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A Kirtland's Warbler on its breeding grounds in Michigan's Lower Peninsula. Photo by Joel Trick, USFWS.

The American Bird Conservancy's Great Lakes Initiatives

Dave Ewert knew it was a moment to celebrate, but he also couldn’t ignore a small feeling of uncertainty. On October 8, 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced that the Kirtland’s Warbler - the endangered steel gray-and-yellow songbird that Ewert had been working to save for the better part of four decades - had completed its population recovery. The Kirtland’s Warbler would no longer be covered by the Endangered Species Act, of which it was an original member in 1973.

Ewert had been studying the bird since the 1980s, when there were fewer than 200 breeding pairs left in the world, all found during the breeding season in young jack pine forests of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Ewert’s research originally focused on trying to determine whether you could identify an individual Kirtland’s Warbler by its song. (“Turns out almost, but not quite,” he says.) He’d later follow them to their nonbreeding grounds in The Bahamas, where little was known about their winter lives. And three years ago, the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy (ABC) hired Ewert to help plan for the Kirtland’s Warbler’s delisted future.

Dave Ewert knew it was a moment to celebrate, but he also couldn’t ignore a small feeling of uncertainty. On October 8, 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced that the Kirtland’s Warbler – the endangered steel gray-and-yellow songbird that Ewert had been working to save for the better part of four decades – had completed its population recovery. The Kirtland’s Warbler would no longer be covered by the Endangered Species Act, of which it was an original member in 1973.

Ewert had been studying the bird since the 1980s, when there were fewer than 200 breeding pairs left in the world, all found during the breeding season in young jack pine forests of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Ewert’s research originally focused on trying to determine whether you could identify an individual Kirtland’s Warbler by its song. (“Turns out almost, but not quite,” he says.) He’d later follow them to their nonbreeding grounds in The Bahamas, where little was known about their winter lives. And three years ago, the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy (ABC) hired Ewert to help plan for the Kirtland’s Warbler’s delisted future.

Today, there are around 2,000 pairs - more than double the USFWS’s recovery goal of 1,000.

“It was time to delist this species, but it takes awhile for people to get to that point psychologically,” Ewert says. “It’s now time to show the success of the Endangered Species Act, and it’s also an experiment to find out if we can generate enough private interest to support the birds, since they’ll always require some human intervention to provide the habitat they need.”

Kirtland’s Warblers are conservation-reliant. Their preferred jack pine stands once regenerated through fire, but that process is replicated now by harvesting and planting; their recovery also is owed to the trapping of Brown-headed Cowbirds, a native brood parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of Kirtland’s Warblers and other birds. Ahead of delisting, the USFWS, U.S. Forest Service, and Michigan Department of Natural Resources agreed to continue maintaining large tracts of jack pine to ensure a stable Kirtland’s Warbler population.

But losing endangered status means there will be gaps in manpower and funding, which is where ABC comes in. Since ABC’s founding in 1994, its mission has been to conserve native birds and habitats throughout the Americas.

Now, ABC also wants to help grow the number of Kirtland’s Warblers.

Ewert is leading what ABC is calling its Kirtland Warbler’s business plan. This includes building a long-term fund that will help sustain habitat management and other essential activities that governmental agencies cannot. ABC also is seeking to expand this bird’s breeding range. Small numbers currently nest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and Ontario, and ABC’s goal is to establish 200 pairs in these other areas. To that end, ABC and Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources are partnering to advance that effort in the Badger State.

Dave Ewert doing field research in The Bahamas, where Kirtland's Warblers winter. 
Photo courtesy of ABC.

Dave Ewert doing field research in The Bahamas, where Kirtland's Warblers winter.
Photo courtesy of ABC.

Today, there are around 2,000 pairs – more than double the USFWS’s recovery goal of 1,000.

“It was time to delist this species, but it takes awhile for people to get to that point psychologically,” Ewert says. “It’s now time to show the success of the Endangered Species Act, and it’s also an experiment to find out if we can generate enough private interest to support the birds, since they’ll always require some human intervention to provide the habitat they need.”

