The Kirtland's Warbler (photo above from Cornell Lab).....now, as a birder, this has to be on your 'bucket list'...and if not, take a look and make plans. The only place to see the Kirtland's here in the states is in upper Michigan, more specifically in Hartwick Pines State Park. This warbler has an extremely narrow breeding range and breeds only in specific growth of Jack Pines whose age is between 5-20 years. Once the pines reach an elevation where the branches prevent light from penetrating to the ground below, the Warbler moves on to sunnier pastures. The Jack Pines habitat around this state park has been tailor-managed by a combination of agencies which compose the 'Kirtland's Warbler Initiative' and this has been going on since the 1970's. So "disco' was not the only thing that came from the 70's. Slowly the range has been expanded into Wisconsin and Ontario, as those states are attempting to lure this bird to their lands. During the 70's the male population declined to only 167 while today, the total number of breeding birds is over 2,000, so a nice success story.
The exact spot of the breeding grounds is not public information and in order to view the Warbler you must contact either Hartwick Park State Park or the Michigan Audubon Society. Tours are led from the visitor center. That is exactly what Deb and I did together with my brother and sister-in-law who reside in Midland, Michigan about 80 miles south of the Warblers.
Now upon our arrival, Michigan immediately became ensconced in one of the rainiest times of its history. Not just a 100 year rainstorm but a 500 year rainstorm. And rain it did as the town of Midland was flooding and streets were closed. Our first of two days to see the Warbler was a complete rainout as we couldn't get there in time for the 7am tour, if they even had it.
Day 2....... nice weather. There were two tours scheduled on Saturday, one at 7am and one at 11am. Your natural inclination would be to take the 7am with Warblers but, we are dealing with the Kirtland's Warbler and they 'nest literally 'in' the ground' and perch on trees no taller than 6-7 feet. So we opted for sleep, and ventured to the 11am tour. When we arrived at the visitor center, we were greeted by a pair of Evening Grosbeaks...awesome birds with a yellow forehead and eyebrow. In our tour, there were a dozen of us led by Bryant, a young man from the Audubon who was working as our guide for the summer during his college years. He was good, and he knew how to lead a tour as he dotted our time with naturalistic facts concerning the floral and wildlife.
Into our cars and we caravanned to the Warbler location as we followed Bryant's red Jeep. Out of the car we got and the first thing we heard was a singing male Kirtland's. All eyes were immediately led to the low Jack Pines.... But only the voice, no visual. Down the path we went....scaring up a couple of Nashville Warblers and hearing the faint song of a Vesper's Sparrow. More Kirtland's singing in the pines, no visuals though. Down the path once more....and suddenly a nice call from no more than 5 yards from the path was heard. As a group, we were now strung out down the path 20 yards or so, but in my sights....kerchung!...Got it....The Kirtland's Warbler low in the branches singing away. But I was the only one who saw. I felt bad --but no, I felt good....I saw the Warbler :-)
Onwards down the path....a few more 'heards'... Then, on a small branch, posing for us....was a singing Kirtlands's. All eyes on the Warbler please. All eyes, except the two people who had camera's that is, as they were 'back up the path'. By the time they came to the Warbler, the moment had passed. The slice of life in time, the perfect pose, now gone. "No Soup (picture) for you".
As we walked along the path, Deb nearly stepped upon this guy....probably 2-3 feet in length but actively showing itself. A nice hog snake....look at that face for only a mother hog snake could love it. But a question that came to my mind was that if the Kirtland's creates their nests 'in the ground'....and although they might cover it up with grasses and be hidden within tall grass, it won't stop the heat vision of this snake from stealing an egg or five. But, that is nature, right? According to the Audubon in Michigan, the Hogsnake is not one of the main predators of the Kirtland's so that was nice to know as we merrily pushed it further into the grass.
Now, what perhaps is still nature but more of 'nature being out of control' is that of the cowbird and what 'used to be' the main predator of the Kirtland's. Not a predator in the usual sense, but along the lines of other nest parasite birds. The cowbird, in the days of the Buffalo would follow the Buffalo and feed from the insects etc kicked up by the Buffalo herd. This behavior caused them to be a migratory species to survive; from herd to herd. The only way to assure that their young survived was to become parasitic in nature, and lay their eggs in other species nests. In the 1970's (yes the 70's again), research identified that 70% of all Kirtland's nests were being inhabited by at least one cowbird egg. The cowbird eggs hatched earlier than the warblers and are more aggressive for food. If two cowbird eggs hatched, then no warbler species survived. This is not a good thing for a low population species such as the Warbler. The Kirtland's Warbler became an endangered species. In 1973, the Kirtland's Warbler Recovery Plan was enacted with a goal of having a population of 1,000. Thru efforts such as the control of Brown-headed Cowbirds by using these traps, (image) the percentage of cowbirds in a warbler nest is now only 3% with a warbler population well over 2,000. The cowbird is lured into this chicken wired trap with mullet and 3-4 Cowbirds are placed into the trap to lure other Cowbirds. At one time, there were upwards of 80 of these traps scattered throughout the Jack Pines. These are gradually being reduced as the Warbler population is growing. and once in, they can't get out. Today the Kirtland's Warbler Initiative is in effect as they monitor these traps, burning and replanting large tracks of Jack Pine. Together with the Michigan Audubon, these agencies support a non-profit to help the continued recovery of the warbler and other species. Truly a good cause.
In the days of today with our current administration blind to the environment, it is nice to see and know, that other agencies such as our local Audubon and those across the country, still carry on the fight to help our environment.....