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Whither Golden-winged Warblers? A Golden Opportunity to Help Out!

By dgross June 30, 2017

Golden-winged Warbler has been a priority for PGC and other partners in PA. By Jake Dingel

Birder contributions to eBird and other projects have a direct positive impact on Golden-winged Warbler monitoring and management. Your data really do count! It is well-known that the Golden-winged Warbler is a steady decline especially in the Northeastern United States. The very positive factor in Pennsylvania is that there is concerted young forest management being conducted that certainly is creating opportunities for Golden-wings to expand their populations. Recent salvage and shelterwood cuts have created habitat blocks in places like Delaware State Forest and various game lands. And, prescribed burn projects are rejuvenating oak forests and scrub oak barrens at a variety of places. Active aspen management also is a standard silviculture technique often used for regeneration of that tree that benefits a variety of wildlife species including Ruffed Grouse and Golden-winged Warblers. Golden-wings benefit from disturbance activities in a forested landscape. So, their habitat is dynamic by nature. It just keeps moving around even if the birds or our eyes can keep track. For birders and bird habitat managers to keep track, they must keep moving with the dynamic changes in habitat from disturbance. The next Golden-winged Warbler hotspot in Pennsylvania may be a new birding spot for anyone interested in this beautiful songbird and its cohorts.  We have to keep moving, too!

The Pennsylvania Game Commission and its partners are very actively providing more young forest habitat through timber management and prescribed fire. Yet, we are losing Golden-winged Warbler populations. Through my own Golden-winged surveys I have witnessed local extirpations of this species in Columbia County locations near Berwick, cuttings in Loyalsock State Forest, Sullivan County; and the Weiser State Forest Penn Forest tract.  Perhaps these populations were too small to be sustained and “winked out” due to stochastic effects.  There may be other Golden-winged Warbler populations out there that are being missed due to a lack of coverage of newly created canopy gaps cause by various disturbances including timbering and fire.  It may take a few years for the vegetation conditions needed to attract Golden-wings.  So, patience and persistence are necessary.

A male Chestnut-sided Warbler, Setophaga pensylvanica, by J. Dingel, PGC

I wonder if there are any Golden-winged Warblers nesting in the large block of counties in the Upper Central Susquehanna region including Union, Northumberland, Montour, Columbia, Lycoming, Sullivan, and Bradford Counties. Know of any?  This block of counties is just one of the areas where we have lost many local Golden-wing populations.  There are others including most northwestern and southeastern counties.  If you have encountered Golden-winged Warblers in your birding trips and have not entered these sightings into eBird, please do this to contribute to the Golden-winged knowledge network.  We know that it sometimes takes time to enter all your spring and summer-time birding data, but it all is important.

Female Golden-winged Warbler captured in Honduras

The kinds of planned disturbances benefit a wide variety of birds and other animals. Red-headed Woodpeckers are among the most conspicuous creatures to react to a burn or timber project.  Their harlequin outfit of red, white, and black has stopped many outdoors persons in their tracks in admiration.  Few birds are more appealing than the Prairie Warbler with the natty, colorful plumage and easy-to-recognize song that goes up the chromatic scale.  Eastern Towhees, Gray Catbird, Chestnut-sided Warblers, White-eyed Vireos, Willow Flycatchers, and Eastern Whip-poor-wills are other popular birds that seem to respond the disturbances that create a young forest or shrub land community.  In the higher elevations, Alder Flycatcher and Mourning Warbler also will respond to these management activities.  Mourning Warbler often can be found in colorful thickets of purple-flowering raspberry and the more common Allegheny blackberry.  All of these birds can be found in a summer bird walk in game lands or forest lands with some disturbance management.

Prescribed burn in Monroe County for scrub barrens management, Photo by Patrick McElhenny, Nature Conservancy

I invite birders to keep looking for Golden-winged Warbler populations and to enter these records into eBird. Even a record that is a few weeks or months old is very welcome.  Please be as specific about locations as possible.  Added notes about the habitat are also welcome.  And, it is always good to include the breeding code if that applies to the behavior that you observed.  These data entries will allow us to better understand the moving map of Golden-winged Warblers and the other disturbance-dependent species and see the results of disturbance either planned or unplanned.  After all, nearly all of the largest populations of Golden-wings are totally accidental.  Now we can plan and respond to opportunities, not just wait for a “golden opportunity.”

Our state bird, the Ruffed Grouse in spring, which is one of the wildlife species that benefit from disturbance management of forests, by Jake Dingel of PGC


We have talked about Golden-winged Warblers and young forest and scrub barrens in the past on Pennsylvania eBird. Visit these stories to get more perspective and history on the subject:

We ask that birders be thoughtful and use good birding etiquette when doing Golden-winged Warbler searches, especially in areas with known research projects (Delaware State Forest, Bald Eagle State Park, Sproul State Forest). Do not interfere with various research activities such as mist-netting, nest-searching and nest-watching, and fledgling tracking. Repeated use of audio-lures distract the birds from their normal activities of defending territory and nests, provisioning young, and seeking food. It also interrupts the researchers from conducting their projects. Banded birds are research birds, so please minimize distracting these birds from their normal behavior that the researchers are tracking to better understand warbler use of habitat.

Male Golden-winged Warbler in Central Pennsylvania. Photo by Wayne Laubscher