Actual footage of the rarest songbird in its natural habitat.Watch
Like many summer residents of northern climes, the Kirtland’s warbler—North America’s rarest songbird—prefers to spend the winter far, far away from the ice and snow of the northern United States. Smaller than a tennis ball, it flies 3,000 miles a year round trip to reach its preferred winter haven in the Caribbean and then returns every spring to the Michigan pine forests to mate.
Bird of Mystery
No one knows for sure how long the Kirtland’s warbler has been migrating from its breeding grounds to winter nesting grounds scattered among the islands of The Bahamas. The bird wasn’t even described by scientists until 1851 when the first individual was documented in Ohio. It wasn’t until 1879 that the a Kirtland’s was documented in The Bahamas on Andros Island. The Kirtland’s is notoriously elusive and birdwatchers take great delight in just being lucky enough to hear its song.
For decades after the first Kirtland’s sighting, scientists spent countless hours searching The Bahamas for the endangered bird’s winter nesting grounds. More often than not, their efforts were in vain. Sometimes hundreds of hours of careful canvassing of Andros Island, Hawksbill Cay, Eleuthera and other islands of the 625-mile long archipelago would, at best, yield one or two sightings.
Many scientists and birdwatchers have resigned themselves to visiting the Kirtland’s breeding grounds in Michigan to catch a glimpse of this stealthy songbird. Finding them in their winter homes can be well-nigh impossible.
Unless, of course, you happen to go birdwatching with Conservancy scientists.
Over the course of a few spring days several years ago, former Conservancy scientist Leno Davis achieved a birding triumph. He recorded three separate sightings of Kirtland’s warblers and even managed to get a good 20 seconds of video of the bird flitting among the branches of a shrub on Hawksbill Cay in Exuma Cays Land and Sea State Park, the oldest park in The Bahamas.
“I heard a few chirps coming from inside the bushes and saw a bird hopping around in there," says Davis. "It eventually perched for about 30 seconds atop a leafless twig sticking out over the boardwalk about a foot above my head. It was an adult male.”
Davis was part of the Kirtland’s Warbler Research and Training Project, an effort that has been key to substantially increasing scientists’ knowledge of the bird in its winter home. The project involves partners, scientists and students in Michigan, The Bahamas and beyond and was designed to provide field experience and training to Bahamian biologists while studying the winter habitat requirements of the bird. Students in the program receive training in bird identification, bird banding and census techniques, and relevant conservation issues.
Hope for the Kirtland's
Success in migratory bird conservation can be particularly challenging because it is critical to protect both the breeding grounds and the wintering grounds, especially for birds like the Kirtland’s warbler, which has highly selective habitat requirements. If its habitat is lost at either end of the migratory route, it is unlikely it will survive.
Though the Kirtland’s is still considered endangered, its numbers have been rising in the last decade thanks to efforts to preserve both its breeding and wintering grounds. The lowest counts of Kirtland's ever were in 1974 and 1985 when birders in Michigan recorded only 167 singing males each year. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimated in 2012 that there were between 2,300 and 2,400 singing males.
Training Bahamian Scientists
“I am probably one of very few people who has seen more Kirtland's in The Bahamas than in Michigan," says Davis. "But the real beauty of the Kirtland's work, in my opinion, is the cooperation between different countries, government and non-government agencies and young and experienced scientists to understand and protect a part of the world that, without protection, may have been lost forever.”
“The true benefits of the Kirtland’s Warbler Research and Training Project lie in the lasting contributions that the young scientists are making and will continue to make here in The Bahamas and throughout the conservation community," notes Eleanor Phillips, Director of the Conservancy’s Northern Caribbean Program. "Several students who have participated in the program have already returned to The Bahamas and are working in science.”
“I feel The Bahamas is on the verge of a scientific renaissance,” notes Davis, a native Bahamian. “For me, participating in the Kirtland Warbler’s Training Program was the springboard that led me to my advanced degrees, and brought me back home to work in The Bahamas. I feel more projects like this are needed to continue to encourage Bahamians toward environmental science careers and actually provide them with some of the skills they will need to succeed in the field.”
Kirtland's warbler monitoring owes much of its success to the partners that support it, including the International Program of the U.S. Forest Service, the International Institute of Tropical Forestry of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bahamas National Trust. The U.S. Forest Service provides critical scientific expertise as well as much of the funding for the Kirtland's Warbler Research and Training Project.
The Bahamas National Trust has recruited students for the project and is currently partnering with the Nature Conservancy to host a poster competition, in which 12 students’ posters will be selected for a 2016 Kirtland’s warbler calendar. The contest aims to educate students about management strategies to ensure the bird’s survival.