Photo: Golden-cheeked Warbler Photo: Romey Swanson / Audubon Texas

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The Golden-cheeked Warbler Returns

by Romey Swanson - Director of Conservation Strategy, Audubon Texas

When I heard about the Golden-cheeked Warbler (GCWA) reported from Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center earlier this spring, I was immediately skeptical. We were at the tail-end of migration season, and the look-alike Black-throated Green Warbler still seemed the more likely candidate. Dogwood Canyon is at the extreme edge of the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s breeding range, and one hasn’t been documented here in well over a decade.

My skepticism was misplaced. Our staff and volunteers collaborated to document a beautiful male warbler, and the team’s efforts may have discovered a second individual in the area. As word got out, the local birding community was afforded a rare opportunity to see this Texas gem in their backyard.

We are not exactly sure what brought this individual to Dogwood Canyon. Might it represent a species on the rebound? Perhaps it is an individual whose normal breeding habitat has been displaced by recent development? We may never know. All we can say with certainty is that Dogwood Canyon and the surrounding landscape provide hundreds of acres of healthy woodland habitat as part of a quilt of open space in Cedar Hill, located on the outskirts of Dallas.

Golden-cheeked Warblers are small, colorful songbirds in the wood warbler family. The scientific name, Setophaga chrysoparia, translates to golden cheek moth eater. The splash of bright golden yellow on the head and neck contrasts with the jet black and white which dominates the remainder of the bird. Aside from its handsome appearance, the most distinctive characteristic of the species is its breeding habits. The GCWA is migratory and spends the winter in southern Mexico and Central America. It is also a Texas breeding endemic, meaning it nests exclusively within the boundaries of Texas, with every individual a naturally hatched Texan. Its life history cannot be separated from the Central Texas woodland haunts where the stripping bark of native Mountain Cedar or, more precisely, Ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei), is required to construct its nests.

This unique relationship between bird and tree has placed the species in the middle of controversy where landowner rights, development interests, and wildlife stewardship responsibilities converge. The Golden-cheek was included on the Endangered Species list during an emergency 1990 filing that cited low populations, limited breeding habitat, predation, and heavy development pressures on habitat. This listing ignited the Warbler Wars of the early 90s, and although the wars have subsided, ever-present embers still flare.

Recent research has reset what we know about the warbler's population size and how we think about the recovery of the species. As late as 2012, scientists estimated less than 30,000 male warblers in the entire population. Today we benefit from advances in survey methodologies, novel models, and a more complete understanding of the bird’s breeding distribution in Texas, all of which suggest that the number of males is closer to 225,000 individuals. However, it is important to note that the difference between these numbers demonstrates an improvement in counting birds. It does not represent recovery, and the population trend most likely continues to decline. A 2013 study, authored by Adam Duarte and others, emphasized this point when it illustrated an alarming 29% total loss of GCWA habitat during a 10 year period beginning in 2001.

Much work remains. Audubon Texas remains resolute in working with partners throughout Texas, Mexico, and Central America to contribute to this species' continued recovery and to safeguard its future as a permanent denizen of the Lone Star State. So much good work has gotten us to this point - where we have a much-improved understanding of the warbler’s status and needs, conservation landscapes with large, healthy, and intact habitats, and an increasingly positive landowner culture of acceptance and appreciation for our little endemic songbird. Working together, we have an incredible opportunity to assure this native Texas songbird thrives while preserving all we value about Texas. Sites like Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center will continue to be managed and stewarded for the many benefits we provide for warblers, people, and the surrounding communities. Come out, take a hike, and find what awaits to be discovered!

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