Avian Biology work along the Lower Colorado River: A Long Love Affair

I realize most of my blog posts are weddings now, but I wanted to bring a bit of the other side of my biology life back because my life passions are indeed photography and environmental conservation (especially birds).

Fifteen, yes fifteen, years ago, I had begun the long journey into my love affair with birds. I had just started my first field job releasing Apolomado Falcons in West Texas. Not only did I fall head over heels for birds, but I fell in love with the southwestern American Desert. As an east coast girl, I had never experienced the vast open skies, seeing the Milky Way, or the stark vegetation built for survival. Nor did I realize that cowboys existed beyond television.

And so, the next fifteen years of my life involved travels around the world, the country, and actually being a cowgirl. The birds called to me every spring and summer and I worked on cavity-nesting bird projects in Oregon, post-fire nesting birds of the Sierras, releasing more falcons across Texas and New Mexico, studying caciques in Peru, monitoring bats in Southern California, studying sea turtles in Costa Rica, and then there was the lower Colorado River. Or the LCR as we lovingly call it. After monitoring for the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher in Yuma, AZ in 2007, I had an inkling that the Sonoran Desert was something truly rare and special.

And year after year after year I was pulled back to that desert working along the riparian corridor of the LCR. I worked a decade-plus with the threatened Yellow-billed Cuckoo, an elusive and handsome bird, that will outsmart a biologist looking for their nest most days. And many more countless years studying all breeding riparian birds along the LCR from Lake Mead down to Yuma, AZ. This project run by Great Basin Bird Observatory has been an ongoing project since 2008 as part of the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Plan (LCRMSCP). Along with a focus on the six target species; Vermilion Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, Sonoran Yellow Warbler, Gila Woodpecker, Summer Tanager, and Gilded Flicker, the project aims to document all breeding riparian birds along the LCR based on a randomized site selection each year and consistently surveying conservation areas. Each site is visited twice during the breeding season to territory map all breeding birds. And those busy sites have your brain going on overdrive, the hum of the brain fan at full speed, at least for me. Most of the identification happens by sound since many birds are hidden in bushes or the tops of trees. From there, you can deduce where those focal species are and look for breeding behavior (such as a food carry or nest building). If you can’t tell, I clearly love this project and the blood, sweat, and tears that go into it.

Last summer after completing another field season, I finally got around to applying for the Wildlife Management Masters program with Oregon State University which I had intended to do years ago. Life happens and my father passed and applying for school hit the backburner. But here I was finally doing it again, and I got in!

Balancing running a field crew in the desert while taking grad classes and running a photo business was a bit ambitious on my part – but I’ve never been one to sit back and let life just happen. I was blissfully happy to be back on the Bill Williams River, a tributary of the LCR, in my favorite habitat studying my favorite birds. Balancing a wetlands and riparian class was a perfect complement to field days as I focused more on the intricacies of the river system such as its hydrology and how the ecosystem worked like a fine-tuned machine.

The 2021 GBBO field crew

I wrote an in-depth paper on the Bill Williams River and selected a wetland area within the delta to conduct my soil samples and field assessment. Little did I know that two months later, the Bill Williams delta would get struck by lightning and 1400 acres would burn. Getting that news just a couple weeks post-field season brought me to tears. This is one of the last standing gallery cottonwood-willow forests along the LCR and it was gone in flames. I mourned for the habitat lost. I mourned for the inevitable future of the west. I mourned for all the 14 years of memories I had created crawling through the dense understory, recording bird behavior, and those beautiful moments where I had felt truly alive in my favorite ecosystem.

Which brings me to this, the Southwest has changed an incredible amount with the damming of the Colorado River, the influx of humans, and agriculture. This year, one of the two LCR reservoirs, Lake Mead, is at an all-time low. Models of climate change show a dire future for the Southwest. As depressing as it all is, it’s not time to throw in the towel just yet. With a little hope and a lot of work, maybe, just maybe, we can manage to not destroy this incredible place we all get a chance to experience.

Planet Ranch Fire
Gila woodpecker nestling look for mom. Oh, here she comes to feed him.
Trail clearing.
The GBBO 2021 field crew practicing territory mapping on the tablets.
Mama and baby burros, awesome clouds, and javelina.
Anna’s Hummingbird visiting a saguaro cactus in bloom.
Kayaking to work from the Colorado River down into the Bill Williams River.

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