Rare Experiences

Adding endangered or threatened songbirds to your life list is not that difficult, as long as you know where to go; consider these three possibilities

  • John Pancake, Louis B. Parks and Mark Smith
  • Aug 01, 2009

It’s an early April morning under a deep blue sky dotted with the high white clouds typical of central Texas. The air is still crisp enough for jackets and gloves, though we’d need extra protection anyway for pushing through the dense, prickly native scrub and ashe juniper that surrounds us. Our mission: to spot the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo, two of the nation’s rarest songbirds. These small, delicate creatures are among the most eagerly sought check marks on many bird-watchers’ lists. Both species are endangered, and both are hard to find—except here on Fort Hood Military Reservation.

If you visit Fort Hood from spring through early summer—as hundreds of birders do every year—you’re almost certain to see at least one of these highly prized songsters. With civilian and military assistance, both birds are thriving on the 217,000-acre reservation, feathers unruffled by the soldiers, guns and machinery of war frequently in evidence. The key to finding them is to go on one of the free guided tours offered by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Defense Department’s Natural Resources Management Branch.

Our tour began at 7 a.m. when we met Gil Eckrich, Fort Hood outreach coordinator for the branch. After jouncing along in his Suburban for a couple hours, we’ve met up with TNC biologist Becky Peak, who leads us deep into dense thicket. She’s in the process of using a high-tech MP3 player and a low-tech mist net to try to lure, capture and band a golden-cheeked warbler as part of a study to assess how the reservation’s population of the birds is faring.

While most birders would be thrilled to catch a glimpse of this lovely songbird in their binoculars, thanks to Peak—who successfully nets her quarry—we get to examine one just inches away. The bird appears far calmer than I feel. Its entire face, except a dark eyeline and black crown, is a bright golden yellow. Exquisite. “Our” golden-cheeked—we’ve already taken emotional ownership—is quickly banded and released.

Back in the Suburban, we continue our tour, hoping to have similar luck spotting a black-capped vireo. Stopping at an isolated jeep trail, we begin hiking through low shrubs with lots of thick edges bordering open spaces created by tanks and half-tracks—ideal nesting habitat for vireos. Accompanied by TNC biologist David Cimprich, we’re soon slipping quietly toward a remote nest where the bird’s eggs have been observed for several days. It’s a moment of intense excitement: another chance to glimpse a rare, beautiful and gravely endangered species.

There’s a bird on the nest now, Cimprich tells us, but it is hunkered down low to hide. As we approach, another bird, as yet unseen, flies into brush nearby. It begins alternately singing and scolding. Cimprich leans close to me: “Only the male black-capped vireo sings,” he whispers, “so if you hear the song, it’s the male.”

Suddenly, the bird shows himself, a beautiful tiny creature with a dark head, white around the eyes and black and yellowish wing bars. He immediately thrashes noisily to a more distant limb. “If you turn and face the male, he’ll move just a little farther away from the nest and try to lure you with him,” Cimprich says. We never get a clear view of the female—just the top of her head. Chastened by the male, we leave her in peace, thrilled to have had such a good look at her mate.

The ease of spotting both species at Fort Hood belies their troubles elsewhere. Winter residents of Mexico and Central America, black-capped vireos travel north to the United States to nest in isolated parts of Oklahoma and central Texas. The golden-cheeked warbler breeds only in a handful of central Texas counties. When the vireo was added to the Endangered Species List in 1987, scientists believed that only 1,500 survived. In 1990 the golden-cheeked warbler was added to the list, with an estimated 5,000 to 16,000 survivors. Both are on the National Audubon Society’s “red list” as birds facing a major threat.

Recent numbers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology estimate there are now 12,000 black-capped vireos and 21,000 golden-cheeked warblers. Much of the increase is due to Fort Hood. After years of careful management—including aggressive action against overabundant brown-headed cowbirds, which leave their eggs in nests of smaller songbirds that must rear the large, greedy chicks—the reservation recently estimated its own golden-cheeked population at 5,400 males. (Males are easier to tally than nonsinging females.) More amazing, Fort Hood’s population of black-capped vireo males grew from 85 in 1987 to 8,000 in 2006. “We are growing birds,” says Eckrich, proud as a papa.

Why here, we ask, where tanks rip great swaths through the land, big guns shake the ground and Apache helicopters come suddenly throbbing loud and low overhead? “It’s a non-intuitive situation,” says Cimprich. The birds “are abundant here because it’s Fort Hood and a large training facility.” Not only are reservation lands protected from development, he says, but training activities have created shrubby habitats favored by the birds.

