July 25th is just around the bend, and guess what? It’s Colorado River Day! Time to celebrate the incredible natural wonder that is the Colorado River, a lifeline that quenches the thirst and fills the bellies of millions of folks across the country.
Picture this: a majestic river originating way up high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, embarking on a 1,450-mile adventure through seven states that ends in Mexico’s Gulf of California in Mexico. Quite the journey, right?
Now, here’s a fun fact for you trivia lovers. The Colorado River didn’t always rock its current name. Nope! On July 25th, 1921, Congress decided to ditch the “Grand” and embrace the new identity as the Colorado River. And that’s why we gather on this special day to show our appreciation for this invaluable resource flowing right through the heart of the American West.
You might be thinking, “Well, I’m not one of those people relying on the Colorado River for my daily H2O fix”. Fair point. But pause for a moment and think about some of the delicious winter fruits and veggies you eat during the frosty months. Produce like leafy greens, apples, stone fruits, and tomatoes owe a debt of gratitude to this mighty river. Farms depend on the Colorado River to keep their thirsty crops hydrated when the winter drought hits. You can’t deny the impact this waterway has had on your taste buds.
But wait, there’s more! The Colorado River is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts—fishing, rafting, kayaking and hiking. If you’ve ever visited the West and dabbled in any of these activities, you’ve felt the river’s embrace firsthand. It’s a haven for adventure seekers and nature lovers alike.
And, let’s not forget about our fellow river-dwellers—the wildlife! The Colorado River is a bustling metropolis for thousands of species. However, it’s not all smooth sailing. Challenges like low flows, drought, and rising temperatures have created quite the rapids for some of our critters out there. We’re here to share three that are impacted by the Colorado River that we’d like to keep around.
First is the little brown bats. Now, these guys aren’t typically known for their direct Colorado River connections, but they’re insectivorous heroes found in forests, woodlands, and even urban areas. They rely on water bodies like rivers, lakes, ponds, and streams for drinking and foraging purposes. Without sufficient water, the diverse insect buffet dwindles, and the bat population suffers. We’d like to keep them around to help balance out those pesky bugs that annoy us often in the summer months.
Next on the list is the cutthroat trout, a fish native to the Colorado River Basin. They’re all about clean, cold water with a side of gravel or rocky substrates for successful reproduction. A healthy river means a variety of aquatic insects, invertebrates, and other fishy delights for these trout to eat. The river also serves as a vital migration corridor, allowing cutthroat trout populations to mingle and explore different sections of the river system.
Last but not least, let’s talk about the Yuma clapper rail, an amazing bird on the endangered species list. These fine feathered friends rely on marshes, wetlands and riparian areas along the Colorado River for their habitat. The rail loves dense emergent vegetation like cattails and bulrushes, found in areas along the river. These lush spots provide the perfect environment for the rail’s favorite delicacy—the aquatic and semi-aquatic invertebrates. Bird lovers everywhere dream of catching a glimpse of this henlike beauty.
So, as July 25th approaches, let’s take a moment to reflect on the immeasurable ways the Colorado River nourishes us and our wildlife. No matter where you are in the States, this lifeline of the West impacts us all. Thankfully, organizations like Forever Our Rivers step up to the plate, working tirelessly to restore and protect the river’s health. It’s a shared responsibility—one that we should cherish and safeguard for present and future generations all across the United States.
Cheers, friends! Here’s to the Colorado River, a force of nature that keeps on flowing, connecting us all in its watery embrace. Wishing you a happy Colorado River Day on July 25th!
Whether showing off their dance moves in wet meadows or filling the sky with their massive wingspans, sandhill cranes are magnificent birds that can be found throughout most of North America and even parts of Siberia. These birds are known for their distinctive calls, which can often be heard from great distances—some say up to 2.5 miles away! How do you know if you’ve seen one? Well, the sandhill cranes sport a recognizable red crown which is a major contrast from the rest of their tall, grayish body.
Water is key to the sandhill crane habitats.
Chances are if you recreate along our waterways you’ve seen a crane. If not, maybe you’ve at least heard their loud, rolling, trumpeting sound. They prefer river basins, wetlands, marshes and other areas with shallow water where they can easily find food. They are also known to inhabit agricultural fields, meadows and grasslands. During the breeding season, they typically choose areas with tall vegetation that gives good cover and protection to their nests. These habitats provide the cranes with water and a place to rest but also the right diet. While plants make up the majority of their food, they will occasionally eat small mammals or amphibians. Sandhill cranes have long beaks that allow them to probe wetlands for seeds, berries and insects.
Sandhill cranes are family-centered birds that love to socialize!
Sandhill cranes are social birds typically living in pairs or small family groups. The males are known for their elaborate courtship displays, which involve dancing, bowling, calling and even tossing small objects into the air. Who says chivalry is dead? They also typically mate for life and share nesting roles together.
During migration, their flocks are composed of hundreds of cranes that include family groups and unmated birds. Constant communication is key for these birds to successfully complete their long flights. Sometimes you may find various flocks congregating together during migration and at winter stopovers, bringing the number up to the thousands.
Sandhill cranes may fly up to 400 miles in one day.
The migration pattern of the sandhill cranes is honestly what we find the most interesting. Many populations spend the summer in the northern United States and Canada before flying south for the winter. In the western US, the largest concentration of sandhill cranes can be found in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, where around 20,000 cranes gather each fall to rest and feed before continuing their journey south. Other important stopover areas include the Platte River in Nebraska and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Sandhill cranes are very strong flyers and may fly up to 400 miles in one day during the migration season. It’s hard to fathom given it can take us anywhere from five and half to nine hours to drive that length with a car.
Let’s keep them moving and dancing.