Kirtland’s Warblers are conservation-reliant. Their preferred jack pine stands once regenerated through fire, but that process is replicated now by harvesting and planting; their recovery also is owed to the trapping of Brown-headed Cowbirds, a native brood parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of Kirtland’s Warblers and other birds. Ahead of delisting, the USFWS, U.S. Forest Service, and Michigan Department of Natural Resources agreed to continue maintaining large tracts of jack pine to ensure a stable Kirtland’s Warbler population.

LaFond saw the need to do something. In 2010, while volunteering on a local winter raptor survey, she learned about a large parcel of farmland that was going to be sold and subdivided into tract housing, fragmenting the unbroken habitat that grassland birds need to survive. A few years earlier, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) had purchased almost 300 acres of critical habitat within the IBA in Fort Edward, and they were considering protecting another 180 acres, but town officials opposed further acquisitions. The state did not pay taxes on the land – although it was open to it, since it did so already in the Catskills and Adirondacks – and the town worried about that financial loss.

LaFond realized that a non-profit land trust was needed. She founded the Friends of the IBA, which would later be renamed Grassland Bird Trust, and in 2011 the organization held its first event, a Winter Raptor Fest. More than a thousand people showed up at a large dairy barn in the middle of snow-covered grasslands. Buoyed by this support, LaFond sprung into action. 

Kirtland's Warbler. Photo by Joel Trick, USFWS.

But losing endangered status means there will be gaps in manpower and funding, which is where ABC comes in. Since ABC’s founding in 1994, its mission has been to conserve native birds and habitats throughout the Americas.

Now, ABC also wants to help grow the number of Kirtland’s Warblers.

Ewert is leading what ABC is calling its Kirtland Warbler’s business plan. This includes building a long-term fund that will help sustain habitat management and other essential activities that governmental agencies cannot. ABC also is seeking to expand this bird’s breeding range. Small numbers currently nest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and Ontario, and ABC’s goal is to establish 200 pairs in these other areas. To that end, ABC and Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources are partnering to advance that effort in the Badger State.

Shawn Graff, vice president of ABC’s Great Lakes program, says, “If you look at our history, one of our strong suits is having boots on the ground working at landscape scales, helping move the needle on habitat management and addressing issues that are affecting species in steep decline.”

For the last quarter-century, that ethos has put ABC on the frontlines of major conservation struggles up and down the Western Hemisphere. It looks at the entire life-cycle of at-risk birds, from their breeding to nonbreeding grounds and migratory stops in between. ABC’s reputation, as Kenn Kaufman wrote in his latest book, A Season on the Wind, is “for being relentless in taking on any issue – as long as there was a position backed up by solid science.”

And so ABC wants to enhance the wintering habitat of the Kirtland’s Warbler, too. It’s partnering with the Bahamas National Trust to fund an avian biologist who'll monitor the birds there, and it’s also funding projects related to habitat management of fruiting shrubs, found in dense thickets, that the birds prefer on those islands.

To learn more about the organization and its efforts, as well as to contribute directly, please visit the Grassland Bird Trust website or click the donateb  

Kirtland's Warbler. Photo by Joel Trick, USFWS.

Shawn Graff, vice president of ABC’s Great Lakes program, says, “If you look at our history, one of our strong suits is having boots on the ground working at landscape scales, helping move the needle on habitat management and addressing issues that are affecting species in steep decline.”

For the last quarter-century, that ethos has put ABC on the frontlines of major conservation struggles up and down the Western Hemisphere. It looks at the entire life-cycle of at-risk birds, from their breeding to nonbreeding grounds and migratory stops in between. ABC’s reputation, as Kenn Kaufman wrote in his latest book, A Season on the Wind, is “for being relentless in taking on any issue – as long as there was a position backed up by solid science.”

And so ABC wants to enhance the wintering habitat of the Kirtland’s Warbler, too. It’s partnering with the Bahamas National Trust to fund an avian biologist who'll monitor the birds there, and it’s also funding projects related to habitat management of fruiting shrubs, found in dense thickets, that the birds prefer on those islands.

Kirtland's Warbler. Photo by Bradley Watson.

“The last thing we want to have is a failure here,” Graff says of the Kirtland’s Warbler. “All eyes are on us, and when I say us, I don’t mean just ABC, but the collaborative partnerships that we have.”

