Great Lakes Waterbird Conservation

Priority Coastal Wetlands for Breeding Marsh Birds

Over the past half century, human activity surrounding the Great Lakes basin has significantly degraded habitats and water quality, and as a result, many marsh bird populations are in steep decline, with some regional population declines as high as 80% in recent decades. Given the urgent need to protect and restore remaining coastal wetlands for wildlife and people, we developed a spatial prioritization to identify the most important U.S. coastal wetlands for 14 species of marsh birds representing high-quality wetland habitat--American Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Black Tern, Blue-winged Teal, Common Gallinule, Least Bittern, Marsh Wren, Osprey, Pied-billed Grebe, Sandhill Crane, Sedge Wren, Sora, Swamp Sparrow, and Virginia Rail. Utilizing bird data from the Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program as well as wetland habitat conditions that determine suitability for these birds, such as the amount of emergent vegetation we were able to rank wetlands within 30 km of the shoreline based their importance to each of the 14 species. 

The model’s results guided our selection of the regions of the Great Lakes coastal wetlands in which we undertake conservation action. Then we can examine these regions to identify key landowners and stakeholders of the specific high priority wetlands. This level of specificity allows us to be more proactive and effective in our partnership development, outreach, and project planning in high priority regions such as: the St. Louis River Estuary, Green Bay, the Calumet Region, St. Marys River, Detroit and Lake St. Clair, Saginaw Bay, Western Lake Erie Basin, Buffalo, Rochester, Sodus Bay, and Eastern Lake Ontario.

These findings were recently published in a paper that will help inform protection and monitoring of Great Lakes coastal wetlands for the benefits of birds and people.

Colonial waterbird priorities

Colonies of breeding waterbirds are salient biological features of many of the world’s large lakes. Globally, several species of colonial waterbirds are facing declines and are in need of targeted conservation efforts to maintain their roles in aquatic ecosystems, while others are considered “overabundant” and managed to reduce human-wildlife conflict; both ends of this spectrum are observed in the U.S. Great Lakes. With a focus on those populations in greatest need, Audubon is working to prioritize conservation efforts for Black-crowned Night-Heron, Black Tern, and Common Tern breeding colonies within the Great Lakes region. These species are sentinels of environmental contamination in urban areas and in the lakes themselves. While each species is generally responsive to habitat management and restoration, over the past few decades their conservation concern has only increased. By maintaining key areas for these species, many other bird species (waterfowl, raptors) will benefit because of shared habitat use during breeding, wintering, and migratory periods. Further, restoring healthy, functioning aquatic systems will benefit the human communities that call the Great Lakes home.

Download our colonial waterbird overview here

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