KW – Day 10

The Mio Motel, in Mio Michigan, hasn’t got uniformly great write-ups on TripAdvisor but I liked it.  The guy in charge is a bit brusque I agree – but by the standards of British customer care he is in the ‘eccentric and a bit curt’ category – no worse.

And my room had photos of birds in it too. But the big advantage of the Mio Motel is  that it is only c400m from the Forest Service office where, if you are there at 0645 at the right time of year (and pay $10) they will introduce you to one of the biggest conservation successes on Earth and show you what is still one of the  world’s rarest birds.  I write of the Kirtland’s warbler.

Seven of us were there today and we heard, from Tim, about this species’s need for young jack pines – 5-20 years old.  It’s a fussy bird rather like woodlark and nightjar back home.

A difference is that the KW only lives in this part of Michigan, a small part of Canada and fewer than five pairs in Wisconsin.

In 1951 there were 500 pairs, and a similar number were counted in 1961. But in 1971 there were just a few over 200 pairs – in the world.  Conservationists, foresters and birders leapt into action and now there are over 2000 pairs – still not a huge number is it?

The successful recipe was to create large areas of the right aged trees (by clear-felling) and to bump off 3-4000 brown-headed cowbirds a year.

Clearfelling replaced the role of wildfires in maintaining enough large chunks of the right sort of habitat for this picky bird (which winters in the Bahamas – lucky thing!).  The cow birds are nest parasites (like cuckoos) and were plains birds until we cut down forests and had farmland and then they moved in.  KWs seem pretty susceptible – 70% of nests were affected by cowbird eggs and nestlings before control and only 6% after.

After the excellent briefing we followed Tim’s car in our own to a KW patch. As soon as we parked in a place which could easily be in the Brecks (sandy soil, pine trees of different ages in blocks) we heard a distant KW.

It was now about 0745 and the morning was sunny.  I was wearing my jumper for the first time on this journey and when I left the Mio Motel I had had to wait for the windscreen to defrost.

During a short walk we heard lots more KWs and saw several too – males sitting at or near the tops of trees and singing away.  They are proper American warblers – yellow and black and well-marked.

We were even shown a cowbird-trapping site (there are 54 scattered through the range of the KW) – no hiding anything here.

By 9am I was heading south after a very enjoyable and successful visit.  There’s quite a contrast between the fate of the once superabundant passenger pigeon and the always quite rare Kirtland’s warbler.

The KW should come off the Endangered Species Act some time but I hope that doesn’t mean that the money disappears – otherwise its numbers will plummet again.


7 Replies to “KW – Day 10”

  1. That is just the sort of no nonsense approach we need to conservation in the UK. Interesting too that it is the state forestry department carrying out the work.

    Have a nice day Mark!

  2. Rather like the no nonsense approach from the state forest service in GB which has seen the reversal of the fortunes of Nightjar and Woodlark, perhaps Derek ?

    And I wonder how Mark feels now about ‘ownership doesn’t matter’ for the national forests in the light of Defra’s secret licensing of Buzzard killing ? (I suspect ‘no hiding anything here’ means Mark is keeping up with UK news !)

    But enough of that – now I’m really jealous – how fantastic to see Kirtlands & what an amazing story – in a way the artificial restoration of what natural fire would have done in the past mirrors species like Nightingale here – but it is always a surprise just how limited the range of Kirtlands is – presumably there would have been much more Jack Pine in the past ? And also the issue of ‘endangered’ – this is a very clear case where cutting off the funding – and the clearfelling to produce the young Jack Pine stands would send the species back into the red without question and very quickly.

    And a story at least Mark and Derek will appreciate – Ron Hoblyn had this rather elegant hat with a little badge on it he wore Woodlarking in the Brecks. One day I commented that it looked like a Kirtlands Warbler and was no doubt the badge of the Michigan Audubon Society. Ron was staggered – he didn’t know what the bird was and had picked the hat out of a litter bin at Heathrow ! No doubt left by an American birder with over-weight baggage !

  3. I am feeling grumpy today Roderick! How much of that work with Woodlarks and Nightjars would have happened if it had not been for the 1987 storm and the overnight felling of so many industrial pines?

    I “need” Kirtlands Warbler as I have never seen it so very envious Mark.

  4. One of the books I received last Christmas (from my wish-list) was The Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Saved It, by William Rapai ( I felt it was rather imbalanced, too long-winded on some bits while glossing over others, but overall an enjoyable and informative text.
    If you don’t want to buy the book, there is a 33-minute interview with the author at

  5. Just caught up with you Marky lad (been away in Scotland) Wondering if your warbler count will be exceeded by the breakfast waitress count. I imagine it will be a close run thing.

    Envy you the Kirtlands. Nick Davies wrote about it. Enjoying it all


  6. Yes Derek, you are feeling grumpy – along with most of the conservation sector who seem to have the greatest difficulty recognising what the one time (and seemingly doomed to be permanent in their eyes) ‘enemy’ forestry has achieved for wildlife – and could do a lot more with forward looking support now, rather than always harping on the past. And the answer to your question is quite simple – the 87 storm hardly touched the main Nightjar & Woodlark forests – though it wouldn’t have seemed so to you because the Sandlings pine forests were probably about as badly hit as any – but it barely brushed Thetford and in any case the first recognition of the importance of rotational conifer for these species came with the National Nightjar survey in 1982 and the FC/RSPB research on Woodlark (and subsequently Nightjar) at Thetford which I set up with Colin Bibby started in 1986.

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