Celebrating Migratory Birds on World Migratory Bird Day

by Zoë Goodrow

World Migratory Bird Day is on May 14th this year, where over 700 events and programs around the world will take place to educate the public on migratory birds and how to conserve them. Migration is a spectacular event – especially in Michigan. Two major flight paths, or “flyways”, run through Michigan. These paths are the route birds take between their breeding grounds up north and their overwintering grounds in the south. You can track this migration on the website birdcast.info. Nearly 400 species of birds pass through Michigan via either the Atlantic or Mississippi Flyway. Our Great Lakes habitat serves as a critical stop for migratory birds, resulting in exceptional opportunities for Michiganders to observe them. Because Michigan is such a critical stop for migratory birds, the availability of suitable habitat for them is essential for their survival. A study published in “Science in 2019 said three billion birds have been lost in Michigan since 1970. There are species of migratory birds that are important to Michigan’s biodiversity that are threatened by habitat loss and other issues that impact environmental health.

Common loon with chick. Photo by Joni Roberts

One of the first species to pass through during spring migration is the common loon. A beloved and iconic species in our state, the common loon nests in northern Michigan. Common loons return to the same nesting site each year, and each year more nesting sites are destroyed from lakeshore development, damming, or poor water quality. Their diet consists of macro invertebrates and fish, which also share the same threats. Common loons can live over 30 years – because of their longevity and their place higher up in the food chain, they are considered indicator species of water quality and environmental health. In recent years, much research has been done to understand the impact of lead, mercury, and PFAS accumulation in common loons. Efforts to conserve loon habitat and increase the number of breeding pairs in Michigan have been underway for years, and numbers have been slightly rising. There are an estimated 500-700 breeding pairs in Michigan, which is a success given the goal of the Michigan Loon Recovery Plan is to maintain at least 575 breeding pairs.

Another migratory bird that is the focus of significant conservation efforts in Michigan is the purple martin. Although the global population of purple martins is stable, the Michigan population has been steadily and steeply declining for the past six decades. Over one-third of their population has disappeared in the last 50 years. This decline is a result of a combination of factors including nesting habitat loss, competition with invasive species, decreased prey availability from insecticide use, and climate change. Conservation efforts include providing nesting boxes in purple martin habitat. Research suggests that nesting boxes (often referred to as “condos”) installed by purple martin “landlords” across the state are the only thing keeping the species alive. There are numerous outreach programs in Michigan and beyond to educate the public about purple martins and the individual actions that can be taken to protect their populations, including limiting insecticide use, creating native plant habitat, and installing nesting boxes.

Kirtland’s warbler. Photo courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The Kirtland’s warbler is an exceptional conservation success story – one that shows how collaborative work and adaptive land management can lead to the comeback of a species. In 2019, this beloved songbird was removed from the endangered species list after once being nearly extinct. Scientists worked with land managers in Michigan to conserve and expand suitable habitat for the Kirtland’s warbler by creating and maintaining young jack pines stands across the state. This practice in combination with managing brown-headed cowbirds, who parasitize Kirtland warbler nests, are what led to the thriving population of Kirtland’s warbler we have in Michigan today.

The success story of the Kirtland’s warbler, and the stories of other important migratory birds in Michigan, are testaments to the importance of habitat conservation and restoration. At the Michigan Nature Association (MNA), we work to acquire, protect, and maintain natural areas that are home to important habitat for endangered and threatened migratory birds. With the help of organizations like MNA from the local to the national level, legislators, scientific research, and generous donations – more conservation success stories are possible. This migration season, see how you can help protect these species that are important to Michigan’s biodiversity. One action Michiganders can take is, at the recommendation of the DNR, remove bird baths and feeders to mitigate the risk of HPAI (avian flu) to migratory birds.

Celebrating Michigan’s Wilderness on World Rewilding Day

Today, March 20th, Michiganders across the state are celebrating the start of spring. We, too, look forward to all that this season brings including wildflowers, bird migration, and more. But today, we are especially excited about World Rewilding Day—established in 2021, World Rewilding Day raises awareness of the need for large, ‘wild’ habitat in the fight against climate change-driven extinctions.

An aerial photograph showing the Ottawa National Forest. Photo by Jason Whalen | Fauna Creative

Our recently-released video “Keep the U.P. Wild” explores one such effort in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Keep the U.P. Wild Coalition last year began a campaign to add federal Wilderness designation to more than 40,000 acres of land in the western U.P., and has since grown to include more than 300 organizations.

Designation requires congressional action, which would provide the highest level of federal land protection for the four areas within the one-million-acre Ottawa National Forest in the western Upper Peninsula: The Trap Hills, Ehlco Area, Norwich Plains, and Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness Addition.

If successful, wilderness designation would protect these areas for biological diversity, not resource extraction, while still providing opportunities for their respectful use, enjoyment, and economic benefit.

 “The scientific community has learned … that connections and scale really play an important role in the ability of many species to exist over time,” said MNA Conservation Director, Andrew Bacon. Wilderness designation at this scale would most certainly benefit the flora and fauna and provide for the natural processes that help reduce the effects of carbon in the atmosphere—one of the leading drivers of climate change.

