I had not seen Kirtland’s warblers since the late 1980s and it is a bird that has long interested me. Back in seventh grade (fall of 1966), I had to write a report on a local bird and I called the Field Museum asking which rare birds are found here. They mentioned the Kirtland’s as such a species that has occurred here on infrequent occasion. (For more information on the status of local birds, they recommended Birds of the Chicago Area by Ellen Thorne Smith, a small almost pamphlet of a book that I later acquired: it led to the Evanston North Shore Bird Club and the passion that has imbued most of what I have done since. For better or worse.) I wound up writing about the warbler and its history for my class. Later, I learned that one of the first nests ever found of the bird was discovered by Nathan Leopold, a brilliant young ornithologist from Chicago who in 1924 or so murdered a teenage boy with his partner Richard Loeb. Their deed became known as “The Crime of the Century” (there is a great book with that title by Hal Higdon) and is the perfect confluence for those of us with interests in birds and true murder stories.
Cindy had never seen the species so we went on a three day trip to Kirtland’s country. The Kirtland’s warbler is one of the most finicky birds of the continent, requiring young jack pines between 5 and 20 feet tall. Virtually the entire population nests in a few counties in the northern part of the Southern Peninsula of Michigan: most birders see them in Crawford (Grayling) or Oscoda (Mio) Counties. A few now also breed in the Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin. Precisely one pair nests on a military base in Ontario.
Back in 1968 when I saw the species for the first time, birders could wander through the national forest lands at their leisure looking for warblers. I remember being there a year later and encountering National Guard troops and tanks moving through on training maneuvers. But for the benefit of the birds, the US Forest Service offers trips out of their Mio office (for a charge of $10) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service provides the same outings that meet at the Ramada Inn in Grayling (no cost).
Cindy’s last day of school was June 4 so we headed north on the following day. Our first stop was the Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, located at the confluence of the Chippewa and Pine Rivers. I had become familiar with the facility through Kyle Bagnall, a naturalist there who is also active in Project Passenger Pigeon. Originally comprised of land once belonging to the Dow family, it is now one of the largest private nature centers in the country. It has grown to over 1,200 acres and the Visitor Center is stunning, with big windows that provide a lovely riparian vista. We did not have time to hike the trails but Kyle showed us around the center and we want to come back.
The two warbler tours were thoroughly enjoyable, as were our knowledgeable young leaders Dana Smith (Mio) and Alison Vilag (Grayling). (Alison, by the way, is from Berrien County, MI and is also a big fan of Sarah Sass.) There were only six of us at Mio, including Jim McDonald of Ypsilanti and Thom Barnell, of KY but the Grayling trip was heavily attended, in part because we were joined by a group from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The warbler has a distinctive song that makes it relatively easy to locate, although seeing one can be more difficult. Fortunately, the males often conduct their performances while perched on the tops of the scattered oaks: it is when they secrete themselves within the boughs of the pines that they can become invisible. (The writer Peter Matthiessen came up with my favorite bird song pneumonic of all time to describe the vocalization of this species: Felicity has to wee-wee.) On both trips we had excellent views of Kirtland’s warblers, and at Grayling everyone was able to look at a singing clay-colored sparrow through a telescope. We befriended an excellent young birder named Neil Gilbert. He heard an upland sandpiper high up in the sky and was able to watch until it was blocked by a tree. But through his directions I was able to glimpse it for a moment. Both tours spend some time at enclosures that hold live cowbird decoys, all fitted with little yellow tags on their legs to distinguish them from recently caught birds. Cowbirds parasitize Kirtland’s warblers heavily and contribute in a major way to the warbler’s rarity. (The first person to record this fact was the aforementioned Nathan Leopold.) So along with habitat management, control of cowbirds is a necessary activity in maintaining healthy warbler populations. The introductory film that precedes both tours and the tour leaders talk of the need to “remove” cowbirds. The meaning is pretty obvious but some people are still surprised when it dawns on them that none of the caged cowbirds will leave on their own power. If you add up the cost of cowbird control and the actions necessary to maintain large tracts of young jack pine (when the trees become too tall they are logged and very small saplings are planted in their stead), it costs about $1,000,000 a year to preserve the Kirtland’s warblers. Without this expenditure of mostly public monies and government action, this bird would without question become extinct. Too bad the warblers can’t vote.