Thursday, June 30, 2016

The War To See A WARbler

Adams County, Wisconsin.  It's a place where I've never seen bird security so epic before.  I didn't like it at first, but in the end, I learned to appreciate it.

This was the next stop on our Wisconsin trip.  Josh, Evan, and I pulled into this county in the evening of June 12, 2016, following our successful trip to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.  Strange things take place in Adams County, Wisconsin, with some of the best security I have ever seen in my life.  And shockingly, it's all to protect a 5.75 inch bird.  That's right, a bird..

And if I wanted to see this bird, I would have to find it in all of this Jack Crap.

The Kirtland's Warbler is the foe I am talking about.  That's right, I saw it as a foe.  After driving for 5.5 hours one way to attempt at seeing a certain bird, they are your foe, not your friend.  If the bird shows itself, we can talk about friend over foe for sure, but until then...

For those who are hearing about Kirtland's Warbler for the first time, they are an endangered species restricted primarily to Michigan for their worldwide range, with a population also being in Wisconsin in Adams County and in a few other areas in Wisconsin.  Pretty small, huh?  Not as small as the ridiculous jack pine habitat they live in.  To survive, Kirtland's Warblers need large second growth stands of small jack pines for breeding and so on.  Most of these warblers refrain from choosing jack pines that exceed the ten foot mark.  Historically, such habitat was created by natural wildfires, but now, the habitat is created by jack harvesting and seedling planting.  As Josh pulled into Adams County, it didn't take us very long to find the Kirtland's Warbler habitat.  It was.....obvious.  There were some stands of some very small pine trees.  Due to a friend of Josh's who I'll mention later, we knew a few places to look.  When we got there, I opted into walking down one of the roads alongside the warbler habitat while Josh and Evan scouted further down the road.  As I looked deep into the small jacks, I thought, "Wow, what a dork warbler.  No wonder why it's endangered".  I always knew about Kirtland's Warblers in these jack pines from field guides and birding sources, but to actually see the habitat live was a different story.  The habitat was certainly unique but also strange for a warbler.

While walking alongside the habitat and listening for any Kirtland's, I heard a bear in the taller jack pines grunting nearby and I also heard and saw a few Common Nighthawks flitting in the sky in preparation for the night ahead of them.

I was scared of the bear noises that seemed to be following me, and Josh couldn't have come back any quicker than he did.  More intimidating than any bear though was the Adams County Kirtland's Warbler Police Department.  I couldn't see them in the jack pines, but I knew they were out there too.  I'll explain shortly.  Josh, Evan, and I scouted out more and more young jack pine habitats before it got dark out, which we found plenty of.  We stayed in Wisconsin Rapids for the night before hitting the appropriate habitat early in the morning for the warblers.

The following morning on June 13th was going to be the do or die of our Kirtland's Warbler search as we had to head back to Minnesota by noon.  I felt good about our chances, especially since Josh's Wisconsin friend, Setophaga Kirtlandii, was going to be joining us.  Setophaga is a good birder, and knew where the Kirtland's Warblers are.  But Setophaga also had some pressure on himself, because he knew that if he was recognized by the Adam's County Kirtland's Warbler Police Department, he might be thrown in jail for showing others where a bird was.  I'll explain shortly.

Josh, Evan, and I made our way into the habitats at first light hoping to get a head start.  At one point, I felt lucky.  At another point, I didn't feel so lucky.  Dark clouds were moving in, and Setophaga told Josh that it had been raining in Wisconsin almost every day.  At one point, we saw a Kirtland's Warbler nest monitor's car parked alongside the road.  At another point, we saw another nest monitor's truck going into the jack pines by following a dirt road.  Dark clouds continued to move in, and so did some temptation to "trespass" into the jack pines.  But Setophaga told Josh that all jack pine land was private and was no-enter, and that absolutely no one could be told whereabouts the Kirtland's Warblers territories were.   At one point, I didn't think it mattered that we couldn't go into the habitat, I thought we would hear a Kirtland's Warbler singing his loud song and we would have rewarding views.  But at another point, I was scared they would be at the back of a jack away from our pack.  As the dark clouds continued to move in, I didn't know what to think anymore.  Grey is not a good color to be birding in, I'd rather have black or white.  And Setophaga told Josh that not even he, as a Wisconsin resident, could be told about a Kirtland's Warbler spot.  How jacked up is that?

