Aquatic Surveys Scientist, Bird Studies Canada

Steve Timmerman’s fascination with birds was honed from an early-derived passion to explore the outdoors of southwestern Ontario via family fishing, hunting, birding and natural history related excursions. Now an aquatic surveys scientist for Bird Studies Canada, Steve oversees the operation, administration and science aspects of two programs: the Great Lakes Marsh Monitoring Program and the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey. He is also involved in other aquatic related initiatives. Steve’s career has included research and management of waterfowl and wetlands for Ducks Unlimited Canada, Delta Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Foundation, the University of Western Ontario and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters. Steve holds an Honors BSc. in Ecology and Evolution, and an MSc. in waterfowl ecology from the University of Western Ontario. When he’s not at work, he can be found shop carving birds or building furniture in his wood shop, birding or hunting in the brush or marsh, walking fields in search of prehistoric archaeological sites, or spending time with his family.

Can you tell me a little about Bird Studies Canada and your role in it? How did you get involved in the field of conservation?

Bird Studies Canada is a nationwide organization. We lead volunteer-oriented programs. We are dedicated to advancing the understanding, appreciation and conservation of wild birds and their habitat in Canada and elsewhere. We do this by engaging the skills, enthusiasm and support of our members, volunteers, staff, partners and other interested public.

How did you get involved in the field of conservation?

I’ve always been passionate about wildlife and habitat conservation, from both the perspective of a naturalist and also a hunter and angler. I spent many hours afield with parents and grandparents bird watching, and many hours afield hunting and fishing. This eventually led me to a career starting with a Fish and Wildlife Technician degree. I went on to obtain an Honors Bachelors in science and a Masters in science specializing in zoology, ecology and evolution. I specialized in waterfowl, aquatic bird ecology and biology. This led me to the career here in bird science and ecology at Bird Studies Canada. I’ve been working as the aquatic surveys scientist program manager here for six years.

How do you enjoy that?

It’s great. It provides a lot of rewarding experiences because we get to work with a lot of partners, we travel throughout the Great Lakes and get to see a lot of places that many other people wouldn’t, and we get to try to make the best of things.

Aside from your work, tell me about your relationship w/the Great Lakes. How do you personally enjoy them? Are you still a hunter and angler?

I’ve lived, traveled and worked throughout the Great Lakes, but most of my time prior to my career was spent in areas associated with the lower Great Lakes – Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair and to some extent, Lake Ontario. My work focuses on various wetland and waterbird related activities associated with the Great Lakes coastal zone, but also with upland and interior watersheds. I personally enjoy the Great Lakes through forays and outings to various beaches with family and friends. I still fish on its open water and bays. I still hunt and do some bird watching. When I can, I spend a fair amount of time combing its former Ice Age fossils shoreline inland in search of evidence of early Ice Age human inhabitants, archeologically speaking.

Any interesting findings of late?

Oh yes. There’s a lot of evidence of people inhabiting the Great Lakes and relying on its resources as early as eleven thousand years ago, at a time when the Great Lakes region reflected current day arctic/sub-arctic conditions. It’s not just a recent phenomenon that we rely on Great Lakes aquatic areas. It’s been that way ever since people first discovered the region. If people can appreciate that, they might have a much better appreciation of their relationship with the Great Lakes at this time.

If you had to recommend one place within the GL region that people visit to see good ecological health and rich biodiversity, what would you recommend?

I don’t think there is a single place that best harbors these assets. I don’t think it would be fair to single-out one place because the Great Lakes region is quite a diverse and interesting area. I’ve worked and spent time in a lot of different Great Lakes regions, from areas considered to be most degraded to those considered to be most pristine. What I’ve realized is that there are places of good ecological health and rich biological diversity even in areas considered to be most degraded, and of course also in those considered most pristine.

