Crawford County forest fire could benefit Kirtland’s Warbler by creating fresh jack pines

Crawford County forest fire could benefit Kirtland’s Warbler by creating fresh jack pines

06 June 2010

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USA — A Crawford County fire has left thousands of acres of northern Michigan forest charred, including a large section of jack pines in the Huron-Manistee National Forest that is home to the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler.

Officials think the rare birds, currently under consideration for removal from the endangered species list, sought refuge in other nesting areas as they migrated to northeast Michigan over the past few weeks.

But the blaze ultimately could benefit the birds by creating acres of fresh jack pines, the Kirtland’s prime breeding habitat.

“The Meridian fire covers over 8,500 acres total, and of those acres, approximately 460 acres were last year occupied by the Kirtland Warbler,” said Carrie Scott, biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Mio. “There were 37 singing males within those acres.”

The Kirtland’s Warbler migrate between the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan and the Bahamas Islands each year, and typically move north in late April and early May.

The small bright yellow-breasted birds, which currently number roughly 3,600 in Michigan during the summer months, have recovered from a low of about 334 birds in the 1980s, due in part to state and federal efforts to regenerate jack pine forests.

The Kirtland’s Warbler nests and breeds only in the dense grasses and shrubs beneath the living branches of five to 20-year-old jack pines in select sections of northern Michigan, the lower Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin and Ontario.

Scott said officials are unsure exactly how the birds were affected by the Meridian fire in Crawford County’s South Branch Township, which has consumed about 21 square miles since it started May 18.

“It was still early in the season when the burn occurred so we are hoping they escaped and re-established. There are plenty of areas in northeast Michigan that has suitable habitat,” Scott said. “In adjacent forest area, we’ve heard males singing in that area.”

Dave Ewert, senior conservation scientist with the Nature Conservancy, has followed the Kirtland’s recovery in Michigan since the 1980s, with a more recent focus on the bird’s migration north.

He thinks male warblers first landed in northern Michigan around May 1 this year, with female birds following shortly behind.

Ewert said the fire likely inconvenienced the birds, but doesn’t expect the blaze to make a large impact on this year’s breeding cycle.

“Males were beginning to arrive in pretty good numbers when the fire occurred. I think the fire would have burned the hottest and fastest during the day, and that’s when the birds could detect it and move away,” Ewert said, adding that he doesn’t think a significant number of females were nesting.

“I am pretty certain there wasn’t any eggs, or anything like that,” he said.

Currently, the U.S. Forest Service and Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment manage about 190,000 acres of warbler habitat within Michigan where they log mature stands and plant seedlings each year. The agencies also combat cowbirds, a threat to warblers, because the birds lay their eggs in warbler nests, and outcompete warblers for food once they hatch.

The federal recovery goal for the Kirtland’s Warbler is 1,000 singing males, or roughly 2,000 birds, and federal authorities are considering removing them from the endangered species list, but only if private funding is secured to manage the habitat programs.

Ewert and Scott agree the potential benefits from the fire likely will outweigh any negative impact on the birds by naturally clearing the way for new stands of jack pine. Ewert doesn’t think the wildfire will affect the bird’s delisting, as program funding remains the main issue.

“If the regeneration of the forest is good, we should see in the neighborhood of 3,000 to 4,000 acres of habitat that will be suitable for warblers” in the next five to 10 years, Scott said.

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