“It sure is easier when someone else has broken trail,” said Kevin Sheppard, a not-so-subtle reference to the fact that he had snow-shoed ahead of me for most of our tramp through the northern Minnesota woodland.
Kevin is ABC's Golden-winged Warbler Private Lands Coordinator and quite used to this weather. I, on the other hand, was a southern visitor learning about Kevin's work in identifying prospective lands to restore as habitat for this rapidly declining species. I suspect Kevin was conducting a scientific experiment to determine whether the head of ABC had any toughness about him!
Golden-winged Warbler, David Cree
I need not mention that, at 17 degrees F below zero, the nearest living Golden-winged Warbler was plucking insects off of a tropical tree somewhere thousands of miles south of Minnesota. Nor need I mention how few birds inhabit maple/aspen/ash woodlands when it is that cold. Nor that this level of frigidness means that no Virginian's clothing is warm enough unless said person keeps moving—rapidly!
Tools of the Minnesota bird conservationists' trade: snowshoes. Photo by marekuliasz / Shutterstock
In spite of these challenges, I learned a lot. First, I learned that Kevin is a seasoned forester who knows both his forest stuff and what Golden-winged Warblers need as breeding habitat when they return to Minnesota in the spring.
Though I knew a bit about this species' habitat needs, I learned more about northern forest succession, and how we can improve management for a suite of species that includes Ruffed Grouse and American Woodcock.
Ruffed Grouse, one of the suite of species that benefits from Golden-winged Warbler habitat restoration. Photo by Larry Master / masterimages.org
I learned from Kevin how to tell fisher tracks from wolf tracks and how to recognize a Ruffed Grouse snow burrow. I also learned how much we need to do to bring the Golden-winged Warbler back to something approximating recent population numbers.
There is quite a bit of aging aspen habitat that could be improved for our target birds by timber harvesting, which will help create the second-growth stands that these warblers prefer.
Our focus bird: Although far away now, Golden-winged Warblers will benefit from our efforts come spring. Photo by Greg Lavaty / texastargetbirds.com
It is counter-intuitive to a mid-Atlantic guy like me, but forestry work in Minnesota is best done in the winter. Heavy equipment can become mired and damage thawed soil, and I already know from previous visits that some Minnesota denizens (mosquitoes, black flies) are not really welcoming.
And, much as I dreaded getting out in that frosty weather, I had a terrific time. When the heart is pumping, the weather seems beautiful, and I returned to balmy Virginia quite certain that the birds are in very good hands with Kevin Sheppard.
Great Gray Owl, a sight that rewards those who do bird conservation in the Minnesota winter. Photo by Erni / Shutterstock
And, yes, in case you are wondering, I saw some birds while I was there: Great Gray, Snowy and Northern Hawk Owls, Northern Goshawk, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, Northern Shrike, Snow Bunting, and more. Those who feel this is simply gloating are correct. That's my payoff for a hard winter's hike.
Editor's Note: This story, originally published on February 11, 2014, exemplifies how ABC goes the extra mile to protect species like Golden-winged Warblers. Conservation is tough work. And you can help. Will you go the extra mile with ABC?
George H. Fenwick has served as President and CEO since ABC's founding in 1994. Prior to that, he worked in a variety of capacities during 15 years with The Nature Conservancy, including Director of Science, and Chair of the Last Great Places Campaign Steering Committee. He received a Ph.D. in Pathobiology from Johns Hopkins University.