I recommend that people visit many places to see for themselves. Visit places considered to be the best, but also those areas that are of concern. People will find that there is still hope for improvement even in some of these most degraded areas. I can speak of a selection of pristine, quality areas. There are many. I’d suggest to visit places such as Indiana Dunes in southern Lake Michigan, Sleeping Giant Park in northern Lake Superior, Manitoulin Island in the upper Lake Huron/Georgian Bay area, Walpole Island in northern Lake St. Clair, Pinery Provincial Park  in southern Lake Huron, Point Pelee, Long Point and Presque Isle in Lake Erie, the Niagara River and Niagara Falls …there are hundreds of places equally as impressive. There are simply too many to list.

How is Bird Studies Canada funded?

Bird Studies Canada is a charitable, not-for-profit organization that is funded through a multitude of government and non-government grants, contributions, work contracts and agreements. We are also supported, in part, by our members, through associated fees and donations. We have several endowment funds as well. We really have several sources of support to keep us going, and every fiscal year the funding and support situation changes.

Has that support stayed pretty steady?

We have worked very hard to maintain course. Like any agency, we’ve had our challenges, but we’ve dealt with these situations as they have arisen.

It seems like a major challenge to the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes region is the coordination of so many programs and organizations. As a not-for-profit organization, do you often find yourself competing with other non-profit organizations (for funding, press, volunteers, etc.)?

There are several conservation actions occurring throughout the Great Lakes. Naturally, at times, competition is inevitable. My own approach is to form partnerships with various similar mandated organizations. That has worked quite well for us, particularly with programs like the Marsh Monitoring Program that crosses international boundaries. We partner with binational government agencies – Environment Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to effectively deliver this binational program. We have partnered with the Great Lakes Commission [LINK:], a binational organization working to help coordinate Great Lakes related monitoring, restoration and other activities. Recently, we developed a partnership with the St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences to help deliver some of our programs and related common interest in their area of the Great Lakes-St.Lawrence River.

Are you seeing success with these partnerships?

Yes. As an example, we are currently partnering with the Great Lakes Commission and many others to work within the Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Consortium. We are working to develop standardized monitoring and assessment procedures and protocols, and ultimately to implement a program for monitoring Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands in a standardized, consolidated fashion.

When do you expect to have those protocols finalized and available?

We have ironed out a lot of the details and unknowns over the last four years. Within the next calendar year, we are going to be completing and wrapping this up to develop a formal program. We will have an implementable coastal wetlands monitoring plan ready to go by the fall of 2007.

You work with so many volunteers. How do you keep them informed and motivated to continue with your monitoring projects long-term?

We have approximately 20,000+ volunteers across all of our programs. We do our best to put the volunteers first. That’s essential for administering successful volunteer assessment programs. Our feedback occurs through various venues, from one-on-one phone calls or email correspondence to letters. We have annual newsletters associated with several of our programs. We have annual reports that provide essential summaries of the information that is being collected and how it is being used for various conservation and monitoring purposes. We have web-based media, which includes a latest news section, and program-specific web sites within our organization.

One of the things that I strive to deliver and improve upon is hosting and delivering regional information, recruitment and training sessions. We also have an annual members meeting and periodic volunteer appreciation events. My own program places a lot of emphasis on getting out, physically, to the volunteers. We do that through staff-held events and workshops, where we go to their areas, bring people together, share experiences and provide training and information. We are also working to develop a network of “champion” volunteers to act as ambassadors or local coordinators in their own area to work on behalf of the program and develop an even more thorough network of people.

We also periodically offer special incentives. Sometimes we have prizes for attaining certain achievements. We’ll offer some of our volunteers GPS units to help with their work. We offer merchandise. I think that incentives are very important.

Do you think most Americans and Canadians understand the importance of the GL in terms of ecology and quality of life?  What do you think is the most common misperception about the Great Lakes among the general public?

Per capita, I’m not so sure. I say this because there are several Great Lakes associated cities with increasing populations, and I think that many people living in highly urbanized areas tend to be far removed from recognizing the basics of life. I’m not saying that this is the case with everyone in urban areas, but perhaps on average, I think it is true because urban life can distance people from their connection with the land. However, I will say that there is certainly a greater awareness about the importance of these things among all of society. The more we can have positive influences on society as a whole, improving education and awareness – bringing people’s attention to the key things that are vital to the quality of life – I hope that we will continue to elevate people’s appreciation and create a better balance between ecology, environment, economics and social well-being. I think awareness is increasing, but we’re not there yet.

