Tourists flock to see rare bird

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The Kirtland’s warbler was on the verge of extinction 50 years ago. It breeds almost exclusively in Michigan. Image: Dan Kennedy, Michigan DNR.

By Carl Stoddard

Capital News Service

Little birds have tourists and birdwatchers flocking in big numbers to northern Michigan, a favorite nesting area for the rare Kirtland’s warblers, which were once nearly extinct.

Ilene Geiss-Wilson, executive director of the Grayling Visitor’s Bureau, said she has gone on two tours to see the Kirtland’s warblers in their prime nesting areas east of Grayling. And she is hardly alone.

“There’s a lot of interest” in the warblers, Geiss-Wilson said. “We have people contact us. They fly in from other countries for a day or two just to check that bird off their list. It’s pretty amazing.”

Diane Tomlinson, owner of the Woodland Motor Lodge in Grayling, said that in the last three to four years she has seen “a huge increase in warbler traffic” from around the country and beyond.

“There has definitely been an increase in people staying at our hotel because of the Kirtland’s warblers,” Tomlinson said.

One visitor flew from Europe to Detroit, rented a car, drove to Grayling, stayed at her hotel for three days and went out to see the birds, she said. “Then he flew back to Europe.”

Her hotel is busiest with warbler watchers from May through July. That’s when Kirtland’s warbler tours are offered at Hartwick Pines State Park north of Grayling.

Craig Kasmer, a park interpreter with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), leads many of the free tours, which began at Hartwick Pines three years ago. Tours also are offered from the park by a guide hired by the Michigan Audubon Society.

The warblers like to nest among young jack pines, and there are plentiful stands of the trees on state land roughly between near Grayling and Mio, said Kasmer, who calls the area “warbler central.”

“It’s a major tourist attraction in the spring,” he said.

Last year, Kasmer said, they conducted 68 tours for 765 people from Hartwick Pines. The people on the tours came from 39 states and 10  countries, he said, including Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and even New Zealand.

They had slightly more tour members in 2015, coming from 46  states and five countries, he said.

Kasmer said 70 percent of the people on the tours have never before seen a Kirtland’s warbler, but another 26 percent of the birdwatchers on the tours have previously seen one.

“So that’s pretty interesting that they would return to see this rare bird,” he said.

“These birds have nest fidelity,” Kasmer said. “They are born there (among the jack pine) and return every year. So the population at the site is increasing.”

The tours started as a way to highlight warbler conservation efforts in the Grayling area and help visitors see the small birds, said Lindsay Cain, education coordinator for the Michigan Audubon Society.

“There’s basically nowhere else you can see the Kirtland’s warblers” in such large concentrations as the Grayling area, Cain said. “People do come from all over the world.”

To sign up for a tour, large groups should go to the Michigan Audubon website, Small groups or individuals may call or come to the visitors center at Hartwick Pines, 4216 Ranger Road, Grayling, Kasmer said. The phone number is (517) 348-2537.

Warbler tours also are offered out of Mio by the U.S. Forest Service daily May 15-31 at the Mio Ranger District of the Huron National Forest. The three-hour tours begin at 7:30 a.m. at the Mio Ranger District office, 107 McKinley Road. Check-in is at 7:15 a.m.

Tours are $10 per adult and free for children. For details call the Mio Ranger District office, (989) 826-3252.

“Once living on the brink of extinction, the Kirtland’s warbler has taken significant steps toward recovery, though it remains on state and federal endangered species lists,” the Michigan Audubon Society says on its website.

Although a few counties in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula represent the warblers’ primary nesting area, in recent years nesting pairs have been recorded in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin and Ontario, the Michigan Audubon Society says.

Because of its restricted home range and unique habitat requirements, the Kirtland’s warbler probably has always been a rare bird, according to the Michigan DNR. Scientists did not describe the bird until 1851 when a male was collected near Cleveland, Ohio.

That first specimen was sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The species eventually was named in honor of Jared P. Kirtland, a physician, teacher, horticulturist and naturalist, the DNR says.

Male Kirtland’s warblers arrive in Michigan from the Bahamas between May 3 and May 20, a few days ahead of the females, the DNR says. The males establish and defend territories and then court the females when they arrive.

“Kirtland’s warbler tours bring in a great deal of warbler enthusiasts as well as those who cross their fingers to see a rare bird,” said Vicki Cook, executive director of the Grayling Regional Chamber of Commerce. “This in turn increases overnight stays at our local lodging, food and retail establishments.”

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