Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Birding Life - Travels throughout the land - Part 7

For my last entry in this travel segment of The Birding Life, I will talk about the bird that is more responsible than any other for hooking me into a life of birds!

Our last night in Grand Marais there was a torrential downpour that lasted for hours, leaving us, our tent, and the U.P. more than a little damp! After a long day touring around Seney we couldn't quite decide if we wanted to drive all the way back to Iron Mountain, or just drive part of the way and then relax in a hotel. Ultimately this idea won out because I also had an idea to check around some of my old haunts to look for a very special bird, and staying in Escanaba put us a little closer to a potential location.

So anyway we got up the next day a little on the late side but I still thought that if there were birds around we would have a good chance at finding one, for when they are singing, they are very loud and actually quite tame. If you know your birds, you have probably already gathered from the top picture that I am of course speaking about the Kirtland's Warbler!

The Kirtland's Warbler is a federally endangered species that has been on the endangered species list since its inception. This bird has a tiny breeding range, basically confined to the state of Michigan (though a few have occassionally and recently been found breeding in Wisconsin and Ontario) and very exacting habitat requirements. It occurs only in areas with dense young jack pine, mostly between 5-12 years old, with porous, sandy soils and scattered openings. It nests on the ground typically concealed by overhanging braches from a young jack pine. Formerly the Kirtland's was restricted to just a few counties in the north-central part of the Lower Peninsual where it bred, and then migrated to the Bahamas to overwinter.

When I first started reading about the Kirtland's Warbler in the late 1980s it was very very near extinction. In fact in 1987, the annual Kirtland's Warbler census revealed that the bird had fallen below 200 pairs. There were two principal causes for the near extinction of the Kirtland's. Number one being habitat destruction. As mentioned above the KIWA requires very specific habitats. Habitat that typically only occurred after a wildfire had swept through an area cleaning the slate clean and allowing for the regeneration of dense stands of jack pine. Humans in general try to prevent and control wildfires (sometimes for good reason of course!) but in the case of the Kirtland's Warbler, this lead to a large scale dissapearance of their already rare habitat. The second blow came when Brown-headed Cowbirds, formally a species of the Great Plains, expanded their range into Kirtland's country. This species is a nest parasite, laying its eggs in other birds nests for the host to raise. In its native range many of the species have defenses against the cowbird, but many species like the Kirtland's are defenseless and raise the aggressive cowbird nestlings to the deteriment of their own young.

Just when it looked the bleakest however, the Kirtland's Warbler population began to turn around. The key elements in the recovery have been habitat restoration using controlled burns and more recently another technique using machine planting that creates similar habitat; and also cowbird control. In fact just about the time I got my drivers license and began to explore the U.P. on my own, the Kirtland's had recovered to the point that presumably habitat in the L.P. became saturated and a few birds started showing up in the U.P. My first ever volunteer bird "job" was actually assisting with the U.P. Kirtland's Warbler census when I was just 16!

Long story short, I found some likely looking habitat relatively near Rapid River, MI. The first place I had ever seen a Kirtland's in fact. Nikki and I walked around for awhile but no Kirtland's were singing. Just as I was thinking of giving up, boom a Kirtland's appeared right in front of me without ever even singing! One of the nice things about Kirtland's is their extreme tameness. This one (which you can see was banded, later we would discover in 2006) allowed me to follow it around for 10 minutes or so, while I snapped all of these photos. A short time later we would discover another Kirtland's which made three for us on the trip counting the one I heard earlier in Chippewa County.
The Kirtland's Warbler's comeback has been impressive, they now can be seen in many areas in the Northcentral L.P. and in scattered locales across much of the U.P. However there are still only a little over 2,000 pairs or so. Not exactly the most numerous bird around! Because of the nature of their habitat, and limited potential breeding range, the KIWA will likely never be common. They will continue to require cowbird control and habitat restoration-creation to survive. If we stopped these measures it would be only a short time before they fell to previous lows because of the ephemeral nature of their habitats and lack of cowbird defenses. However, if we remain diligent and watchful, the "Bird of Fire" will continue to sing its song across the unique Jack Pine Barrens of Michigan.

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