Public lands need our help. Despite their benefits for recreation and refuge—providing ideal habitat for birds and other wildlife—their survival is under threat in a time when they are more important than ever. This is particularly true in Michigan, where the conservation of public lands is at a crossroads.
Historically, hunters have supported the conservation and management of the state’s 100+ wildlife and game areas. Hunting license fees and the excise taxes on firearms and ammunition funds up to 90 percent of the Wildlife Division budget each year. As the popularity of hunting declines, so too has the Wildlife Division budget. Loss of funding poses a threat to the conservation of Michigan’s public lands and waters, as well as the over 450 bird species who rely on them for food, shelter and breeding grounds. With birding on the rise, it’s up to those who care about wildlife to engage with these spaces to provide essential support for them to thrive.
Enter MI Birds, a public outreach and education program, from Audubon Great Lakes and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), that works to bring together birders and other wildlife enthusiasts to visit and experience Michigan’s public lands and waters through programming, volunteer engagement and educational outreach. Co-managed by Erin Ford, MI Conservation Manager and Izabela Grobelna, Engagement Manager, MI Birds more widely engages a network of conservation partners often featured in programs such as “Off the Beaten Path: Birding at Michigan Wetland Wonders” and “Meet Michigan’s Stocky Heron: Black-crowned Night Heron” aimed at sharing birding knowledge with the Michigan audience.
Through the efforts of MI Birds Ambassadors across the state, this program has made strides, not only to engage more people with public lands through immersive bird walks, public events, and stewardship activities, but also to connect diverse interest groups in a common cause. This is particularly true in the case of birders and hunters, who have seldom crossed paths even though they share similar concerns for conservation. MI Birds has worked to bridge the gap between these two groups to further protect the state’s public lands and birds.
In recognition of their work with MI Birds, we would like to highlight two of our Ambassadors who had a positive impact on conservation in their communities. Both have demonstrated continued dedication to the conservation of Michigan’s birds and the habitats they depend on, and serve as an inspiration for further activism.
Jeff Towner, Laughing Whitefish Audubon Society – Marquette, MI
As a member of Audubon off and on since the early 1970s, active both with his local chapter and Audubon Great Lakes, Jeff Towner was drawn by MI Bird’s emphasis on public lands, as well as bridging the divide between different groups in the interest of their preservation. With a background in conservation, beginning as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa to then work first for the Army Corps of Engineers followed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a Field Supervisor, Towner brings dedication and a career’s worth of experience to his work as an Ambassador.
Regarding MI Birds, Towner emphasizes the importance of forging partnerships between birders and hunters. To this end, he has reached out to other local groups in the Upper Peninsula. In one project, he worked with the student chapter of Ducks Unlimited at Lake Superior State University to acquire and install wood duck nesting boxes on Sugar Island near Sault St. Marie, improving habitat for this unique waterfowl. He hopes to continue developing partnerships and pursue more habitat restoration work in the future.
At a recent Birds and Brews event at Ore Dock Brewery in Marquette, MI, which Towner describes as the program’s best attended to date, over 130 participants enjoyed bird trivia, designed by a member of Laughing Whitefish Audubon, and a free drink to complement a brief presentation. Towner attributes this event’s success to publicity it received not only from Audubon but also the hosting brewery, illustrating the potential for such events to expand MI Bird’s outreach. His chapter hopes to host another one in the near future.
Beth Miller, Owashtanong Islands Audubon Society – Grand Haven, MI
Beth Miller fell in love with birding after hearing the song of a Hermit Thrush while camping at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. After retiring as an elementary educator in 2019, she had the opportunity to pursue this passion to its fullest, first as Secretary for Owashtanong Islands Audubon, then as President of the Muskegon County Nature Club. Under her tenure, these two groups began coordinating on programs in Muskegon County promoting the appreciation and conservation of birds. She got involved with MI Birds after participating as a marsh bird survey and Black Tern survey volunteer with Audubon Great Lakes.
As an Ambassador, Miller has also hosted a Birds and Brews event at a local brewery near Grand Haven, which she recalls as a big success as well. However, more recently she helped with a guided birding tour through Muskegon State Game Area hosted by MI Birds. During this walk, guests toured several notable sites and were joined by a representative from Michigan DNR to discuss savannah restoration.
Miller hopes to pull off more events, particularly on the Grand River, which has been identified as a high priority habitat, especially after, as she recounts, a Limpkin was discovered there last year. She envisions taking guests via boat to experience areas along the river otherwise inaccessible to them.
ABOUT MI BIRDS
MI Birds is a public outreach and engagement program created by Audubon Great Lakes and Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which aims to increase all Michiganders' engagement in the understanding, care, and stewardship of public lands that are important for birds and local communities. To learn more about our upcoming events and field trips, follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter or visit our website at gl.audubon.org/mibirds. Sign-up to receive periodic emails about upcoming MI Birds and Ambassador events near you.
Authored by Dan Barton, Engagement Intern, Audubon Great Lakes.