ABC already has a template for success in the Great Lakes region - one that’s already paying off for several other iconic and threatened species, among them another striking songbird: the black-masked, silvery-gray Golden-winged Warbler.

About two-thirds of the species' population has been lost, and today, roughly 400,000 breeding pairs remain. They’ve declined sharply on their Appalachian breeding range, but the northern forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan remain a stronghold: about 90 percent of Golden-winged Warblers breed there, including 50 percent in Minnesota. They winter in Central and South America, where ABC also is actively working to conserve the species.

Golden-winged Warbler. Photo by Mike Parr.

Golden-winged Warblers nest in young forests, or brushy wetland openings within mixed-age deciduous forests, also known as early-successional habitat. The types of disturbances that once created these gaps in a forest, like blow-downs or local wildfires, rarely happen anymore. And it isn’t only Golden-winged Warblers that have suffered, but other fellow travelers like American Woodcock and Ruffed Grouse.

A decade ago, a coalition of agencies and organizations identified the Golden-winged Warbler as an urgent priority and created comprehensive plans to reverse its decline. ABC answered the call for action, securing funding to hire foresters who would restore or create their preferred habitat. With a grant from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, ABC hired a forester to work on state, federal, and tribal lands. And in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, ABC has partnered with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a federal agency that provides incentives to private landowners for proper forest management. ABC’s team is now up to seven foresters.

Golden-winged Warblers nest in young forests, or brushy wetland openings within mixed-age deciduous forests, also known as early-successional habitat. The types of disturbances that once created these gaps in a forest, like blow-downs or local wildfires, rarely happen anymore. And it isn’t only Golden-winged Warblers that have suffered, but other fellow travelers like American Woodcock and Ruffed Grouse.

A decade ago, a coalition of agencies and organizations identified the Golden-winged Warbler as an urgent priority and created comprehensive plans to reverse its decline. ABC answered the call for action, securing funding to hire foresters who would restore or create their preferred habitat. With a grant from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, ABC hired a forester to work on state, federal, and tribal lands. And in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, ABC has partnered with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a federal agency that provides incentives to private landowners for proper forest management. ABC’s team is now up to seven foresters.

Minnesota field training. Photo by Kevin Sheppard.

Peter Dieser, ABC's Golden-winged Warbler public lands coordinator.
Photo courtesy of ABC.

They got to work quickly. In northern Minnesota, Peter Dieser, based at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, began looking for overgrown brush sites and stands of aspen and tag alder that are ideal for the speedy regeneration that Golden-winged Warblers seek out. They nest on the ground by forest clearings, but, Dieser says, they also require a woody internal structure nearby - trees from which the males can sing when they arrive in spring, and later, a forest in which they and their mates can raise their young.

These brush sites look uninteresting to the untrained eye, but Dieser and his colleagues saw potential for a diversity of life within them. At each site, deciding what and what not to cut, requires “a bit of an artist’s touch, because we’re leaving so much standing,” Dieser says.

To find potential habitat, ABC’s Great Lakes foresters look at aerial and soil maps and wade through landowner databases and surveys. Their busy season is January and February, when the Golden-winged Warblers are in the tropics. The frozen ground allows for cutting that would otherwise be impossible after the thaw.

Elsewhere in Minnesota, as well as Wisconsin and Michigan, their job is to convince private landowners, many of them hunters, to pursue forest management that will help the warblers and woodcocks, as well as deer and other animals. The lesson they share is that stagnant forests are often unhealthy forests. Part of the pitch includes a federal cost-share that may help them pay to execute the work, but it also includes a presentation on the life-cycle of Golden-winged Warblers and their dependence on young forests for survival.

They got to work quickly. In northern Minnesota, Peter Dieser, based at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, began looking for overgrown brush sites and stands of aspen and tag alder that are ideal for the speedy regeneration that Golden-winged Warblers seek out. They nest on the ground by forest clearings, but, Dieser says, they also require a woody internal structure nearby - trees from which the males can sing when they arrive in spring, and later, a forest in which they and their mates can raise their young.

These brush sites look uninteresting to the untrained eye, but Dieser and his colleagues saw potential for a diversity of life within them. At each site, deciding what and what not to cut, requires “a bit of an artist’s touch, because we’re leaving so much standing,” Dieser says.

