In Michigan, One Cool Bird

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.

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.

Bird of Fire

The Kirtland's has always been hard to find.

Scientists didn't realize the species even existed until 1851. More than half a century passed before they found the nesting grounds, and then it was quite by accident. In 1903, two Michigan ornithologists happened to be trout fishing a half-hour from where I am standing when they stumbled onto the mother lode of the Kirtland's.

The reason it's hard to find is that the bird is incredibly fussy. It will breed only in stands of jack pines. And they have to be young jack pines, trees so small that a skirt of branches almost touches the ground. The branches shield the nests from predators. And these stands of young trees have to stretch out over large tracts.

That kind of habitat occurs here after a forest fire. For a long while, after this part of Michigan was heavily logged, there were plenty of fires and plenty of warblers.

Enter Smokey the Bear. In the 1950s and '60s, efforts to stamp out forest fires nearly stamped out the Kirtland's warbler. The mature forests Smokey favored were of no interest to the warblers. From the late '70s to the mid-'80s, the population was down to perhaps fewer than 400 birds.

But Smokey wasn't the only problem. Brown-headed cowbirds also helped push the warblers toward extinction. Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds' nests when the parents aren't looking. The baby cowbirds hatch first and, being bigger and more aggressive, quickly hog the food and even push the young warblers out of the nest. One study in the '60s and '70s found 70 percent of Kirtland's warblers were babysitting cowbirds. That and the habitat loss amount to a recipe for extinction.

Enemies

We had rolled into Grayling a little after 10 a.m. and began our search by going to the front desk of the Ramada Inn asking for the Kirtland's warbler.

The warbler is so rare and endangered that its nesting grounds are mostly closed during the breeding season. The best way to see the birds is to take one of the tours that wildlife agencies run from May 15 to early July. There is one out of the U.S. Forest Service office in Mio. We chose the one run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of the Ramada in Grayling. Tours leave at 7 and 11. Mark, my wife, Ann, and I were the only takers for the second tour that June morning.

A smart young guy named Jeremy Banfield is our guide. He shows us a 15-minute video giving the history of the warbler and the lowdown on its current status. We pay particular attention to the Kirtland's song on the soundtrack.

After that, the three of us pile into Mark's car and follow Jeremy's pickup out to where the warblers are.

That's when we hear them immediately but can't get a look. To assuage our frustration, Jeremy shows us the special cowbird trap, a wire cage the size of a walk-in closet, used to give the warblers more of a chance. Part of the top has larger mesh big enough for cowbirds to drop through. They're not smart enough to figure out how to get out. We resume our search for the warbler. My wife, who has the sharpest eyes of anybody I know, spots one first, in the top of a small oak tree that pokes up above the pines. Mark and I soon find birds, too.

It turns out that part of the trick to finding these birds is realizing how loud they are. If the bird sounds like it's 10 yards away, it's probably 30 yards away.

And because the pines are so dense, our best views were when the birds flitted up into relatively bare branches of the little oaks that are mixed in with the pines.

As a hard-core birder, I scarcely go to the mailbox without a pair of binoculars. For this outing I have a spotting scope, too. Eventually we manage to focus it on one of the males and everybody gets a good look at it.

We watch it sing from a perch above the pines. It throws its head up and puts everything it has into the song, its shoulders shaking as it belts out the call. I can't help thinking of Ethel Merman.

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