Species Spotlight: Kirtland’s Warbler

By Ally Brown, MNA Intern

In some instances, the occurrence of a wildfire can mean devastation for species with restricted ranges and population; however, for one of Michigan’s rarest warblers, fires are crucial for building its niche habitat and sustaining the population. The Kirtland’s warbler is a member of the Parulidae or New World warbler family which measures about six inches in length and is distinguishable by the striking yellow plumage on its throat and breast and split white eye rings. As is the case with many of Michigan’s bird species, the Kirtland’s warbler nests in parts of the Upper and Lower Peninsulas during the summer months and makes the long journey to the south for the winter months – in this case a 1400 mile trip to the Bahamas. While it may seem as though this long-distance flight would be the toughest part of life as a Kirtland’s warbler, the largest challenge this population faces comes from its time up north.


Photo: Ron Austing

Although not immediately obvious by the forested landscapes known today, Michigan’s history is one of expansive barrens and frequent fires. Many grassland and barren species adapted to this cycle of burnings, one of which is the fire dependent jack pine tree. Heat is necessary to the lifecycle of the jack pine, as it promotes the tree’s cones to fully open and successfully germinate. With the suppression of fire, young stands of jack pine become less and less common and old stands grow dense and tall, losing their lower branches due to lack of sunlight. The degradation and succession of the jack pine ecosystem reasonably follows this lack of fire, but what was not suspected was the subsequent decline in the Kirtland warbler population.

According to the DNR, Kirtland’s warblers nest in young jack pines on branches that essentially touch the ground, where they can hide their nests among dense thickets of pine and grasses. In order for these conditions to occur, the pines must be young and small so that sunlight can reach the ground and keep the lower branches of the trees alive. This also requires the occurrence of frequent fires to remove older trees in exchange for the germination of their cones. Without these fires, the selective female warblers will refuse to nest and, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, only single male warblers will continue to live in the old, successional stands. Another major benefit of hiding nests in the lower branches of young jack pines is protection from the parasitic brown headed cowbird, which will remove warbler eggs from the nest and replace them with eggs of its own.

Today, with the importance of fire and the jack pine to Kirtland’s warbler populations known, effort is being placed to conserve this habitat and the warbler population. Several of MNA’s sanctuaries house populations of jack pine, including Redwyn’s Dunes Nature Sanctuary, and today birders can view this rare bird through tours given by the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team. According to the DNR, the best way to support this endangered species is to educate yourself and those around you through research or attending birding tours, as well as to donate to local organizations, like the Michigan Nature Association, dedicated to protecting and rebuilding the warbler population.

Piping plovers, Kirtland’s warblers, and the Great Lakes: this week in environmental news

Each week, MNA gathers news stories from around the state and country related to conservation and the environment. Here is what happened this week in environmental news:

Credit: Don Freiday/USFWS

Piping plovers make comeback in the Great Lakes (Great Lakes Echo): The piping plover, a shorebird once nearly extinct, is on the rebound. There were once only 12 pairs left in the Great Lakes region, but thanks to conservation efforts. scientists are seeing an upswing in the population. The plovers should arrive on the shores of the Great Lakes in the next couple of weeks.

Judges skeptical of challenge to proposed EPA rule on climate change (The New York Times);  Lawyers for coal companies, two dozen states, and the Environmental Protection Agency argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals over a rule proposed by President Obama to curb carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. The rule would require all states to draft plans to restructure their electricity sectors and transition from coal power to cleaner forms of energy. The plaintiffs say the rule is wreaking economic havoc and that the EPA lacks the authority to issue the regulation. They have petitioned the court to block it from finalizing the rule.

New mapping of Great Lakes’ wetlands released (The Swamp School): A new and comprehensive map of the Great Lakes region’s coastal wetlands was recently released by the Michigan Tech Research Institute. The map is the first of its kind, with fluorescent bands of color outlining the Great Lakes. It displays both Canadian and U.S. wetlands along more than 10,000 miles of shoreline. The new coastal map is the result of years of work expanding on previous maps from the Michigan Tech Research Institute.

