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Improving habitat for golden-winged warblers in the Great Lakes region: Lake Countians can help

From Erin M. Loeffler

Soil Conservation Tech, USDA

Private forest landowners can harvest timber to create habitat that will help one of the most imperiled migratory songbirds in North America: the golden-winged warbler (GWWA). From 1966-2010, this species experienced one of the most precipitous declines of any songbird in the United States. Historically, the GWWA nested in early successional forest sites created by natural disturbance that stretched from northwestern Minnesota to Appalachia, as far south as Tennessee and east to New Hampshire. Declines in the GWWA numbers can be attributed to fragmentation or loss of young deciduous forest breeding habitat, range displacement and hybridization with the Blue-winged Warbler, and nest parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird. Today the GWWA management region that includes northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin represents a last stronghold for the GWWA, containing approximately 57 percent of the world’s remaining nesting population. As a result, Minnesota is a key state in an international initiative to save the GWWA from further population decline. Successfully achieving GWWA population goals will require creating, restoring and maintaining forested landscapes with balanced distributions of young and mature forests in Minnesota.

Private land owners can play a pivotal role in creating habitat for this species on their property with as little as 10 acres. In addition to providing support for the Golden-winged Warbler, young forests also create important habitat for other declining species like the American Woodcock, as well as more common game species like Ruffed Grouse, black bear, deer and wild turkey.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and American Bird Conservancy have joined forces to help private landowners design and implement the development of early successional habitat on qualifying lands. An incentive program is in place to attract potential habitat restoration projects on private lands that are within the GWWA focal area. The incentive payments are designed to offset the expense of the projects, compensate landowners for trees reserved from harvest and promote the creation of this type of habitat immediately. Payments are made on a per-acre basis and are depending on the type of project. An ABC forester has been hired to design and layout the habitat treatment acres and to assure that the treatments comply with NRCS practice standards.

The most common mechanical treatment to create GWWA habitat is the harvest and regeneration of aspen species. The cuts must meet certain criteria to be eligible for the incentive payments. An example of a common treatment is patch clearcutting conducted on several smaller units while mature forest is maintained in the adjacent forest matrix. Another example is cutting larger forest blocks dominated by aspen or northern hardwoods, while retaining an evenly spaced number of healthy trees (5-15/acre). Larger cutting blocks with 15 percent of the cover type reserved as small legacy patches are another good example of a way to create adequate GWWA nesting habitat. Finally, early successional habitat can be created in oak, birch, ash, and northern hardwood cover types or by shearing decadent upland brush or pole-sized aspen saplings.

To learn whether you qualify for this program, write to Erin M. Loeffler, Soil Conservation Tech, USDA-NRCS, 4850 Miller Trunk Hwy.