Recent large-scale colonisation of southern pine plantations by Swainson's Warbler Limnothlypis swainsonii

Swainson’s Warbler Limnothlypis swainsonii is a secretive species of high conservation concern with an estimated global breeding population of 90,000 individuals sparsely distributed across 15 states in the south-eastern United States. Its status as one of the rarest songbirds in North America has been attributed to the scarcity of breeding and wintering habitat. Although the warbler was once thought to be a habitat specialist of lowland canebrakes, it is now known to breed in a wide spectrum of broadleaf forest habitats linked by the common denominator of high stem densities and visual screening in the understorey stratum. Scattered instances of a fundamental habitat expansion into early seral stages of even-aged pine plantations were first observed in east Texas in 1992. Here I report that the colonisation of pine plantations is not only locally extensive in Texas but that it is widespread on the coastal plain eastward to south-eastern Virginia. During two decades of field surveys, breeding territories ( n = 297) were documented in young pine plantations in 95 counties and parishes in 10 states. Occupied plantations were mostly 6–12 m tall (median = 7.5 m), corresponding to 8–15 years after planting. Soil type and the presence of interspersed broadleaf vegetation may be important co-factors in plantation occupancy. The chronology of this breeding niche expansion is poorly known but it appears to have occurred after the 1970s, most likely catalysed by the rapid growth of pine plantation silviculture after World War II. As late as 2001, it was believed that > 90% of the breeding population occurred in broadleaf floodplain forest. The recent range-wide colonisation of pine plantations changes the calculus. If the current trend continues, forest lands managed for short-rotation pine plantations will support the majority of breeding populations by the end of the 21 st century.