People have for probably thousands of years wanted to live in Manitowoc and Two Rivers because of the natural resources available here. The forests, rivers, Lake Michigan- all made this location attractive to wildlife, and ultimately the people that those resources would sustain. I think sometimes we forget that. And that it’s in our own best interest to sustain nature.
Saying that our area is important for wildlife is easy to do. What’s harder is to quantify that and identify opportunities to make things better. The Manitowoc Harbor and it’s containment facility is a place that’s enjoyed by both the public and wildlife, even though it’s an artificial structure. That and the nearby Little Manitowoc River mouth are a pleasant place to walk, and there are plenty of birds to see. Thanks to Prof. Charles Sontag, we know exactly what birds and how many of them use that area, because he has been recording them almost every day for more than 40 years. Other people are aware of his daily walks and what he finds, and more and more birders visit the area. Lo and behold, it turns out that more than 300 species of birds have been seen there, and it may be in that regard the best single birdwatching place in Wisconsin.
Birds, and not just gulls, use that area of lakeshore first as a migratory stopover site in spring and fall, and also a place to nest, although suitable habitat is limited. The containment was built to receive dredged soil from the harbor and lower Manitowoc River, not as a wildlife or recreation area. But people enjoy the walk, and birds of all kinds view it as an island on which they can forage for food.
The plants haven’t been managed, and much of the land at the containment is dominated by non-native weeds like burdock, phragmites, and purple loosestrife, and natives like smartweed and stinging nettle. The City established a dog park, and a few acres are mowed as lawn.
Because of the tremendous use by birds, Woodland Dunes, along with several partner organizations like US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership, the City of Manitowoc and the Army Corps of Engineers got together to discuss what could be done to improve the site for wildlife, make it more attractive and “natural” looking, but at the same time maintain the area for public use- walking, photography, birdwatching, kite flying, etc. The result is a project which will begin this fall. Some of the area will be enhanced for wildlife through the planting of native, songbird-friendly plants. The dog park will be unchanged, but some of the adjacent lawn will be converted to native shortgrass and plants which benefit native pollinators like the monarch butterflies which also migrate along the shore. Within the grassy natural area will be planted groups of native shrubs and trees which feed and shelter songbirds. A trail will be mowed through the area so that walkers can enjoy the plantings and see birds.
On other areas in the containment, work will begin to manage all those invasive plants, and eventually more native wildflowers and shrubs will be planted. Signs will interpret both the human history of Manitowoc and it’s harbor, and the nature that is found there.
There are several important considerations in this project. First, it is being funded by a grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, so the City will avoid the expense of establishing and maintaining the plantings. Also, the City will have 3 acres less lawn to mow. Second, the project is flexible, and can be adapted depending on future wishes of the City regarding use of the site. Third, the native plantings will discourage gulls and geese from using those areas- they like bare ground and short grass instead. In the long term, that will help manage those birds and their messes while encouraging the many species of songbirds.
This fall you will see signage explaining the importance of the harbor area to birds and the habitat improvement project. You may also see some of the lawn die off after treatment prior to planting native grasses and wildflowers next spring. Next year you will begin to see some plantings of trees and shrubs, and work within the areas now dominated by the super-sized invasive plants, including planting of a cover crop of native grasses to discourage gull nesting.
With a little management the Manitowoc containment can become an even better place among the string of important migratory bird areas in Manitowoc County and still be enjoyed by the community at little or no cost to the City. We are excited to be a part of the project, and look forward to the impact these enhancements have in attracting visitors to the area. Having the best birding area in the State is significant, but showing visitors that we recognize and care about this, and our quality of life, says even more.