When Tim Oksiuta moved to Ashland in 1974, he often saw yellow-headed blackbirds and black terns nesting along the highway.
But that was then.
“We may see one or two yellow-headed blackbirds during the year, and the black terns are gone,” Oksiuta said.
The same goes for Wisconsin Point, about an hour away on the western edge of Lake Superior. Every year black terns nested there in coastal swamps. But the swamp bird hasn’t nested there in about two decades, according to Tom Prestby, the Wisconsin conservation manager for Audubon Great Lakes. The nonprofit conservation organization estimates that the number of black terns has decreased by as much as 80 percent.
Prestby noted that the region’s shrinking bird populations are part of a larger trend as North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970. Their decline prompted Audubon and other partners to identify key sites in the Great Lakes region for bird habitats, including Allouez Bay at 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 explore one of the sites deemed critical to restoring habitat for wetland birds across the Great Lakes, including species such as the black tern. Now the regional branch of the National Audubon Society of the Great Lakes plans to restore about 150 acres of coastal wetlands in the bay by combating invasive species and promoting native vegetation. The first phase of the restoration will begin at the end of next year, and Prestby said the work could grow to 1,000 acres.
It is part of a goal to restore nearly 300,000 hectares to protect and restore at least 10 wetland bird species that have declined. Those species include bitterns, yellow-headed blackbirds, and black terns.
“We mainly focus on wetland birds, and the reason why is that wetland birds are very 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 meet their needs, that’s a very good sign that we need a significant amount of wildlife.”
As they move to restore wetlands, Parker acknowledges that climate change threatens those working in places like Allouez Bay, where they expect more extreme storms that create intense waves and erosion that could affect wetlands. Audubon Great Lakes is working with 15 partners on the habitat restoration project, including the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“We’re going to… consider resilience to climate change, whether that’s increased storm frequency, or more dramatic fluctuations in water levels,” said Dave Grandmaison, the DNR’s program coordinator.
He said they are investigating 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 the migration,” said Karin Kozie, vice president of the Chequamegon Audubon Chapter. “And I’d say we’re especially interested in protecting and maintaining the habitats we have so we can preserve these important areas for migration.”
Now more than ever, that’s critical, said Marshall Johnson, chief conservation officer at the National Audubon Society.
“Many birds have filled our backyards and our lives with song. They are now silently calling to us,” Johnson said.
A 2019 report from the group found that 389 bird species face extinction if global warming trends continue. In the Great Lakes, species such as the bobolink and the common loon are among the most vulnerable.
Scientists have pushed for reducing global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius or about 3 degrees Fahrenheit to avert the worst effects of climate change, which they say is a threshold the world is expected to cross.
Despite this, Parker said there is reason for hope. She pointed to areas where they have already restored their habitat across the Great Lakes, such as Calumet’s Big Marsh Park in Chicago, where at-risk birds have returned. They include the least bittern and common gallinule, which had not previously nested on the site in more than a decade.
The work in Allouez Bay and other locations such as Green Bay, the Western Lake Erie Basin and Eastern Lake Ontario is seeking funding through the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The Great Lakes cleanup program has funded thousands of projects since 2010. In 2020, Congress approved funding for the Great Lakes cleanup program to grow from $300 million to $475 million each year by 2026.
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden announced an additional $1 billion for the program in addition to annual funding through the bipartisan infrastructure law. The DNR received $475,000 in funding under the program for the first phase of the restoration of wetland bird habitats in Allouez Bay. The agency has requested an additional $1.35 million to complete the next phase.
Democratic US Senator Tammy Baldwin has supported both increased funding for the program and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. She said sites across the Great Lakes suffered major degradation ahead of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative’s start.
“We have to be good stewards,” Baldwin said, “and pass on to the next generation something that is higher quality, cleaner and safer.”