A Fort Hood birding tour is no stroll in the park. Our guides warned us to prepare for primitive conditions, and we’re glad we did. Roads, where they exist, are rough. Sturdy shoes and long pants prove essential for trudging over rocky terrain and pushing through thick foliage armed with spikes. We supply our own snacks and drinks and take our bathroom breaks behind shrubbery. “Ladies to the left, gentlemen to the right,” says Eckrich, grinning. But we don’t mind. The excitement of seeing two rare songbirds beats plumbing anytime.—Louis B. Parks

Fort Hood is located west of Interstate 35 about 50 miles north of Austin. Free four- to five-hour nature tours are available most of the year, with the best birding between April and mid-June. To reserve a spot, contact Gil Eckrich at 254-286-5942 or gil.eckrich@us.army.mil. Two months’ advance reservations are recommended.

Whether you’re an avid bird-watcher or just starting to enjoy birding, Florida’s Lyonia Preserve is a great place to visit. A hidden gem tucked behind the regional library in Deltona, the county preserve is home to hundreds of plant and animal species, many easily spotted from more than 4 miles of hiking trails that wind through 380 acres of hilly, oak-scrub habitat. Lyonia’s most famous inhabitant, the Florida scrub-jay, is a species so rare it’s found in no other state in the country.

I encountered the bird on my first trip to Lyonia seven years ago—although I didn’t know it at the time. On a sunny fall morning, my wife Julie and I hiked well into the middle of the preserve, where we found a nice shady spot to take a break. While getting water from my pack, I noticed a large grayish blue bird perched on a small branch just a few feet away. The bird startled me because it was so close, and I hadn’t seen it land. At the time, I had no idea what species it was, but I’d never seen anything quite like it.

As I motioned for Julie to take a look, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. Another one of the birds had just landed on the other side of the trail and was staring at me. Within minutes, there were at least a dozen of these big, blue birds in the surrounding trees—and every single one of them was eyeing us. I found it a bit intimidating because I had never seen birds acting so brave. My mind ran instantly to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Julie and I froze.

As if staring wasn’t enough, one of the birds suddenly flew toward me and landed on top of the baseball cap I was wearing. I looked at Julie and asked, “What is he doing?” Just then, the bird slammed its beak into the button on top of the hat, giving a nice thump to the top of my head. I couldn’t help but start laughing.

Needless to say, this first introduction to the Florida scrub-jay made quite an impression. Julie and I have been back to Lyonia to see the birds countless times since then. We’re fortunate to be able to see such a rare species so easily. Found only in young oak-scrub forests in the state of Florida, the birds’ numbers have been declining due to habitat loss for many years. Since 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has classified the species as threatened. When one does spot the jays, however, they are nearly always bold and curious—even seeming to pose for pictures—as my own experience with the birds clearly shows.—Mark Smith

Lyonia Preserve is open daily from dawn to dusk. Winter is a good time to visit, as is early morning or late afternoon in spring, summer and early fall. Admission is free. For information, contact 386-740-5261 or visit www.volusia.org/growth/lyonia.htm.

A gray sky hangs low overhead as we squish down a sandy road running through short, scruffy pines about 200 miles north of Detroit. Rain whips against my slicker. My fingers tingle in the cold. I don’t care. I am now a few yards from something I have dreamed about since I got my first bird book back in the 1970s: seeing the Kirtland’s warbler. It is one of the rarest songbirds in North America, and nearly all of the birds nest within a few counties centered on the little towns of Grayling and Mio, Michigan.

The warblers are singing all around us. There are at least half a dozen of them. Easy to hear, hard to see. It feels as if we should be able to reach into the pine thicket and touch them. I fantasize about barreling into the brush to flush one of the birds. But they’re nesting beneath pine branches that stretch to the ground, and walking into the nesting area of such an endangered creature is worse than a bad idea.

I know that one of these guys could pop into view any second. Or not. Time to be patient. I’ve waited three decades for this opportunity. Is another half hour going to kill me?

Standing there, I find myself wondering: What is it that some people find so addictive about tracking down rarities? I plead guilty to this kind of insanity. I tried to staunch it more than a decade ago when I locked my life list in a metal box. I haven’t looked at the list since. I tell myself it’s just as satisfying to learn something new about the habits of song sparrows nesting behind my house as it is to track down a rare snowy owl near Hudson Bay. Sometimes I even believe it.

