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Kirtland's Warbler News


March 31, 2024, is a special day for us because it’s the 10th anniversary of our first meeting as we sought to form a new nonprofit organization with a mission of advancing Kirtland’s Warbler conservation.

At least we think today is our anniversary. It’s the 10th anniversary of the oldest meeting agenda in our files. But there were lots of pre-meeting meetings to plan what would happen at the first official meeting so the decision to call the Jan. 31 date our anniversary is a little arbitrary.

On Jan. 31, 2014, a handful of people gathered in a basement conference room at Treetops Resort in Gaylord, Michigan. There was a retired DNR employee, a member of the Board of Huron Pines, our parent organization, an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an employee of the Kalamazoo Nature Center, an author, and an ardent conservationist whose father was instrumental in Kirtland’s Warbler conservation in the 1960s and ‘70s. There is proof of the meeting – a group photo – somewhere in our files. We hope to share it with you … if we can ever find it.

The vision for the Alliance came out of an academic paper written by J. Michael Scott and Carol Bocetti, two professors who specialized in endangered species conservation. As part of his work conserving California Condors, Prof. Scott realized that 80 percent of endangered species could not be removed from the Endangered Species List because they were reliant on active and continuing conservation efforts by humans to prevent their extinction. There was no mechanism to support these species after recovery. Therefore, they could not be removed. It was as if they were on life support.

What if, Scott and Bocetti wondered in their paper, an organization could be set up that would provide financial support for those unending conservation efforts? The Alliance was born with that concept in mind. The are proud to be part of this first-ever effort.

Over the past decade our mission has been refined as we have focused in on certain key areas where we can play a critical role to promote Kirtland’s Warbler conservation.

In those earliest days we were guided – no, we were driven – by Abby Ertel, who is in charge of community outreach for Huron Pines.

If you have never met Abby, the best way to describe her is a force of nature crossed with a den mother. Perhaps her words describe that first meeting best:

“What I remember most was the energy and excitement in the room as we gathered for that first meeting. We had scheduled it for the day ahead of our Huron Pines annual meeting which was fun - it meant bringing new faces, energy and ideas to our organization. It also meant showcasing our skills and perspective in new arenas as well. We were all new to each other and little unsure about what exactly we would be doing - however we all shared an understanding of how important and historic the task ahead of us was going to be for KW.

“Looking back on that day it comes through in my memories with almost a warm, cinematic filter - with a soft glow and richness. I didn't know it then but I made some of my best personal and professional memories, connections and relationships working with the Alliance and KW partners, doing fun and challenging work for a rare bird and forest system that was literally in my back yard, out my window. We also learned a lot about community engagement and sustaining conservation efforts during that time period which has had direct positive benefits for conservation and communities in Northern Michigan.

“How can you not get the warm fuzzies?!”

Warm fuzzies, indeed. Especially when we think of those who have been Board members guiding lights along the way. Some have moved on to other things. Some are still with us, while one particularly beloved member has left this mortal coil. (We miss you, Jerry!)

Most importantly, over the past decade we have built an organization that has the respect of our partners in the community, among other non-government organizations and with the conservation agencies inside the state and federal government.

Most importantly, we have to thank you, our donors, supporters and volunteers, for all you have done to boost our mission over the past decade. There’s no doubt it has been a challenge, but we’re looking forward to another 10 years of meeting challenges and overcoming them for the benefit of our favorite half-ounce of feathers.

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We wake up from our holiday food coma to celebrate because today is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Endangered Species Act. And even though we should be out getting some exercise after all that food and drink, we can't take anything more than half a victory lap. Allow us to explain.

If it had not been for the Endangered Species Act, it's unlikely we would not be here today to celebrate the accomplishments of the Kirtland's Warbler Recovery Team. The ESA provided money, personnel and (most importantly) a framework to bring the Kirtland's Warbler back from the brink of extinction. It took a little time for the Recovery Team to figure it out, but once the team started building the habitat the KW wanted, the population responded. The result: The Kirtland's Warbler was removed from the Endangered Species List in October 2019.

