By Geoff Nixon

Last spring, one of Ontario’s rarest bird species was spotted at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa. The seldom-seen yellow and black Kirtland’s warbler is protected under the Species at Risk Act and is designated as endangered.

“Having found three endangered Kirtland’s warblers, the next thing you want to do is monitor them,” says Paul Aird, a member of the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto and an expert on this warbler. With support from the Canadian Forces, it fell to interested volunteers and private contractors to track the warblers’ whereabouts.

While this species has been sighted in the Petawawa region before, it is rarely seen in numbers greater than one. So rare is the Kirtland’s warbler, only 70 individual birds have been sighted on Canadian soil since 1900, and the only known breeding record of the species in the country occurred in 1945.

The warbler’s survival is contingent on meeting its extremely specific habitat requirements. It lives in North America for only a few months each year and over winters in the Bahamas. The species nests beneath young, low- level Jack pines – a type of forest more typically found in central Michigan than here.

“They need dense Jack pine on well-drained soils where the trees are between one and a half and five metres in height,” explains Ken Tuininga, senior species at risk biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, who helped with the monitoring efforts in Petawawa. “Some Ontario areas are quite similar to that.”

In this province, the birds are sometimes seen at Point Pelee and north and east of Sault Ste. Marie – places where Jack pine grows.

A recovery plan is now in place for the Kirtland’s warbler. Following the lead of U.S. conservation efforts, the plan outlines the need to identify where breeding populations may exist so that efforts can be made to manage habitat. The plan, however, has yet to be put into action.

“They are very tame and very beautifully coloured. They have a magnificent song,” says Aird. “They are just thrilling to see.”

To learn more about the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Plan, visit the Species at Risk Act Public Registry website at www.sararegistry.gc.ca.