For the Birds Radio Program: Kirtland's Warbler

Original Air Date: May 29, 2007

Laura and Russ just happened to be driving through Grayling Michigan, and stopped for a Kirtland’s Warbler tour.

Duration: 4′47″


This weekend, Russ and I had to drive to Oberlin, Ohio, for the last time, to pick up our daughter Katie’s stuff. Katie graduated from Oberlin last year, but spent this year working in a lab on a research grant. Russ and I decided to take the scenic route, through the UP and Michigan, stopping wherever it seemed sensible in Michigan for the night. We had to keep our own luggage to a minimum, because Katie has amassed a lot of stuff over 5 years in Oberlin which all had to be loaded into our Prius. I was pretty focused on general logistics regarding getting there in time for Katie’s final steel drum concerts and packing, and didn’t think much about the drive itself, but when we were driving through sand dunes and jackpine habitat in the upper peninsula, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a Kirtland’s Warbler in Michigan since 1993. I’d seen one in Lake Kissimmee State Park in Florida this past October, and was hungry to see more, and so I looked at a map and the road we were traveling on, I-75, happened to go right through Grayling, where Michigan Audubon and the US Fish and Wildlife Service offer daily warbler tours from May 15 to the beginning of July. We were going to have to stop somewhere in Michigan for the night, so why not in Grayling?

So suddenly our trip was transformed from one totally focused on our daughter to a birding adventure. Our motel had internet, so I Googled “Kirtland’s Warbler tours” and the first link was to the Michigan Audubon trips. You didn’t need a reservation—all you had to do was show up at the Grayling Holiday Inn at 7 or 11 am to go on this free tour. First you sit through a brief movie about Kirtland’s Warbler, explaining why this critically endangered bird has faced such difficulties since the era of fire suppression and cowbird expansion. Kirtland’s Warblers nest only on the ground beneath jackpine branches—jackpine cones open only after being exposed to the supreme heat of fires, and after they’re two or three decades old the lower branches fall off, making them unsuitable for warbler nesting. One fire went out of control in the late 70s, killing some people and scorching many thousands of acres—since then they’ve stopped managing the birds with burning, maintaining the habitat with artificial plantings and logging, which doesn’t promote quite as much breeding but the warbler has been increasing and expanding so this technique obviously works.

Cowbirds didn’t used to range into Michigan except very rarely, being associated with bison. But since the 1800s, they’ve become a huge problem, so they’re actively trapped. On our tour, we were shown natural and specially managed habitat and a cowbird trapping set up. And of course we got to see Kirtland’s Warblers. First we heard them—four or five singing at once. Their song is very loud, and the vegetation in the habitat is sparse enough to allow the song to travel long distances, so just hearing them is a delight. The first one we saw was at some distance, but our tour leader, Sean Fitzgerald, assured us we’d probably get closer to one down the road. And sure enough, we got plenty close to one very cooperative little singer. Sean had brought a spotting scope, good enough for me to get a few marginal but identifiable photos. Had I anticipated stopping in Grayling, I’d have brought my own top-line spotting scope and the camera I use for digiscoping—we got the kinds of views that would have produced incredible photos. So oh, darn—I’ll just have to go back again some day. The photos I got are on my webpage at They aren’t much, but the experience left me with a lovely glow that lasted the whole drive to Ohio and all the way back. Not bad for a spur of the moment side trip.