But there's a flaw with the Endangered Species Act that simply could not have been anticipated back in 1973: Unless something changes, most species on the Endangered Species List are likely to exist there forever. That's because they rely on human intervention for their very survival. Congress designed the Endangered Species Act to be the equivalent of first aid, not life support. Congress did not anticipate that some species would need ongoing support so they failed to set up a mechanism to support recovered species. One of those recovered species that needs that continuing support is our very own Kirtland's Warbler.

The Kirtland's Warbler Recovery Team is often cited as a model for endangered species recovery, and there's a good reason why: About a decade ago the Recovery Team began to look into the future to anticipate where conservation efforts might go. The warbler's population was looking good and the handwriting was on the wall. The ESA would require delisting. The Kirtland's Warbler would be the first conservation reliant species to be removed from the ESL.

So, how do you deal with a recovered species that still needs help? The first step was to create a framework to shift from a recovery team to a conservation team. Unlike a recovery team, a conservation team is not required by law. Nevertheless, it was created as an acknowledgement that we can't just walk away and let the work of the past 50 years slowly reverse itself.

If you've been reading these essays for a while, you know the jack pine ecosystem is fire dependent. Everything that exists in the ecosystem is built to either burn or recover from fire. Unfortunately, there are too many people and too much property for us to allow fire to run across the landscape. So it remains the responsibility of us humans to harvest mature trees 100 acres or more at a time and replant those areas with young jack pine trees, in a specific pattern that mimics the randomness of fire, in order to create acceptable habitat.

So here we sit, 50 years later. The Kirtland's Warbler is no longer considered an endangered species but its future is still far from secure. The sense of urgency was reduced with delisting, and we're starting to see the result. The state and federal agencies responsible for KW conservation have shifted their focus away from the KW, which has allowed the number of new acres planted for the KW to decline. We are now to the point where we are nearly 10,000 acres below habitat goals.

Based on recent developments, it's clear that the agencies know they have created a problem for themselves and are working hard to find solutions. But they don't have a magic wand, which means it's going to take a decade or more to build enough acres to meet their goals. As a result, we can anticipate the KW's population to experience a significant dip in the 2025 census.

So, here we are today with a whole new set of issues. The Kirtland's Warbler Recovery Team was blessed with people who were talented and blessed with equal parts determination and vision. Their work brought us to this point, but now it's up to the Conservation Team, which we are part of, to face a new set of challenges that will take us into the next 50 years.

Half a lap. The job's not done.

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The lazy days of summer may be over for us humans in the Northern Hemisphere, but for birds, fall is the time to be lazy.

Spring migration is a rush north because there are breeding territories to establish, mates to lure, nests to build and mouths to feed. Fall migration, on the other hand, is a chance to do a little sightseeing.

A couple of weeks ago, we reported on a Kirtland's Warbler being found in migration in a particularly surprising spot -- on a small island off the coast of Maine. Today we bring you another sighting of a Kirtland's Warbler in migration that's not as surprising but, yeah, kinda is.

Last Friday, a Kirtland's Warbler was found in downtown Detroit. It's only the ninth Kirtland's recorded in Wayne County.

The bird spent Friday bopping around the rose garden in front of the Detroit Athletic Club, in the median of Madison Avenue and a block away in Harmonie Park. It was seen again -- by several birders -- on Saturday. Then it disappeared until this morning, when it magically reappeared.

Birders are reporting the KW is actively feeding in the trees along Madison Avenue and East Grand River Avenue. One birder reported it eating yew berries. (Thank you, Andy.)

Let's face it, the streets of downtown Detroit aren't exactly hospitable for migrating birds. There's lots of vehicle traffic and noise. There are lots of parking lots in the area, particularly along Madison. Comerica Park is right around the corner so in the evening there will be lots of activity with people going to Tigers games. The streets are highly lit at night, so it's not exactly a place where a bird can get a good night's sleep. Oh, and there are also rats and Peregrine Falcons to worry about.

But birds are opportunists and for some, downtown Detroit is an oasis. One of our friends used to work in the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit and spent his lunch hours birding up and down Washington Boulevard and Hart Plaza. He'd find all kinds of unusual birds in migration, particularly in the fall.

Hopefully, this Kirtland's will end up enjoying his time in the big city. We hope he stays as long as he wants and has a safe trip to The Bahamas.

And we know that it goes without saying, but we'll say it anyway: Hurry back!

Image (below) of the Detroit Athletic Club from Google Maps.

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