This Little Warbler Could Lead to Big Discoveries About Migration

After bouncing back from near extinction, the Kirtland's Warbler is helping scientists understand the outsize role of winter habitat for migratory birds.

Nathan Cooper is driving as fast as he dares, through murky April twilight along a twisting road with an unsettling number of pedestrians, free-range chickens, loose dogs, and feral cats. The grandly named Queen’s Highway is a narrow, unmarked strip of potholed macadam that runs the 48-mile length of Cat Island. We need to be at the southern end by sunrise, and we’re late.

Cat Island is well off the main tourist drag in the Bahamas. Shaped like a long, narrow fishhook, it covers just 150 square miles and is so slender that for much of its length it’s only about half a mile wide. Cat is largely flat and featureless, a lot of dry scrub forest bisected by few roads, with barely 1,500 residents. Slash-and-burn farming, raising goats, or fishing for conch are among the only options here.

But what makes Cat Island a tough place for people—its hot, dry climate and hardscrabble soil, the scrubby forest full of highly toxic poisonwood trees, even its herds of ravenous goats—makes it arguably the best wintering spot in the world for the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler. Perhaps a thousand of these half-ounce birds, fully one-fifth­ of the global population, migrate to this relative­ speck of land. And it’s why Cooper, a post-­doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington, D.C., has returned to the Caribbean with his crew for a third winter. They are capitalizing on the warbler’s unique biology to learn how the effects of wintering ground conditions shape the lives of migratory birds.

Scientists once thought of winter as a respite for a migratory bird, an easy-living, tropical hiatus from the serious work of migration and reproduction. But they’re learning that a bad winter can cast a very long shadow, an ecological hangover that can linger for many months and across thousands of miles. Sparse rain and limited food in a bird’s winter habitat can create a caloric deficit that delays the start of its migration and may even force it to effectively cannibalize its own muscle and organs. It raises the already substantial odds of dying on the journey, and even if the bird arrives on the breeding grounds to find ideal conditions, those shortages can sabotage breeding success. Given that the tropical regions on which hundreds of millions of migratory birds depend are already warming and drying—a trend that is expected to accelerate—this discovery has ominous implications at a time when migrant populations are already in steep decline.

It’s ironic, therefore, that as conservationists turn more and more attention to these so-called carry-over effects and how they may determine the fate of hundreds of species, the bird likely to be most illuminating is the Kirtland’s Warbler, a species nearly extinct just a few decades ago, and routinely hailed as an unparalleled conservation success. Thanks to newly miniaturized tracking devices, Cooper’s team will be able to follow dozens of individual warblers north to their breeding grounds in the jack pines of northern Michigan and back again and, for the first time with any species, directly measure how their condition here at their wintering grounds impacts their later migration and nesting success.

The sun is up by the time we reach the southern end of Cat Island, where we’re surrounded by scruffy, jumbled woodland, the tallest trees maybe 15 feet high, the understory impenetrable. “We work on the roads, mostly,” Cooper says as he shrugs on a bulky pack, sliding an unsheathed machete through the straps behind his back. “We tried to bushwhack through this stuff the other day, and it took us two hours to go 600 meters.”

Cooper is 37, with unruly brown curls, chin whiskers, and the compactly muscular torso of an avid rock climber. The other half of the team today is Chris Fox, quiet and darkly bearded, taking a break from his desk job with an Indiana conservation district. Fox slings a heavy radio receiver over his shoulder and grabs aluminum mist-net poles, while Cooper turns on a handheld caller and strides down the sand road at a brisk pace, blasting the song of a male Kirtland’s Warbler into the brush. (The always reliable David Allen Sibley transliterates its song as a “rich, emphatic flip lip lip-lip-tiptip-CHIDIP rising in pitch and intensity.”)

We trudge up one road, over a small hill past a vacant home with hurricane shutters in place, and down another. A fusillade of angry chips comes from the underbrush, the sign of an aggressive warbler, and minutes after the two biologists set up their net along the edge of the woods, the Kirtland’s launches itself in righteous rage at the sound of what it thinks is an intruder, and right into the mesh.

A male, the warbler weighs 16.5 grams, about three-fifths of an ounce—a couple of grams heavier than normal, and a sign that this bird has been finding lots of fruit and bugs. “He may be ready to go in the next couple of days—I think we’ve caught him as he’s bulking up,” Cooper says. In addition to routine measurements, the researchers take a few drops of blood from a vein in the bird’s wing and scoop a little poop (helpfully splattered on Cooper’s pants)—a colleague is looking at how the warblers’ microbiome changes from winter to summer. Finally, the bird gets a unique set of colored leg bands and a transmitter that sits low on its back.

