Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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Common Tern Colony found on Lake St. Clair, Michigan according to new study
Midwest Region, June 8, 2012
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Common terns have established a nest colony at Lighthouse Island on Lake St. Clair, Michigan.
Common terns have established a nest colony at Lighthouse Island on Lake St. Clair, Michigan. - Photo Credit: Service photo by Greg Soulliere

The Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Region Joint Venture is one of many regional bird-habitat partnerships in North America. Bird habitat JVs have formally accepted the responsibility of implementing national or international bird conservation plans within specific geographic areas. The "Upper Miss" JV region encompasses all or portions of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin. The area contains unique and important waterbird habitats, including the nation’s only inland coastal area – the Great Lakes and shorelines. On the eastern edge of the JV region, where the St. Clair River empties into Lake St. Clair, lies an expansive wetland complex shared by Ontario and Michigan. Nine primary islands and associated shallow bays and marshes form the St. Clair Flats, the only major river delta in the Great Lakes and the world’s largest freshwater delta.


This area has been the focus of several JV-funded waterbird research and monitoring projects, with emphasis on waterfowl and secretive marsh birds. These projects are testing JV planning assumptions as well as establishing abundance and distribution information for wetland bird species of high management concern. While assisting conservation partners with evaluation efforts on the St. Clair Flats during spring 2010 and 2011, several common terns were observed by JV staff using neighboring Lake St. Clair. This was exceptional news considering common tern breeding colonies had not been recorded on Lake St. Clair during recent Great Lakes Colonial Waterbird Surveys conducted in 1997-98 and 2008-10.

The occurrence of common terns was reported by JV staff at a Western Great Lakes Waterbird Workshop in 2011, resulting in a scheme to find the potential colony. Working with waterbird experts from the Detroit Zoo and University of Minnesota, a plan to locate and inventory a Lake St. Clair tern colony was devised. Following a separate marsh bird survey in late May of this year, JV staff found and followed common terns carrying small fish. They were moving from shallow areas of Muscamoot Bay toward the open water waters of the lake, and eventually to a small lighthouse island over a mile from the nearest shoreline. Indeed, when approached too closely by boat in late May, 80-100 common terns took to the air and circled the little light house.

In early June, JV staff returned to the site with the Detroit Zoo Curator of Birds to complete an inventory. There were 25 tern nests on the 50 x 50-foot island. Even more exciting, a sister colony with 40 nests was found on this same trip at a neighboring lighthouse 1/4 mile away. These sites may have been used by terns for some time but simply missed during the Colonial Waterbird Survey, due to the remoteness of the location. In an almost unbelievable turn of events, while boating back from the lighthouses, another tern colony was observed, this time Forester's terns. They were nesting on a small vegetated island of Muscamoot Bay, about four miles from the Common Terns. Both species are rare in the Midwest, but their occurrence shouldn't have been a surprise at this special and wild place known as the St. Clair Flats.

Contact Info: Gregory Soulliere, 517-351-4214, Greg_Soulliere@fws.gov
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