Friday morning at the Tawas Point Birding Festival found a group of us on a bus bound for the Kirtland's Warbler Management Area in search of, naturally, Kirtland's Warblers. The old school bus bounced and thrashed its way down the un-maintained sand roads of this public land, the roar of its engine all but drowning out the voice of our guide, whose name I have shamefully forgotten. At any rate, he filled us in on all the basics of Kirtland's Warbler management and why the bird needs it.
The Kirtland's is a particular bird. It nests on the ground beneath the drooping branches of Jack pines. Period. No other tree will do. Not only that, but it needs those trees to be of a certain age--between 5 and 20 years old, and of equal height. Any older (taller) than that and the tree no longer provides adequate cover for the nest.
Jack pine habitat is very limited, and is concentrated in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan. This area is very sandy and dry, and historically was prone to frequent fires. These fires kept the Jack pine habitat regularly rejuvenated--the Jack pine's cones need fire in order to release it seeds.
The problem is that we don't like fires. Fires burn up our stuff. So when modern fire suppression began around the turn of the 20th century, the Kirtland's numbers suffered a sharp decline, and by the 1960's there were fewer than 200 singing males reported. So when the Endangered Species Act was passed, we began to manage public lands to replicate the natural conditions that this bird needs in order to survive. It's very labor intensive as we still don't burn the areas. The trees are harvested, the ground prepared and young trees are planted. But it has been a successful effort--in 2010 the number of singing males was recorded at 1,820, and for the first time since we've been paying attention, there are breeding pairs in Ontario and Wisconsin.
It was a gray morning and rain threatened. We spread out along the dirt road and our guides listened for the male's song. We were there perhaps 10 minutes when someone spotted a male, perched atop a young oak, warbling away. I was lucky to be pretty close and got a few shots before he flew away.
Others were spotted as we moved through the area but they were all even farther away and only clearly visible with a strong spotting scope. I was satisfied with having seen one so I started watching to see who else was out there. This pretty little Nashville Warbler stopped close by.
The rather open habitat was dotted with taller trees and snags, providing great perches for males of all species to sing their songs. At one stop this Brown Thrasher sang the entire time we were there.
A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak perched prettily by the side of the road, offering us some great looks.
We moved out of the Jack pine habitat into one of hardwoods with an open forest floor. This area was maintained as a fire break, and had had a controlled burn done in it just a week before. The smell of the fresh burn struck us as we stepped off the bus. We had stopped there to look for Red-headed Woodpeckers, although I never saw one. I did however finally get a few (fuzzy) shots of a male Scarlet Tanager!
My big moment came while we were woodpecker hunting. I looked up at this oak and noticed a funny lump on a branch silhouetted against the sky. I got the camera around on it and saw this:
Most of the group was off to my right, 20 to 40 feet or so. I said, to no one in particular, "I think I see a Whip-poor-will." I was stunned by the reaction! It was like in a cartoon--the group moved, en masse and at record speed, to surrounded me. "Where! Where!" they asked excitedly. You'd have thought I'd spotted Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie out there in the woods. I pointed it out and the scopes went up.
It turned out not to be a Whip-poor-will but a Common Nighthawk. Well, I was close, anyway--at least I didn't call it a Snow Bunting or something. This was a life bird for many (and me too, as I had only heard it before this), so the group was all a-twitter.
Here it is, cropped in. I wish I could figure out in what direction it's looking--I imagine it's squat head is turned toward the camera, but it could just as easily be looking the other way.
It was just a matter of luck that I spotted this bird. Twenty feet to my right or left put the bird in front of a background of branches and trees--once I moved I had a hard time finding it again even though I knew where it was. I received many congratulations and I felt, for a moment, like a bona fide birder--even if I hadn't known at first what the heck I was looking at!