Long-term Habitat Restoration and Community Engagement for a Michigan Audubon Bird Sanctuary
Loss of habitat is one of the greatest threats to Michigan’s 34 at-risk avian species. The Michigan Audubon Society hopes to combat this by actively managing its properties to support the local bird species, and is working with SEAS master’s students on a habitat restoration project at an Audubon Restoration Sanctuary in Lansing, Michigan. This project encompasses elements of conservation ecology, landscape architecture, and environmental education and communication. The students involved in the project come from each of these tracks within SEAS and represent a diverse background of study.
The Michigan Audubon Society protects around 4,000 acres of bird habitat at 18 sanctuaries across both of Michigan’s peninsulas. Protected habitats include: rivers, lakes, marshes, bogs, fens, grasslands, hardwoods, and northern conifer forests. The Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary, in Bellevue, Michigan, is an essential grassland and wetland marsh breeding ground for sandhill cranes, which the Audubon Society plans to develop into a permanent, legally protected reserve for migratory birds at this site. These threatened breeding grounds put the future of the sandhill crane and other threatened bird species in jeopardy.
Audubon projects primarily concern themselves with protecting and promoting biodiversity, but a large effort also is made to encourage the public to take interest in and interact with these valuable ecosystems. Community engagement in these natural spaces is essential for outreach, which ensures that these places are valuable for both organisms and the communities that surround them.
The Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary’s oak savannah biome is a landscape matrix that supports an abundance of wildlife. In recent years this oak savannah has degraded in quality, decreasing the threatened species it is intended to support. With collaboration from SEAS master’s students, the Michigan Audubon Society will be designing and planting a native garden, creating a story map of the sanctuary, completing a variety of bird surveys for different species throughout the next year, and outlining a community engagement and long-term habitat restoration plan for the Michigan Audubon Society’s future use.
“Our project is defined by seasons,” said Jenna Happach, a dual-degree MS/MLA student. “Different bird surveys will occur at different times according to their migratory patterns. So the native garden is our first focus because we’ll need to plan what needs to be planted and what structure the Audubon Society wants the space to have.”
Master's students Catherine Watts and Nick Tsichlis said they appreciate that the master’s project is hands-on and allows them to apply their classroom learnings in a real-world setting. “It’s good to learn things in the classroom, but by actually applying our knowledge from classes like Woody Plants (EAS 436) and Ecology (EAS 509), it allows us to see how we can use this knowledge in the field for something that is actually going to make a difference for the sanctuary,” said Tsichlis.
Work will be completed by the end of the year with the master’s project team working largely during Summer 2021.
The project’s advisor is Dr. Brian Weeks, an evolutionary ecologist at SEAS who studies how bird species and bird communities respond to environmental change.
Participating students: Jenna Happach, James Johnson, Megan Livingston, Nick Tsichlis, and Catherine Watts
Written by Haley Riley, MS Candidate