Picture yourself as a retiree. You move to a little place in the North amid a lush jack pine forest. A year later, the Forest Service sends in a logging crew and, across the road from your home, lays bare a clear cut. Despite efforts by the state and feds to keep the public aware of pending cuts, this can happen, and the resulting outcry—“people lose it,” Huber says—explains why the politics of Kirtland’s warbler habitat is as important as the science. Multiple use is a boring bureaucratic term, but within it lies the key to getting people to accept what must be done to help the Kirtland’s thrive. To ensure support, people are allowed to hunt the habitat, pick blueberries, hike, and earn money by logging. Just 20 percent is closed from May 1 through August 15 each year. Eco-tourists—that is, birdwatchers who travel here to check the Kirtland’s off their life list—also bring dollars and earn the allegiance of hotel and restaurant owners. Although locals grumble that birders don’t spend nearly as much as snowmobilers do on gasoline and beer.

When Bruce Babbitt, then secretary of the interior under Bill Clinton, came to Mio in 1994, he called the Kirtland’s recovery plan “the Mio model,” and held it up as an example to be studied and replicated: America can merge species protection with economic stability.

But America is where the bird lives only a third of its life, which is why Bahamian Everton Joseph is spending the spring and summer of 2006 in Mio. He’s a 20-year-old college student here to learn about the Kirtland’s nesting range and to spread word of the research being done in his homeland with Dr. Joseph Wunder of the Forest Service and Dr. David Ewert of The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy is funding some of Joseph’s college tuition. The program is ongoing, with new students each year. One goal is to raise the profile of the Kirtland’s in the Bahamas, encouraging people to embrace the bird and preserve habitat as Michiganians have done.

Over a diner breakfast of eggs, bacon and hash browns, Joseph pops open his laptop to click through a PowerPoint show of island photographs and pie charts. “In the Bahamas, the research job is far, far more complicated,” Joseph explains.

For starters, biologists still aren’t sure exactly where the bird winters among the 700 islands that comprise the Bahamas—are they evenly spread out or secretly clustered somewhere? Compare to Michigan, where the birds have until recently congregated in just three Northern Michigan counties (although they are now spotted in 14 counties, including some in the Upper Peninsula) and are relatively easy to see as they perch and sing in the jack pine forests. It wasn’t until 2002 that enough birds (four) were found in a single locale on a single island, Eleuthera—which measures about 120 miles by 5 miles—to justify a sizeable study effort.

And even when biologists find Bahamas birds, they have an extremely difficult time spotting the Kirtland’s. For one, it doesn’t sing, just chirps, in the Bahamas, so clear sound clues are scarce. And the bird’s territory is larger than in Michigan—about 50 acres compared to 10 to 30 acres. Also the bird flits low through the thickest, thorniest part of the island bush. “People think of the Bahamas as all beach and sand,” says Joseph, “but the bush is so thick you can only see five feet into it. It has strong, sharp 4-inch-long thorns that tear your clothes, even your boots.” Joseph went through three pairs of leather boots in seven months. In one study, Joseph’s team spent 6 hours a day for 21 days on a site where they knew Kirtland’s lived and yet saw only three birds the entire time.

Recent advances in miniscule radio transmitters that attach to a bird’s neck—but fall off prior to migration north—have begun to unlock many of the habitat secrets in the Bahamas. Researchers monitored the bird as it hung out in patches of black torch, snowberry and sage grown shoulder high. They pieced together a picture of its diet. “What the research shows so far,” Joseph says, in the precise diction of a longtime British colony, “is that the bird is a species of disturbance habitat.” Up North it lives in a habitat disturbed by fire. In the Bahamas, the Kirtland’s lives in areas regenerating from disturbance as well—slash and burn farming, hurricanes.

Later that summer, Joseph presents the research to 40 people at the recovery team meeting near St. Ignace. After he spoke, Eric Carey, director of the Bahamas National Trust explained that the research was central to the bird’s future in the Bahamas, where people, for the most part, are not aware of its plight. The recovery team voted unanimously to endorse the research for three years—which helps secure money, but doesn’t provide any.

Photo(s) by Lou George FWS