Small birds have a big impact on Northern Michigan’s economy

LANSING — The small birds have tourists and birdwatchers flocking in large numbers to northern Michigan, a favorite nesting area for rare Kirtland warblers, which were once nearly extinct.

Ilene Geiss-Wilson, executive director of the Grayling Visitors Bureau, said she made two visits to see Kirtland’s warblers in their main nesting areas east of Grayling. And she is hardly alone.

“There’s a lot of interest” in warblers, Geiss-Wilson said. “We have people contacting us. They fly in from other countries for a day or two just to check this bird off their list. It’s quite incredible.

Diane Tomlinson, owner of Woodland Motor Lodge in Grayling, said she has seen “a huge increase in warbler traffic” across the country and beyond over the past three to four years.

“There’s definitely been an increase in people staying at our hotel because of the Kirtland warblers,” Tomlinson said.

A visitor flew from Europe to Detroit, rented a car, drove to Grayling, stayed at his hotel for three days and went out to see the birds, she said. “Then he returned to Europe.”

His hotel is the most frequented by warbler watchers from May to 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 are also offered by a guide hired by the Michigan Audubon Society.

Warblers like to nest among young jack pines, and there are numerous stands of trees on state land between Grayling and Mio, said Kasmer, who calls the area “central warbler.”

“It’s a major tourist attraction in the spring,” he said.

Last year, Kasmer said, they held 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% of people on the tours had never seen the Kirtland warbler, but 26% had.

“So it’s quite interesting that they’re coming back to see this rare bird,” he said.

“These birds are nest-loyal,” Kasmer said. “They are born there (in jack pines) and come back there every year. The population on the site is therefore increasing.

The tours began as a way to highlight warbler conservation efforts in the area and help visitors see the little birds, said Lindsay Cain, education coordinator for the Michigan Audubon Society.

“There’s hardly anywhere else you can see Kirtland’s warblers” in such large concentrations as the Grayling area, Cain said. “People come from all over the world.”

Although a few northern counties on the Lower Peninsula represent the warblers’ main nesting area, in recent years breeding pairs have been recorded in the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin and Ontario, according to the Audubon Society.

Due to its restricted home range and unique habitat requirements, the Kirtland’s warbler has likely always been rare, according to MNR. Scientists only described the bird in 1851, when a male was caught near Cleveland.

This first specimen was sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The species was eventually named for Jared P. Kirtland, a physician, teacher, horticulturist and naturalist, according to the DNR.

The males arrive in Michigan from the Bahamas between May 3 and May 20, a few days before the females, according to the DNR. Males establish and defend territories, then court females upon arrival.

“Kirtland’s warbler tours attract many warbler enthusiasts as well as those crossing 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, dining and retail establishments.”

To register for a tour, large groups should go to the Michigan Audubon website, michiganaudubon.org. Small groups or individuals can call or come to the Hartwick Pines Visitor Center, 4216 Ranger Road, Grayling, Kasmer said. The phone number is (517) 348-2537.

Warbler tours are also offered from Mio by the US Forest Service daily May 15-31 in the Mio Ranger District of the Huron-Manistee National Forest. 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.