Golden-winged Warbler Habitat Conservation

American Birding Association’s Bird of the Year

With a flash of gold and silvery gray, the Golden-winged Warbler flits through scrubby edges between forests and open fields. Nesting pairs migrate to raise young in the high elevations of the Roan Highlands, where SAHC protects and manages Golden-winged Warbler habitat. However, these charismatic songbirds still face a steep population decline.

Golden-winged Warbler

A migratory songbird that spends summers in North America and winters in Central and South America, the Golden-winged Warbler has been in decline since the 1960s, threatened by habitat loss in both wintering and breeding grounds. In the southern Appalachian portion of their range, Golden-winged Warblers are found in the highest elevations, such as the Highlands of Roan. They require ‘early successional habitat’ for nesting sites – a habitat type once prevalent in the rolling mountain farms that dotted the area. Early successional habitat occurs where forest edges open into sunny areas, providing both nesting sites, shelter, and areas for fledglings to fly. For more than a decade, SAHC has protected and restored habitat for the Golden-winged Warblers, to support these colorful songbirds and to benefit a variety of other species that thrive in the same habitat.

Habitat Restoration

“SAHC has protected hundreds of acres of Golden-winged Warbler habitat across the Roan Highlands including our preserves in Hampton Creek Cove in Tennessee and throughout Roaring Creek in North Carolina – two “hot spots” for the preservation of this species,” explains Roan Stewardship Director Marquette Crockett. “The Roan Highlands are particularly important for Golden-winged Warbler conservation because the vast expanses of open habitat on the Roan are found at elevations high enough to protect them from competition and hybridization with Blue-winged Warblers.”

SAHC actively manages this critical habitat to ensure that it is best able to support breeding Golden-winged Warblers. This work, which is guided by best management practices developed for the species, includes thinning encroaching shrubs and trees to keep them at an ideal density, treating invasive species, grazing, and rotational mowing. Most of this work is completed by staff and volunteers or by contracting work using grant funding provided by partner organizations.

“Partners for habitat management work on our preserves include the Audubon Society, Carolina Bird Club, Blue Ridge Audubon, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and USDA EQUIP programs,” continues Marquette. One of our most recent habitat management projects focused on the removal of remnant Christmas trees and thinning of black locust and small tulip poplars along field margins on SAHC’s Wiles Creek Preserve. We documented Golden-winged Warblers on the Wiles Creek property in 2022, and with a small amount of restoration, we hope to maintain this habitat for years to come.”

Technology for the Birds

In addition to habitat management, for the last 10+ years SAHC has completed annual surveys for Golden-winged Warblers on many of our preserves and across U.S. Forest Service lands on Hump and Little Hump Mountains.

“This work is challenging, as many sites are extremely remote and spring weather on the Roan can be unpredictable and blustery, conditions not conducive to hearing birdsong,” says Marquette. “We hope to improve our survey efforts using technology. In 2024, we were awarded a grant by the Tennessee Ornithological Society to purchase and use Autonomous Recording Units (ARUs) to record birdsong on our preserves. These units can be installed and set to record for a certain number of minutes at specific times for multiple days. Staff and volunteers will be able to put the recorders in the field and get multiple days of data with one field visit! This work will allow us to get a better picture of where Golden-winged Warblers are nesting on our properties and help us target areas for protection and management.”

Get Involved!

The data collected for Golden-winged Warblers will need to be sorted “by ear.”

If you are a birder who would be interested in helping us install recorders or listen to birdsong to identify Golden-winged Warblers and other species of concern, please email marquette@appalachian.org.