Sightings of the endangered California Condor along San Luis Obispo County’s North Coast could become more commonplace as the Ventana Wildlife Society continues its strategy of releasing the giant birds in the rugged Pine Mountain/Rocky Butte region above San Simeon.
A pair of juvenile condors will be released next week — weather permitting — joining birds that were previously released in 2015 and 2016, according to VWS’s Senior Wildlife Biologist Joe Burnett. Two more juveniles will also be set free between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The birds were fully grown with 9 1/2-foot wingspans but not yet mature enough to feature those stark red-orange heads or to be of breeding age.
In December 2015, the VWS — a pivotal player in the California Condor Recovery Program — released seven juvenile condors. Another five juveniles were set free in November 2016.
The newest four Condors (all about a year and a half old) were raised in isolation by captive condor pairs at the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho.
The four have been waiting since mid-September in the same mountain fly pen used by the previous 12 juveniles.
“We let them acclimate for awhile,” Burnett explained.
Like the previous dozen condors, the newest four — one female named Khaleesi and three males, Tormund, Hodor and Tyrion, after characters from the popular series “Game of Thrones” — are outfitted with GPS technology, allowing VWS to carefully monitor their movements.
Burnett also shared the news that two condors from the original dozen died this summer.
“Their causes of death have yet to be determined,” he said.
The two birds are being examined by the forensics lab at the US Fish & Wildlife Service facilities in Ashland, Oregon. Burnett suspects that lead poisoning may have been a factor in the deaths, but he has not yet received the official necropsy results.
“They were found dead in southern Monterey County, but we don’t suspect foul play,” Burnett said.
The other 10 condors previously released into the wild “are doing really good,” he said enthusiastically.
He said two San Simeon birds (758 and 716) recently flew all the way to the Gabilan Mountain Range north of San Jose near Livermore. Another bird, 760, flew to Vandenberg Air Force Base, and “spent over a week exploring that stretch of coastline, a first for the condor flock,” Burnett said.
The whole point of releasing condors in San Simeon, Big Sur, Pinnacles and elsewhere in California is to encourage the birds to start exploring coastal areas, according to Burnett.
“What’s cool is they bring other birds back with them,” he said of the birds’ exploration, “so San Simeon is going to become a stop for all the condors. This is one of the big goals of the program, to basically have an area that is adopted by all the birds.
“Condors are very social, so they follow each other around,” he added. “So just by habit, the San Simeon birds will lead them here.”
In a couple of years, he said, the first condors released above San Simeon will be ready to nest close to where they come from.
There are now three condor nests in Central California: in Big Sur, Pinnacles National Park and another outside the park. All three currently have chicks, Burnett said, and one of those chicks has fledged.
And Burnett said there are plans in the works to release more condors in the Pine Mountain/Rocky Butte area.
“This is one of the smallest release years, but we anticipate releasing six to eight birds here next year,” he said.
Also important to the condor recovery mission, Burnett said, is public awareness that “we have these young, released birds out there, and to keep an eye out for them in case they get in trouble.”