09 April 2008

Michigan Conservation Initiative Receives Support from Wetland Grant

An ongoing initiative to conserve habitats for Great Lake avifauna has received additional major support with funding from a federal wetlands grant.

A $1 million grant for phase III of the St. Mary's River Bird Migration Corridor project was awarded to the Little Traverse Conservancy from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Additional matching funds of $2,118,000 will be provided by the Conservancy, the Offield Family Foundation, the Les Cheneaux Foundation, J.A. Woollam Foundation, several private individuals and the Michigan chapter of The Nature Conservancy. The U.S. Forest Service is also involved in the project.

[Vermillion ground]

Vermillion ground. Images courtesy of the Little Traverse Conservancy.

The funds will be used to acquire 382 acres of lake-side habitat, with easements purchased on 220 acres, as well as a donation of an easement on 17 acres.

The acreages of particular importance, in the Les Cheneaux region, are two tracts that will protect 245 acres of land along a mile and a half of northern Lake Huron shoreline, according to the Conservancy. The lands are adjacent to the Hiawatha National Forest, a “Globally Important Bird Area” according to the 2005 draft Waterbird plan, prepared by the American Bird Conservancy, for the Upper Mississippi Valley/Great Lakes region.

Ten tracts totaling 664 acres with nearly 4 miles of riparian shoreline will be protected with the current grant, according to its summary. Several of the tracts lie directly adjacent to previously protected tracts of land, comprising an additional 3,600 acres and 12 miles of riparian shoreline. Most of the project work is expected to be completed by the end of 2008.

Specific sections in the grant proposal explained in detail how the federal funding would contribute to the conservation of waterfowl habitat and other wetland-associated migratory birds. Also assessed was how the project would help conserve geographic priority wetlands as described by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, Partners in Flight, the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, and/or the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan.

"The tracts included in this proposal are most significant for stopover habitat for migrating birds as well as the substrate they provide for vernal insect hatches for both migrating and nesting species," said Tom Will, of Partners in Flight for the Midwest Region.

[Shoreline of Round Island]

Shoreline of Round Island.

The initiative affects birds and their habitats by "providing permanent land protection of significant nesting, feeding, and migratory stopover wetland habitats." Several habitat types and indicator bird species were identified in the grant proposal.

"Coastal marshes represented in this project are important for nesting American Black Ducks, Mallards, Blue-winged Teal, and occasionally American Wigeon, Gadwall, and American Shoveller. Diving ducks that utilize these marshes for breeding are Ring-necked Duck, Common Goldeneye, and Red-breasted and Common Mergansers. Canada Geese are common nesters in both the marshes and wetlands adjacent to the shore. Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers nest in the wooded upland tracts adjacent to marshes. Migration seasons see spectacular flights of diving ducks with rafts of scaup, Redhead, Bufflehead, Ring-necked Ducks, and Long-tailed Ducks numbering many thousands. Large proportions of the North American populations of Red-throated Loons and Red-necked Grebes have been documented migrating through and stopping over in the project area. Common Loons are both passage birds in large number and stopover in the open waters adjacent to the project lands. Common Loons also frequently nest in bog-lakes and marshes of the project area. Greater Sandhill Cranes migrate, stopover, and nest in the project area in large numbers.

"Passerine species have been documented in heavy migration along all the shorelines within this project area, and at least two projects, conducted by the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory (WPBO), Lake Superior State University, University of Southern Mississippi, and Central Michigan University, have monitored the flights" to document the variety and number of species which occur.

"Species of NAWCA priority that nest within the project lands are Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, and Le Conte's Sparrow. The project lands feed birds into a designated important bird area for migrating birds of prey as documented at WPBO, Sault Ste. Marie, and Straits of Mackinac. Raptor migrations are spectacular throughout the region, and at least two of the project sites are raptor migration focal points. Diurnal migrant raptors include Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Goshawk, Bald and Golden Eagle, and Red Shouldered Hawk. Nesting diurnal raptors include Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, Goshawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Northern Harrier.

Nocturnal migrants (owls) are abundant at many shoreline - and inland up to two miles - locations and include Saw-whet, Boreal, and Long-eared Owls. Snowy, Short-eared, Great Horned, and Great-Gray Owls which migrate through this region. Short-eared Owls nest in wetlands of the project area, and Northern Harriers nest and forage on or near project lands. Common Terns nest near project lands and Black Terns nest within project wetlands, or on their periphery (five sites), and utilize wetlands of the project for foraging. American Woodcock is a common nester in the wet uplands of the project sites, and it is super abundant during migration in alder thickets and aspen stands of the project sites. American Bitterns nest in many of the wetlands."

