Working to Keep the Great Lakes “Great” for the Birds that Need It the Most

How the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is supporting Audubon Great Lakes' and partners' work to protect vulnerable birds across the Great Lakes region

Each summer, round and puffy Piping Plover chicks can be found scurrying up and down the sandy beaches of the Great Lakes region, delighting many birders, conservationists and volunteers who can recall when this was a rare sighting.

The short and stocky shorebird needs just the right spot to nest – wide, flat and cobbled beaches that offer plenty of space and opportunities to forage for insects at the shoreline. At one time, fewer than 20 pairs made the area their summer home after decades of human development and disturbance made suitable nesting areas increasingly difficult for Piping Plovers to find.

Thanks to recovery efforts funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and carried out by members and affiliates of the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team, these petite shorebirds were able to defy the odds, and make an astounding comeback across the Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes shoreline now hosts around 70 breeding pairs, which is about halfway to the recovery goal of 150 Great Lakes Piping Plover breeding pairs.

The Great Lakes, both the waters themselves and the land and wildlife habitats near the coast, serve as a global resource for millions of birds, but face significant threats. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GRLI), the premier Great Lakes federal restoration program, guides billions of dollars to critically important coastal wetland restoration projects and conservation programs within the Great Lakes region. Since 2010, the GLRI has funded more than 6,000 projects that have improved water quality and habitat for the benefit of our region’s wildlife, local communities and economies.

Each year in March, the Audubon Great Lakes policy team meets with Members of Congress to share how GLRI is protecting and strengthening our region as part of Great Lakes Days. This weeklong event, organized by the Healing Our Waters Coalition, brings together a binational coalition of regional agencies, legislators, local communities, tribes and business, maritime and environmental groups to advocate for the continued protection of the Great Lakes.

Encourage Congress to fully fund the GLRI, and explore how GLRI is supporting Audubon Great Lakes' and partners' work across the region to protect vulnerable birds, and their surrounding communities. 

Reestablishing Marsh Bird Habitat in Illinois’ Calumet Region

Tucked away in an industrialized area of Southeast Chicago is Powderhorn Lake Forest Preserve, a rich ecosystem that is home to about 250 plant species, 2,500 insects and over 200 bird species. It’s also one of the Chicago area’s few remaining examples of dune and swale habitat -- sandy ridges interspersed with alternating with low wetlands that provide important habitat for many migratory bird species. 

For more than 50 years, abnormally high water levels in Powderhorn Lake, the Preserve’s 50-acre freshwater lake, have damaged native plant and wildlife habitats making it more difficult for native species to thrive while posing a flood risk to nearby neighborhoods.  With over $1 million in GLRI support, Audubon Great Lakes, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Great Lakes Commission, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are working to bring back the important balance of water and plant life by reconnecting Powderhorn Lake to nearby Wolf Lake. The connection will help to reestablish more than 100 acres of vital marsh habitat that birds such as Least Bittern, Common Gallinule and Pied-billed Grebe rely on for survival, while benefiting surrounding communities, who will experience flood relief as well as the return of natural spaces, and wildlife to the region. 

Protecting Michigan’s Black Tern

Michigan’s Black Tern population has plummeted by as much as 99 percent, with only 1.4 percent of the population remaining in the state, according to the USGS Breeding Bird Survey. In 2018, Audubon Great Lakes successfully advocated for breeding marsh birds, like the Black Tern to be prioritized in the GLRI Action Plan, which guides GLRI planning and implementation through 2024.

This spring, Black Terns will start their long migration to Great Lakes coastal and inland marshes where they will spend their summer. Audubon Great Lakes is working with Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Common Coast Research and Conservation and Detroit Audubon to enhance habitat conditions for vulnerable marsh birds like the Black Tern across nearly 100 acres at Wigwam Bay State Wildlife Area in northeastern Michigan. GLRI funding supports Audubon’s work to remove invasive species, install Black Tern nesting platforms at sites across Michigan, and monitor how marsh birds like the Black Tern are responding to habitat improvements.

Monitoring Vulnerable Birds in Duluth, Minnesota 

Once home to lumber mills and coal docks, recent wetland restoration led by Minnesota Land Trust at Grassy Point, located along the St. Louis River in Duluth, has created habitat for vulnerable birds like the Marsh Wren, a tiny but fierce wren that depends on healthy wetlands where it nests.

With support from GLRI and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Audubon Great Lakes in partnership with Natural Resources Research Institute is monitoring migratory shorebirds, migratory waterfowl and breeding marsh birds to understand how these important restoration efforts are helping to bring back vulnerable birds like the Marsh Wren.  

Restoring Bird Habitat in the Niagara River Corridor

The Niagara River Corridor is an Important Bird Area that provides critical habitat for migrating birds like the Black-throated Blue Warbler. Located within the corridor is Buckhorn Island State Park, where thanks to GLRI support, Audubon and partners Ducks Unlimited, Buffalo Audubon Society, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation are working to restore hemi-marsh and floodplain forest habitat for migratory songbirds and vulnerable marsh birds like the Least Bittern and Sedge Wren.

Tracking How Ohio’s Birds are responding to Recovery Efforts at a National Natural Landmark

Boasting a rare mix of marshland, swamp forest, barrier beach, and dunes habitat, Mentor Marsh was named a National Park Service-designated National Natural Landmark in 1966. After years of degradation, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History undertook a large-scale restoration of the site to help return it to its former glory. This ambitious work was supported by the GLRI.

Now, GLRI is supporting Audubon Great Lakes’ work to monitor shorebirds, migratory waterfowl and marsh birds to determine which species are returning to the area, and how future conservation work like this will benefit vulnerable wildlife like the Sora.

Resorting Marsh Habitat within Wisconsin’s Allouez Bay

The bays, islands, wetlands, barrier beaches, and forested areas of the St. Louis River Estuary provide diverse habitat for more than 240 migrating and breeding birds.

Located within the Estuary is Allouez Bay, where Audubon Great Lakes and partners are creating a restoration plan to bring back hemi-marsh conditions (equal mix of open water and emergent aquatic vegetation) to benefit vulnerable birds like bitterns, rails, and the Black Tern, thanks to support from GLRI. Future restoration work will be guided by bird surveys conducted by the Natural Resources Research Institute of University of Minnesota-Duluth (NRRI) and data on local plant life from Lake Superior Research Initiative (LSRI). Restoration will likely include the removal of invasive plant species and the planting of native species, climate adaptation practices to protect the marsh, and possibly the digging of channels and potholes to create hemi-marsh conditions for birds to thrive.

Audubon Great Lakes’ GLRI supported work is made possible by organizations that have received funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to restore, protect and maintain the health of the Great Lakes. Audubon Great Lakes thanks USFWS Great Lakes Coastal Program, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for their support.

Learn more about Audubon Great Lakes work to protect birds in our region. Explore Audubon’s cohesive strategy, Audubon’s Vision: Restoring the Great Lakes for Birds and People.

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