MIO — A tiny songbird that almost exclusively nests within northern Michigan’s pine barrens is the champion of perhaps the region’s greatest conservation story.
The Kirtland’s warbler was on the brink of extinction 30 years ago.
But a concerted effort among conservation groups, state and federal environmental officials and countless volunteers launched a collective mission to manage the bird’s sensitive habitat to try and save the species.
The migratory songbird beloved by birdwatchers and nature-lovers has, through the years, climbed back to a healthy population level, all the while facing challenges with habitat and even parasitic threats like the brown-headed cowbird.
“The population numbers are very strong and have been for several years,” said Abigail Ertel, community program leader for Gaylord-based nonprofit Huron Pines conservation group. “That’s why they’ve been proposed for de-listing.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service more than a year ago proposed to remove the Kirtland’s warbler from the Endangered Species Act list, though the final decision has not yet been published. The bird’s current status is near-threatened.
The number of singing males hit record lows of 167 in 1974 and 1987, with a record high of 1,828 in 2011, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
This year’s census within Michigan’s Huron National Forest found 1,023 singing male warblers, the third consecutive census in which more than 1,000 were identified.
The majority of Kirtland’s warblers nest in northern Lower Michigan’s pine barrens after spending winters in the Bahamian Islands.
“The count was down slightly from 2017, but that may have been because of the rain,” said Phil Huber, biologist for the Huron-Manistee National Forests. “Overall, the figure indicates a healthy population.”
The census began in 1951 and was conducted annually from 1971 to 2017. Now the census happens every other year.
The process includes the Forest Service drawing parallel lines called transects at quarter-mile intervals through the Kirtland’s warbler nesting habitat. Each census taker walks at least two miles of transects per day, stopping for 5 minutes every 200 meters to listen for the warbler’s distinct song.
Census takers use a compass bearing to plot every bird’s probable location on a map. Then participants compare results at each day’s end to eliminate duplicates.
“You get up very, very early,” said Karen Markey, a census volunteer for 18 years. “It’s exhausting, don’t get me wrong, but I enjoy nature and giving back.”
This year’s census takers covered more than 23,000 acres during an 8-day period.
Kirtland’s warblers exclusively nest and breed beneath young jack pine stands primarily in Michigan, but also have been spotted in parts of Wisconsin and Ontario.
Human efforts to suppress wildfires in jack pine forests resulted in substantial habitat loss. Jack pine trees require fire to open their cones for regeneration.
That work to sustain habitat for the finicky nesting songbird must continue for the de-listing under consideration to go forward. It’s a human-action dependent species.
“It’s certainly a model for species in a similar situation,” Ertel said.
U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Kim Piccolo agreed.
“Every species is important,” she said. “The conservation team is setting up a model for other conservation-reliant species.”
Both Piccolo and Huber encourage new volunteers — especially those with birding or orienteering experience — to sign up to help continue the conservation efforts for the Kirtland’s warbler.
Prospective volunteers should be able to walk several miles through rough terrain and must be prepared to participate to census efforts for at least 5 years.
“Just spreading the word and teaching others about the Kirtland’s warbler is really important,” Piccolo said. “There is value in not losing parts of our forest.”
Call the Forest Service’s Ranger District station in Mio at 989-826-3252 for more information.