Archive | May 2014

Progress Report



Amazing volunteers

Condor Watch has a growing group of thousands of enthusiastic, hard-working volunteers. These volunteers have already produced over 150,000 classifications of images. We have volunteers from every ice-free continent, hailing from over 130 countries!

We have two fabulous and incredibly energetic moderators: Wreness and ElisabethB. Many thanks to both for their hard work monitoring posts and keeping the site fun and productive while both doing mind-blowing numbers of classifications!!


Initial observations

We are pleasantly surprised at the proportion of images that have multiple readable tags, which are yielding good data on social structure and the amount of time different types of individuals use feeding stations.

We expected to see other species besides condors, but we have been amazed by the frequency of other scavengers and the breadth of species seen – including large groups of coyotes, as well as mountain lions, bears, golden eagles, and wild pigs. We will be quantifying carcass use by scavengers so please do hashtag these ‘other’ species you see.



The first few months have not been without some website problems and annoyances, as our volunteers have helped us discover! We will be deploying a series of site updates today that should address many of these issues. Here’s a rundown of the fixes/upgrades:

  • Ravens! We have heard the cries of despairs. We do want to know how many ravens are present at carcasses but we confess, we just didn’t realize how tedious it would be to mark large unkindnesses of ravens (how fitting a term for a group of animals) in the same manner that condors are marked. We are happy to announce that marking distance to carcass for ravens is NEVERMORE!
  • Carcass/scale marking: We have now removed the marking of scales, and only ask that you mark carcasses. We have included a section in the field guide on the best way to do this.
  • Back button: Many have reported that it is too easy to mistakenly press “all animals marked”. To try and stop this from happening we have relocated this button so that it appears under the image being classified.
  • Mis-identifications and unknown birds. We have struggled to get the code linking tag information to bird ID working seamlessly, and the site still occasionally reports the wrong bio, or no bio at all. We have added some extra tools behind the scenes to help us troubleshoot this, and we will eventually conquer this problem. However, we want to be very clear for anyone worried about how this affects our science–it doesn’t! We have a complete record of all tag data that each volunteer enters and the science team is assigning bios and assessing consensus using a separate process.


Community connections

We’ve been posting interesting Condor Watch images and general news about condors to Facebook and Twitter several times a week. We’ve heard feedback that there are still people who are not on Facebook, and so to reach the entire community, we’ll also be posting these to this blog as Condor News and Project Updates.

As a reminder, there are many places to connect with Condor Watch and our community: Condor Watch Talk (ie, the Discuss pages), this blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

Finally, there are many places to find more help:

The Field Guide: we’ve added clarifying instructions on how to enter wing tag information, how to enter other species, and how to distinguish turkey vultures from condors

Condor Watch Blog FAQ and Gallery of Wing Tags pages

Thanks to our volunteers the world over for their hard work and enthusiasm, which is making our site a success and is making a difference for California Condors! Please keep helping us at

Special guest blog: Hunters: Let’s Get the Lead Out

When I was a boy fishing in the Rocky Mountains I thought nothing about biting down on lead split shot sinkers so I could cast my worms into the lake; but that doesn’t mean I’m going to teach my kids that biting lead is a good idea.

The science is clear that lead is a potent toxin.  It is toxic to humans and animals.  There is no safe amount of lead exposure.

Paint doesn’t have lead anymore.  Nor solder for copper pipes.  Neither does gasoline.  Since the late 70s it has been illegal to hunt waterfowl with lead shot.  When the non-toxic shot laws were originally created I’m sure that gun rights advocates (like I am) decried this as the first step to ban all shotgun ammunition or all waterfowl hunting.  The result instead has been near universal acceptance of non-toxic shot as the right choice for waterfowl hunting.

Things change, and in the case of getting the lead out of our lives, change is a good thing.  This progression doesn’t represent an erosion of constitutional rights, but the logical response to new information.

I hunted with jacketed lead bullets for 10 years. Three years ago I found the first lead-free factory-loaded ammunition for my elk rifle – a 7mm Remington Magnum.  The Barnes VOR-TX is made with a 140 grain solid copper bullet – a little lighter than the 165 grain lead bullets I had hunted with.  I took a box to the range to be sure they shot well from my rifle.  I had very satisfactory results with groups that were only limited by my ability to shoot.

In two hunting seasons since, I have shot at and harvested four animals with lead free bullets: two white tail deer with a .243 and two elk with my 7mm.  The bullets’ stopping power was indistinguishable from the lead bullets I have used for years. A box of Barnes lead free factory loads costs only a few dollars more than comparable quality lead ammo.


Hunting with lead free ammunition sends the message that you as a sportsperson care about your health, your family’s health, and the health of the environment.  It shows that you are a responsible hunter who wants to pass on your hunting traditions more than you need to cling to which specific metal your bullets are cast from.

Hunters have a long history of supporting and leading wildlife conservation efforts. This is an easy issue where we can be leaders. There are excellent ammo alternatives for lead, whatever you hunt. Let’s show that we can get the lead out of hunting, for wildlife, for the environment and for our health.

