Hiding in Plain Sight

“Over there!” I shouted in a whisper, pointing to a ball of kitchen twine 10 feet up and 30 feet to our left. Elsbeth Otto, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), confirmed my find: the nest of an endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus).

Otto approached, extended her nest mirror, and peered in: 4 eggs. We retreated to the meadow. Otto retrieved her water bottle from her backpack. She contemplated the merits of a bag of dried fruit versus a Tupperware container of leftovers. “Are you going to make a nest card for that one,” I inquired impatiently. This was “my” first nest.

Southwestern Willow Flycatcher nest. Image © Andrea Laue (www.sparebeauty.com).

Mine was one of 36 flycatcher nests found along the Owens River in 2016. Thirteen of those nests fledged one or more birds. The most robust breeding population left in California, the Owens Valley flycatchers added 15 birds to the dwindling population last year.

There is reason to hope.

The Owens River runs some 180 miles north to south, draining snowmelt from northern Yosemite National Park to Mount Whitney. The Sierra Nevada towers to the west. The White and Inyo ranges rise to the east. Willow, wild rose, and horsetail line the banks of the river, a narrow ribbon of riparian habitat snaking through arid sage steppe typical of this Great Basin landscape.

Walk the edge of this ribbon around sunrise on a summer morning, and you are likely to spot cougar tracks. Jackrabbits and road runners will scurry as you disturb their morning foraging. Deer will drink at the river. Peer over the edge of the bank and into an owl’s nest. Pause to note the song of the numerous passerine birds nesting nearby.

L: male Flycatcher declares his territory. R: Lacey Greene locates the boundaries of a flycatcher territory. Images © Andrea Laue (www.andrealaue.com).

Many human lives are also supported by the Owens. The city of Los Angeles uses the river as a natural aqueduct, diverting most of its flow south to city residents. Most of the riparian habitat is on land managed by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP). A thirsty L.A., Owens Valley ranchers, Mono and Inyo County residents, and flycatchers are standing in line for the same water.

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of flycatcher nests in the survey area increased from 35 to 36. But, between 2015 and 2016, the number of nests that fledged one or more SWFLs decreased from 13 to 9. And, the total number of fledges decreased from 19 to 15.

It could be worse.

In June 2016, the High Sierra was outlined in snow, the River ran high, and the Valley was peppered with cow patties. Elsbeth Otto’s tattered shirts and faded pants and purple plastic sunglasses that read “Discover the Desert” hinted that I had overdressed. Later that day I tore my wicking mid-layer and lost my polarized sunglasses in the thicket.

Otto is a member of a team of biologists surveying flycatcher territories and counting nests along the Owens. Lead by Lacey Greene, Biologist with the CDFW, the team is gathering baseline data about the breeding population and its habitat in the Valley. They started in 2014 with sweeping surveys of the Valley during which they located breeding territories. Now they visit those territories in search of nests and fledglings.

These surveys should suggest which actions might be most effective in maintaining — even growing — the current population. In its 2013 Designation of Critical Habitat, the US Fish and Wildlife Service called out a stretch of the Owens north of Bishop for its potential to support “metapopulation stability” and protect against “catastrophic population loss” of flycatchers. L.A. responded with a Conservation Strategy for flycatchers breeding on LADWP lands. The data gathered by the CDFW surveys will be used to monitor the implementation and assess the impact of that Strategy.

Clockwise from top left: Elsbeth Otto approaching potential flycatcher territory; slogging through the muck; clearing a path through the thicket; Elsbeth Otto. Images © Andrea Laue (www.andrealaue.com).

Standing in slowly flowing, knee-deep water still chilled by snow from which it came, Otto set a timer to make sure we didn’t wait too long. From outside the thicket, where it was dry and sunny, we heard a male fitz-bew from a high perch. Here, deep within the willow, we listen for the faint whit of a responsive female.

Still clumsy in the cool of the morning, mosquitoes are cheered by our arrival. Dew beads on the spider webs that connect each willow to the others, and delicate, long-winged flies cling to trunks as they plot their way through the sinister traps. The sun finally touches the tops of the willow, and sunbeams and dew rain down from the canopy. Now I get why we might dawdle here.

A Bewick’s Wren interrupts my reverie. Confident and curious, it flits and twits about us, blowing our cover. Given the ruckus, the female flycatcher is unlikely to call. We move on.

Elsbeth Otto looking for flycatcher nests. Image © Andrea Laue (www.andrealaue.com).

Deep in another thicket, we crouch on drier ground beneath a suspected flycatcher territory. Sunlight has penetrated the willow, and it is hot. Oblivious to us, a male calls above. Suddenly a female lands with a beak full of spider webs. Spotting us, she hops to a better angle to observe. We leave.

