Though lacking much worthwhile recognition in Wisconsin, the golden-winged warbler could amply serve as the state bird. While mostly a breeder in the northern half of the state, this warbler does migrate through southern Wisconsin about this time to wintering grounds in Central and South America. Its buzzy and conspicuous song in spring “Piiiiii zaaa zaaaa zaaa” deserves investigation, and often my first golden-winged warbler of the year catches me off guard when I realize the buzzy trill is not an insect but a bird on a flight to the northern forests and shrub swamps of Wisconsin.
It is said that Wisconsin hosts approximately 1/5th of the US breeding population of this species, and this bird makes its distinctive mark on the habitats it occupies in Wisconsin. While preferring shrub swamps and clearcut stands near water, this bird is rather cosmopolitan in its use of habitat. Some research suggests that golden-wingeds need mature forest nearby, in addition to grassy areas for nesting, and shrubby areas for foraging . On my family’s cabin near the Pine River in Florence County, a popular activity is floating the oxbow of the river for 2-3 hours. On a June float, it’s typical to hear multiple golden-winged warblers along the way, and the mix of habitat and structure along the river—from white cedar swamps to alder thickets to open areas with standing dead elms—seems to make for excellent golden-winged warbler habitat.
Human-caused disturbance was the result of a population increase and range expansion in the early 20th century due to logging and clearcutting. Today, this trend continues. Golden-winged warblers will occupy powerline rights of way, brushy pastures, and clearcuts (especially aspen). Historical disturbances that still favor golden-winged warblers include beaver ponds, windthrown areas, and forest fires.
Beavers are extremely important diversifiers of habitat, creating early successional openings that will favor species like the golden-winged warbler. You might think of beaver dams as small-scale projects, but the largest beaver dam in the world can be seen from space!
Windthrown trees seem like another insignificant event, but satellite images of Menominee and Langlade County show the path of a tornado from 2007, still visible today.
In fact, I drove through this area on a trip over Labor Day, and young aspens dominate this swath (which stretched for 40 miles and reached 3/4mile wide in spots). This storm caused millions in property damage over its course. Yet, in uninhabited forested areas, it created excellent Golden-winged warbler habitat.
At Faville Grove, you might be able to see Golden-winged warblers in savanna and woodland areas. There’s no perfect spot to see these birds, but areas of heavy warbler activity might turn up a golden-winged; and if you do see that bird, consider how much more distinctive it is than our current state bird, the robin.
Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward
Cover photo by Melanie Underwood