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Saving the Golden Winged Warbler

What do you know about birds? Are you one who says that a bird is a bird is a bird? Or can you, like me, identify by sight some of the most common birds in our area, like the robin, chickadee, nuthatch, red-breasted and yellow-breasted grosbeak a...

1854265+birdAGoldenWingedWarblerpicturebyJoniKernsTwoHarbors_500px.jpg
Golden-winged warbler. Photo contributed by Joni Kerns of Two Harbors

What do you know about birds? Are you one who says that a bird is a bird is a bird?

Or can you, like me, identify by sight some of the most common birds in our area, like the robin, chickadee, nuthatch, red-breasted and yellow-breasted grosbeak and blue jay? But I can't tell the difference between the kinds of owls and hawks, or the difference between a crow, a raven or a blackbird. So sometimes it's easier for me to say, "Look at that bird," than to actually try to figure out what it is.

Well, this "bird-impaired" person had a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience recently.

Will Bomier, who works in the Duluth office for the District Conservationist of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), invited me to go on a bird survey.

Bomier and NRCS are one of the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District's (SWCD) many important partners in helping landowners protect and enhance natural resources in Carlton County. Bomier said the survey would be a good chance to see how a project that is creating habitat for the golden-winged warbler also helps and benefits the woodcock, a game species in the area. (Some of the Carlton County landowners in this program are SWCD cooperators, and several had conservation forestry plans written by Kelly Smith, Carlton County SWCD conservation technician.)

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I jumped at the chance thinking it might make me more "bird smart" and give me an in-depth look at what some of our SWCD partners do. Although I learned a little about each, what it really gave me was a deep appreciation for those people who really know their birds. I mean really know them … by sight AND by sound!

Here's a little background:

During the last few years, we've heard a lot about the decrease in the numbers of North American songbirds. Of all of them, the golden-winged warbler (GWW) has experienced the steepest population declines over the last 45 years. Did you know that 95 percent of the world's population of GWW is in the Great Lakes Region, with a good share of them in northern Minnesota? That fact alone is awesome! But it's a little scary to know that what we do in our area could have a huge impact on this little bird!

This bird survey was the second part of a multi-year project and followed the Golden-Winged Warbler Protection and Habitat Restoration project. A joint effort between NRCS and the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), the habitat project served to assist private landowners in designing and implementing young or early successional forest restoration activities to create golden-winged warbler breeding habitat on qualifying lands.

Funded by a grant from the NRCS, almost 200 interested and qualified landowners across northern Minnesota received technical assistance and financial incentive payments through this project.

Some of these properties are in Carlton County, which has been identified as part of important GWW territory.

Mark Herwig owns 44 acres of hunting land on County Road 4 west of Mahtowa, was one of the qualified Carlton County landowners. An avid hunter of turkey, grouse, woodcock, bear, deer, pheasant, etc., Herwig was interested in helping to increase habitat for game and non-game animals and birds, so he contacted NRCS to find information about what he could do to "give back" to the animals.

Herwig was accepted into this early succession forest restoration project to create habitat for both the woodcock and the GWW. He worked with the NRCS, a forester from the ABC, and a local logger to selectively log off 10 acres divided between four different parts of his property. Herwig said ABC Forester Kevin Sheppard helped the logger by making blue paint marks on trees which formed the “boundary" and by marking the "display trees" to be left in each project area.

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Although Herwig believes "loggers are a hunter's best friend" -- because they help create a mix of young and mature forest -- he said he had to "do a little hustling” to encourage a local logger to actually take on the project as it involved little acreage with more restrictions.

Logging on Herwig's property was completed in March 2014. Optimally, tree harvesting should be done during the the non-breeding season (mid-August to mid-April) to prevent disturbance during the GWW nesting season. In addition, as aspen, the fastest growing trees, come back from the roots, logging is best done when the ground is frozen. If done when the ground is soft, the tree roots can be damaged or destroyed and it takes much longer for the new trees to start growing.

In June of this year, the Habitat Restoration project passed the 18-month mark and resulted in over 1,800 acres of habitat land being created on private properties throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. This acreage count also includes Herwig's early successional forest, which was found to be doing quite well.