Watch our video today, and learn more about this campaign and the coalition members at keeptheupwild.com.

Michigan’s Landscape Architects – Beavers

The Michigan Nature Association prides itself on protecting habitat for many different species, through the conservation and stewardship at our more than 180 Nature Sanctuaries. But there are times when the needs of one species are counterproductive to the needs of another.

Historically, the American beaver was hunted—nearly to extinction—by fur trading Europeans. Their resurgence across the Midwest has been thanks to conservation efforts, not only for them but also for other species as well.

A beaver swims through a pond. Photo by Lauren Ross.

Beavers are incredible builders, able to construct lodges up to 8 feet wide and 3 feet high, using only their teeth to cut branches and logs, which must then be transported over land and water to the construction site. They are also incredibly effective dam builders—significantly affecting the flow of rivers and streams, which can then flood hundreds of acres of land, creating the ponds and lakes that they require for survival. 

Beaver dam at an MNA Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Andrew Bacon.

This keystone species are the architects of wetlands and pools in riparian ecosystems—the area between land and rivers and streams. Their damming and wetland creation is invaluable for a wide diversity of wetland birds, herptiles, and insects. Where beavers are allowed to operate in their natural capacity, there are tremendous benefits for wildlife and water quality within the riparian corridor.

However, in sensitive habitats like the prairie fens, found at a particular MNA Nature Sanctuary in Oakland County, these habitat architects can actually have a destructive effect by flooding and killing these rare plant communities and the rare species which occur within them. One of the two creeks that flow through the sanctuary has been dammed by beavers for over a decade and has enlarged the lake on the eastern side of the sanctuary. If left alone, the dams could eventually flood the fen and create an emergent marsh habitat comprised primarily of cattail, pond-lilies, and other wetland species. And though this type of habitat is common across the state, the transition in this particular location is not ideal.

Prairie fen (left) photo by Dave Cuthrell, Emergent marsh (right) photo by Joshua Cohen courtesy MNFI.

The prairie fen at this sanctuary is one of the last places on earth where the federally endangered Poweshiek skipperling makes its home. The loss of occupied prairie fen habitat at this sanctuary would have a catastrophic effect on the global population of these tiny butterflies.

After consulting with several conservation scientists about the issue, MNA conservation staff determined that the beaver activity constitutes a grave threat to the rare species found within the prairie fen, and that sanctuary management would include curtailing the flooding in order to maintain access to the sanctuary. This approach—prioritizing the needs of more rare species over more abundant ones—is commonly taken by conservation organizations at both the local and national levels.

Humans, like beavers, are capable of altering their surroundings in ways that most other species are not. Like the beaver and the butterfly which cannot know that in this place is nearly all that remains of the Poweshiek skipperling, humans too have a limited amount of knowledge to guide our activities. It is, however, with conscientious and scientific thought. Nature forces us to make some very difficult decisions at times—so as we work to protect Michigan nature for everyone, we must also recognize when one species requires more of our efforts than another.

Michigan’s Amazing Animals: Common Loon

by Patrick Bevier

Common loons are one of the most mysterious animals we have in Michigan. To unravel some of the mystery, here are some fascinating, fabulous, and funny facts about those beautiful, bewitching, and boisterous birds:

The Name Game: The scientific name of the common loon is Gavia immer. Gavia is a Latin term meaning ‘seabird’ and immer is from the Latin “immerses” which translates to ‘submerged’. Another moniker for these birds is Great Northern Diver, which acknowledges their amazing underwater skills. There are five species of Gavia worldwide, all living above the equator, with the common loon being by far the most frequent inhabitant of the Mitten State. A close relative, the red-throated loon, makes an occasional appearance in our area and can be identified by its burnt orange hued triangular throat patch, and small, narrow head.

Great Divers Indeed: When pursuing fish, a common loon can dart down to 200 foot-depths! They torpedo through the water with powerful thrusts of webbed feet and have solid bones which make them less buoyant than hollow-boned ducks. This skeleton contributes to common loons being the heaviest of the Gavia species as they may tip the scales at over 13 pounds. Further, loons can spend an amazing eight minutes underwater, and rarely come to the surface without an aquatic animal in their beak.

Photo by Deb Traxinger.

Not So Ducky: Common loons resemble ducks in shape and behavior except for a very pointed bill that helps them to spear their prey and feet located further back on the body. They sport mostly black plumage with a grid-like pattern of white spots across the wings, a thick black necklace, smooth head, small ruby colored eyes, and a white underbelly. There is no sexual dimorphism as male and female loons look similar to one another except males are sometimes slightly larger. The common loon’s feathers change dramatically between the breeding and non-breeding seasons. As a matter of fact, you probably wouldn’t recognize the understated non-breeding version with its drab brown body and white face and neck.

Still Not Too Common: Although population numbers appear to be rising slightly, common loons still carry the conservation status of threatened in the Great Lakes State. Threatened species are defined as those that may become endangered if conservation efforts are not increased. Indeed, in Michigan it is estimated that we have only 500-700 nesting pairs of loons. Please do not disturb them by getting too close, especially when they are nesting.

