A fascinating post appeared at the American Birding Association's young birders' blog, The Eyrie, last week. You can read it here, but if you're short on time, here's the digest version: Birders don't often bird true wilderness because wilderness is less birdy than fragmented and disturbed habitat often is.
The first thing that's remarkable about that observation is that it was presented by Sarah Toner, a 16-year-old birder from Michigan. We're on the right track when the next generation of naturalists is making these observations and articulating them so well before they're old enough to vote. The other thing that struck me about Sarah's post is that it is completely true.
Thinking back about my national park travels, some of the spots I remember most are parking lots, areas behind lodges, and roadside pull-offs. Wildlife is typically most viewable in edge habitat - where the forest meats the opening, the swamp meats the forest, the lake meats the land. Edges provide a diversity of cover and feeding habitat, and fragmented habitat has a disproportionate amount of edge relative to total area.
Ecologically, that's not a good thing. Edges facilitate invasion by non-native species and increase predatory pressure on everyone. Fragmented habitat itself has been shown to decrease the carrying capacity of individual animals versus a similar contiguous area. For all those reasons, 'edge' is usually a bad word in conservation. That's why Sarah and other ecologically conscious birders find ourselves in an odd position of seeking out fragmented habitat for the best enjoyment of our hobby that supposedly champions conservation.
Spring migration and summer nesting season provide fabulous birding at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. At the mouth of the Platte River you can see nesting Piping Plovers along with many other shorebirds. Turn with your back to Lake Michigan and you'll catch the warblers and other migrant songbirds feasting along the edge of the forest where it meets the beach. Raptors are cruising overhead, looking for an easy meal. A couple hours in that spot can net a list of 40 or more species.
Now, take the boat out to North Manitou Island. Spend the better part of three days hiking around the wilderness. You might get 20 to 30 species and you'll definitely have a stiff neck from trying to see them in the canopy. When discussing birding at Sleeping Bear, no one talks about North Manitou.
Last August I visited Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona. Almost 90 percent of the park is designated wilderness. And while the Chiricahua Mountains are a legendary birding destination, the national monument is not often on the list of hotspots. That's not necessarily because it's a wilderness, but because the habitat is fairly homogenous, which is why it got the wilderness designation. It's a beautiful chunk of uninterrupted sky-island forest between the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts.
There's no doubt that one of the best birding areas in the park is the picnic area and exhibit building at Massai Point. The clearing provides edge habitat, with scrub, forest, and open ground all meeting. The stunning scenery is a bonus! I got gnatcatchers, towhees, and other sparrows all around the building, vultures at head level (and below!), and some ravens who seemed to be eyeing all the lizards running from bush to bush. It's an island of awesome birding in what is otherwise a wilderness with little reputation for easy or good birding.
Here's an interesting postscript to the Chiricahua story: There seems to be an increase of bird diversity the last couple of years, or at least more birds of more species are being reported in some of the wilderness areas. That doesn't necessarily mean there are more, just that they're making themselves available to birders.
Likely because the entire park burned to at least some degree in the Horseshoe Two Fire of the spring of 2011. The scars of the fire are evident everywhere, but so is the healing. Scrub is popping up in formerly forested areas, saplings are emerging, and there is edge habitat everywhere as the fire burned hotter in patches and less severely in others. Complex ecological factors aside, the fire was probably a good thing for birding at the national monument for the next decade.
None of this is to say that wilderness is bad for bird conservation or diversity. It's been shown time after time how valuable wild lands and contiguous habitat are. I also don't know a single birder who doesn't love some time in a quiet wilderness setting. It's just an interesting paradox of our hobby that we tend to avoid those pristine places when we're out for a big list.