Audubon in Action

The Perfect Gift for Golden-winged Warblers

An unusual partnership in North Carolina turned an old Christmas tree farm into vital habitat for the birds—and fragrant oils for people.

The pleasant smell and needle-retention capabilities of the Fraser fir have made it a fixture in living rooms during the holidays. Even presidents are fans; Fraser firs are one of the most-favored Christmas trees in the White House. But the conifer species is far less popular with a particularly finicky and threatened songbird—the Golden-winged Warbler.

When it’s time to nest, these tiny, yellow-capped birds prefer deciduous forests with shrubby openings. That’s pretty much the opposite of an overgrown plot of Christmas trees. And in western North Carolina, where Fraser fir farms are widespread, Golden-winged Warblers are already suffering from a steep decline in habitat. But in the spirit of Christmas, one conservation organization is trying to put Fraser firs to a different, more aromatic use—while clearing land for warblers at the same time.

For decades, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy has been protecting thousands of acres in the Highlands of Roan, on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, to conserve habitat for Golden-winged Warblers and other threatened species.

The habitat loss that is threatening the warblers has to do with broader changes in land-use patterns, which have left the birds with less of the young, new-growth forest they prefer. “There’s less farming and there’s less forestry, and the trees are actually growing back into mature forests,” says Aimee Tomcho, conservation biologist with Audubon North Carolina. “And while that’s good for some species, it’s not good for Golden-winged Warblers.” The result has been that, in the Appalachian Mountains, the species’ population has plummeted by more than 95 percent over the past half century.

Much of the land being protected by the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy is the kind of shrubby fields and early-growth forests the warblers need to nest. But the organization ran into an unexpected glitch with the recent acquisition of a small parcel near Hampton Creek Cove State Natural Area: acres of the property were covered in overgrown Fraser firs, leftover from a defunct Christmas tree farm.

“It’s kind of an odd habitat to deal with,” says Marquette Crockett, Roan Stewardship Director at the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. “It’s so not natural. You don’t really want it to grow up into super dense Fraser fir woodlands, because that’s not really a habitat that would have been there.”

To thin the forest, Crockett and her team opened the land to people who wanted to chop down their own Christmas trees. Their hope was that the trees could be harvested and put to use, but demand proved too tepid.

So, in partnership with Audubon North Carolina, the organization took a more proactive approach. Using $1,500 in grant money from Audubon and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the organization paid to have the trees cleared, and donated the timber to Ian Montgomery and his essential oils company, Blue Ridge Aromatics

Montgomery has been making oils since he started the company in 2015, often using leftover plant material that he finds in strange places. He’ll gather discarded Christmas trees or follow around crews clearing forest for power lines to collect fallen hemlock branches. For Montgomery, having access to the fresh timber of an old Fraser fir farm was a windfall. He chopped up the trees and, over the course of several months, went through the arduous process of distilling the limbs and needles into 4.5 liters of essential oils.

Unlike Golden-winged Warblers, Montgomery has become a big fan of Fraser firs. So, too, it would appear, have his customers. “In the past three months it really blew up,” he says. “Some reviews came through on the Fraser fir oil saying it was that [quintessential] Christmas tree smell.” A 1 ounce bottle sold for $30, and he donated 15 percent of the proceeds back to the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. Montgomery was only able to use a small fraction of the timber before it went bad, but what he did make sold fast. He was all out by early December.

The investment has paid off for the birds as well. Last spring, a duo of male Golden-Winged Warblers responded to play-back calls in the Christmas tree field that had been cleared, meaning two new nesting pairs had already moved in. And, as Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy continues to acquire and conserve more land in western North Carolina, there’s potential for the project to act as a pilot program.

Just over the mountains from the old Christmas tree farm, in the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area, the organization has purchased land that also has overgrown tracts of Fraser firs. The essential-oils experiment could be a sign of things to come there and elsewhere. As the organization protects additional land at higher elevations, it has run into more and more tree farms. “We’re hoping it will inform management on a larger scale and provide something positive to do with those old Christmas tree fields,” Marquette says.

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