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Midwest Region
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A Wilson's Snipe. Photo by Robert Russell/USFWS

A Wilson's Snipe. Photo by Robert Russell/USFWS.

The Great Lakes, A Crossroads for Shorebird Migrations

Every May lines of migrating Whimbrel depart in the evening from coastal Virginia staging areas and migrate through the Great Lakes on their way to Canadian tundra breeding grounds. August finds nearly every sandy beach on Lakes Michigan and Huron hosting small, scurrying flocks of Sanderlings on their way to Gulf and Atlantic coast beaches. Thousands of Pectoral Sandpipers gather at refuges along the south coast of Lakes Erie and Ontario, putting on additional body fat to carry them to breeding areas in Canada and Alaska. Large flocks of Willet coming southeast from the Dakotas often converge for a day in July at the Indiana Dunes on their way to the southeast in the United States. Small flocks of the declining Red Knot migrate along Lakes Erie and Michigan beaches on an 8,000 mile journey that will eventually take them to wintering grounds in Argentina. Over 35 species of shorebirds utilize stopover habitat on the Great Lakes for foraging, resting, roosting, and even a few species for breeding.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has provided unprecedented funding opportunities to further bird conservation in this globally important watershed. From radar research investigating migration hotspots, to wetland restorations on private land in the upper watersheds of Great Lakes tributaries, to important coastal habitat protection and enhancement projects, GLRI has been a boon for birds!

The habitats required to support the migrating shorebirds are remarkably diverse. Wilson’s Snipe use coastal wetlands to forage in shallow pools and grassy marsh edges. Ruddy Turnstones frequent rocky shores and jetties while Short-billed Dowitchers prefer refuge drawdowns with very shallow waters and exposed mudflats. During late summer in years of declining water levels, large bays such as Green Bay in Wisconsin and Michigan’s Saginaw Bay provide an abundance of exposed flats and shallow marsh habitat. During years of high water when mudflats and shallow water feeding areas are scarce, personnel at refuges like Michigan’s Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge and Ohio’s Magee Marsh State Wildlife Area perform drawdowns on their pools to attract thousands of migrants for up to several weeks at a time.

The sandy beaches are no less important for several species. Migrant Least Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, and Sanderling appear on almost any major beach, usually limiting their stays at those dominated by humans. Protection of their habitats is shared by a wide range of agencies and conservation groups, often working in partnerships to assure that adequate stopover sites exist. From Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (National Park Service) and Nordhouse Dunes (U.S Forest Service) in Michigan, where Piping Plovers breed in relative solitude, to Chicago Montrose Harbor where a small set aside beach often brims with early morning shorebird activity, protection and management comes from a diverse group of shareholders.

Michigan’s Tawas Point State Park and Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle State Park are major state-owned sites with high shorebird diversity. Even regional land trusts play an important role.

The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy protects an important shorebird site at the 3,600 acre C.S. Mott Preserve in Benzie County, Michigan. Recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service efforts have focused on protection of offshore islands in northern Lake Michigan which are very important as roosting sites for Whimbrel and other shorebird species.

Six shorebird species regularly breed in the Great Lakes. Killdeer are commonly observed in a variety of situations including marshes, industrial sites and agricultural fields. Wilson’s Snipe are fairly common in grassy wetlands from upstate New York west to Wisconsin. A small population of Upland Sandpipers occurs in hayfields in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula. More substantial populations occur in the Lower Peninsula where it is dependent upon grassland and agricultural landscapes. Early successional forests support large numbers of the curious American Woodcock, a bird more easily heard than seen as they perform their twilight courtship aerial displays in spring. Spotted Sandpipers occur on most coastal streams and inland lakes, often occurring in threesomes. Unusually, this is one of the few bird species that practices polyandry with two males for each female.

The only endangered bird species now breeding in the Great Lakes is the Piping Plover. Once reduced to 17 pairs in the 1970’s, intensive efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state agencies and other partners have recovered the population to 66 pairs in 2013 with 124 fledged chicks. Most occur in the Sleeping Dunes region of Michigan with well over 1/3 of all the breeding pairs with a few pairs on Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands and Ontario’s Manitoulin Island. Many birds are color banded and sightings from volunteers show that some Great Lakes plovers winter on Cumberland Island, Georgia, and Key Biscayne, Florida.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Birds research funds have recently supported a migrant shorebird survey and habitat usage for Green Bay, Wisconsin. Early indicators are that not only does this area host a high diversity of shorebirds including many rare species such as Whimbrel, Hudsonian Godwit, and even a few American Avocet, but that the numbers of smaller shorebird species are also substantial. Great Lakes shorebirds offer a wealth of opportunities for research, habitat protection and behavior observation.

By Robert Russell

A Piping Plover. Photo by USFWS

A Piping Plover. Photo by USFWS.


Last updated: September 4, 2014