Michigan’s Rare Bird – Kirtland’s Warbler

There are fewer than 1800 male Kirtland’s Warblers in the world. Hopefully, there are about that number of females as well. There have been more than 1600 males for the past three years and the number was as low as 200 males in the 1970’s. This bird is limited to central Michigan’s Jack Pine woodlands for nesting. It has absurdly specific requirements.

Grayling is one of the two towns where Kirtland’s Warblers are pretty much guaranteed. They are a very rare species; breeding almost entirely in the Jack Pines of central Michigan and wintering in the Bahamas. Though that sounds pretty cushy it is a bit of a challenge on the ground. The Jack Pine habitat was managed by natural fires historically and natural fires are frowned on these days. The use of controlled burns is a bit iffy as well, as control and loss-of-control are often only a gust of wind apart. There was a 24,000-acre fire several years ago that changed the management techniques for Jack Pine woodlands. After the Mack Lake Fire the use of mechanical planting has pretty much replaced managed fire as the prime tool for Jack Pine reforestation and management.

Because the areas where Kirtland’s Warblers nest is mostly managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service access is limited. Thus images are catch-as-catch-can and mine are pretty poor.

The birds forage and nest on the ground under the Jack Pines.
The males tend to sing from the oak trees that are interspersed in the Jack Pine areas. They are a loud and conspicuous bird and quite easy to locate once you are in their very specific habitat.

The birds use young Jack Pine (5-20 years old) for nesting and then abandon the area. They then look for an area that was burned a few years previously and nest there until it grows up. Once the fires stop and the habitat ages the birds are in trouble. This is an easy bird to manage for, however; as long as there is acreage of young pines the birds seem to do fine. The wintering habitat seems to be adequate and the numbers returning each spring seem to be solid. So, if fires are too risky how do they manage the land? It is farmed – tree farmed in a real sense. Mechanical planters insert thousands of small trees in an area and then you wait. It seems to be working quite well.

The US Forest Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Michigan Audubon Society work together to provide free or inexpensive tours intended to show visitors this bird. The tours are available in either Grayling or Mio. Tours during the four weeks from May 15 to June 15 are pretty much guaranteed to see the birds. Later tours are less likely to see them. The warblers are headed south in late August and by mid-September they have all gone home to the islands.

The towns in this part of the state are aware of the visitation by birders and naturalists and accommodate people well. The hotels are pretty average and there are few restaurants but all in all it is a nice place for a birder to stay a few days.

Starting in Mio there is a 58-mile tour that takes you through very nice habitat for Kirtland’s Warbler (saw and heard several along the road) as well as other (mostly wetland) habitats of the area.

Mio also has a stone and glass monument (this is a 3 foot tall warbler behind glass) in the center of town that acknowledges the bird and the efforts of central Michigan to provide and manage habitat.

The economy may be down throughout Michigan in mid-2011, but the effort is still being made to attract birders to the warbler-towns. The various governmental services have visitor centers as well as tours and the hotels and motels all have handouts on the birds. (This is not an endorsement of the above-depicted establishment.)

There is a previous blog-page on Michigan’s wetlands and there is a following page on the other natural history of Michigan – as usual, mostly bird related.

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