Known as nanotags, these tiny radio transmitters weigh a fraction of a gram and are tracked by a fast-growing network of more than 350 automated receiver stations set up across the hemisphere. It’s the middle of April, and if all goes well, when the birds leave Cat Island in a few weeks, those receiver sites will allow Cooper to follow them as they migrate north. Once they reach Michigan, 11 receivers covering basically the entire core breeding range of the species will allow him to quickly relocate the tagged birds.

The very aspects of the warbler’s ecology that make the species the ideal lens through which to understand the causes and consequences of carry-over effects—its highly specialized habitat requirements, the incredibly restricted size of its breeding and winter ranges—are the same ones that brought it to within a hairs-breadth of extinction. Naturally rare, its breeding habitat almost disappeared due to fire suppression in the 20th century, while nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds further shrank its productivity. By 1974 scientists could find just 167 singing male Kirtland’s Warblers, and the species seemed headed to oblivion. But last-ditch conservation measures—the creation of new nesting habitat and aggressive trapping of cowbirds—succeeded beyond almost anyone’s dreams. Today there are roughly 5,000 warblers.

But until recently almost all the scientific and conservation attention has been directed to Michigan; the Bahamian wintering grounds have mostly been ignored. If Cooper and his colleagues are right, though, conditions here may prove to be the species’ Achilles’ heel in a fast-changing world.


The next morning, following overnight rains, the air is muggy and warm even before sunrise. We fishtail back along another sand road, through vegetation that’s barely waist-high—perfect for Kirtland’s Warblers. “This is what they’re eating,” Cooper says, pointing to a low shrub, and I do a double-take trying to see what, exactly, he’s talking about. “Right here—this is black torch, one of their favorite food plants,” he explains, showing me its minute, desiccated fruits. The bird’s other staple, a lantana sometimes known as wild sage, has purple fruits that are about the size of pinheads. The best habitat for these shrubs—and thus for the birds—seems to be abandoned fields and heavily grazed goat pastures, disturbed scrub that is maintained, however accidentally, by the rudimentary farming practiced on Cat.

After hours of effort, we finally tag the crew’s 59th Kirtland’s of the season. With only a few days left, it’s clear Cooper won’t hit his goal of putting nanotags on 100 warblers (In the end, they will tag 63.) But he’s satisfied, even as he looks ahead to months’ more work up in Michigan finding, retrapping, and monitoring these same birds.

That afternoon we sit on the covered deck of the beach house they’ve rented for the season. Cumulus clouds gather as Cooper outlines the history of research into carry-over effects. Soon rain is drumming on the corrugated plastic roof—fitting, since a lot of what he tells me has to do with how precipitation during the traditional winter dry season may ultimately determine a warbler’s chances.

As far back as the 1970s, waterfowl scientists had an inkling that the effects of wintering-ground conditions might carry over into the nesting season. But most experts assumed that the real driving force in a bird’s reproductive success was the quality of its nesting habitat, not what had happened to it months earlier. The breakthrough came in 1998, when Cooper’s boss at the Smithsonian, Peter Marra—then a Ph.D. student at Dartmouth—published research on American Redstarts and sparked an intellectual gold rush into carry-over effects.

Marra and his colleagues found that in Jamaica, redstarts in wet mangrove forest (typically older, more dominant males) fared well, while forcing young males and females into dry scrub habitat, where they generally lost weight. Because at that time there was no way to track individual warblers north, Marra instead captured different redstarts in New England in the breeding season and looked at the ratios of stable carbon isotopes in their blood, which reflected how damp or dry their winter habitat had been. He (and later his students) found that those birds arriving earliest, enjoying the best selection of territories and mates, were those that had wintered in wet forest, while birds with the scrub signature showed up late to the game, weighed less than early arrivals, and were in overall poorer condition. Females from dry habitat had fewer chicks, and those chicks fledged later than those of mothers from good winter habitat. Dry-habitat warblers also had a greater risk of dying in migration.

And it’s not just warblers; many researchers have confirmed the importance of carry-over effects in a range of migratory birds, from auklets to shearwaters. Scientists studying Old World songbirds have shown stark correlations between breeding success in Europe and winter rainfall in the Sahel, the arid southern fringe of the Sahara where millions of the birds winter.

Rainfall appears to be the critical factor for Kirtland’s, too. Back in 1981, conservationists noticed a connection between wetter winters in the Bahamas and male warbler numbers in Michigan. More recently another scientist in Marra’s lab, Sarah Rockwell, was able to show specifically that if the rains fail in March, the warblers’ migration mortality rate jumps significantly. In such situations, the birds arrive later on the breeding grounds, are late in starting nests, and fledge fewer chicks.

