Two endangered California condors, part of a flock so closely monitored by scientists that everything they do is watched, apparently managed to sneak off and raise a baby condor unobserved, to the surprise and delight of researchers.
The discovery of the young bird in a remote area of California's Big Sur coastal region is just the third unseen mating of condors in the wild since biologists began to release the endangered animals in the area in 1997, they said.
The newly detected youngster is now a fully-grown 9-month bird, meaning the parents managed to build a nest, incubate the egg for 60 days and raise the chick to full adulthood while staying out of sight of scientist who are perpetually following the Northern California flocks' activities.
"As biologists, we strive to know everything about the flock, but when we get a curve ball like this it's a real pleasant surprise," said wildlife biologist Joe Burnett, condor project coordinator for the Ventana Wildlife Society. "It's just a sign of how well the flock is doing -- that they are flying out on their own, making nests and breeding on their own."
The breeding condor pair, known to researchers as "Wild 1" and "Shadow," is thought to have hatched and raised their youngster in a remote part of the area's Ventana Wilderness.
Their nest had never been spotted because the region is extremely remote and almost inaccessible, even on foot, the researchers said.
The wild population of California Condors had fallen to just 27 birds by 1987 when they were all captured and placed in a breeding program.
The largest flying birds in North America, once found from Canada to Mexico, condors were facing extinction from lead poisoning, poaching and destruction of their habitats.
The total population of wild and captive birds presently stands at 425, with around a hundred living in wilderness areas of California.
There are also small condor populations in Arizona, Utah and in Mexico.
The Big Sur flock is made up of birds resulting from the 1980s breeding program. Condors are among the longest-living raptors in the world.
It was only in late December that biologists first reported a "mystery" juvenile observed with two adults assumed to be the parents.
"This is truly exciting to witness as it offers another example of condors surviving on their own," said Ventana Wildlife Society Executive Director Kelly Sorenson.
Shadow, the presumptive father, has been an active breeder within the condor flock, having already produced two other chicks, the researchers said.