Southwestern Willow Flycatcher
Best known for its unique “fitz-bew” call, the southwestern willow flycatcher depends on the riparian and wetland habitats in this arid region. The bird serves as an indicator of this unique landscape, where water is so crucial. It’s the lifeblood of the desert southwest with hundreds of species depending on it for survival. Lush vegetation surrounding rivers and streams in this region harbor hundreds of different wildlife species, rivaling the Amazon’s rainforests in biodiversity.
Because of loss and fragmentation of habitat, largely caused by surface water diversion, groundwater pumping and the spread of invasive plants, the bird’s numbers have plummeted. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared the species endangered in 1995. But stewardship-minded landowners from across the Southwest have stepped up and are helping the bird and many other wildlife species by voluntarily restoring and improving the health of the region’s riparian ecosystems.
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Landowners in targeted areas of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah are helping the southwestern willow flycatcher rebound by restoring degraded riparian ecosystems, conserving existing healthy riparian systems and improving working lands near riparian areas.
NRCS offers technical and financial assistance to help landowners voluntarily restore riparian areas on private lands. This assistance helps producers plan and implement a variety of conservation activities, or practices, that benefit the migratory bird and agricultural operations.
The agency’s staff of experts work side-by-side with landowner to develop a conservation plan. This plan is customized for the landowner’s land and provides a roadmap for how to use a system of conservation practices to meet natural resource and production goals.
Financial assistance helps landowners pay for the adoption of conservation practices that improve the health of the riparian ecosystems. NRCS assistance typically covers 50 to 70 percent of the actual cost. Common conservation practices for the southwestern willow flycatcher include restoring riparian areas, removing invasive trees like Russian olive and salt cedar and using prescribed grazing and burning.
The southwestern willow flycatcher is a nationally identified target species of the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) partnership, a collaborative approach to conserve habitat on working lands. Since 2012, WLFW enabled producers to conserve or create more than 8,000 acres of riparian areas and adjacent upland habitat. WLFW provides technical and financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which is funded through the Farm Bill, the largest funding source for wildlife habitat conservation on private lands.
Through WLFW, NRCS targets conservation efforts where the returns are highest by targeting threats to the bird. The flycatcher nests in native trees and shrubs where available but also nests in thickets dominated by the non-native invasive species like tamarisk and Russian olive. Efforts to control non-native species can be detrimental to flycatchers, especially if those plants are removed in places lacking in suitable native riparian habitat.
Restoring habitat for the Southwestern willow flycatcher not only benefits the flycatcher but many other species, such as the New Mexico jumping mouse, yellow billed cuckoo, Chiricahua leopard frog and Least Bell’s vireo. Eighty-four species, including the flycatcher, benefit from conservation work in riparian ecosystems. Through WLFW, landowners who maintain conservation practices and systems that benefit the southwestern willow flycatcher will be covered for any incidental take that may occur as a result of the conservation activities for up to 30 years for 84 species.
If you’re interested in technical and financial assistance from NRCS, please contact your local USDA service center. An NRCS conservationist in your community will help you develop a conservation plan customized to your land, and if you’re interested, apply for financial assistance through Farm Bill conservation programs. Learn more about getting started with NRCS.