Something cool was already planned though and the search for the Kirtland's was going to be fun no matter what the outcome was going to be.  You know those two guys I have mentioned a lot on my blog, Gordon Karre and Chris Rohrer?  Well, they were in Adams County too on the same day we were.  And quite similarly to us, they were also looking for Kirtland's Warblers on the same day we were.  It was a cool group to meet up with just outside of the jack pines.  Because Setophaga was cool, he was going to meet up with us at a spot where he has heard and seen the Warbler multiple times.  Once we met up with Chris and Gordon and joined forces, the five of us waited for our guide, Josh's buddy, Mr. Setophaga Kirtlandii.  Once Setophaga arrived, he took us down the road a short distance to some Kirtland's Warbler habitat.  The six of us stood there and shot the breeze.  The dark clouds began to move in.  The Adams County Kirtland's Warbler Police Department was probably on patrol by now too.  The Kirtland's Warblers weren't singing yet, and it was past 7:30 in the morning.  It was probably because of the grey.  That wasn't a good sign until Setophaga interrupted a pointless breeze and pointed to a better deal, a male Kirtland's Warbler singing.  I was hoping for light to shine down on a bird on top of a jack, but the only thing that was happening was hearing the bird sing.  The Kirtland's Warbler has a loud but yet soothing song.  It really stood out from everything.  Here's a recording I made, listen closely to hear it:

I was growing anxious and impatient.  To hear a bird singing and knowing it's right there in front of me was crazy.  To know that I wasn't allowed to go into the habitat or go off the road only a few feet was killing me.  Josh, Evan, Chris, Setophaga, Gordon, and I watched the habitat carefully to see if the warbler would visually present himself.  Regardless, it was cool to hear the bird and know that it was right there.  And then it happened...

A car came driving slowly down the road.  It was some dude, and he looked like a birder.  It was a birder, and he was also a Kirtland's Warbler nest monitor.  He knew what we were doing, but still asked, "what are you guys looking for?  Just enjoying nature?"  We explained in two words, "Kirtland's Warbler".  He then explained his job to us on how he was monitoring a Kirtland's Warbler nest that had failed and a pair was now working on rebuilding a nest and trying again.  He also explained the rules to us for our own good: 

1. Don't go into the Kirtland's Warbler habitat
2.  Don't do anything to disturb the Kirtland's Warblers
3.  Stay on this road at all times
4.  Don't tell a single soul about this spot if you find one.

This dude was a decent person actually, he was just doing his job.  We could tell that he sensed our passion and that he sensed that all we wanted was to see a singing male on a jack pine.  It seemed like he wanted to tell us and wanted to take us to see a Kirtland's Warbler, but he wasn't allowed.  This guy "got it".  Over the next minutes, the six of us stood there, motionless and waiting.  Over those minutes, the Kirtland's Warbler would sing and then go silent.  At one point, he taunted us by moving in very close, within seventy feet.  His song was very loud and even more awesome this time.  We spent some minutes with him close by, but it still resulted in a heard only as he chose the wrong singing perch.  While Kirtland's Warblers are seen near the top of a jack pine, they are just as likely to sing lower in the tree or near the ground.  Like Palm Warblers, Kirtland's Warblers have a habit of constantly pumping their tail.  A Kirtland's nest is also on the ground, which is the reason people shouldn't be walking around in their habitat.

And then a second situation happened, and another car was coming down the road.  This time, it was a young good-looking girl, also a Kirtland's Warbler nest monitor.  What she said really shocked me, "Tommy, I'll take you to see a Kirtland's Warbler".....

Just kidding.  But she was a young good-looking girl and was a Kirtland's Warbler nest monitor, and what she said really did shock me.  She said to us, "Hey guys.  Your looking for the warbler right?  Right.  I just got off the phone with my co-worker who just talked to you guys a few minutes ago.  Um, well, I need to make sure you are aware of the fact you can't go into the habitats and do anything else to potentially interrupt a Kirtland's Warbler.  I've also called the game warden and need to take your license plate numbers.  Um, don't worry, your aren't in any trouble.  This is something we need to do, I hope you guys can understand.  Um, the warden is going to come and talk to you and I'm going to take your license plates to keep records of who has been in the area looking for the warbler.  Um, thanks for understanding".  

