Monitoring Secretive Marsh Birds in the Great Lakes Region

Audubon Great Lakes is Seeking Marsh Bird Survey Volunteers in Michigan and Indiana

Under cover of grasses, reeds and rushes, “secretive” marsh birds go about their lives, often unbeknownst to us. Marshes can be mysterious places, but countless birds and wildlife need them to thrive. Unfortunately, many marsh bird species have declined with the disappearance of the wetlands that they need in Michigan and across the Great Lakes region.

A marsh is a type of wetland that is mostly open and is dominated by vegetation that grows out of the water and is rooted on the wetland floor, floating plants such as waterlilies, and vegetation that live completely underwater. Marsh birds such as Sora, Virginia Rail, and Least Bittern are all regularly found in marshes during the spring, summer and fall, but their stealthy behaviors often prevent them from being detected by people. Because marsh birds are difficult to spot, it can be difficult to know how numerous they are.

To better understand marsh bird population trends, Audubon Great Lakes leads Secretive Marsh Bird Surveys across the Great Lakes region. Since 2015, Audubon Great Lakes has led surveys of marsh birds in the Calumet region in Illinois. This survey has since expanded to include wetlands in Indiana and Michigan.

The surveys are conducted by volunteers and scientists who visit designated wetlands, play recordings of marsh bird calls and monitor marsh bird responses to these calls. These efforts help identify where marsh birds are located and roughly how many individuals are present at a given wetland site.

In addition to helping us track marsh bird population trends, marsh bird surveys also help us better understand the health and condition of the region’s remaining marshes, and how marsh birds are responding to restoration efforts. For example, marsh birds like the Pied-billed Grebe depend on marshes for large areas of open water to dive for prey, sufficient cover for hiding its nest and young, and wetland vegetation to construct their nests. When the level of vegetation and water does not meet their needs, birds like the Pied-billed Grebe must move elsewhere.

This monitoring is crucial to our wetland conservation efforts. The newly launched Audubon Great Lakes Marsh Bird Data Hub showcases the efforts and results of marsh bird monitoring at 32 sites across the Calumet region in Illinois and Indiana. It is our hope that conservation partners and the community will use the data and tools to not only learn more about the marsh birds in our region, but further their marsh bird conservation efforts.

Help us count secretive marsh birds this season!

  • Audubon Great Lakes, in partnership with Indiana Audubon Society and Indiana Department of Natural Resources, is currently seeking volunteers for Indiana Statewide Marsh Bird Survey in locations across Indiana. Participation requires a commitment of three morning surveys between April 15 and June 15, 2021. Volunteer training and materials will be provided. Volunteers interested in monitoring in northern Indiana (Lake, Porter or Newton County) should contact Libby Keyes (, while volunteers interested in monitoring in southern Indiana (Pike, Gibson, Greene, Jennings, and Jackson County) should contact Sarah McNichol (
  • MI Birds is currently seeking marsh bird survey volunteers to search for these secretive birds in locations across Michigan. Participation requires a commitment of three morning surveys between May 1 and June 30, 2021. Volunteer training, including bird identification by sight and sound, and supplies will be provided. Sign up to learn more about how you can get involved, and follow MI Birds on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.
  • Want to do even more to help secretive marsh birds? Learn the calls of these focal species:   American BitternLeast BitternCommon GallinulePied-billed GrebeVirginia RailSoraKing Rail. Then report them to eBird when you encounter them at Michigan marshes like Pointe Mouillee State Game Area or Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, both of which double as Important Bird Areas

We hope to see you in the field!

How you can help, right now