Kirtland’s warblers are one of North America’s rarest songbirds. They winter in the Bahamas but breed almost exclusively in Michigan, where Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center scientists have studied them since 2006. Kirtland’s warblers were once a common target of brown-headed cowbirds, who would lay their eggs in warbler nests — causing parents to care for cowbird chicks instead of their own. For many years, Michigan’s cowbirds were trapped and killed to protect warblers. However, a study by SMBC research ecologist Nathan Cooper found that warblers no longer need this extra protection, and in 2018, the cowbird traps were removed. Cooper and his team still monitor warbler nests to ensure successful breeding. Intern Haley Haradon joined the research team for the 2021 season. In these excerpts from his field journal, Haradon transports you to Michigan’s young jack pine forests as he searches for Kirtland’s warbler nests.
June 28, 2021 | Huron National Forest, Michigan, U.S.
She has been staring me down with an insect-laden bill for nearly a minute, making noisy alarm calls. Her partner in crime gives an occasional “chip,” his mouth agape with caterpillars to the point of hilarity. I have been searching the forest for Kirtland’s warblers for a few hours now and am hopeful this pair will lead me to their nest. I lay low behind a jack pine, trying to look like a typical forest animal. The female bounces between several saplings, nervously darting her head back and forth. I try to hold perfectly still as insects consume me, caving only to quickly pull off a tick I feel crawling up my calf. Flicking it away, I sink again into stillness.