Birding in Wilderness

Birders in North America spend almost zero time in the wilderness, unless they are going in for nonbirding recreation. Wilderness almost never produces rarities, and by its very nature, it offers too little habitat diversity for a big list of species.

–Geoffrey E. Hill, Ivorybill Hunters: The Search for Proof in a Flooded Wilderness

As I read this statement, it struck me as very true. Few birders immerse themselves outside on extended trips into the wilderness, even though we do love the natural world. Although we work to preserve habitat for birds, we rarely visit large swaths of habitat, no matter how close they are to our backyards. I have only begun to start backpacking and exploring national parks and wilderness areas, and while I always bring my binoculars, I do notice fewer species and numbers of birds than at more established hotspots in more urban areas. Why is this so?

As Hill implies in his statement, the most probable hypothesis is the idea that having large tracts of habitat reduces the amount of edge habitat and variation in habitat, so there is less diversity of species. However, not all wildernesses are homogenous stretches of one single habitat. When I hiked in the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan, I regularly traversed deciduous lowlands with bogs that shifted to more coniferous ridges, and on top of the Escarpment, there were numerous open meadows overlooking a valley marsh. Even with a good diversity of mixed habitats, the park seemed to have fewer birds than there were outside the park.

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness (Photo via xray10, Flickr Creative Commons)

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness (Photo via xray10, Flickr Creative Commons)

We often assume that having plenty of habitat will mean plenty of birds, and this is true. The reverse is also true; less habitat means fewer birds. This hypothesis is common sense, and it has also been shown in several scientific papers, such as this one, from 1986:

Number of species and pairs of birds at individual points within forests increased with greater HH [habitat composition] but not with larger size. Birds also were more patchily distributed in more heterogeneous, but not necessarily large, forests, because of relatively uncommon species. Larger forest size was more important for increasing species number in forest-interior and resident-related classes of birds (Freemark and Merriam).

In other words, having larger forests increases the number of individuals, while having more habitat variation increases the number of species.

As we decrease the size of the forests, we decrease the number of individuals. In the short-term, however, when we quickly transition from large tracts of habitat to small patches, the populations don’t immediately adjust. With less habitat, the birds are concentrated in the fragmented remnants of habitat. This is like the effect that creates fallouts on the Gulf Coast, which coat landscapes with millions of incredible warblers and migrants. A fallout usually happens when a storm front catches the migrants, forcing them to seek shelter at the first land they can find, which could be a lawn or a parking lot. These spectacles are birders’ dreams, with thousands of birds close at hand, but they come at a high cost: many birds don’t make it to land, or they make it to land but starve to death because they do not have the energy to find food. Both fallouts and habitat fragmentation are good for birders, but bad for birds, and we enjoy their effects with guilt.

I myself am guilty of preferentially birding habitat fragments. My hometown of Ann Arbor is probably one of the least fragmented urban areas, given the number of city parks that we have, but it does lie just outside of Metro Detroit, and it has a thriving downtown encircling habitat fragments along the Huron River. The best hotspot in Ann Arbor for passerines is Nichols Arboretum (the Arb), smack in the middle of downtown. As the largest and most diverse park in the downtown area, it is an example of a fragment that serves as a magnet for migrants. It is a treasured birding locale, typically outpacing most other parks in the area. I developed my birding skills there, but when I tried to discover new hotspots, I found that precious few places compare to the Arb. Dolph Nature Area, the best spot for warblers, is another fragment, a piece of woods surrounded by strip malls and a quarry. While both of these spots have plenty of birds, and I appreciate any chance to be outside birding, they lack much of the wilderness spirit that I feel when in a truly vast tract of habitat.

Nichols Arboretum (photo via John Kannenberg, Flickr Creative Commons)

Nichols Arboretum (photo via John Kannenberg, Flickr Creative Commons)

One place where I do feel that spirit is Superior Township, in northwestern Washtenaw County, Michigan. Superior is mostly farm fields, but it is the boundary between Ann Arbor and the growing suburbs of Metro Detroit. Several land preservation groups have purchased preserves there to create a greenbelt, and these preserves offer decent birding. They do not compare to the Arb in terms of diversity and number of birds, but they do have hard-to-find species such as Rough-legged Hawks, Least Bitterns, Marsh Wrens, and Short-eared Owls. No matter what species I find, though, I always feel fairly satisfied when I am birding in these habitats. There is exciting potential dispersed throughout the farm fields and forest edges, and each bend in the path could turn up a Connecticut Warbler or something even rarer. Even though these habitats are distinctly anthropogenic, their ample habitat creates the feeling of a wilderness.

UP Land Ownership

Green, yellow, and light gray areas are public recreation lands in the Eastern UP

One place I’ve visited mixes true wilderness birding with all birding is Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The UP, as it is known, is quite rural, with a population the size of Cincinnati distributed across an area a bit bigger than Maryland–a density of just nineteen people per square mile. One-third of the peninsula is composed of recreation areas such as Hiawatha National Forest, Seney National Wildlife Area, and Ottawa National Forest. The UP is barely fragmented, and still contains large tracts of wild areas. Because there is so much public land, my birding friends from the UP think nothing of exploring random dirt roads and plunging off-road to find birds, a stark contrast to my more reserved, localized birding in Ann Arbor. As I have explored the UP, I’ve realized that many of the “traditional” sites are simply random places that birders happen to go to regularly, rather than actual hotspots. Just as in Superior Township, there is a feeling of true potential around every curve, and even though there is low diversity in the Northern forests, the bird life is quite unique. I have gotten my fair share of rarities and unusual birds in the UP, from a Northern Gannet to a Great Grey Owl, but even trips that would be considered duds by rarities, lifers, or total species counts were still rewarding in the UP. There is a qualitative difference when I bird in the UP: I experience true wilderness. That feeling of wilderness emphasizes appreciating individual birds, because true wilderness provides a deeper connection to the ecosystem that the individuals fit into. Even when I only have a few species of birds, with no real rarities or spectacular numbers, I still feel happy to have gotten out and enjoyed the birds that were there.
Pileated Woodpecker (photo via Robin Horn, Flickr Creative Commons)

Pileated Woodpecker (photo via Robin Horn, Flickr Creative Commons)

As many other birders have realized, the joy of listing only goes so far, and it is heavily dependent upon hotspots and “good” days. One way to avoid “DLS” (Disappointed Lister’s Syndrome) is to start paying attention to the individual birds, and I find that easier to do when I am in wilder, more natural habitats that emphasize the individual birds more than the species lists. I still struggle to take field notes and sketch, easy ways to learn to observe fine details, but I also recognize another quality of birding that should be appreciated just as much as observing the birds: observing the details and interconnected elements of the habitat around them. It is all too easy to focus on the outline and the plumage of a bird without recognizing how they evolved. Many well-rounded naturalists already do this by paying attention to how the bird interacts with its environment, but I enjoy taking it one step further to see how the entire habitat interacts with the bird. How do subtle changes in the character of the habitat change the likelihood of finding various species? For example, does having more understory make a difference for Pileated Woodpeckers? Why is that difference so? And what characteristics make a place feel truly wild? While I will still enjoy the rush of spring migration at Dolph, I find it much more enjoyable to develop an appreciation for why the birds are there rather than just ticking off the fact that they were seen. By observing all things about nature, not just the isolated details or the number of birds, we can go beyond watching the birds that we care about to understanding their lives as well.


Freemark, Kathryn and Merriam, HG. “Importance of Area and Habitat Homogeneity to Bird Assemblages in Temperate Forest Fragments.” Biological Conservation. 1986.

Photo: Michigan DNR