Huber rolls down yet another forest road. Gravel bangs off the bottom of the truck. A cloud of dust billows behind. He passes birders in cars with license plates from Minnesota, Wyoming and Alaska. Where he stops, one side of the road opens upon a vast clear cut, mowed to the duff and waiting for jack pine planting this fall. On the other side of the road, head-high jack pine grow thick for acres and acres and acres. Finally, a habitat that meets the finicky Kirtland’s stipulations.

Huber lays a tripod and spotting scope across his shoulder like a rifle and carefully picks his way about 30 feet into the pines. “The nests are so tucked into the weave of grass they are very easy to step on,” he says—which explains why birders must watch from the roadside.

Within moments he spots a small bird about 50 feet away sitting on a pin oak branch. Huber makes the classic birding call, pish-pish-pish, and the bird responds with a chip, chip, chip. “We have almost 100 percent success viewing on the tours,” he says.

A Kirtland’s behind him answers too. Then another to his left. But none sits still long enough to scope. “They are saying, ‘stay away from my territory.’ They probably have their females already.”

Rain begins to fall and wet circles dot Huber’s shirt. Water beads on the scope. The birds still sing.

Phil hears yet another chip, chip, chip and aims the scope in the direction of the call. He focuses, and there, about 75 feet away, the Kirtland’s sits on a thin bare branch staring Huber’s way. With each call he raises his beak, his yellow breast feathers ruffle with the effort. He looks to the east, and the wind blows the small blue-gray feathers on the back of his neck. Of course, he’s oblivious to the fact that he’s one of the rarest warblers in the world and that a small army is needed to keep his kind alive. “That’s about as good a view as you can get,” Huber says. The bird stays in the scope for minutes. The 2006 census that will happen in a couple of weeks will show that this bird is one of 1,479 singing males in Michigan’s jack pines.

The original recovery goal was 1,000 singing males (analogous to mating pairs), self-sustaining for five years. But as long as fire suppression remains forest policy, self-sustaining is impossible. “This is now a manscape, not a landscape,” Bocetti says. “We will have to manage it into perpetuity.”

Despite the best of fire suppression efforts, when thousands of acres of jack pine are spread across the landscape, some of them will fulfill their genetic imperative to burn. And on April 30, 2006, that’s what happened. A fire blazed through 6,000 acres southwest of Mio. Today, May 25, green shoots of bracken fern already sprout, but otherwise, the ground and the trees are charred black.

Huber steps into a grove of jack pines. Their needles are gone. Their black skeletons rise as a forest of dark and twisted sculpture. He plucks a cone from a black branch. “See how the wings of the cone are flared open,” he says. Inside are tiny black seeds, the translucent membrane of the wing, the nub of the seed itself. He flicks the cone with his finger and three seeds helicopter down, drifting in the breeze to the ground.

As they land, hundreds more seeds come into focus, flecks of bronze littered across the black. Each one waiting to germinate, grow and eventually burn. And along the way, they will provide habitat—at least for a short while—for the Kirtland’s.

See the Kirtland’s

The annual Kirtland’s festival happens May 19 a Kirtland Community College in Roscommon. Research presentations and Kirtland’s warbler tours, natch, but also free kid stuff like birdhouse building and a fishpond (poles provided or byo). Details at warbler.kirtland.edu.Can’t make the festival? You can still take a tour: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Michigan Audubon Society offer free daily guided tours May 15 through July 4 from Grayling. 517-351-2555, ext. 316; and the U.S. Forest Service offers $5 tours daily (except Memorial Day) May 15 through July 2 from Mio. 989-826-3252, ext. 3364.

Photo(s) by Lou George FWS

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