Do you think there is one overarching misperception about the Great Lakes among the general public?

This is not unique to the Great Lakes, but I think that people think that the land and its natural supporting systems are impenetrable, indestructible. One misperception is that the aquatic resource of the Great Lakes is so abundant. People take it for granted when, in fact, over 99% of the water in the Great Lakes is non-renewable. It is glacial reserves.

What do you think would be the best way to change the misperception?

It would have to be something very dramatic. Right now, a lot of people focus on money. Economically oriented things seem to make people change their habits. Unfortunately, maybe what we have to do is put a value on ecological goods and services. Take farmers, for example. They are people who own a lot of land. They do a lot of good things. They could be encouraged to do more good things if society paid for those ecological goods and services. I think that is one of the most logical and obvious paths forward. It’s unfortunate, but I think that’s the way society is. There has to be a dollar value associated with these things.  Education before legislation as well.

24% of our readers rank invasive species as the number one threat to the health of the Great Lakes (followed closely by toxic contaminants and non-point source pollutants. What do you believe currently poses the greatest threat to the Great Lakes, in terms of the birds you work to protect?

I don’t think there is one single greatest threat. However, I’ll say that habitat loss – quantitatively and qualitatively – invasive species and pollution from various sources rank among the highest threats to the Great Lakes biota. I think globalization, ultimately, is one of the greatest threats – not only for birds, but for the entire Great Lakes natural system – through its acceleration of economic growth, import/export population growth, introduction of exotic species, etc. People, communities and nations used to be more self-sustainable.

Globalization is a very serious threat. You can apply this to the entire planet. Ultimately, I think it is the greatest threat to all natural systems, and of course, all life. If society as a whole is not able to actively recognize and adopt what Aldo Leopold termed a ‘land ethic’ – a personal relationship to the land – and if economy is always put ahead of the basic life support systems of air, water, soil, then I think this threat may lead to the demise of our earth’s life support system as we know it. If society doesn’t adopt a more serious connection to the land, we are facing a serious threat. This goes back to education, but it has to be a very dramatic, self-inspiring event that affects people personally, with their own relationship to place.

Sixty percent of our readers say they believe the Great Lakes are at a “tipping point,” where they face irreversible damage if something is not done. Those who disagree, however, say things like, “They’ve been in worse shape…this is not a critical threshold,” and “…it’s easy to underestimate the remarkable recuperative potential of such an enormous ecosystem.” What do you think? Are the Great Lakes at the tipping point? Are certain lakes closer than others?

The Great Lakes aquatic system does have a remarkable resilience, just because of its sheer quantity of water. However, there are really two things at hand here: ecological integrity and geophysical integrity. Those, collectively, dictate the integrity of the whole Great Lakes system. Certain factors affect both of these, such as: conversion of natural habitat for various domestic infrastructure, urbanization, industrialization, roadways and paveways, and agriculture. Some factors may affect one of these more than the other. For example, exotic species introduction may have more deleterious effects on ecological integrity.

As to whether or not I feel the Great Lakes are at a tipping point, I can relate to both sides of the issue. In some respects, the Great Lakes have improved since the Industrial Revolution, when toxic spills resulted in rivers catching fire. Climate change is becoming a big issue. It very well might be having a long-lasting effect on the Great Lakes system. As a scientist, I am still cautious about that. I would want to monitor this for the long-term. However we also know that, for example, arctic ice cores show that carbon dioxide levels during just the last century have far surpassed any level at least as early as the Cretaceous period. Again, I think it’s this whole issue of globalization. This path we’re on where economy tends to be more important than the environment is disconcerting. I do have hopes, though, and I think people’s attitudes are changing. The question is whether they can change quickly enough – and dramatically enough – before things reach the point of no return.

I understand that the GL region is home to 46 species found nowhere else in the world. Can you tell me about a few of the bird species, and why our readers should care about them?

