Volunteers Show Up in Record-Breaking Numbers to Monitor Vulnerable Michigan Birds

Audubon Great Lakes thanks volunteers for their participation in three community science programs to track how birds are responding to local conservation efforts

An overcast sky hangs over Houghton Lake Flats South Flooding State Wildlife Area in northcentral Michigan as the early morning rays of sunlight sparsely pierce through the clouds. Underneath the pockets of sunshine, Theresa Celusta has already kayaked 2.5 miles through the marshes of the State Wildlife area in search of Black Tern nests.

A Michigan Species of Special Concern, the Black Tern has experienced a dramatic population decline over the past 50 years. This spring and summer, a record-setting 689 volunteers spanned across Michigan to find vulnerable bird species as part of three community science programs presented by Audubon Great Lakes MI Bird’s program that track how well birds are responding to local conservation efforts.

“Our volunteers blew us away showing up in record numbers despite the many challenges that the pandemic brought this year,” said Erin Rowan, Conservation Associate for Audubon Great Lakes. “We want to thank each and every one of our volunteers, from the early-morning risers who got up at the crack of dawn to count marsh birds, to the families that made multiple Osprey nest visits throughout the summer. Thanks to these volunteers we will have a better understanding of how Michigan’s birds are faring in our region.”

We are shining a spotlight on volunteers whose efforts have contributed to Audubon’s science and are helping to protect birds across Michigan and beyond.

Volunteers Help Inform Michigan’s Black Tern Conservation

Audubon Great Lakes and several partners are working towards understanding the underlying cause of Black Tern’s decline and developing conservation strategies that can help bring these birds back to Michigan’s coastal and inland marshes. Since 2013, Audubon Great Lakes, Detroit Audubon, Michigan DNR, and several other partners have studied Black Terns at St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area, Michigan with the primary goals of estimating colony size and breeding success.

This year, 35 volunteers across 13 counties in Michigan volunteered to conduct Black Tern Surveys. Their efforts are helping to identify priority areas for Black Tern conservation and inform conservation action plans that will guide wetland management at key sites.

Black Tern Survey volunteer, Mark Harder scouted his survey area to count breeding pairs, newly hatched young, as well as mark the location of active colonies.

“Before volunteering, I’d only ever seen a few Black Terns. While out on the water, I was able to see Black Terns rest on snags and tree stumps in open water, allowing incredible views as I floated by with the current – often times as close as 20 feet away,” said Harder. 

Volunteers Listen and Look for ‘Secretive’ Marsh Birds

On the morning of a partial solar eclipse, William Roth was in the marsh at Wigwam Bay State Wildlife Area in northeast Michigan, searching for the sight or sound of secretive marsh birds. The marsh bustled with activity as a family of five otters swam and an Osprey hovered over the water in search of fish.

Under thick vegetation, marsh birds live much of their lives hidden to us. William played recordings of marsh bird calls and monitored for any response. While most marsh birds prefer to be heard rather than seen, on a rare occasion volunteers will spot one, like the Least Bittern that appeared out of the reeds that morning.

Due to the loss of quality habitat, many marsh birds’ populations have declined across the Great Lakes region. More than 26 volunteers participated in this year’s Marsh Bird Survey, providing critical information on the health and condition of the region’s remaining marshes, and informing how marsh birds are responding to local restoration efforts.

Hundreds Visit Osprey Nests to Check for Chicks

Audubon Great Lakes and MI DNR are grateful to the more than 600 volunteers across the state who participated in this year’s Adopt-A-Nest: Osprey Monitoring Program.

Each volunteer was given a list of known Osprey nests within their county, and were asked to visit at least one nest at-least three times over the spring and summer. During each visit they used their binoculars or a spotting scope to check for signs of attempted nests, active nesting and for any chicks in or fledglings at the nest.

Ospreys were once severely impacted by the use of the pesticide DDT and were listed as a threatened species in Michigan during the 1960s. Volunteers are vital to understanding how Ospreys are rebounding throughout the state.

This year, many Adopt-A-Nest volunteers went above-and-beyond, like Case Deyoung who observed 19 nests over three counties, and Terry Coleman who observed 17 nests over four counties.

“The response from the MI Birds community was amazing,” said Julie Oakes, Wildlife Biologist for Michigan DNR. “Thanks to the help of volunteers, over 1,500 Osprey nest reports were successfully submitted to us this year, which is nearly double the number of reports submitted in past years.”

Volunteers Advocate for Birds and the Places They Need

Some of our bird survey volunteers also volunteer their time advocating for birds and the places they need to thrive. Beth Miller, a Marsh Bird Survey and Black Tern Survey volunteer, participated in Audubon’s 2021 Seabird Week of Action, where she met with her members of congress to advocate for sustainable fishery practices that would benefit Great Lakes birds like the Black Tern, which spend their winters out at sea. Take action today and urge your Member of Congress to protect America’s seabirds and forage fish.

Beth also wrote a Letter to the Editor advocating for the passage of the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which will support landowners in adopting sustainable practices like cover cropping, prescribed grazing, and reforestation to help stave off the worst effects of climate change.

“As an Audubon Great Lakes volunteer in nearby Grand Haven, Michigan I know that common-sense solutions like these are necessary to protect our environment for the benefit of birds and people,” Miller said.

You can join volunteers across the Great Lakes region who are helping us protect birds and the places they need. Sign-up today to be a Great Lakes climate advocate to learn how you can raise your voice to help birds in your community, and subscribe to Audubon Great Lakes newsletter for updates on volunteer opportunities near you. 


MI Birds is a public outreach and education program presented by Audubon Great Lakes and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources that works to build and bring together wildlife enthusiasts across the state to engage with and conserve Michigan's birds, wildlife, and public lands.

-  Tristen Ortiz, Communication Intern, Audubon Great Lake

Ways You Can Help