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Birdwatchers Monitor Marshes

Volunteer naturalists have helped monitor bird and amphibian populations in wetlands around the Great Lakes drainage basin and the upper waters of the St. Lawrence River since 1995. Now the monitoring program has expanded into Quebec and experienced birdwatchers are being asked for help, especially in wetlands along the St. Lawrence.

Bird Studies Canada, a non-profit research and conservation organization, organizes the annual Marsh Monitoring Program. The volunteers are provided with training kits, data forms and CDs with the calls of the bird species being studied. On two occasions between the end of May and early July, they go to their chosen marsh area in the early evening, play the calls and make note of the birds that respond. They also describe the marsh, noting the amount of open water and the dominant plants growing there.

Wetlands are important nesting and spawning areas and they help prevent flooding and erosion. However, vast areas of wetlands in the Great Lakes drainage basin and along the banks of the St. Lawrence and its tributaries have been destroyed in the past few decades, drained and filled for development, polluted, or invaded by exotic plants such as purple loosestrife.

Cooper Marsh

Since birds are easy to identify, and since bird species are typical of certain habitats, the program’s findings are being used as indicators of marsh health. The program keeps track of several species of marsh birds in Quebec, and of birds and amphibians in Ontario and the Great Lakes states.

Data collected from the first ten years of the Great Lakes monitoring program indicate that species such as the Mallard duck and Yellow Warbler, which survive well in areas affected by human activity, are on the increase. The Red-winged Blackbird, Tree Swallow, Pied-billed Grebe and American Coot, however, are declining. As a result of these findings, several marsh rehabilitation projects have been undertaken to clear out excess vegetation that chokes water channels, to prevent erosion and sediment buildup, and to replant native vegetation.

Quebec program coordinator Andrew Coughlan notes that little is known about freshwater birds in the province. “The aim of the study is to describe the distribution, abundance and diversity of marsh birds,” he says, adding that, in Quebec, the Marsh Monitoring Program targets the Virginia Rail, Least Bittern, Pied-billed Grebe, Sora, American Coot and Common Moorhen.

Coughlan says he hopes to find “citizen scientists” who are willing devote about nine hours a year to monitor a marsh, preferably for several years in a row. They will monitor freshwater wetlands in the Montreal area, and eventually the program will be expanded to the brackish wetlands downstream from Quebec City and salt marshes in the estuary. Monitoring packages are available in French and in English.

In Quebec, Coughlan can be reached at , Tuesday through Thursday. In Ontario, call Kathy Jones at Bird Studies Canada, 1-888-448-2473.

To find out more:
Marsh Monitoring Program, Bird Studies Canada
The Marsh Monitoring Program: 1995 – 1999. Monitoring Great Lakes Wetlands and their Amphibian and Bird Inhabitants
Wetlands of the St. Lawrence River: Habitats Between Land and Water. St. Lawrence Centre. Environment Canada.

Copyright Janice Hamilton 2007