Warblers, sometimes called “wood-warblers”, are a group of tiny, highly vocal, often brightly colored songbirds. Every year in May they arrive in New York from Central and South America where they overwinter. They breed and fledge their young in the north before returning south in the fall. Warblers are mainly insectivorous, and their spring migration mirrors the return of the buggy season as summer approaches. As leaves first appear in the woods each spring, keep your eyes and ears open for returning warblers.
Since at least the mid-1960s, the Golden-winged Warbler, once plentiful across New York and large areas of the eastern United States, has been quietly disappearing. Intense studies over the past few decades have helped to determine the causes of the dramatic declines, and identify what New York landowners can do to help this increasingly rare bird. As researchers began to look into the potential reasons for their dwindling numbers, one thing became immediately clear, this bird was not the only thing disappearing. The breeding habitat was also being lost.
There are many types of forests, but all of them change as they grow older. Older forests have trees in all shapes and sizes; the bigger ones stretch up high and crowd out the sun from reaching lower levels of the forest. Younger forests have few big, old trees, but they have bushes and shrubs as well as many smaller trees all competing to become big, old trees someday. Young forests, which were once regularly created by beaver activity, natural wildfires and logging, have been growing into old forests in the absence of periodic disturbances. Scientists have known for a long time that some birds are dependent for a large portion of their life cycle on young forest, some are dependent on older forest, and some are dependent on a mix of both. Golden-wings prefer young forest with old forest nearby.
Although Golden-winged Warblers nest and forage primarily in young forests, they also use older forests for foraging, and young birds often make their way to older forests for cover soon after they leave the nest. As New York’s forests continue to recover, following a period of heavy agriculture and logging around the turn of the last century, the lack of periodic disturbances that maintain small amounts of younger, regenerating forest, is resulting in the loss of golden-wings and their habitat.
The good news is that breeding habitat loss is something New Yorkers can do something about, giving this brightly colored songbird and other young forest species a fighting chance at a future. To ensure this future, Audubon New York is working with forest owners in key places around New York to create small patches of young forest while preserving the older forests nearby.
In the St. Lawrence Valley of northern New York, the home of the largest remaining population of Golden-winged Warbler in the state, Audubon has partnered with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to restore habitat for this bird. An Audubon biologist works out of the NRCS office in Watertown to provide outreach about the importance of young forest habitat and information about available federal financial incentives like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which can help private landowners cover the cost of managing habitat for young forest wildlife like the Golden-winged Warbler and the American Woodcock. Other partners include the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Thousand Islands Land Trust, the Indian River Lakes Conservancy, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Clarkson University. Together, these partners have managed state lands for golden-wings and helped create three habitat demonstration areas where other landowners can see first-hand what young forest bird habitat looks like as they work with Audubon’s biologist to make a plan for their own lands.
In the Hudson Highlands of southeastern New York, Audubon is working with New York State Parks biologists at Harriman and Sterling Forest State Parks to identify the right places to create habitat for golden-wings. In 2016, the Palisades Interstate Parks Commission and Audubon New York partnered to fit individual Golden-winged Warblers and closely related Blue-winged Warblers with geolocators, which are small devices that measure day length and allow for specific locations of each bird to be calculated when in migration and while on wintering grounds in South America. This information will help Audubon and our partners identify additional conservation actions to save the Golden-winged Warbler.
To learn more about the Golden-winged Warbler, and ongoing conservation efforts, visit the Golden- winged Warbler working group website at www.GWWA.org. For more information on what you can do to help conserve the Golden-winged Warbler in New York, visit our homepage at http://ny.audubon.org/.