One morning this spring, as the last of the snow melts away, and buds and catkins appear on the tree tops, you may awaken to the burst of bird-song. If you’re quick with your binoculars, you may spot a migrating vireo or warbler. It’s during this time that the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin holds its annual Great Wisconsin Birdathon, which raises money for the Bird Protection Fund. Grants from this fund support many aspects of bird conservation.
“So the Birdathon—they kind of talk about it as kind of like a marathon. I always joke that it’s a little more fun because you don’t have to run, and you get to look at birds.”
That’s Cait Williamson. She is the Director of Conservation Programs at the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.
“But really, the point is that you can make a team, whether it’s just you or you and your family, or your co-workers or friends, and you pick a day to go out anytime between April 15 and June 15. And the goal is to find as many bird species as you can on that day and to raise funds from your friends and family, kind of like you would a marathon or a 5 K race event, encouraging folks to donate to that.”
During the Birdathon in 2022, 56 teams identified 250 species of birds to raise over $117,000. Grants are awarded each fall, and since 2009, over $1.3 million has been given to fund Wisconsin’s highest-priority bird conservation projects, both within the state and around the world. Here’s Cait again:
“So, like the federally endangered piping plover and whooping cranes are examples of specific birds that get support from our Bird Protection Fund, as well as the Connecticut Warbler, which is one of the fastest declining rapidly declining birds that we have here in the state.”
The Connecticut Warbler Conservation Project is one of the nine priority projects that received funding from the Bird Protection Fund in 2022. To learn more about this project, I spoke with Ryan Brady, a conservation biologist with the Wisconsin DNR. He is working to conserve the birds’ breeding habitat in northern Wisconsin.
“The Connecticut Warbler is a pretty uncommon warbler to begin with. And the majority of its population is found in the boreal forests of southern Canada. Wisconsin lies on the southern edge of its range, and always has.”
Ryan says this bird is one of the most difficult songbirds in the state to study. This is in part because their breeding habitats are in remote areas.
“But even in these areas where it maybe they aren’t as remote, the habitats are hard to get into and might be boggy lowland that has a lot of standing water in areas and it’s just difficult to reach.”
And because they are secretive, ground-nesting birds, and the females are very quiet, they are difficult to detect.
“The one exception would really be the males singing during breeding season. They’ll sit up, maybe not out in the open, but they sit up and they have a very loud, distinctive song and it carries well.”
[Song of the male Connecticut Warbler in background]
“So, that’s our best chance of detecting whether Connecticut Warblers are in the area or not. And its that singing behavior that we’ve used to be able to monitor their numbers over time and determine that we’ve seen declines in the state that are well over 80%, maybe more like 90% range if we had better data.”
Ryan says that 30 or 40 years ago, there were likely thousands of Connecticut Warblers in the state.
“And then those numbers really dropped over the course of our two breeding Bird Atlas projects. So the first atlas project was conducted in the late 1990s and the bird was found in roughly 60 survey blocks. And then we did our second breeding bird atlas in 2015 to 2019, about 20 years later, and we only found the bird in 20 survey blocks, so a pretty significant drop off.”
Last year, they re-surveyed historically high-quality Connecticut Warbler habitat.
“And we found zero birds. So even in places that had had the bird 5/10 years previous, no longer had those when we did those surveys in 2021. So that was a real red flag. And so that meant we were down to this last site around the Bayfield Douglas County area of Northwest Wisconsin where we knew we had some birds.”
They surveyed that site in 2022.
“That’s when we determined that we only had three singing males that we could find, which was even less than the previous year at that same site. So you could just see this just really steady and steep drop off that has occurred. And the only silver lining, we found those three males. The good news is, they each had paired with a female, and we believe all of them have successfully raised their young.”
Ryan says that now that they know things have declined so badly, they have to turn their attention to not just counting these birds, but doing something to stem their decline.
“The first thing we did was to make sure we got a hold of the landowner who was hosting the last known Connecticut Warblers, and we did that, and they are aware they are hosting the species and the plight and while they are not legally bound in anyway, in terms of how they are managing their property they are, at least in the short run, cooperating to protect these birds.”
Grants will support conservation efforts geared toward preserving and expanding the specialized habitat Connecticut Warblers prefer. They like a closed canopy of trees such as tamarack, black spruce or mature jack pine, and a mid-level that is free if dense shrubs. From knee high down, they need plenty of ground cover for their nests and fledgling young—such as moss and low shrubs like blueberry.
“And so we’ve partnered with Bayfield County to identify some sites that have prospective habitat for the Connecticut Warblers and there are some, and we’re doing a pilot project this fall where we went to a habitat stand that has a lot of great structure the Connecticut Warbler likes except for one thing—it’s too brushy in that midstory and that eye level and above area. So what we’re doing is we’re using some funds to conduct habitat management, ie remove brush out of that stand and then we’ll be looking for a population response next year. Hopefully, the Connecticut Warblers will find it to their liking and utilize that stand.”
If this sort of habitat management works, Ryan says they can apply the practice in other places to continue creating attractive habitat for the Connecticut Warbler in Wisconsin.
Reporting for WORT News, I’m Catherine Garvens.
The song of the Connecticut Warbler used in this story was recorded by Brian M. Collins.
Photo of the Connecticut Warbler in Wisconsin by Shawn Miller courtesy of The Macaulay Library at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.