You know you’ve neglected your blog when you speak of enjoying the peak of the Spring shorebird migration and in your next entry the things are already coming back. Yeesh.
I'm in Algonquin Provincial Park in Central Ontario for another surely interesting Summer, so my postings should become more or less regular now that I'm actually living in one place and getting a steady income.
Before I came up to the Park, however, Kyle Holloway and I journeyed into the Midwest for some birding before I disappeared. We went to Rainy River - Ontario's west end, and some parts of Minnesota as well as the lower peninsula of Michigan.
The bird I had most wanted to see lived in the latter locale almost exclusively. It is a bird much revered by North American birdwatchers and foreign birders as well. It was a Wood-Warbler, a very habitat-choosy wood-warbler, that only breeds in select Jack Pine stands 16-20 years of age. The bird in question is the lovely Kirtland’s Warbler.
These birds show up at Point Pelee every now and again (whenever I’m not around) and they do breed in Ontario (in an inaccessible locale) but if you don’t have many days or someone who knows where they are in Wisconsin, there is only one place on Earth you can see this bird in the breeding season, and that is in Michigan.
Why? Jack Pine forests are meticulously managed by the Michigan DNR every year to suit the warbler’s choosy lifestyle. If the stand becomes so tall as the branches of the tree do not touch the ground (to use as shelter for the ground-nesting bird that the warbler is), the birds abandon them.
You then wonder how these things survived before we helped them out… the answer to that question is a phenomenon that is now frowned upon and is seen as a danger to most everything that lives in and around the forest – forest fires. Smoky the Bear evidently had some sort of grudge against Kirtland’s Warblers.
Long ago, fires were frequent throughout Jack Pine stands in the Upper Midwest, and frequently would burn huge stands down to the ground, from which they’d eventually grow into prime Kirtland’s habitat. There’d be enough fires every year for there to be Kirtland’s habitat available somewhere within the range of the bird. Of course when these same fires burned down human habitations and killed people, they were suppressed big time. Without fires, there are no young Jack Pine stands, and without those, there are no Kirtland’s Warblers.
So, the bird’s population plummeted and in the first annual survey for the bird in 1971, there were only 200 singing males. The last Kirtland’s on Earth. It didn’t help that the clearing of land for logging allowed the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird to venture into Kirtland’s habitat and parasitize their nests. The warblers did not have any sort of evolutionary protection against this onslaught, and the birds that did pair and breed more often than not ended up raising cowbird young.
Luckily, it is relatively easy to manage Kirtland’s habitat and the Michigan DNR now maintains 36’000-40’000 acres of Kirtland’s habitat. They also trap and euthanize cowbirds in these stands, something that has helped the warbler numbers rebound amazingly. Once the trees get too big, they are logged and replanted by hand.
Kyle and I ventured into one of these plots of land and were not disappointed.
Indeed, the birds loud, melodious song was heard from every which way in the stand. It was, in fact, the most common birdsong to be heard. But, surprising as it may be in this barren habitat, not the only one. Upland Sandpipers wolf-whistled from the sandy barrens. Eastern Bluebirds were attending a nest in an older, dead tree. Several different species of sparrows sung their songs from within the pines. But for me, Kirtland’s still stole the show.
For one reason or another, the bird is foolishly tame. I walked up to within four feet of a singing male and he didn’t even flinch – in fact, he continued singing, threatening my hearing ability in a way that made my ears ring for the next few hours.
It was surprising that, while the bird needed Jack Pine in order to survive, the amount of time that males spent in the actual tree was minimal. They seemed to much prefer the taller Black Oaks, undoubtedly for singing purposes, rather than the small, spindly pines. One male sung from a hydro wire that went through the habitat.
We walked for about a kilometer into the stand on a little sandy trail, from which we heard no less than 25 birds. They really do thrive big-time in suitable habitat, which is surprisingly easy (notwithstanding the labour costs) to manage for. It can be said now, safely I think, that Kirtland’s Warbler is an easy bird to see in Michigan, and many yearning ears and eyes can now see and hear the bird of the flames singing away in its piney realm. It is quite amazing what we can accomplish if we really try.
Efforts to increase conservation of this bird by partnering up Michigan DNR (who obviously know what they’re doing) with conservation authorities in the Bahamas (where the bird chiefly winters) and also with conservation authorities in Ontario (which lacks a management plan for the bird) and Wisconsin (I don’t know much about the bird there) will hopefully continue to ensure the bird’s success in North America.