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Kirtland's Warbler News


We spent some time in the area of the Wilderness Trail Fire last Friday night and again mid-day on Saturday. It was astonishing and sad to see it with our own eyes.

And yet it was inspiring because life finds a way.

We spent a lot of time on Staley Lake Road and the first impression was the fire must have been incredibly hot in this location because of how black and charred the landscape was -- from ground to treetop. Every step we took through this area threw up a small cloud of ash and our white socks soon became tinged with gray.

The fire also revealed things that had long been hidden by prolific grasses, sedges and blueberries: trash discarded by careless travelers and the charred vertebra of a long-dead white-tailed deer.

One section of Staley Lake Road that overlooks a pothole on the west side of the road allows for a vista of sorts -- the terrain goes down then up in the distance. Even though nearly everything in sight was burned, it was clear that the fire did not burn evenly or run in a straight line. The second image shows that some trees that had been killed by the fire still held onto their now-brown needles while the needles on other trees burned completely. In the late evening sun, it was striking and oddly beautiful.

We were also surprised by how much life there was in the aftermath of the fire. Clearly the Kirtland's Warblers have abandoned the stand, but we recorded more than 20 species of birds in the fire area on Friday evening, including Eastern Towhee, Vesper Sparrow, Black-capped Chickadee and Hermit Thrush. Because the fire only burned plants on the surface, any ants underground could emerge after the fire to act as nature's cleanup crew. And only two weeks after the fire, plants were emerging from their roots and some areas were surprisingly green. On Saturday we found a white-tailed deer grazing on these freshly emerged shoots.

Maybe the best sign that this ecosystem would recover was the open jack pine cones with seeds smattered on the charred forest floor. With a little rain, these seeds will soon germinate.

Unfortunately many of the jack pines that died in the fire were too young to produce cones so those areas will need to be replanted. Over the next few weeks, the DNR will be assessing the damage and determining how to proceed. We should have a better idea of the DNR's plan for recovery by the time the Kirtland's Warbler Conservation Team meets in mid-July.

The Wilderness Trail Fire is a reminder of how the plants and animals on the jack pine outwash plains of northern Michigan exist on the edge. The ecosystem can provide a comfortable living for species that can adapt to the disruption of fire and accept the inherent risk. It seems the Kirtland's Warblers are aware of those risks and accept them as a cost of doing business. The area of the 2010 Meridian Boundary Fire is packed with Kirtland's Warblers right now and it's just a matter of a few years before Kirtland's Warblers return to nest in the area of the Wilderness Trail Fire.

We'll visit this area again next month to see how it's progressing and bring you another update.

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Our friend Warren Whaley sent us some photos from the area of the Wilderness Trail fire that confirm that the fire did indeed burn through occupied habitat.

The photos are from an area along Staley Lake Road north of the West School Section Trail. The photos show an area that should be lush and green is now brown and charred. This was prime KW habitat, planted in 2013. In fact we helped to plant some of these trees on our annual Jack Pine Planting Day.

It's likely that there were nesting Kirtland's Warblers in the path of the fire. It's also likely that the adult birds would have abandoned their nests as the fire approached but the nests would have been destroyed. It breaks our hearts to think about it.

Fire in the jack pine has been a concern of biologists from the earliest part of the 20th century. Norman Wood, the curator of birds at the University of Michigan's Museum of Natural History and the person who discovered the first nest of the Kirtland's Warbler, concluded that fire was a bigger threat to the warbler than nest predation from the cowbird. While it might not have proven to be the most accurate observation, it certainly was accurate in identifying a threat.

We've come a long way in the understanding of the role of fire in this particular ecosystem since Wood's time. We now know that Native Americans used fire as a tool to create openings in the forest that would attract wildlife that they would then hunt for subsistence. We also know from the tragedy of the Make Lake Fire in 1980 that as much as we want harness fire as a tool, it doesn't necesssarily do what we ask it to do.

And while the government agencies that are responsible for Kirtland's Warbler conservation still use fire to create habitat, they do so with tremendous caution; restrictions are in place that would have prevented them from starting a prescribed burn on a day when the fire risk was so incredibly high. Unfortunately, they cannot control the actions of citizens who should know better.

And so we continue to try to figure it out and plan for the worst. One of the goals of the Kirtland's Warbler Conservation Plan is to get more Kirtland's Warblers to nest outside the core breeding area. As much as we love Kirtland's Warblers here in northern Michigan, we'd sure like them to spread out more. If we could, we'd tell more to nest in Ontario, Wisconsin and the UP. That way if there were some catastrophic event in the core of the breeding area, it would be much easier to rebuild the population with more birds spread out across the landscape.

The DNR, the Forest Service and the Conservation Team will embrace what we learn from the Wilderness Trail Fire and figure it into the plans for future conservation efforts. The Wilderness Trail Fire, unfortunately, provides us with another chance to learn, grow and adapt. We only wish the lessons did not come with so much pain.

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