Loon Rangers: To monitor populations, Michigan has an ongoing Natural Features Study on these birds and specially assigned citizens are known as Loon Rangers! Can I get a, “High-Ho-Silver, Away!” for them?

Loquacious Loons: Loons emit some of the most distinctive and recognizable calls of all North American wildlife, and feature a variety of vocalizations. In fact, they produce four distinct calls (wail, yodel, hoot, and tremolo). The iconic wail is associated most with loons, and is a prolonged, haunting bellow that is used to signal their whereabouts to faraway mates. The yodel is an undulating shriek uttered by males only and means, “stay out of my territory!”. The hoot is used to occasionally signal nearby family members. Finally, the tremolo, is a cackling sound uttered when they feel threatened.

Summer Love: Loons generally mate for life but will take another partner if one dies. In Michigan loons usually arrive in April and begin preparing their nest in May. Nests are constructed of contoured marsh vegetation in sheltered areas and the clutch size is one or two large brown eggs with black splotches. Males and females take turns incubating the eggs which hatch in 26-29 days. The adorable, fully-feathered, brownish gray puffballs begin swimming within hours of hatching.

Thanks for the Ride, Mom! One of the most unusual behaviors of common loons is that the chicks ride on their parents’ backs. Two reasons for this piggy-back behavior are that it keeps the chicks warm and decreases predation from underwater hunters like snapping turtles and northern pike, and terrestrial predators like mink and fox. During the first week after hatching a chick may spend up to 50% of its time getting chauffeured with a sharp decline of back-riding thereafter. However, we have observed chicks over half the size of the parent sneaking a lift if they can get away with it!

Photo by Joni Roberts.

Bye, Bye Baby: It’s quite ironic, however, that such nurturing parents often leave their chicks “in the dust” near the end of their first summer of existence. During September the loon parents fly off to separate parts of the country-usually the warmer areas of the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico-with nary a thought for what might happen to the now three-month old chicks. The good news is that the youngsters, who have grown like weeds and are now almost the size of the parents, instinctively know to fly for warmer climes as well.

Long-in-the-Tooth Loons: As bird species go loons live a relatively long life. Indeed, Michigan boasts the oldest known loon pair in the world! The couple, named “ABJ” and “Fe,” have nested in the U.P.’s Seney National Wildlife Refuge since 1997. Having been banded much earlier, the male, “ABJ,” is 34-years-old while “Fe,” the female, reaches a remarkable 35-years-old this summer! Close eyes are kept on this couple as each year Michigan conservationists celebrate their return. It’s estimated that this dynamic duo has produced up to 40 “Yooper” loon chicks over their lifetime!

Piscatorial Palette: Loons have a somewhat specialized diet including gobbling up crayfish and aquatic insects but definitely consume more fish than anything else. While teaching them how to hunt, parents feed the chicks for many weeks of their young lives.

Like a Drunken Sailor: Because their legs are further back than any other type of water bird, loons have a distinct disadvantage on land. They are incapable of walking upright and instead stagger and crawl on their bellies until they can reach water again. That explains why loons nest on vegetation very close to the water’s edge in case they have to make a quick getaway in the presence of predators. Therefore, Gavia species spend their entire lives paddling, fishing, and loving, in the water. Their weight, however, makes it difficult for them to take flight and the birds often have to frantically run on the water’s surface for up to 600 yards to accomplish that feat. Accordingly, you won’t find loons nesting in small bodies of water.

Flying Phenom’s: Once airborne, loons can fly up to 75 miles per hour and can amass hundreds of miles of flying distance without rest!

Ever-Changing Eyes: Interestingly, the commonloons’ eye color changes dramatically from a dull gray during winter to a piercing crimson in spring and summer. Ornithologists hypothesize that this may be for attracting mates or for better underwater vision in fresh water.

Looney Tunes: Although the popular cartoon borrowed their name for the series, a loon character never appeared. Instead, a rabbit, duck, pig, cat, parakeet, and even a bumbling hunter graced the screen with names like Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Sylvester, Tweety, and Elmer. The goal was to, of course, have the viewer, “laughing like a loon!”

Legendary Loon Literature: A delightful children’s book was written and illustrated by Michigan artists Kathy-jo Wargin and Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen, respectively. It’s titled, “The Legend of the Loon” with a theme of a grandmother’s love for her grandchildren. It was published by popular Michigan-based book creators Sleeping Bear Press (sleepingbearpress.com).

An Avian Accident: A funny story comes our way from our Canadian cousins up north. Seems that their beloved dollar coin that was first minted in 1986, and sports a loon picture on the tails-side, was never meant to be. The initial intent for these coins, affectionately known as “loonies,” was to have two voyagers in a canoe opposite Queen Elizabeth’s’ face. But the die for that design went missing at the last minute and the mint decided to slap on a picture of a loon instead. Today, many people – particularly hockey players – consider loonies to be good luck.

Those are some common loon characteristics about these not so common creatures. With good fortune you’ll encounter one or more this summer on the wonderful waters of Michigan!