Monday, July 4, 2016
Wisconsin - Searching for the Holy Grail - Kirland's Warbler
Finally the day arrived for us to search for the 'Holy Grail' of birding in Wisconsin. This bird is the Kirtland's Warbler. Wisconsin is not considered the best place to try to locate this bird to add to one's life list as Michigan holds that distinction. It is estimated that the entire population off this bird in the 1970's was somewhere around 500 individuals. It requires a very specific habitat for breeding; young jack pine forests. They winter in the Bahamas and their largest breeding range is the central part of the lower peninsula of Michigan. Thanks to a very successful intervention of monitoring and protection of this species in Michigan, the numbers have rebounded to over 4000 individuals. In 2007, three Kirtland's Warbler nests were discovered in Wisconsin and since then, these birds are monitored by the DNR in Wisconsin and they mean business when people try to find this bird. You cannot just start walking around in the proper habitat once you hear it; you are restricted to the road and trust me, if you don't follow the rules and laws, the resulting consequences will not be pretty!
We had devoted a lot of time and research on this bird months before we left Arizona. We knew this would be a challenge and we luckily had a couple more birding buddies, that joined us on this quest; Tommy and Josh. They also had been doing some major homework prior to our visit and with our collaboration of knowledge, notes, and secret (and nameless) contacts, we were at least able to narrow down our search in Adams County. At least this county is widely known in Wisconsin for the nesting of these birds, but it is a vast county and knowing where to find the correct habitat is key. Even once you find the habitat, there is no guarantee that a bird will be at that location. And all you can do, is stand along the side of the road and listen and hope you hear one singing. If you get that far, then you have to continue to stand there, hoping that individual will fly to a spot along a the road where you are standing so you can actually 'see' it. We knew our odds for a visual were probably a bit of a long shot as most of these birds had arrived a few weeks earlier and had already set up territories and already mated.
We arrived and we stood along the road and we listened, we waited and listened some more. Eventually a vehicle pulled up and asked us what we were doing and we advised the young man that we were looking for the 'Holy Grail' Warbler. He then very politely explained that he was a Kirtland's Warbler nest monitor and then proceeded to advise us on the do's and don'ts, while searching for this bird. And he thanked us for staying on the road and not walking into the trees. Just before he headed up the road he also made a comment that stuck with me; "I can't tell you that you are not in the wrong place to hear one." That pretty much told us we had the location pegged. Shortly after he left, we did hear one singing back in the trees for a short time. Then it would quiet down. This continued off and on during our time there and about an hour after the first young man drove by, a second vehicle pulled up and she also advised us that she had been notified of our presence by the first person and she also reiterated what we already knew and what the first person advised. She also asked if we had a problem with them recording the license plates of our vehicles and we of course said no problem. We had been monitoring the weather all this time as a large thunderstorm was moving in and finally it started raining and our party kind of dispersed. Chris and I headed to Necedah, a place we had not yet been to, as we had planned another night in the area and decided we would try again the next morning and hope for better weather. Unfortunately, on that first day, we all decided we were going to have to temporarily live with 'heard only' listing to our lists.
The next morning, Chris and I, headed back out to Adams County and spent some time searching the roads and listening. The weather was much better, cloudy, but no rain. We eventually found a spot where we had 2 of them singing across the road from each other. And finally one of them appeared along the road for our viewing! Below is the reward!
This post does not have space for any other birds. This was too special to dilute with anything else. Location on this bird will go unpublished to stay in line with all the surveillance that goes with protecting this bird in Wisconsin. For anyone seeking to see this bird, try Michigan where they have guided tours. I did manage to make a video of the habitat of this bird and if you listen closely, you can hear it in the distance.