Guest blog: Press author William Rapai on not being able to close the book on his relationship with the Kirtland’s warbler

by Emily on June 7, 2012

William Rapai is the author of The Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Saved It. Here, he writes about the people he met while researching the book, his recent trips to see the birds—which arrived in their Northern Michigan summer nesting grounds last month—and how he just can’t seem to say farewell to the rare and charming Kirtland’s warbler.

It should have been good-bye, but it wasn’t.

During the introductions of the attendees at the winter 2012 meeting of the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team, I stood up, introduced myself and told the group that my long-awaited book on the Kirtland’s warbler had been published. I thanked the people in the room for their patience and assistance, and announced that this would be my last meeting with them as I was planning to write a new book on a very different topic.

It was a bittersweet moment for me. This was the last time that I would see several people who I had gotten to know and like over the previous five years. These are people who were excited to talk to me about their roles in Kirtland’s warbler conservation. They were justifiably proud of what they had accomplished, as it’s not every day that a wildlife biologist has an opportunity to keep an animal from going extinct.

After the meeting, however, as I was shaking hands and offering personal good-byes, Mike Petrucha, one of the recovery team’s most valuable volunteers, made it clear that even though I was finished with the book, he didn’t think I was finished with the Kirtland’s warbler.

“You’ll be back,” Petrucha predicted.

Sure, I’ll be back, I thought. But when I come back in the future it will be as a birder, not as someone gathering information for a book. I consider myself lucky to have been able to tell the amazing story of the Kirtland’s warbler, and because of the book the bird has become a big part of my life. But I really was excited to be tackling a new project, one totally unrelated to anything with feathers, and there would be no need for me to return to northern Michigan to spend hours in a stuffy meeting room or spend time in the field with wildlife biologists. As a dispassionate writer, I could walk away from the Kirtland’s warbler and move on to the next thing.

Or so I thought.

Here it is, only four months after my pronouncement, and I admit that Petrucha was right. In the past month, I have made two trips to northern Michigan for the Kirtland’s warbler. The first time was to sign books and give a presentation to more than 100 people at the Tawas Point Birding Festival. The morning after the presentation, I found myself on a dirt road west of Oscoda, Michigan, part of a group on a tour to see the Kirtland’s warbler. And when a male flew to the top of a tree only a few feet away and threw back his head in song, it was like seeing an old friend.

A Kirtland’s warbler bites the finger of Nora Diggs as she attaches a geolocator. Diggs, a technician at the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center, is putting the geolocators on a small number of Kirtland’s warblers in northern Michigan so that biologists can track their movements and discover their fall migration route.

The second trip was a return to the field to observe biologists who are putting tiny geolocators on a small number of male Kirtland’s warblers. The geolocators will help biologists track the movements of these males on their nesting grounds and will also provide valuable clues to the birds’ fall migration route and stopover sites. I asked to observe and photograph the fieldwork because I will be giving a presentation in September on Kirtland’s warbler migration to Detroit Audubon’s annual conference, and this effort is the first step in unlocking the last great mystery of Kirtland’s warbler biology.

I am also preparing to make two more trips. I’m putting off my next book to start another Kirtland’s warbler project, and for that I need to interview volunteers who participate in the annual Kirtland’s warbler census. Then in July, I’ll attend the summer meeting of the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team. At that meeting, I’ll again spend two days in a stuffy room, listening to presentations and peppering the experts with questions, gathering information for my September presentation. I’ll also be giving presentations on the Kirtland’s warbler to Washtenaw Audubon on June 20, to Jackson Audubon on Sept. 13, and to Grand Rapids Audubon on Oct. 29.

I have no idea where the Kirtland’s warbler will take me next, but this I now know for certain: For a little while longer at least, it will indeed keep me coming back.

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