St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Refuge provides key habitat for waterfowl

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John Darling, a wildlife technician with the Southeast Region of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, searched for leg bands on a family of geese as he stopped at a small pond at the Michigan Wildlife Preserve. St. Clair Flats State on Harsens Island Thursday.

He spotted a band around the leg of one of the adults as its fluffy little brood ran haphazardly to the edge of the water. Darling and a team of representatives from state and local conservation groups came together to see first-hand the wildlife they were trying to protect.

St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Refuge is home to some of the last remaining habitat for migrating waterfowl in the Lake St. Clair area, making it an important area for conservation. This conservation is made possible thanks to the collaboration between regional and local conservation groups who were visiting the area on Thursday.

St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Refuge includes more than 25,000 acres of habitat for birds and other wildlife, and provides recreational opportunities for thousands of residents in southeast Michigan and beyond .

Darling said the area is important for wildlife because it provides habitats for migrating waterfowl and other animals. The Lake St. Clair area has suffered significant habitat loss due to development in recent years.

“We have to provide really good habitat in what’s left, otherwise the ducks lose an important stopover point, all migratory birds, not just ducks,” Darling said.

Harsens Island has also seen development that has caused loss of habitat for waterfowl and other animals, he said.

“All of these places used to be places where a duck used to live, but now they’re houses,” Darling said, pointing out the window of a vehicle to neat rows of houses.

The wildlife sanctuary is important to protect as it also provides rich recreational opportunities for visitors near and far, Darling said. The island offers kayaking, boating, fishing, hunting and hiking opportunities and attracts around 1,500 duck hunters each year.

“(The State Wildlife Area) is perfect for taking the whole family and hiking or kayaking or whatever,” Darling said. “We offer some of these opportunities close to where people live. Detroit is right there. Otherwise, finding something similar could be a multi-day adventure. Instead, it’s an hour away. road.”

Learn about conservation projects at St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Refuge

The area includes an agricultural nature reserve maintained by the Department of Natural Resources. The area is cultivated with corn and small grains in the spring and summer and flooded in the fall to provide habitat for migrating waterfowl.

The refuge provides an abundant food source and predator-free habitat for migratory waterfowl species in the fall, when boating and fishing push waterfowl out of other habitats, Darling said.

The wildlife refuge hosts between 20,000 and 40,000 ducks at a time during fall migration.

As of 2014 or 2015, Darling said the DNR also treated about 2,000 acres with an herbicide to kill Phragmites, an invasive marsh plant that chokes out native vegetation and invades habitat, Darling said. The treatment was paid for through a grant administered by Ducks Unlimited.

He said that since then the invasive plants eventually grow back and the DNR has been experimenting with other ways of dealing with the invasive plant that are less expensive and more sustainable.

MNR is also supporting a project led by Audubon Great Lakes to study the population decline of the Black Tern, a small seabird that has seen a steep population decline in recent years.

Erin Rowan, Michigan conservation manager for Audubon Great Lakes, said that from 2013 to last year, breeding pairs increased from 200 breeding pairs to more than 50 in the St. Clair Flats Wildlife Area.

DNR helps Audubon band adult black terns and attach small radio transmitter tags to chicks to learn more about why their population is declining, whether it’s from habitat loss , flooding or other factors. Once conservationists learn more, a conservation plan can be developed to help stabilize the population and reverse the decline, Rowan said.

Darling said that by learning about a lesser-known species like the Black Tern, they also learn about other species and how changes in water levels and their management activities affect other waterfowl species.

Contact Laura Fitzgerald at (810) 941-7072 or [email protected]

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