Life is hard for the Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo. It needs lots of healthy water-adjecent habitat to survive, something that's becoming increasingly rare in the arid American Southwest. And it's not that much easier for people who want to help protect these birds by running field surveys of their populations, but who also aren't a fan of getting up early in the morning. Surveying these birds means starting at 4:30 A.M.—sometimes even earlier—to get to the survey site at sunrise. If you want to survey cuckoos, you need to have a passion for it.
The volunteers, interns, and those who work at Sonoran Audubon in Arizona have that passion. Bob McCormick, a volunteer at Sonoran Audubon, is an old hand at the cuckoo survey life. McCormick says that he and the other volunteers and interns would go out and survey for cuckoos five times during the two-month survey season, which runs from mid-June to mid-September.
The cuckoo survey program, says Karen LaFrance, the co-chair of Sonoran Audubon, has been going since at least 2010, when Arizona Game and Fish Department worked with partners like Audubon Southwest (then known as Audubon Arizona) to designate important bird areas along the Agua Fria River and set up the monitoring of the sites to undersand what was happening. Roughly four years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Western Yellow-Billed Cuckoo a threatened species and interest and resources were decidated to studying it.
After nearly a decade of surveys, some of the survey organizers wanted to expand the program and also get new people—and specifically the next generation of conservationists—interested in collaborating with Sonoran Audubon. Members of Sun Devil Audubon, the campus chapter at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, were thrilled to learn about this new opportunity to get on-the-ground fieldwork training.
Mikaela Joerz was one such student. Growing up, Joerz says she always admired National Audubon Society, and when she learned about ASU’s new student chapter, she ‘gathered up the courage’ to attend a meeting. Joerz says that, at first, she had the impression that Audubon as a whole was not for younger generations, but that first student chapter meeting changed her whole perspective. And then she heard about the opportunity to do fieldwork.
“The internship was a great way to get into the field. Audubon always sounded like fancy old people, but this internship was a great way to introduce younger people into the work,” says Joerz. “I was thinking ‘wow, they would really want us or need us,’ and it turned out to be totally doable.”
While Joerz wasn't quite sure what she was going to encounter before she went to her first Sun Devil Audubon meeting, she definitely wasn't expecting to get a paid job out of it. Because budgets are stretched very thin, much of the monitoring work for cuckoos and other species are strictly a voluntary affair, which is why most volunteers are usually older and frequently past retirement. But as Sonoran Audubon was looking to recruit younger surveyors, Steven Prager, staff biologist at Audubon Southwest, let LaFrance know about some grant funding that was available. This gave Sonoran Audubon the ability to pay the interns a stipend for their work.
“It's a lot easier and more equitable to recruit internships and find interns if you can pay them for their work,” says LaFrance. “I've always been in that camp, and when I run organizations I prefer to not rely solely on volunteers. I also don't assume that folks just love to do these things, especially something like this which is so rigorous.”
Joerz, plus four other interns and two volunteers, spent their survey time this year at various riparian habitats in Arizona. From late June to September, sunrise to noon, their team was out in the field playing cuckoo calls in the hopes that some would call back, or even fly in to see what all the noise was about. In all, Arizona’s Audubon Southwest 2021 team made 163 individual cuckoo detections and were surveying 13 routes across three watersheds. But funnily enough, Joerz said that in the 15 hours total she spent out in the field, she never spotted a single cuckoo.
Joerz says that that didn’t matter, though, because the opportunity to do actual field work was good enough. The opportunity gave all the interns on the job experience, helped find Sonoran Audubon a new board member in one of the interns, and yet another intern went on to work as a field trip coordinator for Maricopa Audubon, another chapter in Arizona. As for Joerz, she says the work she did prepared her for her next opportunity.
“I actually got a job opportunity this summer to go survey cuckoos elsewhere, and the experience with Sonoran Audubon really helped me prepare for that,” says Joerz, who will be assisting with range-wide cuckoo survey efforts as a field technician with the Southern Sierra Research Station. “But either way, I’m definitely planning to come back and volunteer. It was a really great experience!”