Golden-winged Warbler / Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
When DNR conservation wardens, foresters and wildlife biologists responded to a massive July 2011 wind storm that leveled trees for miles across northwestern Wisconsin, they handled a variety of widespread problems, which for some are still an issue today.
Yet out of the wind-strewn wreckage comes a happy “re-start” for the tiny Golden-winged Warbler, one of the most threatened, non-federally listed bird species in eastern North America.
While Mother Nature was the force behind the summer wind storm, a unique set of partners—the state of Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), six county governments in the state, private landowners, and American Bird Conservancy (ABC)—have united to take advantage of this opportunity to create the required habitat for the Golden-winged Warbler.
“Generally, most people saw the blow-down as massively destructive,” Wisconsin DNR Wildlife Biologist Bob Hanson says. “However, with the correct management prescription, it actually has provided some great habitat for this potentially endangered species. The shotgun pattern the storm left created new areas of young forest, a requirement of the Golden-winged Warbler.”
The Golden-winged Warbler has suffered one of the steepest population declines of any songbird species in the past 45 years. Breeding bird surveys in Wisconsin show the species is declining in the state at a rate of nearly four percent a year. As Wisconsin and Minnesota are the two states with the largest remaining populations of the species, their role in creating and managing habitat for the long-term survival of this bird is of paramount importance.
While the Golden-winged Warbler is a forest bird, it nests in areas comprising a patchwork of saplings, shrubs, grasses and remnant trees that serve as song perches and foraging sites. These areas of early successional habitat or “young forests” are just that: forests that are between the ages of about three to 15 years old. The golden-wings will use young forests in the vicinity of mature forests for nesting until the forest canopy envelops the shrubs and grasses, changing the habitat conditions.
After the Wisconsin blow-down event, DNR and the area’s county forests began salvage operations of the downed trees to help with clean-up efforts. By using best management practices for the Golden-winged Warbler, optimal habitat for nesting is being created via the salvage operations.
“Approximately 90,000 acres of wind-damaged timber has been accounted for,” DNR Forestry Specialist Steve Runstrom says. “Our data collection combined with aerial observations and on-the-ground observations indicate that more than 80 percent of the most heavily damaged timber has been salvaged or is currently under contract to be salvaged in the near future. The volume of timber salvaged is approximately 1.5 to 2 million cords.”
ABC and its partners have been working to identify those areas affected by the blow-down that have the potential to be salvaged as optimal Golden-winged Warbler habitat in northwestern Wisconsin. So far, over 13,000 acres of potential habitat have been identified on public lands in the blow-down area. By using forestry guidelines that benefit the Golden-winged Warbler, these acres should become high-quality nest habitat for this species.
Runstrom says credit for the storm recovery is due to many workers across all levels of area government as well as private property owners. “They took the action to repair their property and salvage their timber. A strong, rapid response by our timber industry partners was also critical to the success of this salvage effort and recovery from the storm’s impact,” Runstrom says.
Using the proper techniques, salvage operations are turning what looked like a mess into important breeding habitat for the Golden-winged Warbler, one of the state’s most iconic long-distance migratory birds. Many other species of wildlife also benefit from the creation of this young forest habitat. These beneficiaries include American Woodcock and Ruffed Grouse, as well as black bear and even bobcat.
While the bogs and wetlands of the North Woods still provide some of the best Golden-winged Warbler habitat, wetland draining, increased human development, fire suppression, maturing forests, and lack of timber harvests (especially on private land), have decreased the amount of optimal young forest conditions across the range of the Golden-winged Warbler. As such, conservationists, wildlife biologists, and foresters are working together on the landscape to continually ensure there are sufficient young forest patches for this and other species that require this habitat.
“The blow-down actually helped to recreate some of the conditions Golden-winged Warblers need,” Andrew Rothman, Director of ABC’s Migratory Bird Program, says.
More news from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.