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Birding Jack Pines
A Tale of Two Warblers

May/June, 2010

I recently took a road trip north through Michigan, across the the Upper Peninsula and into NE Minnesota and ending up in northern Wisconsin. This was a trip I had wanted to do for years, but it always got pushed aside for one more year. While I explored many different habitats throughout this huge and, in some places, underbirded area, I'll concentrate on the jack pines where I both started and ended the trip.


The first stop after driving north from Columbus for a mere six hours were some jack pine tracts in the north central part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. I have been in this area numerous times, and most people reading this probably have too. This, of course, is the heart of the range for the endangered Kirtland's Warbler, the friendly big warbler with the loud low song that is very picky about where it will nest.


Tract of young Jack Pines in Michigan
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 14mm f2.8 L II lens
f10, 1/640th sec., ISO 320

The above is a typical tract of habitat managed for Kirtland's Warblers in the north central part of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. While their range is slowly spreading into suitable habitat in the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and Ontario, this is still the area where the vast majority of them nest. Kirtland's are picky birds and nest only in jack pines of a certain age. They are ground nesters. Once the lowest branches of the tree start dying off they no longer offer suitable protection for nesting Kirtland's Warblers. In prime habitat Kirtland's are relatively common and easy to find in this part of Michigan. Just drive along the sandy roads through these areas and look for young jack pines with their lowest branches still holding needles and you'll hear Kirtland's Warblers soon enough. Without delving into too much detail, jack pines in Michigan are managed specifically for Kirtland's Warblers. They are allowed to grow until the age of 50 when they are harvested. The ground is then burned and replanted with more jack pines. The Kirtland's Warblers only occupy the jack pines when they are approximately 5 - 15 years old.  Before land use practices suppressed wild fires, naturally occurring fires kept suitable habitat available for this species. Kirtland's Warblers are also vulnerable to nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds, and they are actively trapped in these young jack pine tracts.  This intensive management of their habitat has been successful. The entire population of Kirtland's Warblers reached a low of just 167 singing adult males as recently as 1987.  The population now is now somewhere around 1700 to 1800 males thanks to the management. A lot of further reading is available on the web with a Google search.


Kirtland's Warbler atop Jack Pine
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 600mm f4 L IS lens + 2x
f10, 1/500th sec., ISO 400

These young jack pines offer more birding besides Kirtland's Warblers and can be interesting areas to poke around. In areas recently cleared you're sure to find Vesper Sparrows and possibly Brewer's Blackbirds and Upland Sandpipers. Vesper Sparrows seem to continue in the jack pines in some places long after they are no longer suitable for the Kirtland's Warblers as long as there are some clearings. Other species joining the Kirtland's Warblers in the young jack pine tracts include Hermit Thrushes, Brown Thrashers, Nashville Warblers, and Clay-colored Sparrows. Further north in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin (where the Kirtland's are still scarce in suitable habitat) Palm Warblers are ubiquitous in young jack pine tracts.


Vesper Sparrow in new jack pine tract
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 600mm f4 L IS lens + 2x
f11, 1/800th sec., ISO 320

Continuing northward on this trip I explored the length Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I have been to eastern part of the UP many times, but like many visitors I never ventured to the western end of it. The western half of the UP was the most enjoyable area to me. There are many great birding areas that get very little attention so around every corner was a new adventure. That's my favorite kind of birding. There are also many jack pine tracts in the UP, some hosting Kirtland's Warblers in small numbers. The granddaddy of all these areas has to be the Baraga Plains in Baraga County, and yes, I heard some Kirtland's Warblers there too. One nice surprise at the Baraga Plains early one morning was a Spruce Grouse that seemed just as at home in the short needles of a jack pine as a spruce.
 



Spruce Grouse in jack pine
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 600mm f4 L IS lens + 1.4x
f7.1, 1/200th sec., ISO 500


In northwestern Wisconsin there are large areas dominated by jack pines. These aren't the highly managed jack pine tracts of Michigan. Ownership of the land is a combination of various state, county, and private parties, but most of it is open to explore. In the mature tracts, most older than 70 years from what I can estimate, with a well developed ground cover you can find another highly sought warbler, the Connecticut Warbler. The stereotypical habitat for Connecticuts is a slightly open spruce bog with a ground cover of Labrador tea. Chasing down Connecticuts in those habitats is like walking on a leaky waterbed while being eaten alive by mosquitos. Like the Spruce Grouse, the Connecticut Warbler and many other spruce specialists will use jack pines. I heard about 20 different singing Connecticuts in four different counties utilizing mature jack pines. Some areas were more open than others with the common feature at all of them being a well developed ground cover.


Mature Jack Pines in Wisconsin
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 14mm f2.8 L II lens
f11, 1/50th sec., ISO 500

The above area hosted a Connecticut Warbler. It looks surprisingly similar to their characteristic breeding habitat in spruce bogs with Labrador tea.  The nice thing about this place was that I could walk into it wearing my tennis shoes and put my tripod down on terra firma. The mosquitos weren't bad either. Other common birds in this area included Nashville and Myrtle Warblers, Ovenbirds, Chipping Sparrows, Eastern Wood Pewees, Blue-headed Vireos, and Cedar Waxwings. I also came across several flocks of Red Crossbills. On the photography side of things, it was fun to wander through these areas with my wonderful 14mm lens when there wasn't good light for bird photography and when it was raining. The only negative I have about using Canon's 14mm lens is that the lens hood doesn't protect the large protruding front element. I wandered around a lot in the rain happily snapping away not realizing that there were raindrops on the front element. You don't really see it through the viewfinder, but after looking at the photos with the lens stopped down, I had to delete most of the photos I took.  Oh well, live and learn.


 Dense Jack Pines in Wisconsin
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 14mm f2.8 L II lens
f9, 1/125th sec., ISO 500

A Connecticut Warbler was also heard in the dense tract of mature jack pines above. Keep in mind I used a 14mm lens here, so it's denser than it may look. There was suitable ground cover here, and that's what the Connecticuts seem to look for most when choosing a breeding territory.


 Open Jack Pines in Wisconsin
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 24mm f1.4 L II lens
f10, 1/100th sec., ISO 400

At the other end of the Connecticut Warbler habitat in NW Wisconsin is this open parklike mature jack pine tract. This area had an eerie feel like an abandoned cemetery.
 



Connecticut Warbler in Wisconsin
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 600mm f4 L IS lens + 2x
f10, 1/500th sec., ISO 400


In the young jack pines pretty much the same species can be found as in Michigan. I even found a Kirtland's Warbler in NW Wisconsin. More information about the pioneer Kirtland's Warbler population in Wisconsin can be found here :

http://www.fws.gov/midwest/greenbay/kiwa/2010/2010Summary.html

These Wisconsin Kirtland's are recolonizing an area that they certainly inhabited a century ago.  Hopefully their population will continue to grow there, but hopefully there will continue to be the mature jack pines in Wisconsin as well.  They are equally interesting and missing in Michigan. Besides the jack pines the whole of NW Wisconsin offers fascinating birding in a little explored area.  There is a big swath of land between the better known areas in the eastern UP and Minnesota with great birds and a lot of accessible public land. I'm sorry that I waited so long to get there.