Endangered Wisconsin Kirtland’s warbler found in the Bahamas (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel): For the first time, scientists have found a Kirtland’s warbler from Wisconsin in the forests of the Bahamas. The bird was one of six warblers banded last summer in central Wisconsin. The state has a total population of fewer than 25 Kirtland’s warblers. It is estimated that there are about 4,000 total Kirtland’s warblers scattered in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario. The field crew in the Bahamas has found about two dozen total Kirtland’s warblers since mid-March.

DNR to celebrate 40 years of Endangered Species Act with week of events

Photo courtesy of the DNR.

Photo courtesy of the DNR.

By Kary Askew Garcia, MNA Intern

The state of Michigan has hit a major milestone and the Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, has decided to honor it in an extraordinary way: by hosting a week in honor of the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, from Aug. 4-10.

The ESA was signed into law on July 11, 1974 and came into effect on Sept. 1 of that year. The DNR invites Michiganders to join them at the nearest state park for an insightful lecture on what the ESA is and what it means for an animal to be classified as endangered or threatened.

Click here to find the schedule of events.

According to the DNR, one success that the ESA is the recovery of the rare Kirtland’s warbler. This bird has garnered attention from far and wide. In a release from the DNR, Specialist Dan Kenneday said “Michigan’s ESA has been pivotal in the recovery of the Kirtland’s warbler.”

A Kirtland's warbler in an MNA sanctuary. Photo by Cindy Mead.

A Kirtland’s warbler in an MNA sanctuary. Photo by Cindy Mead.

The ESA plays a large role in maintaining balance in Michigan’s wondrous natural habitats and ecosystems. Without laws protecting animals, habitat decline, pollution and other issues will continue to cause harm to animals and their homes throughout the state, which may compromise the health of Michigan’s invaluable natural scenery.

When a species is classified as endangered, it means that it is in danger of becoming extinct. There are also many other species listed as threatened and may be on the verge of being listed as endangered. The ESA is one step in finding methods to solve the problem of extinction and has already found success in the restoration of the Kirtland’s warbler.

MNA supports the efforts of the ESA and the DNR and congratulates them on the 40th anniversary of the act. Don’t miss a chance to celebrate the ESA! For more information about the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, click here.


Bird migration: Why does it happen?

By Sally Zimmerman, MNA Intern

The Kirtland's warbler migrates from Michigan to the Bahamas. Photo by Cindy Mead.

The Kirtland’s warbler migrates from Michigan to the Bahamas. Photo by Cindy Mead.

Many people know that birds migrate south when it starts to get cold and that they can be seen flying in a V-shape as they leave, but not much more than that. The large-scale movement of birds as the weather changes is imperative to their survival and is stamped into their genetic makeup.

The migration of birds happens because there is a difference between their breeding home and nonbreeding home. Their breeding home is where they spend the summer months building nests and laying their eggs. The nonbreeding home is where they spend the winter months. The two main resources birds look for when they migrate are food and nesting locations. They typically move from areas of decreasing resources to areas of increasing resources.

In the northern hemisphere, birds migrate north in the spring. They thrive on insect populations and budding plants. There are also plentiful nesting locations for the birds to build their homes. When it starts to get cold, the insect populations decrease and the plants are no longer budding, so the birds migrate south.

Birds can cover a span of thousands of miles in their migration. They often travel the same route with little deviation from year to year. Researchers believe birds use a variety of techniques to navigate, including navigation by the stars, changes in the earth’s magnetic field and smell. Birds have important stopover locations in their migration pathways that provide food supplies.

Raptors such as hawks, eagles, vultures and falcons use landmasses such as the Keweenaw Peninsula as a stopover point in their migration. This shortens their flying time over Lake Superior and the updrafts carry the birds so they exert minimal energy.