But as the brief shower ends, Cooper notes that all the carry-over research up to this point has been indirect; the best that researchers can do is make inferences, and our understanding of how one season affects others is still rudimentary. Over the past 20 years there has remained one frustrating disconnect—researchers’ inability to easily study the same individual along its entire life cycle, from winter through migration and breeding and back again.

“There’s so much individual variation in all these things that it’s so much harder to find a signal in the noise,” Cooper says. “But if you’re looking at the exact same bird [each time], you can control for a lot of that variation.”

That’s what makes this project so ground-breaking. With both winter and summer data in hand, Cooper hopes to eventually start teasing apart how a warbler’s fat stores on Cat Island affected its departure date and migration speed, or whether its muscle mass predicted its arrival date in Michigan or the likelihood of its disappearance en route. In the seasons to come, Cooper and Marra want to drill down into the still poorly understood question of how Kirtland’s Warblers are using the Bahamas in winter. For example: Why do some individuals hunker down in one spot all season while others roam widely? Are the strategies tied to age or sex, and is one more successful than the other?

The scientists also hope to expand the research to multiple islands in the chain, each of which has its own rainfall regimen, and thus gain better insights into the effects of winter precipitation as they track departures, flight times, and breeding successes. There is so much to learn. And the lessons coming from Cat Island will also have broad implications for migrants throughout the Caribbean and Central America, where the majority of North America’s neotropical songbirds spend the winter. As with the Kirtland’s, the ways in which winter conditions affect their migration survival and breeding success have barely been scratched.

The information that the tagged Kirtland’s Warblers should provide comes just in time, as the species, despite its robust recovery, could be reaching a climatological tipping point. Climate models suggest the Caribbean region, one of the most important songbird wintering areas on Earth, will continue to dry out as the planet warms. Alarmingly, Rockwell’s rainfall analysis concluded that as little as a further 12 percent reduction in average winter precipitation in the Bahamas could send Kirtland’s Warblers back into decline.

That level of climate change isn’t theoretical; Rockwell noted that since the 1950s, rainfall in the Bahamas has already decreased up to 14 percent on at least one island. A study published in July 2017 by Cornell researchers and others, layering climate modeling over eBird data on songbird distribution, predicts that less rain on the wintering grounds, combined with warmer and rainier conditions in the north, will challenge many species that winter in the Neotropics. In the end, the carry-over effects from such changes may make or break the long-term survival of hundreds of species.

Two months later, at the end of June, I reconnect with Nathan Cooper and his team near Luzerne, Michigan, about three hours north of Detroit in the middle of the Huron-Manistee National Forests. It’s miles of two-lane road to get there, through forests of mixed hardwoods and deep pines, across tannin-stained creeks that flow into the Au Sable River.

It’s been a long field season for Cooper, and he looks exhausted. The day after returning from the Bahamas, he drove to Michigan and began erecting the network of nearly a dozen 40-foot-high receiver towers around the breeding grounds, which were finished just in time to catch the arrival of the first tagged warbler on May 14. Of the 63 birds they’d tagged in the Bahamas, receivers along the East Coast detected the signals of 30 in migration—in Florida and Georgia, in western Pennsylvania, along the shore of Lake Erie in Ohio, and in southern Ontario. Thirty-three Kirtland’s Warblers—including some that weren’t detected en route—would eventually be found in Michigan by Cooper’s team; five of the birds detected in migration weren’t relocated in Michigan, possibly because they didn’t nest in the core range.

Later, when he reviews the data, Cooper will make a surprising discovery: An unusual number of the 25 tagged warblers that vanished en route seem to have disappeared in the initial 300 or so miles between Cat Island and the U.S. coast, not the much longer leg from Florida and Georgia to Michigan. Does that mean these birds weren’t in good enough condition and faltered immediately? It’s possible, but Cooper is cautious about drawing conclusions. The tracking data do, however, confirm earlier evidence that the departure date from the Bahamas determines the arrival date in Michigan; late-leaving birds can’t seem to make up lost time. It’s still more confirmation that conditions on the wintering grounds are critically important.

The sun hasn’t yet risen as I squirm through a dew-soaked stand of jack pine, trying to follow Smithsonian interns Cassandra Waldrop and Justin Peel as they, in turn, follow a singing male warbler—a bird Waldrop suspects is one of the tagged males from the Bahamas. It’s hard to overstate how confusingly featureless Kirtland’s habitat appears to a human encountering it for the first time. The trees are eight to twelve feet high, planted five or six feet apart, and form a gray-green wall through which you must force yourself. When we finally locate the target male, his legs are bare—not one of the tagged Cat Island birds. Later, the pair leads me to a tagged male and his mate. The male chips and fusses at us while the female sits tight on her grass-lined cup. Nearby, another male scolds me at barely arm’s length, several caterpillars clamped in his beak, as one of his fledglings balances uneasily on a branch. That baby is a data point, a partial answer to the question of how its father’s winter condition will affect his success as a breeder.

