September 2017 Article Revisited: High Water is for the Birds

By: Sherri Leigh Smith, Susan W. Smith

Volume 14, Issue 6, June 2019

Sherri Leigh Smith, the ornithologist who writes columns for TI Life explained that rather than write a new article for June 2019, we should review his article in September 2017. Sure I thought, but then I realized it is easy to think September, when the water has started or is getting to its lowest level for the year – but writing to convince many of us today, June 2019, that the high water is beneficial, when so many are suffering, is a different story.

First, I went to the end of Sherri Leigh's article, “So when one’s dock is under water, floating away, or out of water, try not (low water) to curse the fates. Instead remember what you view as misfortune may be contributing significantly to the well-being of our fellow travelers in the natural world. Birds will be much better off and so will we when humans understand to work with the rhythms of natural systems rather than against them.”

Then I dug down and found the paragraphs that resonate with the naturalist: “The natural world is ever fluctuating within limits. This was once true of water levels on the Eastern Great Lakes and St Lawrence River, before humans intervened with their water control structures. While these   alterations made water bodies more useful for our species purposes, this   impacted aquatic ecosystems in adverse ways many of which we still do not   fully understand. The conversion of the River to the “Seaway” changed   wildlife habitat in numerous ways. Perhaps the most serious was the damping   down of natural water level fluctuations. Natural systems are dynamic and   these fluctuations served to revitalize wetlands and other riverine habitats   throughout our region. The more static conditions of the last sixty years   altered habitats for a number of species in highly adverse ways.”

Sherri Leigh went on to explain that the, “The natural regime prior to 1957, permitted diversification caused by large water level changes and provided higher quality bird habitats than the man-made management pattern. During periods of low water, marshes and shoreline fringes would often burn. In high water years, areas would be flooded out. Both regimes significantly changed local vegetation patterns by reducing cattail and encroaching woody plants. A higher percentage of sedge meadow and open water then developed within wetlands. These habitats are favored by many bird species that are habitat limited by cattail monoculture. The excessive cattail mats currently dominating many wetlands along the River and Eastern Lake Ontario are a problem for several bird species.

Black Tern [Photo by Julie Covey]

What he says is important for scientists but extremely difficult for us, the two-legged variety.  I don’t mean to be flippant, but the economic structure of our region depends on tourism – both those that visit for a short holiday and those who make the Thousand Islands their summer home. I do not envy the coming weeks when citizens on both sides of the border tell the politicians what they think and want. Gerry holds no punches when he talks about Plan 2014. (The Plan that many of us do not understand and have not taken the time to read in its entirety. [see]

Sherri Leigh writes,

“Hopefully IJC plan 2014 will contribute to an improved degree of fluctuation in future water levels and greater wetland diversification. While many residents and landowners understand that sixty years of near static water level management was a disaster, others do not. Particularly in the Eastern Lake Ontario dune lands, just south of The Thousand Islands Region, many landowners impacted by the current high water event are hysterical. These dynamic systems are being severely impacted at the moment but because of their characteristics will recover with the next lower water period. The only real “problems” are human ones resulting from structures being built where they never should have been. From my perspective these problems pale in comparison with the many benefits that will come from greater water level fluctuations.

Those dune systems mentioned earlier continue to take a pounding from temporary high water erosion. That erosion will result in moving sand around and creating new patterns of Sand Flats and Foredunes. The small population of the federally endangered Piping Plover present will benefit from these habitat alterations. While being unable to nest in 2017, because of high water, a short-term problem, these birds will find fresh new high-quality nesting areas in future years. The dunes will change, recover and this dune dependent species will hopefully increase its local population.

Wetland birds such as Black Tern and Pied-billed Grebe should also benefit throughout the St. Lawrence River-Eastern Lake Ontario Region. As previously noted, flooding of marshes should reduce cattails and create more sedge meadow areas. These declining bird species will greatly benefit as this habitat type is essential for nesting and feeding. Other aquatic habitat users such as Great Blue Heron, American Bittern and Common Tern should also benefit. These birds feed in wetlands and its likely open water meadows would increase access to prey items. Marshes with greater habitat diversity benefit many fish and wildlife species and human inconveniences caused by greater fluctuations in water levels are a small price to pay for healthier ecosystems.

Other high water benefits to birds are harder to characterize because they are more subtle. Removal of vegetation from low lying shoals is a two edged sword. Roosting gulls and Terns may appreciate fewer shrubs that could obscure an incoming falcon but flocking swallows will miss these feeding perches. Ospreys appear to have had a banner year in 2017 , at least at mainland nests, raising many young. Did high water effects on fish distribution play any role in their success? Could our nesting Spotted Sandpiper population find any place at all to nest? The bottom line is that water level fluctuations impact different species in different ways at different times, short- term and long-term. Completely understanding these complex relationships,particularly with humans befuddling the picture, is a real challenge

One thing is very clear, birds and most of the natural world is adapted to fluctuations in their environment. The problems of severe population declines etc. occur when forces, most often human caused, change the environmental rules. In this case, water level variations limited to a smaller than normal range ,for our species purposes, has had unforeseen consequences for other organisms in our region. Undoubtedly the drastic decline of populations of our lovely marsh Tern, the Black, is in part due to alteration of its breeding habitat by sixty years of narrowly focused water level management. I have no doubt that the mistakes of the past have played a role in the decline of other riverine associated bird species.”

So. my friends, I publish this article once again, but I add some personal food for thought. Water is powerful at anytime, but this year with the rising River and the fact that all of the Great Lakes are at an all-time high, it is difficult to accept Gerry's information without personal and economic financial concerns. In the end, the scientists and International Joint Commissioners responsible for implementing Plan 2014 will be judged. I hope their decisions are the right ones.

Article by Sherri Leigh Smith, compiled by Susan Smith, editor, TI Life.

Sherri Leigh Smith is a senior Ornithologist, Avian Ecologist and Conservationist working to Preserve bird populations in Northern New York. She also published the popular guidebook, "Birding the Great Lakes Seaway Trail.

Editor’s Note:  This editor is both pleased and appreciative to Sherri Leigh Smith for taking the time to help us understand more about nature in the islands.  You can read  some of her past articles here.

Posted in: Volume 14, Issue 6, June 2019, Nature

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