Yet the Kirkland’s warbler is not just a curiosity. The bird offers a parable about how animals fit into their environments. And the jack pines that surround me are the key that unlocks the life cycle of this rare creature.

The Kirtland’s has always been hard to find. Scientists didn’t realize the species even existed until 1851. More than half a century passed before they found the nesting grounds, and then it was quite by accident. In 1903, two Michigan ornithologists happened to be trout fishing a half hour from where I am standing when they stumbled onto the mother lode of the Kirtland’s.

The main reason the bird is so rare is that it’s incredibly fussy. It will breed only in stands of jack pines. And they have to be young jack pines, trees so small that a skirt of branches nearly touches the ground. The branches shield nests from predators. And these stands of young trees have to stretch out over large tracts.

That kind of habitat occurs after a forest fire. For a long while, after this part of Michigan was heavily logged, there were plenty of fires and plenty of warblers in the region. Enter Smokey the Bear. In the 1950s and 1960s, efforts to stamp out forest fires nearly stamped out Kirtland’s warblers. The mature forests Smokey favored were of no interest to the birds. From the late-1970s to the mid-1980s, their population was down to fewer than 400 birds.

But Smokey wasn’t the only problem. Brown-headed cowbirds also helped push the warblers toward extinction. Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests when the parents aren’t looking. The baby cowbirds hatch first and, being bigger and more aggressive, quickly hog the food and even push young warblers out of the nest. One study in the 1960s and 1970s found that 70 percent of Kirtland’s warblers were babysitting cowbirds. That, along with habitat loss, amounted to a recipe for extinction.

Recently, the warbler’s numbers have rebounded a bit, thanks to state and federal efforts to control cowbirds and to restore pockets of young jack pine. The most recent survey by Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources tallied 1,791 singing males.

The birds are still endangered, of course, so the most responsible—and easiest—way to see them is to take one of the tours offered by U.S. government agencies from late spring through mid-summer. I, along with my friend Mark and wife Ann, opt for a tour sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) out of Grayling. We ended up being the only takers for a tour that June morning.

A smart young guy from FWS, Jeremy Banfield, is our guide. First, he showed us a 15-minute video giving the history of the warbler and the lowdown on its current status. We paid particular attention to the Kirtland’s song—tchip-tchip, too-too, way-o—on a sound track. After that, we piled into Mark’s car and followed Jeremy’s pickup to go look for warblers. And we can certainly hear them. To assuage our frustration at not seeing the birds, Jeremy shows us the special cowbird trap, a wire cage the size of a walk-in closet. Part of the top has larger mesh big enough for cowbirds to drop through. They’re not smart enough to figure out how to get out. We resume our search for the warbler.

Ann, who has the sharpest eyes of anybody I know, spots the first Kirkland’s in the top of a small oak tree that pokes up above the pines. Mark and I are soon finding birds, too. It turns out that part of the trick to finding the warblers is realizing how loud they are. If a bird sounds like it is 10 yards away, it’s probably 30 yards away. And because the trees are so dense, our best views are when the birds flit up into relatively bare branches of small oaks mixed in with the pines.

As a hard-core birder, I scarcely go to the mailbox without a pair of binoculars. For this outing I have a spotting scope, too. Eventually we manage to focus it on one of the males, and everybody gets a good look. It’s a small bird, not as big as a sparrow, with a slate blue back and yellow underparts and a few black streaks on the chest. We watch it sing from a perch above the pines. It throws its head up and puts everything it has into the song, its shoulders shaking as it belts out the call.—John Pancake

Free tours offered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Michigan Audubon Society leave at 7 and 11 a.m. from the Ramada Inn in Grayling between May 15 and early July (517-351-2555). U.S. Forest Service tours are $5 and leave at 7 a.m. from the district ranger office in Mio (989-826-3252). Reservations are recommended for large groups.

Birding Etiquette

Being a responsible bird-watcher is particularly important when seeking out rare species. Here are a few tips to minimize your impact:

Endangered birds are protected by law; always obey the rules.
Opt for guided tours when offered.
Keep your distance. Don’t get too near nests, courtship-display areas or busy feeding sites.
Be unobtrusive. Keep talk to a minimum.
Don’t feed the birds, and don’t overdo the use of vocal calls or recordings to attract them. Such interruptions can be biologically costly.

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