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Bay Area Birds: Effort underway to restore Great Lakes bird populations

By Charlie Frisk

On March 22, Audubon Great Lakes, the regional office of the National Audubon Society, announced an ambitious new report titled, “Audubon’s Vision: Restoring the Great Lakes for Birds and People.”

The primary goal is to rebuild bird populations by restoring wetlands habitats and shoreline nesting areas for birds that nest around the Great Lakes. The Green Bay area will be a major focus for this project.

Bird populations have been declining worldwide, and the Great Lakes region is no exception.

“Recent studies show that North America has lost more than a quarter of its bird population in the past 50 years, and fully two-thirds of bird species are at risk of extinction in this century because of climate change,” Michelle Parker, executive director of Audubon Great Lakes said.

I moved to Green Bay in 1983 and have witnessed dramatic declines in several iconic wetland species on the bay.

In the late ‘80s my family would always watch the Fourth of July fireworks from an abandoned railroad trestle crossing the Fox River.

Just around dusk, black-crowned night-herons would start moving from their daytime roosting areas to their nighttime feeding areas.

We would typically see 30 to 40 of the short, stocky herons flying by.

Although there are still black-crowned night-herons on the bay, the population is greatly reduced, and I haven’t seen one on the bay or Fox River in at least a decade.

The list of species that have declined here includes yellow-headed blackbirds, American bitterns, black, Forster’s, common and Caspian terns, all the Midwestern species of rails and the ducks that nested on the bay, including redheads, pintails and ruddy ducks.

Tom Erdman, retired curator of the Richter Museum of Natural History, has spent his life studying and working for the preservation of Green Bay birds.
The four factors Erdman said he feels have done the most to hurt bird populations on the bay are:

• Destruction of wetland habitat. Old maps of the lower bay show both the east and west shores were all marshland. Today, those marshes are gone on the east shore, and the west shore wetlands are heavily degraded.

• In April 1973, strong winds from a nor’easter, along with heavy rains, produced a storm surge which destroyed many of the nesting islands of the Cat Island chain, as well as others. The storm also destroyed much of the remaining wetland vegetation in the lower bay.

• Although not a factor today, many wetland bird species were decimated by unregulated market hunting in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of the last Eskimo curlews ever seen was in a Green Bay market.

• Impact of toxics. Green Bay is a concentration point for all of the toxins coming out of the Fox Valley. DDT and PCBs are now heavily regulated, but there are hundreds of toxins whose impacts on the ecosystem are poorly understood.

Erdman said to help bird populations recover on the bay a few things need to happen.

• Restoration of nesting islands and marsh habitat. This will also require control of invasive Phragmites, a plant that creates a biological desert and has replaced much of the native wetland plants on the bay.

• Monitoring of toxics in birds and understanding their impacts.

• Regulations and enforcement to prevent human disturbance of nesting bird colonies. During the nesting season, one person going ashore on an island occupied by a nesting colony can destroy the entire reproductive output of that colony. If the parents are frightened off the nests, herring gulls will move in and eat all of the eggs or young birds.

• Getting climate change under control. Unregulated climate change will negate everything else being done to help bird populations recover.

Along with the Audubon study, UW-Green Bay and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working to add the bay to a nationwide network of research reserves, which study estuarine systems.

An estuary is where a river meets a lake or sea, and the Bay of Green Bay is the world’s largest freshwater estuary.

If all of this study is followed up by action, Green Bay could return to being one of the most productive wetlands in the world.

Editor’s note: To read another article by Charlie Frish on Bay Area Birds, CLICK HERE

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