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North Georgia project holds rich promise for last golden warblers

Courtesy Ga. DNR originally published 12/2/2009


The golden-winged warbler, a diminutive bird splashed with bright-yellow highlights, had it good in the Southern Appalachians 100 years ago.
Regular fires helped create the early succession blend of thick, brushy areas beside native grasses and wildflowers the birds needed for foraging and nesting. After governments reined in the natural fires, extensive logging kept the habitat available.
But in recent decades, logging on national forests has ground almost to a stop. On private lands, the number of small farms has shrunk, further decreasing habitat for golden-winged warblers. The changes helped send the species into a tailspin. 
The golden-winged warbler is a federal species of concern and a high-priority bird in Georgia’s Wildlife Action Plan, the strategy steering Georgia Department of Natural Resources efforts to conserve biological diversity. Only about 12 pairs of golden-wings still nest here.
It’s little wonder that Nathan Klaus of the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division sees a new project with the U.S. Forest Service as a lifeline for the species in Georgia.
The recently approved effort follows almost five years of legwork addressing environmental concerns. 
Plans call for the restoration of open oak-woodlands through selective logging, controlled burns and herbicide use on about 400 acres of Brawley Mountain. Brawley, which is on the Chattahoochee National Forest in Fannin County, is the last holdout for golden-wings in Georgia. 
Klaus, a senior biologist with Wildlife Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section, and wildlife biologist Jim Wentworth of the Forest Service’s Blue Ridge Ranger District hope to create habitat the birds need in the upper elevations of the Appalachians where they live.
“This is for the future,” Klaus said. “We need to get the population back that is going to be there for our great-great-grandchildren.”
Timber, none of it old growth, is being marked. Some trees will logged, creating an open woodland. The timber contract will cover costs of the project, which will include low-intensity, prescribed burns and limited herbicide use to maintain the habitat. Biologists will monitor the sites for golden-wings.
Wentworth is confident the project will work. He said Brawley’s golden-wings responded to forest canopy openings created by Hurricane Opal in 1995, plus some salvage logging and controlled burns.
“We’re just trying to replicate that (landscape) on a larger scale,” Wentworth said.
Success is a long-term proposition, suggested Klaus, who as a graduate student researched golden-winged warblers that used clearcuts in North Carolina. “Maybe on my deathbed I’ll ask if the golden-winged is still in Georgia,” he said, laughing.
The National Audubon Society’s Georgia Important Bird Areas program and state coordinator Charlie Muise share in the credit for helping get the project approved, Klaus said.
The golden-winged work is an example of how Georgians who buy a nongame license plate or donate to the Give Wildlife a Chance state income tax checkoff contribute to wildlife conservation. Both programs benefit Wildlife Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state funds for its mission to help conserve Georgia wildlife not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as rare plants and natural habitats in the state. Details at www.georgiawild
Golden-winged warblers at a glance:
• Small (4.25 inches long), active bird.
• Markings on mature males include yellow forehead, black mask (with white underneath) and yellow patches on wings.
• Eats insects (mostly moth caterpillars) and spiders.
• Breeds near the ground in shrub areas along forest edges. Winters in tropical forests.
• Only 12 breeding pairs documented in Georgia, all in Chattahoochee National Forest’s Brawley Mountain area between Dahlonega and Suches.
• Species is declining across its range due to habitat loss and expansion of blue-winged warblers. Listed as a federal species of concern and a high-priority species in Georgia’s Wildlife Action Plan. Golden-wings are expanding into the Northwest.
• “Mated” males sing a different song, making the location of breeding pairs easier.
• Quotable: “They’d make terrible poker players,” DNR’s Nathan Klaus, referring to how singing males often stop and look toward where their mate’s nest is.
Sources: Georgia DNR; Cornell Lab of Ornithology; USGS.