Home is a Healthy River for Southwestern Willow Flycatchers

We hear a call, “where are you” from the wet, buggy, dense shrub along the river’s bank. As we turn to look where this sound is coming from, we are quickly reminded that’s the “fitz-bew” call of the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. There it sits, perched stoically on a thin fragile branch of a Goodding’s Willow tree. “Where are you,” is an apt translation because the flycatcher population is small in number, and breeding males are looking to attract a mate. The flycatcher is endangered across its entire southwest breeding range from California to New Mexico. 

The nesting habitat of flycatchers has been dramatically reduced due to extensive loss, fragmentation, and modification of riparian (riverside) cottonwood-willow forests on our Southwestern rivers. Without suitable nesting habitat, the flycatcher’s distribution and abundance has plummeted. One of the primary reasons for loss of our native southwestern bosques (forests) is human alteration of natural river flows.

Flycatcher nesting habitat, both large and small, abounds along the Gila River, a tributary of the Colorado River, in the multi-aged riparian forest and floodplain wetlands located within the three Audubon Important Bird Areas in New Mexico. It’s the Gila River’s naturally occurring variable flows ―the high, mid-size and base flows ―that create and sustain the structure, the composition, and health of the forest.

The future health of the Gila River, New Mexico’s last free-flowing river, is under threat. There is a proposal to alter the natural flow pattern of the Gila River by diverting mid-size flows. Left instream, the frequent mid-size flows inundate secondary channels, transport and help cycle nutrients, and raise groundwater levels that support floodplain forests and dense thickets of vegetation (Source: The Nature Conservancy), the very habitat the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher breeds in!

Audubon believes that water security is important in the arid southwest. We want people to have enough water to sustain economies and future generations. But according to engineering estimates, the proposed diversion projects will produce a small amount of water - 83 to 2000 acre feet - which leads us to believe that this will only benefit a tiny fraction of southwestern New Mexico’s population. Importantly, cost-effective, feasible, and environmentally safe water supply projects, like effluent reuse and water conservation, can fill the gap between supply and demand for southwestern New Mexico. Audubon New Mexico and our network of chapters, members, and friends are working diligently to fund these water smart and dollar-wise projects.  We are partnering and communicating with residents and community leaders to conserve water and protect the free flowing nature of the Gila River! Together, we can secure a water future that benefits people, land, and birds!

Audubon Important Bird Areas in New Mexico

  1. Gila-Cliff Area Important Bird Area
  2. Gila Bird Area Important Bird Area
  3. Lower Gila Box Important Bird Area

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