Photo credit: Kristin Sanders

by Bob Dolgan

Last spring, I wrote a story in The Chicago Birder about seeing Kirtland’s warblers on their wintering grounds on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas for the first time (here’s a link to my blog version of the piece). As I noted, I was hoping to achieve a rare double by also viewing Kirtland’s warblers on their breeding grounds in Michigan in the same year. Though I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Michigan, and my wife hails from there, I had never made it to the famed stands of jack-pine near Mio, Michigan, where the bulk of the world’s Kirtland’s warbler spend their summers.

When we won a weekend at a northern Michigan golf resort as part of a school silent auction, we began to hatch a plan to include a stop to see the warbler. We strategically scheduled our trip for late June to leave open the possibility of latching onto a Kirtland’s warbler tour leaving from Hartwick Pines State Park, near Mio (pronounced MY-o). But between dropping off our daughters at my mother-in-law’s and making the most of the discount golf, we weren’t even certain we would have time to see the warbler. Manistee, where we were staying, was essentially on the other side of Michigan, about two hours from Hartwick Pines, and the tours started at 7:30 a.m., a daunting time for two parents who typically savor every moment of sleep away from the kids.

After two beautiful days of golf, we steeled ourselves for an early morning and committed to rising pre-dawn for the trip toward Hartwick Pines. A stunning sunrise greeted us as we made our way east through the bogs and deep woods of the northern part of the Lower Peninsula. It was just getting light when we pulled into the lot at the park visitor center, along with about 20 other Kirtland’s warbler hopefuls. After watching a short film about warbler habitat preservation efforts, a Michigan Audubon Society guide led us in a caravan toward an off-the-grid location several miles away, eventually pulling off the road near a sandy two-track that led into the pines. The skies were clear and the temperature was comfortable. At first glance, the habitat was eerily like that of the Bahamas 1,500 miles and an ocean away. The sandy soil harbored blueberry bushes similar in morphology to the shrubs of the Bahamas, and the stunted jack-pines were reminiscent of the low forests of the islands. Soon enough two warblers appeared, though their white outer tail feathers and yellow patches gave them away as yellow-rumped warblers, a much more frequently seen Setophaga species and one of the more common warblers. Within a few minutes, though, a larger warbler appeared at the top of a dead sapling: this one was unmistakably a Kirtland’s warbler, blue-gray above, broken eye ring and yellow breast, with a bill full of insects no less. As we watched, the bird landed close to the road and disappeared into the brush. When we looked down into a gap in the brush we realized what were seeing. A nest. With fledglings.

We gave the nest a wide berth and began to head back down the road, snapping off photos of two more birds and scanning the unique landscape for a handful of other species. Before long, we were back at the main road and saying farewell to the others in our group. We got in our car and made our way south down I-75 toward a rendezvous with our girls. We were perhaps a little weary from our early morning (4:30 Central wakeup time!) but content in our knowledge that we had tracked Kirtland’s warblers from the Bahamas to Michigan.

Postscript: We unexpectedly made it back to Hartwick Pines for a second time in the summer, when on a family trip we were searching for a place to camp. This time we had more time to explore the state park itself, thoroughly enjoying its beauty and hiking through some of the oldest groves of white pines in Michigan. It was an appropriate coda to our travels in 2018—this time with more sleep.