Peter Dieser, ABC's Golden-winged Warbler public lands coordinator.
Photo courtesy of ABC.

Much of this happens around the kitchen table - but also out in the woods.

“I feel like I have the best job in the world,” says Kayla Knoll, ABC’s forester in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “I get to snowshoe through the woods talking to folks about birds, and I get to bring my dog along.”

Her companion is a two-year-old black lab named Olive.

“Birds are a great way to tell a story of sustainable forest management,” Knoll adds. “I’ve been able to get many landowners excited and engaged about what they can do to improve their forest health while creating bird habitat along the way.”

In northern Wisconsin, there was so much initial interest in the program that it quickly spread by word of mouth, neighbors telling neighbors.

"Within days of cutting, wildlife is moving into these areas, whether it’s grouse or deer,” says Callie Bertsch, ABC’s private-lands habitat coordinator, based in Wisconsin. “It’s always so fascinating to take someone from a young forest to a mid-successional forest. The birds just stop. You don’t hear anything walking through.”

To find potential habitat, ABC’s Great Lakes foresters look at aerial and soil maps and wade through landowner databases and surveys. Their busy season is January and February, when the Golden-winged Warblers are in the tropics. The frozen ground allows for cutting that would otherwise be impossible after the thaw.

Elsewhere in Minnesota, as well as Wisconsin and Michigan, their job is to convince private landowners, many of them hunters, to pursue forest management that will help the warblers and woodcock, as well as deer and other animals. The lesson they share is that stagnant forests are often unhealthy forests. Part of the pitch includes a federal cost-share that may help them pay to execute the work, but it also includes a presentation on the life-cycle of Golden-winged Warblers and their dependence on young forests for survival.

Much of this happens around the kitchen table - but also out in the woods.

“I feel like I have the best job in the world,” says Kayla Knoll, ABC’s forester in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “I get to snowshoe through the woods talking to folks about birds, and I get to bring my dog along.”

Her companion is a two-year-old black lab named Olive.

“Birds are a great way to tell a story of sustainable forest management,” Knoll adds. “I’ve been able to get many landowners excited and engaged about what they can do to improve their forest health while creating bird habitat along the way.”


Kayla Knoll, ABC’s forester in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Photo courtesy of ABC.  

In northern Wisconsin, there was so much initial interest in the program that it quickly spread by word of mouth, neighbors telling neighbors.

"Within days of cutting, wildlife is moving into these areas, whether it’s grouse or deer,” says Callie Bertsch, ABC’s private-lands habitat coordinator based in Wisconsin. “It’s always so fascinating to take someone from a young forest to a mid-successional forest. The birds just stop. You don’t hear anything walking through.”

But you’re now more likely to hear the buzzy two-part song of Golden-winged Warblers in these young forests, or witness the unforgettable courtship flights of male woodcocks. In Minnesota, for instance, Dieser has helped create 6,161 acres of early-successional habitat that benefits these two species, plus many others. But he’s also proud of their outreach to like-minded groups, and the alliances that he, Bertsch, and Knoll have helped create: the Minnesota Young Forest Habitat Collaborative, Wisconsin Young Forest Partnership, and Forestry for Michigan Birds.

And the Golden-winged Warblers are returning. ABC has hired researchers to monitor their sites in northern Minnesota, and preliminary results show a significant increase in the number of birds breeding there.

“ABC took this big conservation idea of saving the Golden-winged Warbler, and we’re actually doing the habitat implementation on the ground,” Knoll says with pride. “So often in conservation there are ideas and committees and plans, but no boots-on-the-ground action. We’re making a difference on the ground for this bird.”

Golden-winged Warbler habitat after treatment. Photo courtesy of ABC.

To learn more about the American Bird Conservancy, as well as to contribute directly, please visit its website or click the DONATE button below.

The American Bird Conservancy is celebrating 25 years of on-the-ground action and partnerships to conserve native birds and their habitats across the Americas. Support for their work is needed now more than ever, as many bird species experience severe population declines and the U.S. rolls back protections for them. We've designed a special collection that raises funds for ABC's Great Lakes initiatives, and we'll donate at least 20 percent of its profits to them. Look for details in the product descriptions.