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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Kirtland's Warblers and Other Natural Surprises

5 July 2016
Michigan is a state of contrasts. Venturing from south to north, post-industrial gloom gives way to sweeping vistas of rolling hills and forests. Like most other areas in the eastern United States, Michigan’s forests were logged relentlessly, although isolated pockets of old growth are still found. At the Hartwick Pines State Park near Grayling, a mosaic of old and new growth forests converges to create a haven for biodiversity.

I set out early in the morning with the intention of seeing Kirtland’s warblers in their summer breeding range. The warbler, like many other organisms, is finding it difficult to survive in the modern world. For one thing, it nests on the ground, which makes it highly susceptible to predation. In order to compensate for this, the warbler choses nesting sites only in areas of jack pine forest that have openings in the tree canopies. The openings allow light to shine on the forest floor, encouraging low-lying pine branches to remain leafy. The leaves then hide the vulnerable nests, or so the theory goes. The warbler’s highly specialized nesting behavior has been exacerbated by land clearance, logging and development, resulting in fewer and fewer suitable habitats.

In addition to these setbacks, the Kirtland’s warbler is also migratory, spending its summers in the jack pine forests of Michigan and Wisconsin and its winters in the Bahamas and (marginally) in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Development and land clearance in those areas also threatens the birds. Given all of the above, the United States has placed Kirtland’s warbler on the Endangered Species List and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the international authority on rare, threatened and endangered species, has listed the warbler as Near Threatened. Like many creatures, the warbler needs an intact natural world to thrive.

In my naiveté, and being one who has had great successes in the past in finding rare and endangered species, I entered Hartwick Pines this morning fully expecting to see Kirtland’s warblers. I did not. I did hear one or two (it may have been the same bird), but I did not see any. Initially, I was disappointed by my failed conquest, but then I switched my focus from what I wasn’t seeing to what I was seeing. Old-growth coniferous forests of cedar, white pine and Eastern hemlock blotted out the sun in some areas, creating a barren forest floor, spongy with centuries of fallen needles. I have never seen white pines so large and tall, and the smell of terpenes and other volatile conifer scents in the air was too delicious to be described. A riot of bird song, made it almost impossible to pick out the individual singers, a pileated woodpecker, a drumming ruffed grouse, a hermit thrush, a veery, chickadees galore. Black squirrels!

Profusions of wildflowers erupted wherever light penetrated, along trails, windfalls and roadways, calling hordes of insects to partake of their nectar. And then, a surprise visit from a juvenile white-tailed deer that came to investigate, as I was stooping to take a picture of a sulfur butterfly on a milkweed. The fawn was alone and entirely unafraid. A magical moment. Today I went looking for something and found something better. I found nature, rebounding exuberantly from an earlier onslaught of human destructiveness. This gives me hope.

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