Timber Harvests Attract Rare Golden-Winged Songbirds

RALEIGH, N.C. – Biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission discovered golden-winged warblers using newly logged areas, or timber harvest units, on the Nantahala National Forest in Graham County this spring.

This is great news because golden-winged warblers are state listed as special concern. These neo-tropical migratory songbirds have declined by 97 percent in the Appalachians since the 1960s and continue to decline at 8 percent annually.

Golden-winged warblers seek young forest conditions within a large forested landscape, both in the United States and on their wintering grounds in South America. Current and ongoing management on the Nantahala National Forest helps provide a mixture of young and old forest, according to Chris Kelly, a biologist with the Commission, who has been monitoring golden-winged warblers in the area for over a decade.

“A lot of partners are working to help golden-wings. In some places that might entail restoring a meadow, where trees are encroaching,” Kelly said. “On this part of the Nantahala, timber harvest units provided an opportunity to create high quality nesting habitat.”

The tiny songbirds will use habitat that has been recently logged with a few trees left standing. These trees provide perches for the males to sing their territorial song to attract mates and ward off competition. Along with the remaining trees, these harvested areas have brushy, herbaceous patches of goldenrod, pokeweed, blackberry and other vegetation that provide ideal nesting conditions for female golden-winged warblers.

But this type of habitat is ephemeral, meaning it’s temporary unless it’s maintained. So, it becomes unsuitable for golden-winged warblers after trees grew up to what foresters call the ‘stem exclusion stage’ of forest stand development. This happens around 12 to 15 years post-harvest. At that point, the birds have to find new homes.

“Logging stimulates plant regeneration, which provides new breeding habitat,” said David Perez, a forester for the Nantahala Ranger District. “Much of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests has been aging, but we also need more young forest habitat. Regenerating key areas through informed management is critical for providing habitat diversity.”

Perez consults the “Best Management Practices For Golden-winged Warbler Habitats in the Appalachian Region” (GWWA-BMP) when designing a timber harvest prescription on the Nantahala National Forest. Those key areas are the Golden-winged Warbler Focal Areas, developed by the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group. These are places where partners strive to maintain and grow core populations of golden-wings using tools like forestry, prescribed fire, and mowing. Western North Carolina has four Focal Areas.

“Our best chance of attracting these birds is to work within these Focal Areas,” Kelly said. “Foresters can use the GWWA-BMP to maximize habitat features, such as song perches, insect prey and nest sites.”

Along with habitat loss, the golden-winged warbler’s decline is attributed to blue-winged warblers.

“Golden-wings lost habitat on the wintering grounds in South America through deforestation, and they’ve lost habitat on the breeding grounds in the United States through forest maturation and land use change,” Kelly said. “Where forest is converted to non-forest cover, blue-winged warblers have moved in closer proximity to golden-wings, increasing the potential for hybridization. The U.S. Forest Service has been working closely with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to address some of these habitat issues.”

The long-term goal for the Commission, the U.S. Forest Service and their partners is to meet the full annual life cycle needs of the golden-winged warbler, including conservation on the wintering ground. Like many neo-tropical migratory birds, golden-winged warblers spend only the warm months in North Carolina, making the 2,000+-mile journey to Columbia and Venezuela in autumn and back again in late April.

“But the breeding ground, where we are, is the only place we can make more golden-wings,” Kelly said. “The Commission is grateful to the U.S. Forest Service for accommodating golden-wings and many other important species.”

For more information about nongame species in North Carolina, visit ncwildlife.org/conserving.