We were all shocked about the Kirtland's Warbler security base.  It was like a step-by-step thing.  The airport security seemed like bubblegum after this.  And license plates?  A visit from the Warden?  Wow!  After Princess Jack Pine left, we continued listening, and we continued hoping for that coveted target to show itself.  In fact, here's a picture I took of the five guys I was Kirtland's Warblering with.  Left to right:  Gordon, Setophaga, Evan, Josh, and Chris.

You all might be wondering why Setophaga is whited out, right?  It's because he's from Wisconsin, and some of these nest monitors know Setophaga.  If word got out that Setophaga took outsiders to a Kirtland's Warbler spot, then Setophaga might be in huge trouble.  Also, as you all should have figured out by now, Setophaga Kirtlandii actually isn't Setophaga Kirtlandii's real name.  That name is made up, only to prevent anything bad from happening to "Setophaga".  Setophaga man, I also altered your body shape several times on the whiteout to be completely safe.  You are completely fine from stencil detection.  Thanks for everything you did for us.  Kirtland's Warbler searching not only comes with Leave No Trace Land Ethics, but it comes with who you are birding with too.  There is something out there named Setophaga Kirtlandii though, and I don't like it very much sometimes...

The six of us spent more time watching before it was started pouring down rain.  When the Kirtland's Warbler sprang up close again, I've never been more tempted than to lie and say I had to poop so I'd have an excuse to go into the woods.  But Gordon and I frantically looked one last time as the rain came down (thanks Chris for the picture!).

As the rain poured down, Setophaga, Gordon, and Chris decided to leave.  "Day's shot", they said.  Chris and Gordon said they'd try the following morning, and that left Josh, Evan, and I in the pouring rain with 1.5 hours left before we'd have to head home.  As we hoped the rain would stop, it actually stopped soon after it started but then continued with light showers on-and-off.  The game warden then showed up.  I can still remember Josh saying, "Well....there they are".  

Warden rolls down window:  "Hay".  (Deep Mid-west accent, very deep)

Josh:  "Hi".  

Warden:  "How are you doing.  What are you looking for today?"

Tommy:  "The Bird".

Warden:  "The Kirtland's Warbler?"

Josh, Tommy:  "YES".

Warden:  She gave us the same info as the two nest monitors did plus-"You know about the regulations right.  This species is federally protected, so doing anything to interrupt them in their life, their nesting, stepping into their habitat, is a Federal Crime.  We take license plates to carefully monitor who's looking at birds and for the birds welfare and security".

Between the three cars and three sets of folks we pulled up, none of us ever did ANYTHING WRONG.  ANYTHING!  We were technically standing on a public road hoping to see a certain bird by simply standing on the road.

The Warden and nest monitors were friendly, but also very strict and and firm about Kirtland's Warblers and making sure that they were safe and sound.  

And good freaking grief, Wisconsin Kirtland's Warblers have more body guards than Shakira herself.......

After the warden continued on, I continued to look when Josh and Evan then had to run into town really quickly.  I decided to stand on the road and hope for the best until they returned.  The rain came and went, and then the Kirtland's Warbler came and went in song.  At times it would sound close, and then it would sound more distant.  That told me that the warbler was more active.  Before Josh left, he spied an interesting looking bird on top of a tree that looked different than the sparrows we kept seeing.  It flew and landed in a clump of pines.  When it flew and after it landed, the Kirtland's Warbler sang from that exact spot.  Gosh!  Once Josh left for about thirty minutes, I had the spot to myself.  Princess Jack Pine drove by once more and didn't stop to remind me anymore know.  When I was by myself and with no one there to watch me or know what I was actually doing, some evil thoughts came into my mind.  The warbler was singing nearby and was actively moving around, so why couldn't he actively move around a little more?  I had my iPod with me, loaded with bird sounds.  Among those bird sounds, there were a few authentic Kirtland's Warbler tracks.  I also had my speaker tucked in my pack.  I was seriously thinking about it.  All it took was for me to look around and see no one, plug my speaker in, turn the volume up and play a Kirtland's Warbler song out loud.  The result would probably mean me getting a good look at a bird, and I knew it.  I knew I could also make up a story, "I just got very lucky".

