for a captive breeding program.

“They have had great success over the last 35 years breeding birds in captivity and then releasing them into the wild and those birds are now breeding on their own,” Eldermire said.

This new reemergence of California Condors have allowed the scientists working on this project to see behaviors they themselves had never before. There are populations of these birds in central and southern California and parts of western Arizona, some of which have begun using the cavities of redwood trees, caused by a broken off trunk, to nest, a phenomenon that was known historically but had not been seen until a couple years ago.

California Condors generally fledge, or take their first flight, at six or seven months, which will be between mid-October to mid-November. The stream will conclude for the season in late November.