The Great Lakes region is home to a number of endemic species found nowhere else. The Great Lakes is important to hundreds of bird species. For some, it’s important for migration and staging. For others, it’s important for reproducing and sustaining their population. For others, it’s important for wintering – Owls, raptors and other birds migrate south from the Artic to spend their time on the Great Lakes during the winter.

There are too many bird species to describe any singularly. They are all important. People do and should care about bird life for people’s personal enjoyment purposes. Birds pollinate, they disperse seeds, they fertilize, they provide food for numerous organisms, and they keep insects and organisms in check. They are ecologically healthy. The Great Lakes without birds would be very lifeless and boring. The entire ecological system would probably crash due to the loss of integrity of this important element of the biota.

The Great Lakes are such an important spot for so many migrating birds. Can you tell me about any trends you see, or have seen, among migrating birds since the founding of the Long Point Bird Observatory?

What we’re seeing is that many insectivorous species, especially those that forage in the air, and a number of wetland dependent migratory bird species have been in notable decline for a number of years – at least as long as I’ve been monitoring them, which is about ten years.

Is that primarily due to loss of habitat?

We don’t know for sure, but change in habitat quality, loss of habitat, air pollution and aquatic pollution resulting in changes to their forage base is likely what is doing it.

John Andersen of The Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes program informed me that 85% of bird mortality occurs during migration because the birds are under stress (to rest, find food, etc.).

Yes, an example of that would be the common loon. They migrate through the Great Lakes. They breed in northern inland waters primarily. In the lower Great Lakes and elsewhere, over the last ten years, fairly consistently and annually, there have been die offs of large numbers of adult loons spending time on the open water of the Great Lakes. It boils down to introduction of exotic species. They are being poisoned because a form of botulism is being harbored in the micro environment created and perpetuated by exotic species, such as the zebra mussel and round goby.

Our mission at Biohabitats is to “restore the earth and inspire ecological stewardship.” In your opinion, how do the Great Lakes compare with other systems like the Amazon, in terms of their affect on the overall health of the planet?

Each area of the planet is important to the overall integrity of the earth in its own way.

How about to bird life?

Again, each area is important to bird life. The arctic is important to breeding and migration. The Great Lakes is important in its own way. You have different species of consideration in different areas. You also have similar species at different stages in their life cycles. As a very large, mixed terrestrial/aquatic system, it is likely the most diverse on our continent. Because of that, there are a lot of diverse habitats which support a number of very important species. The Great Lakes stands alone, in many respects, in this regard. They are unmatched anywhere else in North America, perhaps in the world. I wouldn’t want to overstate that, though, because there are many areas of the continent that are equally, but differently important.

For this issue of Leaf Litter, we have also interviewed representatives from The Nature Conservancy, the International Joint Commission and the U.S. EPA GLNPO. Has Bird Studies Canada worked directly with any of these organizations? If so, how?

We have worked with The Nature Conservancy in the past with various bird conservation related initiatives. I’d like to form a stronger partnership with TNC especially on projects associated with wetland protection and enhancement. Bird Studies Canada has had a partnership with the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office to administer the Great Lakes Monitoring Program since 1995. We partner directly with Environment Canada and U.S. EPA GLNPO with that program. The Marsh Monitoring Program has also contributed to various International Joint Commission  initiatives, most recently as part of a task force to determine the best path forward for regulating Lake Ontario’s water levels.

Are you seeing an increase in all of this coordination?

There is definitely a significant increase in coordination across the Great Lakes – within each nation and internationally as well. Initially, it was in coordination within each of its respective major entities such as those involved with land acquisition, protection and enhancement (such as TNC, Ducks Unlimited, etc.). There has also been simultaneous coordination of those groups that are working on monitoring, assessment and science. What seems to be evolving now is bringing those together – to work together from an adaptive perspective. We have our monitoring people working together, but now it’s time for the monitoring, assessment, and conservation enhancement and restoration folks to work together so that we can really measure the benefits and outcome of our on-the-ground work.

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