91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
We are currently experiencing issues with our livestream, but are working on a resolution. We apologize for the inconvenience.

High Lake Michigan waters complicate botulism monitoring, but mean fewer bird deaths

A flooded beach near Lake Michigan.
Kaye LaFond
Michigan Radio
Much of the beach at Platte River Point is underwater, and there is standing water where there's normally sand.

The last major outbreak of avian botulism on Lake Michigan was in 2016, when hundreds of dead birds washed up on shore. The bacterial disease has affected waterfowl like loons and mergansers in the Great Lakes for decades. But high water levels on the lakes are good news for the birds, at least temporarily.

Birds can't wash up without a beach

At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a team of volunteers walk 32 miles of beach every week, from June through November. They’re collecting data on avian botulism, a disease that paralyzes and kills waterfowl. It’s caused by bacteria that produce a toxin in the water.

Mary Ellen Newport is out for her first walk of the season.

“We document all the living birds and any dead or sick birds," she says.

Newport is a science teacher at Interlochen Center for the Arts. The mile-long section of beach she’s responsible for monitoring starts at the mouth of the Platte River. She has to cross it and go south.

“Yeah we usually wade across over that way, and we can get through like it's up to the hips," she says. "Now we're gonna do something different."

A man and woman cross a wide river in a canoe.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Mary Ellen Newport and a fellow volunteer had to canoe across the Platte River to do their first botulism monitoring walk of the season at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. High water levels complicate monitoring, but mean fewer botulism deaths.

This year, water levels on Lake Michigan are so high that the river mouth is impassable on foot. So, Newport is going to use a canoe.

"There’s another way to come in from the south side, but that turns into a 4-mile hike, so this is the lazy person's way to take the canoe across," says Newport.

High water levels are making botulism monitoring difficult this year. Some beaches have become bluffs where dead birds can’t wash up. Some sections of shoreline may not be monitored at all if volunteers can’t access them.

"They've undermined the entire food chain"

Avian botulism deaths have been down in Sleeping Bear Dunes since 2017. But overall, the disease has been worse on Lake Michigan in recent decades -- ever since the invasion of quagga mussels.

Newport says what’s so disturbing about Lake Michigan’s botulism problem is that it shows an ecosystem in upheaval.

“The quaggas and the zebra mussels have undermined the entire food chain, so it’s about way more than avian botulism," she says. "It’s about the health of the entire Great Lakes.”

These filter-feeding mussels make the water clearer. Clearer water lets in more sunlight. Sunlight fuels the growth of cladophora, that annoying, smelly algae that washes up on the beach.

When cladophora dies and decays, it creates the perfect environment for bacteria to produce the botulism toxin.

Short-term good news

High water levels are tough for monitoring, but they can actually be good for the birds.

Scientists don’t know the exact mechanism, but botulism outbreaks arelinked to low water and warm temperatures. It's thought that warm water promotes the growth of  the botulism bacteria.

Waves lap against a sandy bluff.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The beach near Platte River Point at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has almost completely receded to a sand bluff.

The water levels link, according to the DNR's botulism manual, is "likely is related to warmer water and sediment temperatures during low water events."

So, Newport says this year’s high water and colder lake temperatures are good news for the affected birds.

“We should have a good summer," she says. "So I'm not unhappy about the high lake levels for the botulism count."

Unfortunately, it’s probably temporary. Scientists expect climate change to keep warming the Great Lakes, which could increase bird deaths from botulism long-term.

Kaye is an alumnus of Michigan Tech's environmental engineering program. She got her start making maps for the Traverse City-Based water news organization Circle of Blue, and, since then, she's been pretty devoted to science communication and data visualization.
Related Content