This summer started the second part of the project - the bird survey. To be considered for the survey, the property has to contain open areas, complex understory, "display trees," and close mature forest. The GWW need the open, grassy and herbaceous areas as they build nests of grasses, bark and leaves on or near the ground, usually at the base of small shrubs. They need the complex understory of small brush, shrubs and and saplings to perch on and to eat insects off the leaves. They need the "display trees" -- full-grown trees scattered throughout the open areas and on the edges of the mostly cleared opening -- for their territorial and mating displays and songs to attract mates. And they need a mature forest that is 70 percent deciduous (preferably aspen, birch, maple, beech, oak mix) within 1.5 miles from their habitat "patch" where the young GWW fly when they leave the nest. The woodcock uses the same kind of habitat for many of the same reasons.

There were two teams in northern Minnesota, and three in Pennsylvania, employed to conduct bird surveys under the guidance of Dr. Jeff Larkin, a leading researcher in GWW as well as a professor at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the ABC's forest bird habitat coordinator.

One Minnesota team was based out of Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge near Detroit Lakes, and covered northwestern Minnesota. The other team, consisting of Kirsten Johnson and Holly Faulkner, was stationed at the Cloquet Forestry Center; their survey sites ranged from north of Two Harbors to Brainerd, and from the Iron Range to Mille Lacs. Between the two teams, they did surveys on the 199 approved sites in northern Minnesota.

In May, the Minnesota teams surveyed for the American Woodcock. During the second month, they surveyed for the GWW.

The GWW surveys started very early in the morning, so Johnson and Faulkner had to be up and driving by 4 a.m. to get to the first survey site at least a half-hour before sunrise. They had to complete all their surveys by 10:30 a.m. as the GWW sang less after that time.

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One day, according to Johnson, they conducted 14 surveys at three different locations. Herwig's property was "one of the nicer sites" with easier walking. However, they had hard days when they walked 3 kilometers through knee-high grass and brush to get to just one site, or waded through 500 to 600 meters (1,640 to 1,970 feet) of bog with nothing solid to walk on. They both appreciated the hip waders they wore, especially during the many times they had to yank their feet out of bog holes.

Although Johnson and Faulkner noted what birds they saw at each survey site, they mainly listened and recorded any birds they heard, especially the GWW. Each survey consisted of standing for 10 minutes of passive listening and noting bird songs. This was followed by a "playback period" when they played a two-minute recording of songs by the GWW and chickadees, as well as screech owls that "rile the GWW up and really make them respond." This was followed by another minute of passive listening. All birds were noted on the form as to which direction they were heard. In addition, on the walk to and from the survey site, the type of vegetation and other site details were noted.

According to Johnson and Faulkner, the bird surveys for the woodcocks were similar with the exception of the amount of time and the time of day. Woodcocks are more sensitive as to when they sing so the survey has only a 38-minute limit and was done at about 20 minutes after sunset, or as Johnson said, "historically, when the light gets to two candlepower." Faulkner added that "woodcocks sing when it gets just dark enough and they stop when it gets too dark." Because of the limited amount of survey time, both teams could only survey 132 of the 199 sites this spring.

The accumulated data from the whole project will be used update future Best Management Practices (BMP) standards that guide public and private landowners in how best to improve and create habitat to protect certain animal and bird species.

Now, saving the best for last….

Johnson and Faulkner reported they have been hearing a lot of GWW in northeastern Minnesota, and Bomier commented that over 80 percent of the sites had woodcocks on them. That's very good news for the GWW project people. It's also good news for private landowners as it proves they can and are making an impact on GWWA habitat and survival. And, in addition, it's very good news for northeastern Minnesota, and specifically for Carlton County, as we are a vital area in helping to keep the GWW from becoming another endangered species.

Kim Samuelson, Carlton SWCD's elected supervisor for District 4, loves birds and admires anyone who can identify them by sight or sound. For more information about this project or other projects that help our birds, contact Carlton County SWCD at 218-384-3891 or go to www.carltonswcd.org .

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