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Success of Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Effort Opens Door for New Research by Au Sable and MDNR

Apr 22, 2016

Hard work, for the right goals, pays off. Forty-two years after its first appearance on the US Endangered Species List, the Kirtland’s Warbler, once considered North America’s rarest songbird, is on the road to being officially “delisted” as an Endangered Species. This progress was marked by its own official “celebration” held on Wednesday March 30th at Camp Grayling Michigan, in the heart of the Kirtland’s Warbler breeding region. Once reduced to a population of less than 500 individuals, habitat creation and protection from a nest parasite, the Brown-head Cowbird, has helped Kirtland’s Warbler populations climb to and remain at over 4,000 birds. The Au Sable Institute was there for the celebration.

Through a grant written by Au Sable’s Executive Director Fred Van Dyke and funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Institute will work with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) to create new nesting habitat for the Kirtland’s Warbler and then monitor its nesting success in the new areas. This effort will be habitat creation with a different twist. Traditionally, the Kirtland’s Warbler has always been considered an extreme habitat specialist, nesting only in young even-aged stands of jack pine, and only in a few counties in northern lower Michigan. As its populations have grown, however, Kirtland’s Warblers have begun nesting in other Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces. In some of these new areas, Kirtland’s Warblers have been observed using red pine, an economically valuable tree species often grown in even-aged plantations for later harvest. In this new study, the MDNR will plant both red pine and jack pine stands in close proximity to one another, and Dr. Van Dyke and his research assistants will monitor and compare the nesting success of Kirtland’s Warblers in both stand types.

“If Kirtland’s Warbler shows similar levels of use and nesting success in jack pine and red pine,” said Van Dyke, “It creates opportunity for greater flexibility in management decisions, larger, more widespread populations of the warblers, and, in the long run, greater involvement and support from the timber industry to create managed forests that the warbler can use for nesting habitat when the stands are young, but which land owners and timber companies harvest later for wood and pulp when the stands are older. It’s a great way to make multi-dimensional use of a forest resource that can benefit wildlife and people.”

Dr. Carol Bocetti, leader of the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team and founding member of the new Kirtland’s Warbler Conservation Team, also expressed enthusiasm for the new study, “It will help us shift from recovery to sustainability by investigating new habitat regeneration strategies that are both economically and ecologically viable.”

The Kirtland’s Warbler may some day be “delisted” as an Endangered Species, but it is likely to long remain what conservationists refer to as a “conservation-reliant” species, one that needs intentional management and attentive monitoring to persist at healthy population levels. The Au Sable Institute will be an important player in this new conservation effort. “It’s great to be here for this party,” said Van Dyke, speaking of the celebration event on March 30, “But its even better to be a partner in the hard work that’s needed to make the species once again an abundant and beautiful part of God’s creation. I’m grateful the Fish and Wildlife Service and the MDNR have trusted us at Au Sable to share this important conservation effort with them.”

Field work begins in May of this year. Stay tuned for more stories and updates on the Kirtland’s Warbler and the Institutes role with ongoing conservation. We’ll keep you posted.