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.

Sanctuary Spotlight: Thornapple Lake

Thornapple Lake Nature Sanctuary is one of MNA’s many inland-lake sanctuaries, protecting roughly 60 acres of lakeshore where the Thornapple River enters the Thornapple Lake in Barry County. The densely forested sanctuary would be a tempting destination for hiking and exploration if not for the wet terrain making trails impractical. This type of habitat, which floods every spring, is known as a floodplain forest.

The low banks along the Thornapple River allow for the natural fluctuations in water levels.

The Thornapple River, a major tributary of the Grand River which drains into Lake Michigan, travels nearly 90 miles through primarily agricultural land, and is disrupted at several points by man-made dams built to control its frequent flooding. From the tributary east of Charlotte until it joins Thornapple Lake the river flows freely, though with the appearance of a creek.

This floodplain forest area is therefore an important part of the landscape. Floodplain forests serve an important role in increasing natural water quality as pollutants get filtered out of the floodwaters through the soil. They also provide critical habitat for several rare birds, such as Baltimore Oriole, Cerulean Warbler and American Woodcock. The saturated soils of floodplain forests thaw earlier in the spring than surrounding soils, creating critical opportunities for early migratory birds to find food on their way to summer breeding grounds.

A great blue heron hunts along the shoreline at Thornapple Lake Nature Sanctuary.

The area around Thornapple Lake, however, has become heavily developed over the years with waterfront homes and neighborhoods which intersect the shoreline. The development impacts the ability of waterfowl and other species to use the lake for feeding and breeding. Concerned with the overdevelopment of the lakeshore, Richard and Rosemary Shuster donated the land that has become Thornapple Lake Nature Sanctuary in 2009.

Many of MNA’s Nature Sanctuaries are known for being incredible destinations for hiking with spectacular overlooks, abundant spring wildflowers, and more. But sanctuaries like Thornapple Lake are a reminder that prioritizing the protection of Michigan’s rich natural heritage for wildlife and not just human enjoyment, is just as worthwhile.