By CARL STODDARD
Capital News Service
LANSING — 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, the executive director of the Grayling Visitors Bureau, said she has gone on two tours to see the Kirtland’s warblers in their prime nesting areas east of Grayling. And she’s 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 she’s seen “a huge increase in warbler traffic” from around the country and beyond in the last three to four years.
“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 in Crawford County.
Craig Kasmer, a park interpreter with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), leads many of the free tours, which began at Hartwick Pines three years ago. Tours also are offered 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 between 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. They came from 39 states and 10 countries, he said, including Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
Slightly more tour members came in 2015 from 46 states and five countries, he said.
Kasmer said 70 percent of the people on the tours had never before seen a Kirtland’s warbler, but 26 percent had.
“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 area and help visitors see the small birds, said Lindsay Cain, the 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.”
Although a few counties in the northern Lower Peninsula represent the warblers’ primary nesting area, in recent years nesting pairs have been recorded in the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin and Ontario, the Audubon Society says.
Because of its restricted home range and unique habitat requirements, the Kirtland’s warbler probably has always been rare, according to the DNR. Scientists did not describe the bird until 1851 when a male was collected near Cleveland.
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.
Males 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 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 Traci Cook, executive director of the Grayling Regional Chamber of Commerce. “This in turn increases overnight stays at our local lodging, food and retail establishments.”
To sign up for a tour, large groups should go to the Michigan Audubon website, michiganaudubon.org. Small groups or individuals may call or come to the visitor 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 to 31 at the Mio Ranger District of the Huron-Manistee National Forest. The three-hour tours begin at 7:30 a.m. at the Mio Ranger District office, 107 McKinley Road, Mio. 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.