The Kirtland’s warbler is another bird species that uses Michigan as one of its homes. The bird arrives in Michigan anywhere from late April to early May and constructs its nest between mid-May and early June. Egg-laying occurs from late May to mid-July. Incubation takes about 15 days with fledging occurring nine days afterward. The bird migrates from northern Michigan where it nests exclusively in young jack-pine forests to the Bahamas in the winter, where they nest in pine woods, broad-leafed scrub and Australian pipe. The Kirtland’s warbler makes the journey to the Bahamas sometime between August and October without any stops, following a narrow band that crosses Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Recently, there have been increasing migration hazards for birds as more communication towers and tall buildings are being constructed. The lights of tall buildings attract birds and are accountable for millions of collision deaths each year. Food supplies, weather and exposure to predators can also affect the journey. Organizations like MNA have been working to protect these important flyway areas for migratory birds. You can read about MNA’s efforts to discourage the building of a cell phone tower on Brockway Mountain in the Fall 2013 issue of Michigan Nature magazine

Scientists use banding and satellite tracking to study migration, with the hope of locating important stopover and winter spots. The goal is to make steps toward protecting and saving these important locations.

Bat-killing fungus, air patterns and microbeads: this week in environmental news

By Sally Zimmerman, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA shares recent environmental news stories from around the state and country. Here’s some of what happened this week in environmental and nature news:

A brown bat. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A brown bat. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Bat-killing fungus all but invincible, study finds (Mother Nature Network): The fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, causes white-nose syndrome in American bats and is extremely difficult to kill. It has already killed about 6 million American bats in the last seven years and has a mortality rate of nearly 100 percent. The fungus can be found in 22 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces. The fungus most likely came from Europe, where native bats are mostly immune. Scientists are searching for ways to control the spread of the fungus because American bats are important to the economy. Insect-eating bats keep disease-spreading and crop-killing insects in check and save the U.S. agriculture industry around $3 billion per year.

Strange air patterns could help predict heat waves (Mother Nature Network): New research shows that heat waves are usually preceded by a global weather pattern known as a wavenumber-5 pattern. This consists of five high-pressure systems evenly distributed across the Northern Hemisphere. The configuration usually occurs 15 to 20 days before extreme weather in the United States. Because of this, the wavenumber-5 pattern could be used to enable better forecasting, which could save between 600 and 1,300 lives per year.

Nonprofit launches consumer app to help keep microbeads out of the Great Lakes (Journal Sentinel): Microbeads found in hand soaps, facial scrubs and other exfoliating products bypass sewage treatments and ultimately end up polluting the Great Lakes and getting eaten by wildlife. Researchers say there are higher concentrations of microbeads in the Great Lakes than there are in the oceans. Several companies, including L’Oreal, Unilever and Johnson & Johnson, pledged to use natural alternatives to microbeads after the findings were shared. A Netherlands-based foundation has created a free cell phone app called “Beat the Microbead” that allows consumers to scan a product before buying it to figure out if the product contains microbeads and if the company has agreed to remove them or not.

Great Lakes state playing catch-up in effort to build water-based economy (Great Lakes Echo): Milwaukee and Ontario are ahead of Michigan in efforts to turn water-based technology, academic research and tourism into jobs and revenue. The director of the Michigan Economic Center, John Austin, said Michigan has all the assets necessary to support a thriving “blue economy:” plentiful freshwater, a growing tourism industry, research universities focused on water issues and manufacturers to turn concepts into products. Austin said building Michigan’s blue economy begins with cleaning polluted waterways and restoring damaged shorelines.

Endangered Kirtland’s Warbler: Looking good, but what lies ahead (MLive): The Kirtland’s Warbler has much such a drastic turnaround in Michigan that government agencies and non-governmental groups have discussed taking it off the federal Endangered Species list. Michigan holds 98% of the Kirtland’s Warbler population, so it is important to assure the birds have ongoing support once they come off the list. Continued human intervention is the key to the warbler’s success. It is also important to limit the population of cowbirds, who lay their eggs in warbler nests and compete for food.