As the bird sang, I was reminded how shortcuts aren't what is truly rewarding in life.  With as badly as I wanted to see a Kirtland's Warbler, I also just as badly wanted to play a tape.  I was reminded of all the great times I've been rewarded with other species without playing a tape or causing potential harassment to a bird.  With as quickly as the thought came into my mind, it just as quickly went away.  I didn't break the rules, I let the bird be.  Besides, the Adams County Kirtland's Warbler Police Department might have had security cameras set up somewhere.  At that point, I wouldn't put it past them!  When Josh and Evan came back, we tried a few more minutes before the rain started to pour down again.  At that point, it was time to call it a day.

Perhaps someday I'll get another chance to see a Kirtland's Warbler, and perhaps, there will be another bird that I'll really want to see that'll go along with it that I wouldn't have had a chance at on this trip.  There's a reason for everything.  I want to say that I'm not completely putting the folks down about hardcore protecting the Kirtland's Warblers.  Actually, I'm not putting them down at all, I just have this bittersweet taste in my mouth.  Some drinks need their cherry on top, and this trek had a good drink, but was missing it's cherry.  It's awesome how hard they are working to protect this species.  Me tromping through the habitat of this sensitive bird isn't worth it based on my personal satisfaction.  That's what the word "wild" is all about.  You can't have control over birds, you have to let them be wild and free.  I think it's awesome that Adams County, Wisconsin, protects these birds and it needs to be done...well...for most of the Kirtland's Warblers.  However, with as many people who want to see this bird, I think it would be nice if they picked maybe one or two consistent singing males that they could offer tours for on a regular basis.  They do offer tours a few times a year, but not everyone can make it out at that time.  Josh, Gordon, Chris and I were willing to pay a for a guide and pay a good fee if someone was willing to take us on a tour before we found out about Kirtland's Warbler monitors saying that wasn't possible, at least when we were there.  There are risks of trespassers knowing where nests are and telling others, but the majority of birders out there just want to see one bird.  I think birders should be rewarded more often with this species in this area, because most birders are going to be good towards these birds.

In the small Adams County Area, there are close to 20 pairs of Kirtland's Warblers.  That's a lot!  And the funny thing is, more and more of them are being found often that weren't previously detected.  The total population of Kirtland's Warbler numbers close to four thousand birds, with most of them being in Michigan.  Our previous endangered species life bird was a Whooping Crane.  There are fewer than 300 Whooping Cranes left in the wild, and an estimated 4,000 Kirtland's Warblers in the wild.  I'm surprised the Cranes weren't more protected at Necedah after seeing how people acted about the Kirtland's Warbler on this outing.  The Necedah Whooping Cranes were very close to people at times.  With Kirtland's Warbler, even though I heard this bird only, I am still counting it as a life bird.  If I was able to have better access to the bird and didn't get to see it than that would different.  This circumstance was a lot different, and I deserve to count it.

I don't want to look at Kirtland's Warblers right now, or even show an example picture.  And if you want to see a recent picture of an Adam's County Kirtland's Warbler, in due time visit Gordon's blog and Chris's blog.  They went the next day and had the birds practically pooping on them.  Envision that...


  1. What a clever and informative post! You explained it all so well. So sorry our visit on that day was not exactly what we had planned. It would have been awesome for all of us to get it together at the same time. We had a blast!

    1. Thanks Gordon! No need to be sorry, I had a great time and a great trip. I think I'll have more chances to lock up a Kirtland's Warbler in future years. As for now, at least I have an interesting story to go along with them that may just be more interesting then the warblers themselves..

  2. This is really great info Tommy and helpful for anyone looking for the KIWA in Wisconsin. Great write up about the experience! There will be other times. You still haven't done Warbler migration in the East. Kirtland's can come through those areas as well! Happy 4th!

    1. Thanks Chris! What a memorable day that was...

      I'm gonna try and see it someday..

  3. One bird picture. Yet, this was some of your best writing, Tommy! Melissa and I laughed from beginning to end. I about died from laughter when I saw your creative photoshop attempts to hide our source. Those Wisconsin officials are tough--you can't be too careful. Chris's spin-off post was hilarious too. I'm left to wonder, though, with Elf Boy and Princess Jack Pine and with Evan sleeping, was I the only birder there giving the Kirtland's search his full attention?!

    1. Thanks Josh! I'm glad you and Melissa found the humor in it. I wanted to describe in great detail how crazy the process was in looking for this bird. Chris's post was hilarious. I think you many have been the only birder there giving his all...