July 20, 2017
Willow Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher
We’ve all seen those interviews where an elderly citizen proclaims the reason for their longevity is they just wanted to see how things turned out.  One of the hooks which motivate many lifelong birders to keep on birding is the “citizen science” aspect of their avocation.  Record keeping, trend spotting, and behavioral discovery provide the fuel for the longevity of that avocation and, quite likely, for a long and fruitful life itself.

Patience and a deep and abiding emotional and psychological strength are required, however, because in birding as in life things don’t always turn out well.  If you thought you’d never see a condor in Arizona or Peregrines recover from DDT, then you’re probably elderly, in birding years, but you’ve also seen some things you hoped you wouldn’t see.  Now comes one of those things.

It was a little over eight years ago that I wrote a column I called “Unintended Consequences” which dealt with efforts to eradicate Tamarisk, Salt Cedar, from riparian areas in the Southwest.  Here is the link to that column, http://jimburnsphotos.com/pages/3-26-09.html, which you should read as background information before continuing with this column.  A front page article in the June 21, 2017 Arizona Republic—(an environmental article, believe it or not, but excuse me, I digress)—was headlined “Exotic beetle may doom bid to save rare Arizona bird.”  By both journalistic and environmental standards, this is a long but wonderful headline with not one but three words guaranteed to grab even non-birding readers’ attention.

The long story, updated and made short, is that the beetle imported from Asia to kill the invasive Tamarisk has just been discovered in Wickenburg.  First released in the Moab, Utah area in 2004, it was thought that the bugs would migrate about a mile per year and could not survive this far south.  Wrong and wrong.  They have leapfrogged up to forty miles per year and are now here on the doorstep of the best remaining Willow Flycatcher habitat in the Southwest.  The punchline, if you didn’t follow the link to my ’09 column, is that Willow Flycatchers have adapted and now feed and nest in Tamarisk, which is now being devoured by the killer beetles.  The flycatchers may be forced to adapt and relocate once again.

If you’re an optimist, you’ll key on the flycatchers’ ability to adapt, to evolve in effect, and view it as evidence of our ability to mitigate or preclude apocalyptic predictions about global warming.  Before you become too sanguine though, realize that if you’re a birder who places the adjective “lifelong” in front of your avocative descriptor, you’re not going to live to see how this complex flycatcher/willow/tamarisk/beetle cluster plays out.

“The Center for Biological Diversity has sued the USDA, under the Endangered Species Act, for failure to develop and implement a viable plan to safeguard the flycatcher from the very plan devised to safeguard it from the Tamarisk invader in the first place.  This is the law of unintended consequences twice over.  It's a complicated web our species weaves.  Hopefully we learn something before the tapestry of our planet's diversity of life completely unravels.”

That paragraph was the final one from my 2009 column.  That was eight years ago.  How much time do you have?  How much time do we have?