The comeback kids

Kirtland’s warbler may soon come off endangered species list

Courtesy Photo A Kirtland’s warbler, recovered from near-extinction, warbles in the jack pine forests of northern Michigan.

ALPENA–A bird with a yellow belly and fast-flicking tail may soon come off the endangered species list, thanks to the hard work of northern Michiganders and one award-winning forest ranger.

The Kirtland’s warbler, which breeds almost exclusively in the young jack pine forests of eight Up North counties — including portions of Montmorency and Presque Isle counties — was driven nearly to extinction 30 years ago.

In 1973, only 216 singing males were counted in the annual Kirtland’s warbler census, conducted each June between 1971 and 2017, when it was moved to a biennial schedule.

As of a count released Wednesday, Forest Service staff, partners and volunteers counted 1,023 male warblers in Michigan’s Huron National Forest in this year’s census, exceeding for the third year in a row the target goal of 1,000, according to the Forest Service.

With such numbers, the bird may soon wing its way out from under the protections of the Endangered Species Act, said Scott Hicks, field office supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region-Michigan field office in East Lansing.

Hundreds, even thousands of birders from all over the world come to northern Michigan hoping for a glimpse of the rare Kirtland’s warbler, according to Hicks.

The tiny songbird, returning each spring after wintering in the Bahamas, is a vital part of the northern Michigan ecosystem. With its cheerful song and distinctive tail flicks — down quickly, then slowly back up again — the bird is intrinsically connected to the forest that protects the groundwater that flows into rivers and streams, its existence impacting fishermen and hunters and lovers of quiet walks in the woods, Hicks explained.

The northwoods of northern Michigan and, recently, portions of Minnesota and Canada, are the only places in the world where the birds make their summer homes.

The bird’s recovery wouldn’t have been possible without the people of Michigan, Hicks said, “people who appreciate the idea of conserving something special in Michigan.” The efforts to save the bird from extinction have included counteracting the bird’s two main threats — the lack of forest fires, and the brown-headed cowbird.

Human efforts to suppress wildfires disrupted the habitat of the warblers, finicky homeowners who nest exclusively under the low branches of young jack pine forests that require fire to regenerate. Warbler nests are also in danger from the brown-headed cowbird, a brood parasite that manipulates other species into rearing its young at the expense of their own.

With the help of Michigander volunteers and supporters, the Forest Service now ensures that viable warbler habitats are provided through regular harvest and replanting cycles. Trap-and-release efforts to reduce numbers of the brown-headed cowbird, not native to northern Michigan, were able to be suspended for the past several years after cowbird eggs were found in less than 5% of warbler nests, according to Hicks.

Calling the recovery of the species a conservation success story, Hicks praised the collaborative effort of conservationists and Michiganders to save the bird from the brink of extinction.

Phil Huber, forest biologist with the Huron-Manistee National Forest, recently received a lifetime achievement award in Washington for his contributions to the recovery of the Kirtland’s warbler and the management of other threatened species.

The recipient of the USDA Forest Service 2018 Lloyd W. Swift, Sr. Award for Wildlife Management, Huber helped lead collaborative recovery efforts and guide the recovery team’s transition to a conservation team that will continue to focus on long-term conservation efforts once federal protections for the birds are removed.

“Recovery of the Kirtland’s warbler is the result of hundreds of dedicated individuals over the past five decades,” said Huber. “My hope is that this will bring attention to the strong and innovative partnerships that made Kirtland’s warbler recovery efforts so successful.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.