Despite their widespread distribution, sandhill cranes are not immune to the effects of human recreation, development and climate change. The landscapes along the cranes’ migration paths are rapidly changing. When they experience habitat disturbance or loss, their resting and breeding grounds become compromised. If this continues, the population of sandhill cranes will quickly plummet. Fortunately, there are many organizations—like Forever Our Rivers—working hard to protect and restore important riparian habitats suitable for these birds.
Sandhill cranes are fascinating birds with habitat, behaviors and migration patterns that make them a valuable part of our natural heritage. Did you know that a ten-million-year-old sandhill crane fossil was found in Nebraska? So far, this makes them the oldest known surviving bird species. Conservation efforts are essential to ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy the beauty and grace of these historical, elegant birds. Check out this recent video of the sandhill crane migration in the San Luis Valley in Colorado. If you haven’t gotten a chance to see these amazing birds, we hope you get the lucky opportunity to do so soon.
Those of you like Amy, obsessed with watching ABC’s new sitcom Not Dead Yet, may have noticed an episode where Nell’s roommate briefly touched on the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Didn’t catch it? Maybe only Amy noticed because it just so happened to be top of mind with Forever Our Rivers.
Why are the Southwestern Willow Flycatchers catching people’s attention—even of the Hollywood writers/producers? They’ve been endangered since 1995, have a huge impact on controlling insect populations, and well, are super cute songbirds.
A small but mighty songbird that relies on riparian habitats.
The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher is a migratory bird that thrives in lush areas along rivers in the southwestern United States and part of Mexico. Their native habitat among willows, box elders and cottonwoods provide important ecosystem services: these trees and shrubs filter sediment from water, improve soil and provide wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, these flycatchers have adapted to nest in thickets of non-native, invasive species such as saltcedar (also known as tamarisk) and Russian Olive. While we praise the birds for their adaptability, saltcedar and Russian olive are wreaking havoc on water quality and quantity in the southwest.
So, you may be wondering, how do we get rid of those invasive species without getting rid of the flycatchers? Don’t worry, we’ll cover that soon.
Flycatchers also eat insects such as mosquitoes, flies, beetles and moths. This helps regulate insect populations, which can have a significant impact on the environment. Occasionally they may eat berries such as blackberries and raspberries, but insects make up over 95% of their diet.
It’s estimated that only 2,500 to 3,000 flycatchers remain.
The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher population had been declining for decades. Climate change and human development such as water diversion, groundwater pumping and building along waterways have not done these birds any favors. Large portions of the flycatcher’s habitat have disappeared throughout much of its historic range. This led to the flycatcher being listed as a federally endangered species in 1995, where it still remains today.
What do we do about this?
Well, the flycatcher is in luck.
Conservation efforts are underway focused on habitat restoration and protection of the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. One of Forever Our Rivers’ partners, the Gila Watershed Partnership (GWP), is working hard on this huge balancing act.
“Even though trees such as desert willow are the native habitat of these birds, they have adapted to the saltcedar so well that much of the tamarisk thicket along the river has become untouchable due to Endangered Species Act restrictions. These thickets are dense enough to inhibit stream flow”, said Dr. Sarah Sayles, executive director of the Gila Watershed Partnership. Yet efforts to control non-native species such as saltcedar can be detrimental to flycatchers if the plants are removed without suitable native riparian habitat nearby to replace them with.In order to not to lose any habitats for the flycatchers, GWP follows the defoliation of salt cedar—usually done by the tamarisk beetle—by promoting and restoring native plants in their appropriate place along the Gila River.
I bet this question is on the tip of your tongue: Is the population still declining despite all the hard work? According to the American Bird Conservancy, the bird’s population is very slowly increasing. GWP hasn’t yet seen a difference in population but is hopeful. “We have seen the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher out on our work sites in some of the newly planted natives. We’ll continue to restore more and more native habitat for the endangered species of the Gila River. We’re in this for the long-haul”, Dr. Sarah explains.
This is just one example of the restoration work our river partners are doing along tributaries to the Colorado River. Thank you to our amazing nonprofit partners who are out there every day making a difference for the rivers and those that depend on them like the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher!
As you probably know, “aquatic” means water and “macro” means big—at least big enough for you to see without a microscope. “Invertebrate” means without a backbone.
Macroinvertebrates are excellent indicators of water quality. They also play a key role in nutrient cycling. Studies suggest they are responsible for processing a whopping 73% of riparian leaf and litter in streams. They also serve as food for fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.
A simpler term for a macroinvertebrate is either macro, or water bug. Some of the most well-known macros are dragonflies and caddisflies.
Water bugs thrive in different types of aquatic habitat, like swift running streams, wider, slower rivers or shallow ponds. Some live in the soft sediments of deeper lakes and ponds. While many eat leaves and twigs, others feast on algae or insects.
Numerous macros live their entire lives in water. Others hatch or spend their youth in water, then live on land as adults. For many macros, their adulthood lasts a very limited time. Take the mayfly, for example. Their fleeting adult life lasts as little as 24-48 hours.
Some of the most popular macros are dragonflies. These water bugs are aquatic or semi-aquatic as juveniles for up to six years. As adults, they leave the water to forage for insects, their primary food choice, often several miles from water. That is why you see dragonflies along cliff bands and in forests and pastures.
Dragonflies are exceptional migrants—with the longest nonstop multi-generational migration of 11,000 miles—across oceans. Yes, the small but mighty globe skimmer dragonfly (Pantala flavescens) is not deterred from crossing large bodies of water. By utilizing favorable tailwinds, and with lumps and bumps on its corrugated wings that counteract turbulence and facilitate lift, this remarkable macro is hypothesized to migrate from India across the Indian Ocean to East Africa each fall, with the next generation returning to India the following spring.
You can read more about this fantastic journey here.