Fotografía y video: Karine Aigner

Now as the nesting season wanes and the families start to break up, the research team is trying to net the tagged birds for a final check-up and to deploy fresh transmitters (the batteries peter out shortly after arrival in Michigan) that will reveal when the birds depart the nesting grounds. On my final morning in Michigan, we catch a warbler that eluded us the previous day—an adult male tagged on April 5 at an abandoned goat farm on Cat Island. He left the Bahamas on May 2 and was picked up by a tracking tower in Florida. On May 17 his signal was detected at Holiday Beach in southwestern Ontario, and he was found by Cooper’s team the next day near Grayling, Michigan, almost 200 miles to the northwest. He was trapped on May 28, and in the following weeks he and his mate raised four chicks—a prime example of a successful migrant. Cooper snips free the dead transmitter and quickly fits a replacement. “See you in the Bahamas,” he says as the bird flies away.

The clouds clotting the horizon unleash a downpour as we pack up our gear. It is an apt end, given water’s outsized importance to the species’ fate. The future promises not only drier winter habitat, but a whole lot less of it. One afternoon back on Cat Island, I’d followed Cooper up Mount Alvernia, 206 feet above the ocean—the highest point in the Bahamas. Eighty percent of the Bahamas lies three feet or less above sea level, which means that even a modest (and at this point, probably unavoidable) degree of sea-level rise will inundate huge portions of the archipelago in this century.

“You can imagine a lot of that habitat being lost,” Cooper said. “Nearly all of the focus on Kirtland’s Warbler conservation so far has been on the breeding grounds—and rightly so, it’s been very successful. But that doesn’t mean [breeding habitat] is always going to be the limiting factor. We have to start to think, ‘Are there ways we ameliorate some of these effects on the wintering grounds?’ “

Promoting habitat management that benefits the warblers is one approach, and an alliance including Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, the Bahamas National Trust, and other groups working under the umbrella of the Kirtland’s Warbler Conservation Team recently drafted a research and habitat protection plan for the warblers’ wintering grounds (see “A Road Map for Resilience,” below).

Another intriguing possibility is that the species might expand beyond its limited, mostly Bahamian winter quarters, just as a few now breed outside of their traditional northern Michigan range, in Wisconsin and southern Ontario. At least a few already go to Cuba, and sightings have been reported from Turks and Caicos as well. This past February one was even photographed near Miami, the first winter record for the United States.

There’s no way to force that issue, though. As in most birds, migration in warblers is genetically encoded, not learned. But there are always a few individuals born with a hiccup in their software, so to speak, which sends them in unexpected directions. When conditions change, those pioneers may be perfectly positioned to exploit the new situation.

One thing is certain: Wintering-ground conditions are going to change. Oceans will rise, climates will dry, hurricanes will grow more ferocious, and life is going to get a lot more challenging for millions of migrants. Looking down at the low-lying forests of Cat Island, Nathan Cooper had a note of resignation in his voice. “If the Bahamas are under water, a lot more Kirtland’s Warblers are going to be wintering in Cuba,” he says. “They’ll have to.”


A Road Map for Resilience

Researchers are only beginning to understand the complex relationship between the Kirtland’s Warbler’s wintertime habitat and its migratory and breeding success, but what is clear is that the bird needs all the help it can get on both sides of its migration. That’s why Audubon’s International Alliances Program has been working with partners that include researchers (Nathan Cooper is one of them), NGOs like the Bahamas National Trust, the College of the Bahamas, and the Bahamian government’s forestry unit to kick off conservation work on the islands. The Non-Breeding Subcommittee of the Kirtland’s Warbler Conservation Team, as the group is called, coalesced in 2016. At that point, a group led by the Nature Conservancy’s Dave Ewert had been researching the ecology of Kirtland’s in the Bahamas for over a decade. The subcommittee, led by Ewert, aims to take that work to the next level with an actionable plan. “We’re trying to look ahead to climate change and get more practical,” says Matt Jeffery, the deputy director of the International Alliances Program.

The plan, which they aim to finalize in April, will serve as a road map for protecting the species in its wintering grounds and migration stopovers. Among the priorities: identifying pockets of habitat for conservation that could serve as a refuge as water becomes scarce and partnering with local communities to manage land in a way that benefits both the warblers and the economy. There are still questions to be answered and decisions to be made—and additional funding to be secured—before on-the-ground work begins in earnest. But the plan is a first step toward creating a safety net in the place the birds may end up needing it most. —Molly Bennet


This story originally ran in the Spring 2018 issue as "Spring Forward."  To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today