New census figures show the population of one of the rarest songbirds in North America is at a record high. Biologists say the tiny Kirtland’s Warbler is one of the lesser-known success stories of the Endangered Species Act. But the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sally Eisele reports that success has not come without a price:
New census figures show the population of one of the rarest songbirds in North America is at a
record high. Biologists say the tiny Kirtland’s Warbler is one of the lesser-known success
stories of the Endangered Species Act. But the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sally
Eisele reports that success has not come without a price:
To find the bird at this time of year, there’s only one place to go—the pine forests of
“Hear anything out there yet? No, we may need to take a walk.”
Forest Service biologist Joe Gomola hikes off in search of a Kirtland’s Warbler. He’s
armed with binoculars and a bird watching scope that looks like a bazooka. But he’s
really using his ears.
He doesn’t need to go far.
Quietly, he sets up his scope and focuses on a small pine about twenty feet away. There,
a bluish-gray bird—head thrown back, yellow breast puffed out—warbles the loudest
song in the forest.
(Kirtland’s Warbler singing)
“He has to know we’re here… and he just sits unperturbed. Just gorgeous.”
This is the only part of the world where Kirtland’s Warbler are known to nest, drawn to
the scrubby young jack pine that reseed in forest fires.
Logging and fire prevention efforts brought the bird close to extinction. In 1987,
researchers counted only 167 singing males. Ironically, a tragic accident marked a
turning point for the warbler. In 1980, what had begun as a small controlled burn to
create nesting ground for the bird turned into a massive wildfire, killing a Forest Service
worker and engulfing the small village of Mack Lake. But Rex Ennis, head of the
Warbler Recovery Team, says the disaster eventually created 25,000 acres of ideal
warbler habitat. Unexpectedly the bird began to thrive.
“There was loss of life, loss of property which were all tragedies when you looked at
that… but the end result of that was it created an ecological condition we saw the warbler
respond to. Those things we learned from that wildfire made our current management
strategy very successful.”
That strategy involves state and federal agencies working together under the Endangered
Species Act to control predators and create warbler habitat by clear-cutting and
reforestation. The goal is to replicate conditions once created naturally by wildfire.
After the Mack Lake disaster, researchers realized much larger managed habitat areas
were needed. Today, 150,000 acres of state and federal land have been identified as
potential habitat. It’s a massive, multi-million dollar effort and not everybody likes it.
Linda Gordert and her husband own Northern Sporting Goods in Mio, the heart of
warbler country. She says folks resent the warbler program because it restricts access to
the state and national forests.
“More complaints from hunters and just everybody… when they come in and say you
can’t go into this area because it’s Kirtland Warbler management area. They’re taking up
thousands and thousands of more acres of this because of the Kirtland management area
and that’s the complaints we hear.”
The bird supporters counter the warbler benefits the region. The forestry program
generates jobs and revenue and a yearly Kirtland’s Warbler Festival attracts thousands for
a glimpse of the rare, pretty songbird. But there will always be competition for the land.
And the recovery team says it needs more acreage, not less, to replace habitat as it
matures and becomes unsuitable for the bird.
His scope still on the warbler, Joe Gomola says some worry about the danger of a fire
like the Mack Lake burn, happening again in the flammable jack pine they now plant.
“But it’s part of the ecosystem that was here before us…same with the Kirtland’s and
we’re charged with managing habitat for this endangered species. And that’s what we’re
doing. (SE: “Is that the same bird?”) Same bird. We’re probably close to the center of
his territory, he’s made almost a full circle around us.”
This year’s census found 1,340 singing males—a record that has started talk of eventually
changing the warbler’s endangered status. But the recovery program has become the
bird’s life support system. 90 percent of the birds were counted in man-made plantations,
indicating habitat management must also continue indefinitely if the bird is to survive.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Sally Eisele.