Yellow-billed Cuckoo Season Highlights

WRAN News: August 2018

At Audubon Arizona, we often say that we and the Western Rivers Action Network speak up on behalf of Arizona’s rivers. However, sometimes the resource is it’s own best advocate.  That’s why through the River Pathways program, our high school curriculum designed to get students out of their classrooms and into the field, we let Arizona’s rivers speak for themselves.

Before getting into the field with Audubon biologists, students explore Arizona’s rivers with their classroom science teachers through multiple lessons of Audubon-developed in-class curriculum.  They learn about the disproportionate value of riparian areas to Arizona’s wildlife, communities, and economies.  They learn about forests of cottonwood and willow and animals ranging from the often-overlooked Gila Topminnow to the charismatic Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  They learn about how we have historically mistreated our rivers and about the need for a new generation of conservation leaders to protect them.

For many students, their first River Pathways trip to the Rio Salado or the Black Canyon Heritage Park is their first visit to an Arizona river. During this experience, students help keep track of restoration progress at the two sites through the collection of bird data, they gain skills needed to survey Arizona’s native plants, and they take a deep dive into multiple use management – the tricky task of managing land for both human and natural uses.  This is all in preparation for their next River Pathways field trip, an adventure to a river within one of Arizona’s Important Bird Areas (IBAs).

It is during this second trip, to either the Agua Fria National Monument Riparian Corridors IBA or the Salt/Verde Riparian Ecosystem IBA, that the biggest transformation takes place. As soon as they first hop off the bus they are in a new landscape, further from the urban center than many of them have ever been. Their apprehension is easy to see.  However, halfway through a day of working alongside Audubon, Bureau of Land Management, and Forest Service biologists, they’re not only excited to get wet and muddy collecting data, but they understand the importance of their work.

By the time these students are on their way back to town, they are ready to take action for Western Rivers.

It is from these cohorts of students that we hire our summer Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo survey crew interns.  These students spend their entire summer with Audubon exploring rivers across the state helping to fill gaps in our knowledge of cuckoo natural history and collecting important data that will aid in the species’ conservation.  Read on to learn about what our interns helped us discover this season.

Survey Season Highlights:

  • Despite an extremely dry winter and ongoing aridification, Yellow-billed Cuckoo strongholds are still supporting breeding birds.  Surveyed IBAs found to be supporting this species include:
  • For the first time, the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area yielded enough detections to support the claim of possible breeding within the park!  While additional data is required to claim probable or confirmed breeding, this exciting first marks an important milestone in the history of the restoration project.

  • Thanks to proper management of cattle and off-road vehicles, we saw an increased number of cuckoo detections on the upper portions of the Agua Fria River within the Agua Fria National Monument Riparian Corridors IBA.  Not only does this data underline the value of our partnership with the Burea of Land Management, but it also shows that when correctly managed, healthy rivers and human use can exist side by side.

For many of us, our dedication to Western Rivers comes from experiences they have given us. Whether it be birding, kayaking, hiking, fishing, or enjoying a brew crafted with Colorado River water, these experiences remind us that rivers are incredibly valuable to the things we care about. As we pack in our field gear for the season, it is our hope that when our crew someday asks themselves why they take conservation action, a summer working for the Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo tops their lists.

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