She will assemble willow twigs and bind them with spider webs to make a nest. Flycatchers prefer placing their nests near an opening in and just below the top of the canopy. When well placed, they are nearly impossible to see. Hiding in plain sight is a flycatcher’s best strategy.

An adult flycatcher perched in the willow canopy. Image © Andrea Laue (www.andrealaue.com).

Flycatchers are wise to be secretive, lest they lead a wily Brown-headed Cowbird to their nest. Cowbirds parasitize flycatcher nests, laying eggs amongst an extant clutch and then leaving the nestlings to be raised by the unwitting victims. Parasitized nests are often abandoned, and some flycatcher pairs will build three or even four nests to avoid incubating cowbirds.

After finding “my” nest, I resisted the daily urge to check in with Otto. A pair had nested in that same territory last year. Perhaps this gave them better than average odds of success. I hoped the pair would maintain a low profile to avoid detection by cowbirds. I hoped LADWP would manage flow so as to allow for a rich crop of insects.

When the suspense grew too great to bear, I emailed Otto. All eggs hatched, she reported, but all nestlings had gone missing. I was crushed and confused. We would never know what happened. The breeding pair was still in the area, however. Perhaps they would try again.

L: Otto scanning the canopy for nests. R: nest mirror with eggs visible. Image © Andrea Laue (www.andrealaue.com).

Flycatchers nest in riparian habitat from the U.S./Mexico border in the south to the Owens Valley in the north. Across that range, riparian habitat faces similar threats: invasive species, development, grazing, off-road vehicle use, and diversion of rivers. Shrinking snow pack caused by climate change amplifies the effects of all threats.

Across that range, the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher competes with multiple cities for water, many landowners for territory, and numerous developers for both. Here in the Owens Valley the situation is simpler.

L.A. won’t develop the Valley, as more people means more demand for water. As a large utility, LADWP is subject to oversight that would be more difficult to apply to a diverse set of landowners. Also, there are fewer stakeholders at the proverbial bargaining table in the Owens Valley.

Anger at how L.A. acquired land and water rights in the Owens Valley is justifiable. But the end result — a mostly in-tact swath of undeveloped land managed by a single entity — offers hope for flycatchers. What flycatchers need is people — researchers, birders, the general public — monitoring LADWP and their compliance with their own Conservation Strategy. The task at hand is paying attention.

On my final day along the Owens, Otto carefully selected a well-placed nest with a healthy family of fledglings on the verge of flight. She led me to the nest, one I had seen before but couldn’t spot on my own. I was excited to get “the shot.”

Otto yipped and whispered “it’s fledging!” She watched it flutter for a moment, suspended in mid-air ever so briefly. I saw it tumble to a branch several feet below. It watched. It waited. It had nowhere else to go.

A flycatcher fledgling moments after leaving the nest. Images © Andrea Laue (www.andrealaue.com).

Wildlife biologists use the label “charismatic” to describe animals likely to be displayed as trophies, whether on Instagram or above mantles. The first flutters of a flycatcher, if I had captured them, might have gotten 38 likes on Instagram. Even Audubon labels the bird “drab.”

Yet drab and charismatic animals often depend on the same habitat. Whether or not your heart goes out to the fledgling flycatcher, you may want to fish the Owens River or photograph elk in the Owens Valley or watch hawks hovering above the sage steppe. All require a healthy riparian corridor.

2017 brought record snowpack to the Sierra Nevada. The Owens Valley has seen higher than average rain thus far this year. Governor Brown has ended the drought emergency. This summer, LADWP may struggle to manage an overabundance of water as the snow melts and melts quickly.

Flycatcher habitat may actually help LADWP in its management efforts. Riparian corridors act as buffers during floods, absorbing excess water and minimizing erosion of adjacent land. This habitat that LADWP is compelled to maintain during dry years might pay dividends during wet years.

Flooding might also be good for flycatcher habitat. If properly managed, increased flow might perform a necessary and historically natural “flush” of the riparian banks. A bumper crop of insects might be forthcoming.

It will be tempting to enjoy the snow and the subsequent flow, all the while hoping water shortages are a thing of the past. It would be easy to assume that flycatchers are rebounding alongside the river. A collective sigh of relief would be both understandable and undermining.

Unlike the flycatcher, we must not assume a threat will pass if we stand silent. We must sing loudly while the fledgling flycatcher wobbles on its perch. In good times as in bad, we must collect data, manage habitats, and, well, pay attention.

Elsbeth Otto standing listening for flycatcher vocalizations. Image © Andrea Laue (www.andrealaue.com).