The Kirtland's Warbler has the right idea: it summers in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan and winters in the Bahamas. The Kirtland's Warbler Wildlife Management Area, managed by Seney National Wildlife Refuge, includes 125 parcels of land across eight counties in Michigan. The area was established in 1980 and is managed to provide the nesting habitat for the little warbler with a bright yellow breast.
Working in a multi-agency framework, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partners with the Forest Service and the state of Michigan - which together own most of the land inhabited by this species during the breeding season - to implement research and management for the purpose of recovering the warbler. The recovery team meets twice yearly, generating a slow but steady increase in the research and management tools. The Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and Michigan's Department of Natural Resources jointly manage approximately 190,000 acres of jack pine forest for just this purpose. At any given time, approximately 30,000 acres are early stage jack pine habitat available for the Kirtland's Warbler.
For this particular warbler, the partnership is very successful. A survey of singing males found 432 birds in 1951. The population fell to 200 and below during the 1970s and 1980s, but with the advent of active forest management in the 1990s, the warblers began a steady return. In 2006, 1,478 singing males were counted.
Because the bird nests in young jack pine forests that are naturally fire regenerated, "the land must be actively and intensively managed," says Seney Refuge Forester Greg Corace. Each year, Corace clear cuts tens to hundreds of acres of mature (30-60 year old) jack pine trees. Two-year-old jack pine seedlings are then planted in very densely-packed trenches by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to emulate restocking patterns that would result from wildfire. Typically, about five years later, the warblers move in. "But in 20 years," says Corace, "after the trees are fully mature, the birds are leaving, so we better have another stand ready somewhere else."
Research is also being conducted in the Bahamas, where development pressures threaten the warbler's wintering grounds. Radio collared birds are being used to help identify specific islands the birds inhabit as well as their food sources.
Scientists are also trying to understand multiple species benefits of forest management for the warbler. If a mature jack pine stand is cut to create habitat for the Kirtland's Warbler, another group of species is undoubtedly affected. "We are setting priorities," explains Corace. "If the birds in the mature stand were of greater concern than Kirtland's Warbler, then we wouldn't be doing what we are doing. I am studying different communities in terms of their conservation value."