Leelanau Peninsula Birding Festival Features Kirtland’s Warbler

By Kay Charter

Four years ago, popular local TV personality Dave Barrons and I discussed ways to raise awareness about birds and bird conservation in Leelanau County.  Dave has also long been interested in increasing tourism in the county. I suggested we hold a county birding festival. Dave’s first reaction was understandably reluctance. “We have too many festivals,” he said.

Photo Credit - U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Photo Credit – U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

He was right. There are a lot of festivals in our area, featuring everything from cherries and boats to wine and walleye. But this, I argued, would be different, and it would appeal to an entirely different demographic. We had everything we needed: An endangered species (Piping Plover) and many varied habitats on land accessible to the public. He thought about it, agreed and we were on our way. Soon, we also had a beautiful home for our event, the historic Fountain Point Inn in Lake Leelanau.

The following year, the Leelanau Peninsula Birdfest was born. By then we had put a committee together, and the Leelanau Peninsula Chamber of Commerce had signed on as sponsor. We asked ourselves how many attendees it would take for us to consider that we’d had a successful event and decided on fifty participants. A hundred and thirty eight signed up. For our second year, in spite of cold, rain, wind and cancelled activities, we matched our first year in attendance. Also in spite of nasty weather, expert birder Brian Allen located 73 species on his field trip to Otter Creek. That would have been an astounding number under warm, sunny skies, which offers some insight into the extent of his skills.

This year we changed our name to Leelanau Peninsula Birding Festival to raise our ranking on the Internet. There are a few other changes, one of which is unwelcome. Because of the federal budget sequestration, our popular Piping Plover programs and field trips have been cancelled. Thanks to local plover expert Alice Van Zoeren, we will still offer a program about challenges facing and efforts on behalf of these delightful little shorebirds. But there will be no field trips to see them.

Last summer, the U.S. Forest Service requested that we include the Kirtland’s Warbler in our festival. Thus we are still able to offer trips to see an endangered species. A bus will leave Fountain Point and travel to a Kirtland’s Warbler site east of Kalkaska. That bus will also stop at the restored Flowing Well Trout Farm to find the state threatened Golden-winged Warbler.

Endangered species help to bring birders to any region where they exist, but the status is, of course, not so good for the listed species. The news for the Kirtland’s Warbler is great on that front. When my husband and I first saw the bird in the late 1980’s, we were told that it would be extinct within a decade. But it did not go extinct. In fact, population numbers have improved to the point that it is no longer considered endangered. It will, over the course of the next several years, be de-listed. But that does not mean this large warbler no longer needs care and protection.

Kirtland’s Warblers require areas with small jack pines for nesting, habitat historically dependent on periodic fires. Rotational timbering and replanting trees have replaced fires. Cowbird trapping is also crucial for nesting success. Continued viability will clearly require human involvement. Over the next couple of years, care of the bird will gradually be transferred from state and federal agencies to the nonprofit Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance.

Does that mean our festival will no longer consider this species attractive enough to warrant its own trip? Not on your life. Kirtland’s Warbler is still a very special bird; it is rare and will always be much sought after.

The Third Annual Leelanau Peninsula Birding Festival will be held May 29 – June 2. Go to www.mibirdfest.com  to register, or to find out details about it.

Kay Charter is Executive Director of Saving Birds Thru Habitat and co-owner of Charter Sanctuary for breeding and migrating birds. She also sits on the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance committee.

About Northern Michigan Conservation Network

The mission of the Northern Michigan Conservation Network is to "connect conservation-minded hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts to those issues affecting Michigan's forests, waters, and wildlife."

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