The Kirtland’s warbler, Portage Creek cleanup and melting glaciers: this week in environmental news

By Sally Zimmerman, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA shares recent environmental news stories from around the state and country. Here’s some of what happened this week in environmental and nature news:

The Kirtland's warbler. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Kirtland’s warbler. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Kirtland’s warbler grant boosts effort to end endangerment (Great Lakes Echo): A federal grant of $170,000 is going toward planting two million jack pine seedlings in Northeast Michigan. This is the only habitat the Kirtland’s warbler can nest in. The effort to save the Kirtland’s warbler has been going on for 40 years. The habitat in Northeast Michigan contains 98% of the species’ population, spanning across the top of the Lower Peninsula and into the Upper Peninsula. There is even a possibility that the bird will be taken off the endangered species list.

PCB cleanup in Portage Creek near Kalamazoo River done, ahead of schedule and millions under budget (MLive): The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has worked to remove all the polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from Portage Creek. The project ended earlier than anticipated and way under budget. Other areas of the Kalamazoo River Superfund will begin to be cleaned up with the extra time and money. The EPA removed almost 19,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment.

Yosemite’s largest ice mass is melting fast (LA Times): Scientists believe Lyell Glacier in Yosemite National Park will be gone in 20 years. This glacier is a key source of water in the park and has shrunk 62% over the past 10 years. Lyell has also lost 120 vertical feet of ice. The big question is what will happen to ecological systems surrounding the shrinking and vanishing glaciers. Ken MacLeod, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Missouri, said the earth will eventually become ice-free if carbon dioxide levels continue to rise.

Extend California’s new earthquake early warning system, says scientist (Mother Nature Network): California will be the first state to get an earthquake early warning system, which is designed to detect the first strong pulse of an earthquake. This new system will cost about $80 million to build in California and run for five years. If the system was extended north to Oregon and Washington, it would cost an additional $120 million. These west coast states are in danger of magnitude-9.0 earthquakes from the Cascadia subduction zone.

Mercury will rise in Pacific fish, study finds (Mother Nature Network): Researchers from Michigan and Hawaii have studied how mercury ends up in species of North Pacific fish for years. They have discovered that mercury levels in these fish is likely to continue rising for decades. Researchers found that the mercury first traveled by air, and then entered the oceans when it rained. These findings could help efforts to curb mercury emissions.

Asian carp, algae blooms and the Kirtland’s warbler: this week in environmental news

Every Friday, MNA shares recent environmental news stories from around the state and country. Here’s some of what happened this week in environmental and nature news:

The Kirtland's warbler. Photo by Cindy Mead.

The Kirtland’s warbler. Photo by Cindy Mead.

Asian carp spawning moves closer to Lake Michigan (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel): New evidence shows that spawning Asian carp have been found nearly 100 miles upstream from their previous spawning sites, putting them closer to Lake Michigan. Last month, President Obama introduced efforts to protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp, including upgrading electronic barriers.

Huron Pines receives grant to help fund Kirtland warbler efforts (Alpena News): Huron Pines has received a $171,000 grant to continue its work building a support network for the Kirtland’s warbler. The organization will use the funds to continue to build relationships between federal, state, regional and private partners to support the bird when it’s removed from the Endangered Species List.

Lake Erie algae bloom intensifying (ABC 13): A new report shows that the algae bloom in Lake Erie is intensifying. At Ohio’s Maumee Bay State Park, a health advisory posted at the beach indicates there are unsafe levels of bacteria in the water. This bloom is not as large as Lake Erie’s 2011 bloom, but it is larger than last year.

Speed limits affect birds’ behavior (Conservation Magazine): A new study shows that European birds fly away from cars sooner on roads with higher speed limits. The study, conducted on roads in France, observed 134 flights by birds from 21 species, mainly carrion crows, house sparrows, and common blackbirds. It was noted that the actual speed of the vehicle did not affect the birds’ flights.

Catch a close view of some iconic fish (Up North Live): On Friday, August 30, the Black River sturgeon hatchery will be offering public tours from 9 a.m. to noon. During the tours, researchers from the DNR and Michigan State University will discuss lake sturgeon biology, reproductive ecology, and research. The hatchery is located in Cheboygan County on the Upper Black River. Tours are free of charge.