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In Michigan, One Cool Bird

Guided tours are the best bet for reaching the Holy Grail of birding, a sighting of the Kirtland's warbler. Efforts to stamp out forest fires endangered the warbler because the bird breeds only in stands of young pine trees.
Guided tours are the best bet for reaching the Holy Grail of birding, a sighting of the Kirtland's warbler. Efforts to stamp out forest fires endangered the warbler because the bird breeds only in stands of young pine trees. (By Philip Huber)

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By John Pancake
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

My fingers tingle in the morning chill. Drizzle whips against my slicker. Gray clouds scud across the sky. Scrubby pines stretch away in every direction.

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We've driven 200 miles north of Detroit, off onto a two-lane road, past the end of the pavement, down four miles of muddy lanes, and then walked along a sandy forest road.

We are now a few yards from the Holy Grail of birding, the Kirtland's warbler. It's a small bird, not as big as a sparrow, with a slate-blue back and yellow underparts and a few black streaks on the chest. It might be the rarest songbird in North America, and almost all of the birds nest in a few counties centered on the little towns of Grayling and Mio, Mich.

The warblers are singing all around us. There are at least half a dozen of them. My friend Mark, who hasn't heard a Kirtland's warbler in 30 years, picks up the song -- tchip-tchip, too-too, way-o-- as we step out of the car.

But we can't spot them. It feels as if we should be able to reach into the pine thicket and touch them. I fantasize about barreling into the brush to flush one of them. But they're nesting beneath pine branches that stretch to the ground, and walking into a nesting area is worse than a bad idea.

I know that one of these guys could pop into view any second. Time to be patient. I've waited 25 years for this. Is another half-hour going to kill me?

Still, it's like watching somebody else eat chocolate cake. Tantalizing.

Standing there waiting, I find myself wondering, what is it that is so satisfying about tracking down rarities? People come to Washington from all over the world to see the astonishing sparkle of the Hope Diamond. People travel to Dublin to gaze at the ornate pages of the ancient Book of Kells.

Birders are more susceptible to this mania than most, traveling across frigid tundra to add some arctic species to their list or crossing deserts to spy on birds that breed in the sides of lonely canyons.

I plead guilty to this kind of insanity. I tried to staunch it more than a decade ago. I locked my "life list" in a metal box and haven't looked at it since. I tell myself it's just as satisfying to learn something new about the habits of song sparrows nesting behind my house as it is to track down the snowy owl near Hudson Bay.

Sometimes I even believe it.

Yet these little warblers, which sound just now as if they are at my elbow, are not just curiosities, they also present a parable about how animals fit into their environment. And the jack pines that surround me are the key that unlocks the life cycle of the Kirtland's.


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