Scott Copeland, Lander, WY

Link to an Editorial in the Journal Environmental Health Perspectives on the health risks of lead ammunition:


Condor news of the week (5/21/14)

Check out this video from a newly installed nestcam in Southern California posted by USFWS. It features 111 (Red11) and her chick. The view of the chick at the end is priceless!

Here’s a marvelous video clip from the film The Condor’s Shadow that demonstrates how much care goes into growing this population through egg management. Spoiler: the eggshell trick worked and the chick, 599, is now part of the wild flock in Southern California. Look for her — she’s wearing tag Black99.  Foster mom and dad are 79 (Orange79) and 247 (Yellow47).

Condors of the Columbia exhibit opens at the Portland Zoo on May 24.

California condors are chronically poisoned by lead

In 1982 there were only 22 California condors left in the world – so it is not surprising they are considered one of the rarest birds on earth! To save condors from extinction captive breeding programs were established. The captive breeding program has been very successful, and today there are over 400 condors, approximately half of which are in zoos and half in the wild. However, this success is only due to the daily efforts of large numbers of zoo staff, biologists and volunteers, who maintain the breeding program, as well as monitor every wild condor almost every day.

The main threat to free-flying California condors was believed to be lead poisoning but the full extent of this threat was not known when we started our research program about six years ago. So, we performed a comprehensive study to investigate the impact and source of lead exposure to condors. We found that since the release program began condors have been chronically exposed to harmful levels of lead. Alarmingly, almost half of all condors in the wild in California have had lead poisoning severe enough to require medical treatment and in a recent study, the majority of adult condor deaths were attributed to lead poisoning (10 out of 15 adult mortalities for which cause of death was determined, see Rideout et al. 2012 for details on the causes of mortality in California condors).

condor being treated

California condor 286 being treated for lead poisoning at the California condor breeding facility, Los Angeles Zoo. Unfortunately 286 did not survive his lead poisoning episode, which is tragically not uncommon given that lead poisoning has been shown to be the number one reason that free-flying juvenile and adult condors die.  Photo courtesy of Mike Clark

We used lead isotopic analysis, which can provide a signature of the sources of lead exposure, and showed that lead-based ammunition is the principal source of lead poisoning in condors. Condors are scavengers and when they feed on a carcass that has been shot with lead ammunition they can ingest some of the lead, and even a few small fragments – equivalent to a couple of grains of sand – contain enough lead to poison a condor. Our research also showed that the condor’s current apparent recovery is solely due to intensive ongoing management and, if this management is stopped, the condors will once again be at risk for extinction within a few decades. Ultimately we determined that the condor’s only hope of achieving true recovery is dependent upon the elimination or substantial reduction of lead poisoning. For more information on this study see Finkelstein et al. 2012.

Meet the Science Team: Holly Copeland, falling in love with condors

I wasn’t expecting to see a condor.

My girlfriends and I were hiking the Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion National Park on a brisk November morning several years ago. As we walked along the spine of the trail out to the airy point overlooking the valley, one friend spotted a large black bird soaring along the edge of the 1000’ cliff. We first thought it was a vulture, but as it came closer, it was clear from the massive wingspan (condor wingspans can reach 9 ½ feet) that it was a condor.

Just then, a second condor emerged into view. The pair soared directly over us–close enough for us to see the GPS collars and read their tags. We literally lay down on the sandstone and watched as these ancient creatures circled the cliffs around us.

I fell in love.

holly and condor

Why would I find myself caring so much about this bald-headed, gawky looking creature? Perhaps because when I learned the story of how condors–whose relatives go back to the Pleistocene and were once widespread across the Americas–were brought back from the edge of extinction, seeing them in Zion felt miraculous.

Last Christmas my husband and I organized a family trip to Zion. We hiked the Angel’s Landing trail, scanning for condors the whole way. We didn’t see any that day, but just the possibility of seeing them meant so much to our family and I realized that were it not for the efforts of so many, my girls wouldn’t have a chance to see them. I am immensely grateful to all involved in bringing them back.

2013-12-29 10.57.39

Recently, when a scientist friend and mentor explained that his project needed a spatial ecologist to analyze trend data from GPS collars for condor populations in California and invited me to join the team, I jumped at the chance. I’m now involved analyzing spatial patterns and trends in condor data and helping to understand their movements, social, and foraging behavior.

Back in my home state of Wyoming, scientists have been monitoring lead levels in ravens and eagles in the Jackson Hole area, and found troubling data on lead poisoning in eagle populations (, but also successful reductions in lead levels from use of non-lead ammunition. Lead poisoning goes well beyond California condors and has significance for wildlife populations everywhere.

Citizen science is a fabulous new bridge between people and their environment. By inviting the public to join in the quest for scientific knowledge, we can create a new community of people engaging in and contributing to science, and in the case of Condor Watch, for condor conservation.

Connecting people to nature for conservation purposes is an idea that goes back to John Muir and the preservation of Yosemite. Now that old idea takes new forms through the power of the internet and through participation and education can help strengthen conservation efforts for many species, including condors.