GWWAWG BLOG SERIES: Collaborating for Protection of the Golden-winged Warbler

Anyone who regularly reads our newsletter, blog, or attends our programs knows that Audubon North Carolina has spent a lot of time and effort over the last few years working to learn about and conserve Golden-winged Warblers (GWWA).  And we are not alone. The Golden-winged Warbler Working Group (GWWAWG) was established in 2005, by more than 75 partners, to dig deep into the science and life cycle of this species. In this series of blog posts, learn about all the work of the GWWWG and what this collaborative effort has done to protect this tiny gem of our forests.

Post by Curtis Smalling, Director of Land Bird Conservation

Identifying the problem

For over a decade now, Audubon North Carolina and I have been setting out to answer some very basic questions about Golden-winged Warblers, and some pretty complicated ones. We want to know more about how this bird lives its life, and how we might be able to reverse what has been one of the biggest and steadiest declines of any songbird in the Eastern U.S. (a 97% loss since 1966 in the Appalachian region).  Most scientists have agreed that the declines are related to habitat loss, as their preferred shrubby habitats continue to decline across the landscape in the Appalachians.  Some have argued (and rightly so) that these declines are in part explained by a prolonged period of re-forestation following massive deforestation in the mountains in the early part of the 20th century.

But that only tells part of the story, as declines in suitable habitat on private lands are also related to conversion of agricultural lands to residential areas, changes in grazing practices to favor higher cattle densities, and loss of those grazing lands in some areas to Christmas tree production and other uses.  At the same time over the past 40 years, the amount and extent of timber harvest on public lands like the National Forests of Western North Carolina and elsewhere have decreased dramatically.  Add to this mix: invasive species explosions, fire suppression and other factors; and we have a general lack of suitable early-successional lands (young, shrubby forests that the GWWA likes so much) for this bird and many other species that need this kind of habitat.

Golden-winged Warblers are often held up as a standard-bearer for the creation of early successional habitats (young, shrubby forests), and that is all well and good, but 10 years ago, we wanted to know if all early successional habitats were created equal for this bird. More importantly, we wanted to see if it was possible to be concerned about and work to save this species and habitat, while at the same time protecting the suite of forest interior birds with which we are also concerned.

We had some questions to answer.

  • Where are they occurring?
  • What does that habitat look like and more importantly?
  • What does it actually contain: structurally, dominant plant species, other bird species, as well as factors such as elevation, slope, aspect, associated river drainages, and a host of other measurements and factors.

One of our first projects was to document where they are persisting: conducting surveys, looking for suitable habitat and testing if our methods were working or not to find the birds.

In our next entry in this series, learn what scientists discovered was the best way to find the GWWA and what habitats they like the most. Read the full series here.