GRAYLING, Mich. — The recovery of the Kirtland’s Warbler has become quite a success story for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the Michigan Audubon Society. From a low of 167 singling males in 1971, putting the bird on the endangered species list, to the point where U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has filed a proposal to remove the bird from the near threatened list.
The Kirtland’s Warbler was upgraded to that list in 2005, when a census found 1,341 singling males. In 2015, 2,365 singing Kirtland’s males were found. According to Wikipedia.org, it is now estimated that there are a total of about 5,000 males and females.
The Kirtland’s Warbler males sport a bright yellow breast, along with a black and bluish back, along with a white eye ring. The nest, built by the more drab female, can be found on the ground in sandy soil, beneath a Jack Pine. The nest is an open cup, made of grass, pine needles and oak leaves (Audubon).
According to an article in the Au Sable Valley Audubon, the Kirtland’s Warbler was first discovered near Cleveland on May 13, 1851, on the property of naturalist Jared Kirtland. It then took awhile to discover where the bird made its home.
Fifty-two years later, in 1903, Norman Wood discovered a Kirtland’s Warbler nest in Oscoda County (near Lake Huron), in Michigan’s lower peninsula.
It was then discovered that this rare bird resided in just eight Michigan counties in the lower peninsula, because the bird favors Jack Pines for nesting.
Since the Kirtland’s Warbler was already a rare bird, figuring that a singing male meant a probable breeding pair of birds, a census of the amount of singing males began in 1951. That first census revealed 432 males, or approximately 864 total birds.
In 1971, however, with just 167 singing males counted, the Endangered Species Act went into play for the first time in 1973. With the Kirtland’s Warbler quickly put on the list, U.S. Fish and Wildlife appointed the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team.
Fish and Wildlife knew that getting the bird on the road to recovery would not be easy. That’s because the Kirtland’s only nests in Jack Pines that are between five and 25 feet in height, as well as Jack Pines that are only 20 years old, or younger. Each nesting pair also needs 6-10 acres of territory.
If the above criteria is not met, the bird will not nest there. Plus, at the time, the only known way of getting the Jack Pines to reproduce, was through wildfires.
On top of that, the Brown Cowbird was parasitizing many Kirtland’s nests. As a result, Fish and Wildlife and Michigan Audubon began trapping cowbirds.
The population of the Kirtland’s Warbler stagnated for the first 14 years, with also just 167 singing males in 1987. But the numbers have had a very healthy increase since then, with 804 singing males in 1997. One decade later, in 2007, the number of singing males increased to 1,803. In addition, with the increase in numbers close to 5,000 birds, cowbirds are not longer being trapped.
Helping the Kirtland’s numbers is the fact that the bird is expanding its range to small numbers in Wisconsin, Michigan’s upper peninsula and Ontario, Canada. Fifty-three singing males were counted in Wisconsin in 2017 (Wikipedia.org) and 53 males were counted in Michigan’s upper peninsula, in 2015 (Huronpines.org).
Also helping the Kirtland’s Warbler is changing the pattern of controlled burns for new Jack Pine growth, to cutting down older Jack Pines and planting new ones. That mens those areas will be ready for Kirtland’s use in 5-10 years.
If you want to see a Kirtland’s Warbler, the best way is to go on a guided tour, set up by Michigan Audubon. That’s because many of the Kirtland’s Warbler areas are not open to the public.
The tours take place daily, originating from the Welcome Center of Hartwick Pines State Park just north of Grayling, at 7 a.m., Sunday through Saturday, along with a second tour at 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Cost for the tour is a combined $19, with a $10 fee and a one time $9 fee to enter the park. However, the tour season ends on Sunday because the bird is hard to spot after that. During the tour season, your chances of seeing a Kirtland’s is nearly 100 percent.
The bird leaves for the Bahamas, sometime around mid-August. If you miss tour season, one decent chance of seeing the bird is to head for Goose Lake Road, just north of Grayling, on Route 72. Or better yet, wait until next mid-May or June.
While it is now known what habitat the Kirtland’s Warbler likes, very little is known about the bird’s migration patterns. That’s because the bird is seldom seen in migration. The one thing that is known is that the Kirtland’s migrates to the Bahama Islands for the winter.
In addition, according to the Smithsonian Insider, Smithsonian scientists were able to fit more than a dozen Kirtland’s in Michigan with a geotracker device, weighing about a gram. The following May, the scientists recaught the birds and took out the geotracker. What was discovered is that all but one migrated to either the Bahamas or Turks Islands. The other brought about a new discovery: it wintered in Cuba.