Surveys efforts documenting the value of the project locale habitats are provided by published papers, unpublished records of the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, records of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and based on personal observations of Dr. William C. Scharf, who has worked extensively on or near some of the properties.

The St. Mary's River bird migration corridor originates in southeastern Lake Superior, continues through the St. Mary's River channel and down into Lake Huron, including the shore of Lake Huron and the interface of both Lake Huron and Lake Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac where the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan converge.

The corridor has been identified as an "Area of Concern" by the Lake Superior Binational Program in their Lake Superior Lakewide Management Plan (LaMP) 2000 and a "Region of Concern" in the Waterbird Conservation Plan for the Upper Mississippi/Great Lake Region. The Great Lakes Ecoregional Plan has identified the Northern Lake Huron Conservation Area as an Action Area of The Nature Conservancy which considers the Northern Lake Huron Conservation Area as one of the richest and most productive biological areas in the country.

“Perhaps one of the most compelling pieces of evidence that we uncovered for the unifying importance of the tracts of land included within this project was research conducted through a loon watch coordinated by biologist C.J. Sanders, with results published in 1993, said Anne Fleming, NAWCA grant coordinator with the Little Traverse Conservancy. "A research paper published with results “documents the enormous quantity and directional movement of Common Loons in eight spring seasons, establishing the St. Mary’s River Bird Migration Corridor as a reality. In addition, the lands included within this proposal provide significant substrate important for vernal insect hatches. These hatches are significant food sources for both migrating and nesting birds.”

The grant proposal recognized that this project "has been and continues to be one of the most proactive land protection efforts conducted in recent history within the St. Mary's River Bird Migration Corridor and the eastern portion of Michigan's Upper Peninsula."

Map showing the sites for projects by the Little Traverse Conservancy.

"The eastern Upper Peninsula," according to information provided by LTC, "is a vital Great Lakes avian staging area and provides migratory habitat for tens of thousands of waterbirds, passerines, and raptors during seasonal migrations. Coastal wetlands along Lake Huron and the St. Mary's River are critical stopover points for migrating waterfowl."

"Intense human activities are occurring with increasing frequency in the Upper Peninsula including residential development which is beginning to encroach on formerly undisturbed areas. Timely acquisition of sensitive parcels ensures that habitats will be protected in perpetuity. Land prices in the project area will increase with demand but are still relatively low. Protecting lands from development through acquisition now is a wise use of funds and will guarantee our ability to provide necessary habitats in the future."

Five of the ten tracts acquired with the most recent funding initiative, will be acquired as nature preserves to be held by the Little Traverse Conservancy, the summary for the federal grant said. "All Conservancy preserves are open to the public and managed for protection in perpetuity. One tract will be held by The Nature Conservancy - Michigan Chapter and will add to their already protected 879-acre Gerstacker Preserve on Dudley Bay, Lake Huron. One tract is currently held as a preserve and may be later sold or transferred to the state of Michigan to become state land. One purchased tract became an addition to the Hiawatha National Forest in 2007."

This third phase of the project "demonstrates the ongoing relationships of successful partnerships created in earlier phases of this project including state, federal, non-profit, foundation, and landowner partners," according to representatives of the Little Traverse Conservancy.

The St. Mary's bird migration corridor project was initiated in 2002. Funding from the NAWCA was also received in 2001, and then received several small grants and significant NAWCA funding in 2003, 2003, and again in 2008.

“Over the years, we have found that it is very difficult to fundraise in the eastern Upper Peninsula and that general region of our service area,” said Fleming. “The NAWCA grants have allowed us to protect lands that we otherwise would likely not have been able to raise funds to protect.

“Land protection opportunities come and go and change each year so it is beneficial to have several years of work to protect lands in a particular region. Little Traverse Conservancy operates in a five-county service area, and through through all three phases of the St. Mary’s project, a total of 4,264 acres have been protected as well as nearly 16 miles of Great Lakes shoreline (primarily Lake Huron, St. Mary's River, and a bit in the Straits of Mackinac/Lake Michigan.”

Partners for these projects “have ranged from the State of Michigan to local conservation groups,” Fleming added. “This has helped us ensure that our priorities are overlapping with those of other groups, although generally we aren't duplicating any efforts of others in any way. Local land trusts are free to mobilize private funding in ways that can't be done by government and we have been able to work directly with individuals and private foundations to effectively and quickly achieve land protection.”

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