Monthly Archives: June 2013

June 8: Kirtland’s Warbler

Kirtland's Warbler

One of the best things about doing my Conservation Big Year is looking at birds I’ve already seen a dozen times or more, yet somehow not nearly enough, such as Kirtland’s Warbler.

Me looking at my lifer Kirtland's Warbler

I saw my first one ever on June 6, 1976. That year marked the nation’s Bicentennial, and Kirtland’s Warbler was officially named Michigan’s Bicentennial Bird. At the time it was critically endangered—only 167 singing males were found two years before, in 1974. The people protecting it were trying to get the population up to 200 by the Bicentennial, which they just barely succeeded in doing. This rarest warbler on the continent was in dire trouble. Fortunately, that was right after the Endangered Species Act kicked in, and the combination of research into the causes of the species’ imperilment and management to maintain essential habitat and remove Brown-headed Cowbirds turned the trend around. Last year, 2012, the species count reached an all-time high of 2063 in Michigan alone, and now the species has spread a bit into Wisconsin and Ontario.

Female Kirtland's Warbler at Magee Marsh

Since 1976, I’ve seen Kirtland’s Warbler on several other occasions. I brought my whole family to see Kirtland’s Warbler 20 years ago en route on a family vacation in New England, but even though the population was fairly high at that point, it was late in the nesting cycle, when males were too busy feeding young to be out where anyone could see them. The northern route between Duluth and Oberlin, Ohio, where our daughter went to school, went right past Grayling, so Russ and I stopped a few times. And I’ve been lucky enough to see Kirtland’s Warblers a couple of times during spring migration at Magee Marsh at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio, and once during fall migration at Lake Kissimmee State Park in Florida.

Kirtland's Warbler

This year, first thing in the morning on June 8, I went on a guided trip in Grayling, Michigan, sponsored by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Michigan Audubon Society, to see the warblers. These well advertised trips make it easy for anyone to see this endangered species without putting pressure on the birds during their vulnerable breeding season. The birds had been back for well over a week—some more than two weeks—so most of the territorial boundaries had been settled and pairs were getting down to incubating eggs or even raising nestlings. Males were still singing fairly vigorously but usually staying hunkered down rather than perching conspicuously atop the trees. We heard quite a few on our tour, but managed halfway decent looks at only one male, and needed a spotting scope to see him well.

Kirtland's Warbler

After the tour, I spotted one male singing atop a tree right next to a major highway, so I got some good photos of him, and went to another spot later that day and the next morning where I could hunker down in hopes that other males would venture close enough for photography.

Kirtland's Warbler trip 2013--our expert leader at far left, and people photographing a Vesper Sparrow nest on the ground just to the right.

Because Kirtland’s Warbler is endangered, we were legally required to stay on paths and roads, off the actual nesting habitat, but I never walk off paths anyway—I’m petrified of stepping on a bird, toad, insect, or other tiny creature without realizing it. On our guided walk, a Vesper Sparrow suddenly darted through our group and I knew we’d passed her nest. Sure enough, just inches from the path was a beautiful nest, tucked deep into the weeds. A footstep to the side of the path could have crushed the four tiny nestlings and none of us would have been the wiser.

Vesper Sparrow nest

Even though I always stay on paths and roads, I’m lucky and patient. A few Kirtland’s Warblers were nice and cooperative, so I got lots of photos, including some of one bird singing with a large caterpillar in his beak.

Kirtland's Warbler

I made time for Kirtland’s Warblers this year only because of my Conservation Big Year, but ironically, had to leave after just a day and a half because of my Conservation Big Year—the next species were beckoning. I felt sad saying goodbye to this lovely, splendid bird, but happy to be leaving with photos, sound recordings, and wonderful memories.

June 3: A walk in Port Wing, Wisconsin

As I’ve grown busier and busier in recent years, and am spending more and more time traveling, I’ve let slide one of the loveliest and favorite of all my birding activities—taking long walks in Port Wing, Wisconsin. My normal route was about 7 miles, but I could shorten it to about 5 miles or add various detours along the way, bringing it up to as many as 12 miles. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I took these walks several times a year, but it dropped to only once or twice a year at most by the time I was in my 40s. And as far as I can remember, I didn’t take the walk a single time while I was in my 50s. But I decided this was one lovely tradition I wanted to revive during my Conservation Big Year, so I set out on June 3 to take a hike.


My little dog Photon and I set out together about 5:30 am. Birding along Russ’s mom’s driveway wasn’t as satisfying as usual—no Alder Flycatchers, Sedge Wrens, Le Conte’s Sparrows, or even Savannah Sparrows serenaded us as we walked. I hope this was just because migration is so late this year, and that they’ll show up eventually, but the late mowing of that field last fall, combined with the late spring, means it probably won’t provide suitable habitat for ground-nesting birds this year. One snipe winnowed from overhead, a pair of Sandhill Cranes called from the distance, and a Ruffed Grouse drummed in the woods not too far from Russ’s mom’s house—that soft thumping was balm to my soul.

Canada Warbler

Once we made it to Kinney Valley Road, I found a small group of migrants, including a Canada Warbler, but again, very few birds on territory. Leaf-out is late this year, and without leaves, there are no hatching caterpillars—the food that fuels warbler migration and feeds them as they arrive on territory. It was eerily quiet for a beautiful June morning, but a second grouse was drumming—a promising sign for one species at least. Photon is slowing down now that she’s 15, so she wasn’t running ahead and charging back as she used to, but she was holding up pretty well, checking out every odor along the way and holding her tail up at a jaunty angle.

Le Conte's Sparrow

Along Highway 13 to the Quarry Road, I finally heard a Le Conte’s Sparrow—that was a most welcome addition to my Conservation Big Year. I was almost to the quarry before Russ drove up to rescue Photon—she’d walked over two miles and was starting to grow weary. She’s in good shape for her age, and I felt lucky I had her along that far. I’ve always done this walk with a dog—first my golden retriever Bunter and then Photon—so I felt bereft as she went off in the car, but it was impossible to stay sad as three Winter Wrens started singing—this particular stretch of Quarry Road has always been my best spot for hearing them. Several other birds were on territory here, including a lovely Solitary Vireo and a pair of Yellow-bellied Flycatchers that kindly provided long photo-ops. I saw a small migrating flock of warblers that included two late Wilson’s Warblers.

Blue-headed Vireo

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Next, I headed to the slough and the main beach. Barn Swallows twittered overhead as I watched an American Pipit and two gorgeous Dunlins on the beach—more late migrants.

Barn Swallow

American Pipit


Golden-crowned Kinglet

Then I wended my way to my favorite spot on the planet, Big Pete Road. I had one unexpected new bird for the year—a Black-backed Woodpecker who called out to grab my attention but refused to pose for photos—and one expected one—a Golden-crowned Kinglet.

Twin Falls

American Redstart

Twin Falls had more water than usual, and at the old sewage ponds, American Redstarts cooperated splendidly for photographs as large numbers of spring peepers and toads called. Even if the numbers of individual birds were low, I ended my long walk with 83 species, three of them new for my Conservation Big Year. I’m growing discouraged by the falling numbers of birds, but was filled with quiet joy at spending a day with so many lovely little survivors.

Photon the Exhausted


This walk and the woodcocks I heard the evening before along my mother-in-law’s driveway bring my year list to 431. You can see the list, with photos, here.