Nearly 3 billion birds have been lost over the past 50 years. Conservationists are trying to bring back the habitat to stave off their decline.
When Tim Oksiuta moved to Ashland in 1974, he often saw yellow-headed blackbirds and black terns nesting along the road.
But that was then.
“We might see one or two yellow-headed blackbirds during the year, and the black terns are gone,” Oksiuta said.
The same is true at Wisconsin Point, about an hour away on the western edge of Lake Superior. Black terns once nested in coastal wetlands every year. But the marsh bird hasn’t bred there in about two decades, according to Tom Prestby, Wisconsin conservation manager for Audubon Great Lakes. The non-profit conservation group estimates that black terns have declined by up to 80%.
Prestby noted that the decline in bird populations in the region is part of a larger trend, with North America having lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970. Their decline prompted Audubon and other partners to identify the most important sites in the Great Lakes region for bird habitat, including Allouez. Bay by Wisconsin Point near Superior.
“This is one of 12 wetlands that Audubon scientists have identified as extremely important for bird conservation,” Prestby said.
Prestby, along with local, state and federal partners, walked with binoculars in hand to visit one of the sites deemed critical for habitat restoration for marsh birds across the Great Lakes, including species like the black tern. Now, the Great Lakes Regional Branch of the National Audubon Society plans to restore about 150 acres of coastal wetlands in the bay by controlling invasive species and promoting native vegetation. The first phase of restoration is expected to begin late next year, and Prestby said work could reach up to 1,000 acres.
This is part of a nearly 300,000 acre restoration goal for the protection and restoration of at least 10 species of declining marsh birds. These species include bitterns, yellow-headed blackbirds and black terns.
“We focus primarily on marsh birds, and the reason for that is because marsh birds are really picky about the quality of the habitat they live in,” said Michelle Parker, executive director of Audubon Great Lakes. “So if we’re able to restore their needs, that’s a really good sign that we’re restoring a significant amount of wildlife needs.”
As they move to restore wetlands, Parker acknowledges that climate change threatens to work in places like Allouez Bay where they expect to see more extreme storms that bring intense surf and erosion that can degrade wetlands. Audubon Great Lakes is working with 15 partners on the habitat restoration project, including the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“We will…enable resilience to climate change, whether it’s an increase in storm frequency or greater fluctuations in water levels,” said DNR program coordinator Dave Grandmaison.
He said they are studying whether to use dredged material to create structures such as islands or shoals to protect wetlands from wind and waves. The National Audubon Society has recognized Wisconsin Point as an Important Bird Area for birds migrating along the western edge of Lake Superior.
“We have a very good diversity of habitats and also a lot of wetlands, which are important for food during migration,” said Karin Kozie, vice president of the Chequamegon Audubon chapter. “And I would say that we are mostly interested in protecting and maintaining the habitats that we have so that we can conserve these important areas for migration.
This is more crucial than ever, said Marshall Johnson, director of conservation for the National Audubon Society.
“Many birds have filled our backyards and our lives with song. They are now silently calling out to us,” Johnson said.
A 2019 report by the group found that 389 bird species could be at risk of extinction if global warming trends continue. In the Great Lakes, species such as bobolinks and common loons are among the most vulnerable.
Scientists have urged reducing global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius or about 3 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid the worst effects of climate change, which they say is a threshold the world should exceed.
Despite this, Parker said there was reason for hope. She pointed to areas where they have already restored habitat across the Great Lakes, such as Calumet’s Big Marsh Park in Chicago, which have seen the return of endangered birds. They include the least bittern and the common gallinule, which had not previously nested at the site for over a decade.
Work at Allouez Bay and other sites such as Green Bay, the western basin of Lake Erie and eastern Lake Ontario are seeking funding under the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The Great Lakes Cleanup Program has funded thousands of projects since 2010. In 2020, Congress authorized funding for the Great Lakes Cleanup Program to increase from $300 million to $475 million annually by 2026 .
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden announced an additional $1 billion for the program on top of his annual funding through the bipartisan Infrastructure Act. The MRN received $475,000 in funding under the program for the first phase of habitat restoration for marsh birds in Allouez Bay. The agency requested an additional $1.35 million to complete the next phase.
Democratic U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin supported both increased funding for the program and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. She said sites across the Great Lakes were struggling with great degradation before the launch of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
“We have to be good stewards,” Baldwin said, “and pass on to the next generation something that’s better, cleaner, and safer.”