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USDA Grant Improves Monitoring of Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Other At-Risk Wildlife

Posted by Petra Barnes, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado in Conservation
Mar 31, 2015
The Southwestern willow flycatcher is an endangered bird that lives in the riparian areas of the Southwest. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Southwestern willow flycatcher is an endangered bird that lives in the riparian areas of the Southwest. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The distinctive “fitz-bew” of the Southwestern willow flycatchers is music to the ears of the partners of Wetland Dynamics, LLC, and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recently improved the ability to hear them. Wetland Dynamics received a $60,000 Conservation Innovation Grant from NRCS in 2014 to develop innovative technology for monitoring the endangered flycatcher and two other imperiled species in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

“What we’re doing is innovative,” said Jenny Nehring, a biologist and partner at Wetland Dynamics. “The technology we’re using has been around for quite some time. But with the partnership now forged with NRCS, we are able to expand and improve our innovative techniques that build upon existing tools, which will in turn help to better understand certain wildlife species and improve protection of them.”

Wetland Dynamics is expanding and exploring the use of a passive acoustic monitoring technology traditionally used to monitor bats and aquatic species like whales. The company is using this innovative technology to improve detection and monitoring of the Southwestern willow flycatcher, Western yellow-billed cuckoo and Northern leopard frog.

The flycatcher, cuckoo and leopard frog are currently being monitored, but the widely used approach takes substantial labor and stresses birds.

By recording the birds’ noises, Wetland Dynamics is able to study the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher. Photo courtesy of Wetland Dynamics.
By recording the birds’ noises, Wetland Dynamics is able to study the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher. Photo courtesy of Wetland Dynamics.

“It requires an observer in the field broadcasting the call of the bird to illicit a response from a bird on a territory,” Nehring said. “This method is intrusive and tricks the birds into thinking its territory is being threatened or infringed upon. Birds will, of course, react, but this reaction is stressful and energetically costly to already threatened and endangered species.”

The new way of monitoring, funded by the grant from NRCS, eliminates the stress on the bird while expanding the information gathered. It relies on passive recording equipment.

Because the devices can be stationed for prolonged periods of time, the consistency and quantity of information gathered will provide increased detection of species.  These more accurate detections will allow more focused and precise research on other things such as breeding success and habitat use.

Between observer bias and influences like weather, which might prevent an observer from even reaching a monitoring site, the margin for error within the typical call play back monitoring method is high.

A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is enabling Wetland Dynamics to expand its monitoring efforts of the Southwestern willow flycatcher and other at-risk species of the riparian habitat. Photo courtesy of Wetland Dynamics.
A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is enabling Wetland Dynamics to expand its monitoring efforts of the Southwestern willow flycatcher and other at-risk species of the riparian habitat. Photo courtesy of Wetland Dynamics.

“Our recorders are stationary devices, can be set up for weeks and have limited disturbance. Recordings are then scanned to detect the vocalization of interest and to differentiate varying vocalizations like birds that are close or far away.”

Although this technology is promising and is quite significant for future monitoring of species in areas, it cannot determine the number of species in a particular area.

“But it can detect if the bird is present which will help researchers focus their on-the-ground field work to determine territory size, breeding effort and success as well as habitat condition,” she said. “More work is clearly needed and that’s why the CIG grant was so important.  It allows us to refine and test the technology and quantify perimeters for accuracy. We greatly value our partnership with NRCS and hope it grows so that other monitoring opportunities can be explored.”

Conservation Innovation Grants aim to stimulate the development and adoption of innovative conservation approaches and technologies. This is one of NRCS’ many investments in the Southwest to help the flycatcher and other species. NRCS announced Monday its plans to broaden the conservation opportunities available to producers.

By recording the birds’ noises, Wetland Dynamics is able to study the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher. Photo courtesy of Wetland Dynamics.
By recording the birds’ noises, Wetland Dynamics is able to study the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher. Photo courtesy of Wetland Dynamics.
Category/Topic: Conservation

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