Volunteer program monitors wetlands in Great Lakes basin, including Manitoulin

The American Coot population has been on the decline.

ONTARIO—Wetlands provide water cleaning abilities, provide habitat and help mitigate the impact of storms, yet they have been considered lesser quality lands for many years. Because of this, they have degraded substantially in Canada and throughout the world. The Great Lakes Marsh Monitoring Program (GLMMP) began more than 25 years ago, in 1995, and works with both professional and citizen scientists to monitor the health of wetlands in the region.

The GLMMP was initially funded through the Great Lakes Protection Fund (GLPF) after 43 sites around the Great Lakes were deemed to be areas of concern (AOC), or areas that were of very low quality. Birds Canada was provided with funds to find baseline data and trends for wetlands in these AOCs.

“One of the features of low quality is poor fish and poor wildlife habitat,” explained Kathy Jones of Birds Canada. “To this day, birds and amphibians are key indicators of the health of our Great Lakes basin.” While there aren’t any AOCs on Manitoulin itself, there area areas in Sault Ste. Marie and on the north shore of Lake Superior. “That all impacts the water flowing into your lands. It’s one big integrated system.”

“We have volunteers who study birds and amphibians on both sides of the Great Lakes,” Ms. Jones said. “It’s an international project that’s looking across the Great Lakes watershed impacts for these species.” They can look at regionalized impacts, at smaller watersheds or even harbour-specific impacts. “We can look at different levels of scale across the Great Lakes basin and how they’re impacted because we have enough data to do that. That’s mainly because we have all these wonderful citizen scientists right across the Great Lakes basin and, in some places, outside the basin but in the same provinces and states that collect this data.”

Ms. Jones is the volunteer coordinator for Birds Canada and she has put out a call for potential monitors. There are currently three available wetlands locations on Manitoulin Island within the GLMMP.

She does caution that this is not the easiest program offered by Birds Canada. Readers of The Expositor may have seen earlier stories on their owl surveys (‘Surveying Manitoulin’s owl populations,’ May 2014). “Amphibians are easy, especially if you have a simple marsh that runs across a road or under a dyke. It’s a great starter program,” she notes.

The bird survey is more complex as it is broadcast-based. There is a core suite of birds found in wetlands that are difficult to see but “we know they’re there,” she said. The broadcast plays their breeding calls and the birds respond if they’re there. “Through this technique we are able to track how these birds are doing across the Great Lakes Basin.”

A report for the first 25 years was recently released and is available online at birdscanada.org. The data shows that some species (generalists) are doing very well but many wetland-dependent species are declining, which is of great concern.

Frogs seem to be holding their own with the exception of western chorus frogs, which are seeing problems in some of their range. The divide is right along the Bruce escarpment: on the east side, they are struggling and on the west side, they are not.

The survey did run into trouble over the past two years because of COVID-19. When the marsh survey would have begun, the stay-at-home order was issued. “It didn’t work out for our early season amphibians,” noted Ms. Jones. “In my location they begin in March and in the Manitoulin area, they start in April.”

2019 data shows that green frogs, spring peepers and grey tree frogs are “holding their own.” They have a positive population trend so they are increasing slightly. Chorus frogs are decreasing and American toads, wood frogs and Northern leopard frogs are showing stable populations. “They’re not showing a significant trend. They’re all around the same population level and it’s not changing.”

Another year or two of data is needed to have a better idea of how chorus frogs and the stable population species are doing, however, to fill the gap left by COVID.

“When we look at population trends, we’re not looking at the exact number of species,” explained Ms. Jones. “We take the information we’re gathering and see if there’s a change over time, whether the numbers are decreasing or increasing. We can’t relate that to a specific population, just whether there is change. That’s true for a number of scientific studies. Finding out the number of green tree frogs in Ontario would be really challenging.”

Northern leopard frogs and American toads are the two most common amphibians in gardens. Bullfrogs and green frogs need deep water and if you have a swamp, you are likely to hear wood frogs. The grey tree frog is heard at night and is quite loud. We have “tons” of spring peepers, according to Ms. Jones.

The wood frog is a very early breeder and sounds like a duck. “They’re the cutest frog going. We don’t track them a lot because they spend a lot of time in trees and marshes. We study marshes but they’re just so early,” she said. On Manitoulin, that means early April, May and June. If you’re not there at the right time you will miss those species.

This is one of the things about citizen science, Ms. Jones pointed out. “We need people we can match to the schedule. We find, especially in Lake Huron, the North Channel area, that it gets more challenging, because you get fewer people there and there are places where perhaps you can’t do your first amphibian survey, you can only do your second amphibian survey and the third because you’re getting into Island wetlands. It’s just so much more challenging.”

“This relates to the whole concept that we need healthy wetlands for water supply, for food, for biodiversity,” said Ms. Jones. “We use this project not only to gain data and to engage people in the importance of wetlands but also to simply get people outside and enjoying them.”

One reason for looking at birds is simply their visibility. If you were looking at a wetland to see bugs and macrophytes and fish and frogs and birds, it’s the birds you would see easily and thus they are easier to identify, Ms. Jones said. A frog call is close behind that.

“These are two reasons why they just mesh well with citizen science projects. You can spend considerably less time getting more information,” she added. “I’ve been involved with larger, multi-tier projects where you’re out in boats with the nets and equipment to pull bugs off the bottom of the barge. That’s important but it’s not that easy to get done on a large watershed scale. Even toads and turtles are actually great but unless they decide to sun themselves, you’re not going to see them.”

Some bird populations, such as the American bittern, are increasing while others, like the American coot, are declining. Red-winged blackbirds showed a slight downward trend in 2019 but were stable in 2020. It is in the marsh dependent species that we’re seeing more decline, Ms. Jones said.

“Right now we’re seeing the trumpeter swam, sandhill crane, mute swan, least bittern, Canada goose, common yellowthroat, and American bittern all seem to be the ones that are holding their own or improving. Those all use a greater variety of habitat. We’ve seen that for years, that more marsh dependent species are having a tougher time. Aerial insectivores have also been declining significantly for decades and they use these wetlands as well.”

We are seeing impacts from climate change, Ms. Jones said. “We’re seeing extreme weather and its impacts more often. For example, cold spells in April impacting nesting swallows or nesting birds. The changing timing of insect production versus birds’ arrival and needing to feed their young, that’s another one we’re seeing. Extreme storms are blowing birds off course more often and making it energetically more difficult for birds to migrate I think that migration time is going to be a huge thing in the future.”

There’s a mix of professional and citizen scientists that participate in the GLMMP. There is another program that’s all professional surveyors that is looking at eastern habitat joint venture sites. There’s also a Great Lakes coastal monitoring program that rotates marshes around coastal areas of the Great Lakes every five years; that, too, is professionally done. The data works together and identifies the indicator system. “They are all the same but slightly different, and they’re all important,” said Ms. Jones.

They’re very confident in the work their citizen scientists are doing. If volunteers adhere to protocols and follow the system, it works quite well for gathering data, she said. “The more people who get out there and do checklists in a place like Manitoulin, all the better.”