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NRCS Works with Landowners to Create Habitat for “At-Risk” Warblers

By Cara Newcomer

The USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and landowners are partnering to create habitats for the golden-winged warbler and the cerulean warbler in the Appalachian region. In Maryland, foresters in Allegany County and Garrett County are targeting private forested lands to create high quality environments for these warblers.

The warblers are currently listed as “at-risk” species and Maryland NRCS is working with partners to help establish more breeding-season habitat for these migratory songbirds. Creating and maintaining forested areas comprised of diverse forest ages, provides a complete spectrum of forest habitat conditions that cerulean and golden-winged warblers require during breeding season.The golden wing warbler depends on thick, shrubby habitat, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) is helping owners and managers of working lands to enhance habitat for them.

The golden-winged warbler nests on the ground in young forest habitat comprised of a mixture of grasses, goldenrod, shrubs, saplings and scattered large trees. The cerulean warbler nests high atop the canopy in mature forests that have complex canopy structure. Increasing the availability of young forest and structurally complex mature forests across a landscape can have multiple benefits for the area, not just for the target species.

“The warblers are really the poster child for everything else,” said Shannon Farrell, a partner forester from Indiana University of Pennsylvania Research Institute working with NRCS on the warbler program. “What we’re really doing is working with landowners to sustainably manage their forest to benefit wildlife and forest health.”

“Diverse forest habitat will have benefits for lots of different wildlife, not just a few bird species,” Chad Bucklew, the District Conservationist for Allegany and Garrett counties in Maryland, said. It can help increase diversity on a property by establishing habitat for wildlife outside of the target species, including ruffed grouse, white tailed deer, black bear and turkey, increasing the opportunities for hunting. In some cases, this program can also help with controlling invasive plant species such as Japanese stiltgrass and buckthorn. Bucklew referred to one property in Maryland saying, there were upwards of eight invasive species that needed to be controlled on the property. Invasive plant species outcompete native species and ultimately have a negative impact on the area’s native species diversity.

The process of creating habitat for warblers includes identifying optimal trees to retain, controlling invasive species, logging undesirable trees and seeding the affected areas once harvest is complete. When clearing select trees, the goal is to mimic the disturbance that a natural tree fall would have on the forest floor.  It will help to open the canopy, allowing sunlight to hit the forest floor and helping plant species grow and create good cover. The ideal trees to save include mixed oak species, hickory, maple, yellow poplar, black cherry and black locust. For the golden-winged warbler, the optimal basal area is between 10 and 30 feet-squared per acre, while the cerulean warbler is between 40 and 90 feet-squared per acre.Field technicians working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service recently recorded breeding golden-winged warblers at a property in Allegany County owned by Clyde McCarty, an 84-acre property that was enrolled in the Working Lands for Wildlife program about five years ago.

The golden-winged warbler is a target species of NRCS’ Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW), a special initiative to enhance habitat for several at-risk species on private lands across the country. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Indiana University of Pennsylvania Research Institute, and American Bird Conservancy partner with NRCS to provide technical assistance to landowners. Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, NRCS provides financial assistance for those who are enrolled in the program along with facilitating with the property management.

Tom Bolt, an Allegany landowner who enrolled in the WLFW program in 2013, said he uses the money he gets to help the property further. “We put the money we receive back into the land,” Bolt said. He went further to say it is crucial for landowners to follow up on the work NRCS and its partners provide, sharing he used a lot of his funds to purchase seed for the roads used during the forest management activities.

As plant communities develop after a forest undergoes management, the response by wildlife can be immediate for some species and take several years for others. Golden-winged warblers usually respond to forest management within the first four years, post-treatment. In Maryland, field technicians recently recorded breeding golden-winged warblers at a property in Allegany County owned by Clyde McCarty. This 84-acre property was enrolled in the WLFW program about five years ago, which began by using herbicide to control invasive species.

Landowners in the area tend to gain interest in the program through woodland owner groups, public outreach seminars and workshops, or word of mouth. Bolt said he has talked to other landowners about the work being done on his property. “As landowners, I feel that we should leave the forestland in a better condition than it was when we obtained it, for future generations,” Bolt said. Bolt said when his neighbor saw the benefits of the program, he enrolled as well.

Recognizing that the management decisions of private forest landowners are critical to the health of Maryland’s wildlife, the American Bird Conservancy proposed that NRCS focus on cerulean warbler habitat through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The Cerulean Warbler Appalachian Forestland Enhancement project is allowing partners to work with private landowners to enhance forest habitat using sustainable forest management practices on private lands for Cerulean Warblers and other wildlife in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Between WLFW, RCPP, and other programs lead by state agencies, the entire spectrum of forest management actions necessary for improving forest health, protecting water sources, and supporting diverse wildlife communities can be achieved.Cerulean warblers spend part of the year in the Appalachian Mountains of North America as well as the Andes Mountains of South America.

NRCS launched the WLFW program nationwide in 2012 and has restored more than 13,000 acres of golden-winged warbler habitat with the help of its many partners. Maryland NRCS has established 871 acres of young forest for the golden-winged warbler, and through RCPP, 312 acres of structurally-diverse, mature forest habitat for the cerulean warbler. Maryland’s goal for the WLFW program is to have 625 acres in the program annually, with at least 3125 acres enrolled within the next five years.

Forest landowners in Allegany and Garrett Counties who are interested in learning more about golden-winged and cerulean warbler conservation opportunities on their lands can contact Shannon Farrell at 240-609-3505 or visit their local USDA NRCS Service Center. Visit for more information.