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Kirtland's Warbler News


It's only the second week of September, but the Kirtland's Warblers are on the move. Two have been spotted in the last couple of days. One was in Monroe County, Michigan, just a mile north of the Ohio border. That's not out of the ordinary, but the other? Well...

Most mature Kirtland's Warblers don't leave the jack pine until late September or the first week of October, which just happens to be after the peak of Atlantic hurricane season. But it seems that hatch-year Kirtland's Warblers like to wander the landscape and see the world. You know how those teens are; you can warn them about the dangers of the world, but they won't understand unless they experience them themselves.

That helps to explain the location of the second bird found this week. It was found on -- ready for this? -- Mantinicus Rock, a tiny island that is 25 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maine. Mantinicus Rock has a lighthouse, a gravel airfield, a population of 53 people who make their living from the ocean, and now Maine's second recorded sighting of a Kirtland's Warbler. (Many thanks to Katie Stoner for finding this bird.)

We just happen to know a little bit about this area from a previous life hanging around with lobstermen and harbor seals on a nearby island. Mantinicus Rock is not the most remote spot on the coast of Maine, but it's pretty close. Even the Native Americans understood its remoteness. Translated from the local language of the indigenous people, "Mantinicus" means "far out rock."

It's impossible to know the origin of this particular individual. Could it have been hatched in Michigan or Wisconsin and just wandered east? It's ... possible. Could it have been hatched in eastern Ontario near the population that occupies Garrison Petawawa, the Canadian Forces base northwest of Ottawa? That seems more plausible.

More importantly, does this individual know that it has put itself in a pretty bad spot? Does it understand that it needs to turn back toward the mainland? Let's hope. We know the Blackpoll Warbler can jump off the southern coast of New England and fly nonstop to Brazil. Could this young Kirtland's make it all the way from Maine to The Bahamas? That's not likely, particularly with Hurricane Lee soon altering its path northward toward the northeastern U.S. and the Canadian Maritimes.

So, at this point all we can do is hope, wish it safe travels and invoke the advice of Horace Greely: Go west, young bird. Then go south.

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Image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Typhoon Haikui slammed into Taiwan a couple of days ago and did considerable damage with wind gusts reaching 120 mph. Now, you might be thinking that we here at the Alliance have lost our minds. What does a typhoon in Taiwan have to do with Kirtland's Warbler conservation? Well, hang on and find out.

Everything on this rock in space that we call Earth is connected in one way or another and the typhoon that hit Taiwan over the weekend, believe it or not, has the potential to prevent a disaster in The Bahamas next week. Strong typhoons in the Pacific can alter the track of the jet stream, a current of strong air in the atmosphere that directs weather. The strength of the typhoon caused the jet stream to buckle, and that ripple in the jet stream will eventually cross the Pacific Ocean and impact weather here in North America. Locally, the jet stream will form a trough over the Great Lakes that will usher cooler than normal temperatures into the jack pines.

So what does this have to do with The Bahamas? The answer is Hurricane Lee. Now do not lay any bets on what we are about to say because weather is dynamic - it's constantly changing. But as Hurricane Lee develops into a major hurricane in the eastern Atlantic, it's going to head west. Models currently are predicting it to pass north of the Leeward Islands and head straight for the central Bahamas -- the primary wintering grounds for Kirtland's Warblers. And by the time is closes in on the archipelago, it's likely to be a Cat 5 storm!

But remember that trough over the Great Lakes caused by that typhoon on the other side of the world? If all says the same between now and the middle of next week, that trough in the jet stream -- caused by the typhoon -- will act as a big barrier. It has the potential to prevent Hurricane Lee from making a direct hit on The Bahamas and it could very well usher this humdinger of a storm right back out into Atlantic, sending it northeast to the place where hurricanes go to die.

And if this scenario does indeed end up playing out, you can thank a typhoon half a world away from preventing a potential catastrophe. Try to remember that while you are putting an extra blanket on your bed.

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(Imagine dramatic movie music playing.)

"These trees are dying! Who can save us from the scourge of the jack pine budworm? Can anyone help?"

"Look! It's a bird! It's not a plane! It's ... Kirtland's Warbler to the rescue!"

Yeah, we're being dramatic here, but not overly so. That's because if you've been in the jack pine recently, you may have noticed that some jack pine and red pine trees are turning brown and look like they are dying. That's because the trees are being damaged by an outbreak of jack pine budworm.

The budworm is the larvae of a moth that doesn't really have a name other than its scientific name -- Choristoneura pinus. It seems odd that the moth would be better known by the immature version of itself, but it's that immature version -- the larvae -- that makes this species significant.

The jack pine budworm is always present in the jack pine forests, but it's also cyclical. Outbreaks occur every six to 12 years or so, and right now we are in the second year of an outbreak that started in 2022.

A jack pine budworm outbreak is bad news for jack pines because, according to the Michigan DNR, the budworms "feed off needles on jack pine and red pine trees, leaving trees defoliated and causing die-back among the crowns of trees. Clipped and damaged needles turn reddish brown in early July, making the damage very apparent. Over time, rain and wind remove the dead needles, leaving trees with a bare, grayish appearance."

We've had conversations with skeptics who have wondered why the state and federal governments would spend so much money and put so much effort into saving a bird from extinction. What difference does one bird make? Well, a jack pine budworm outbreak makes a pretty compelling case for saving the Kirtland's.

Jack pine is a commodity. Timber companies want to buy the highest quality product possible. Jack pine budworms damage the tops of trees, stunting growth and lowering their value.

Kirtland's Warblers, meanwhile, love to eat jack pine budworms and feed them to their young. Birds in general are opportunistic eaters. If there's a jack pine budworm outbreak it just means there's more to go around. Ultimately, by eating the budworms, the Kirtland's Warblers help control the outbreak and limit the damage to the marketable trees. Without the birds doing the work for them, the state and federal governments might be forced to use chemicals to control the outbreaks. And that's something to be avoided because there are all kinds of unintended consequences with that.

The attached video seems to show a Kirtland's Warbler with two jack pine budworms in his beak. (We say "seems" because we're not 100 percent certain. But they sure look like jack pine budworm larvae.) The late Ron Austing captured the video, and it is likely that that male Kirtland's was on his way to feed his offspring.

The Kirtland's Warbler has always been special to us because it's just a cool bird. It's rare, it lives in an usual place, and it has an unusual life story. And on top of all of that, it's also a superhero.

Thank you, Kirtland's Warblers!

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