Great Lakes Beach and Dune

habitat photo
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Unvegetated sand beach with rocks and other natural debris. Chequamegon Bay shoreline at Bono Creek, Bayfield County. Photo by Ryan Brady.

Habitat Description

Habitat Crosswalk

Cowardin: Lacustrine; littoral; rocky shore, bedrock, rubble; unconsolidated shore, cobble-gravel, sand, mud, organic, vegetated (Cowardin et al. 1979).
Shaw and Fredine: N/A (Shaw and Fredine 1971).
Vegetation of Wisconsin: Beach communities, lake dunes (Curtis 1971).
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Natural Communities: Great Lakes Beach, Great Lakes Dune (WDNR 2005).
Wisconsin Wetland Inventory: N/A (WDNR 1992).


Great Lakes Beach and Dune incorporates a variety of shoreline types along Lakes Superior and Michigan, including vegetated and unvegetated beaches with sand, cobble, gravel, and boulder substrates and vegetated and unvegetated sand dunes. Beach is defined as the zone extending from the water’s edge to the limit of the highest storm waves. Dunes, when present, extend inland from this point. Fluctuations in water level and unpredictable storm waves result in extremely dynamic conditions and considerable variation in the vegetative structure and composition of these coastal habitats (Salamun and Stearns 1978, GLBC 1987). A single storm event may wash out one plant community and carry new seeds, rhizomes, or tubers to establish a completely different plant assemblage. Soil and climate conditions also influence plant composition and account for the large stretches of unvegetated shoreline along Lake Superior (Zube and Dega 1964, Curtis 1971). Onshore winds are the primary factor in dune creation and continuity (Matteson 1996).

Vegetation within these coastal habitats is generally sparse and may contain an assortment of geographically restricted habitat specialists and weedy generalists (WDNR 2005). In Wisconsin, drought-resistant forbs and grasses such as dune grass, beach pea, American bugseed, and crinkled hair grass occur on Lakes Michigan and Superior shorelines, whereas seaside spurge, American sea rocket, and thick-spike wheat grass are restricted to the Lake Michigan shoreline. Other species characteristic of coastal habitats also occur within inland prairie and savanna habitats, including Canada wild rye, prairie sand-reed, silverweed, common evening-primrose, and gray goldenrod. Several of these species help to stabilize shifting dune sands and facilitate colonization of shrub and tree species such as wild rose, common and creeping juniper, dune, sandbar, and shining willows, northern red oak, eastern white pine, jack pine, and paper birch (Curtis 1971, WDNR 2005).    

Historical and Present-day Context and Distribution

Glacial action is primarily responsible for the varied composition of Lake Michigan and Superior shorelines. As ice sheets advanced and retreated over thousands of years, they created, transported, and deposited many of the sediments that today comprise Wisconsin’s beach and dune habitats (Hadley 1976, GLBC 1987). The Great Lakes shoreline stretches approximately 996 kilometers in Wisconsin, of which 481 kilometers have a beach zone (USACE 1971). Sandy beaches along Lake Michigan are most extensive where lacustrine sands were deposited in extinct glacial lakes such as found in Kenosha, Ozaukee, Sheboygan, Manitowoc, and Door counties (Salamun and Stearns 1978). Dune systems are best represented in these areas at Kohler-Andre State Park in Sheboygan County, Point Beach State Forest in Manitowoc County, and Whitefish Dunes and Newport Beach state parks in Door County (WDNR 2005).

Approximately 80-85% of the Lake Michigan shoreline is in private ownership and the remainder is non-federal public land (USACE 1971, Salamun and Stearns 1978). Urban areas along the Lake Michigan coast have been intensively developed for commercial and business use and much of the parkland also has been altered to accommodate recreational activities, such as swimming, wading, running, dog walking, picnicking, and camping (Salamun and Stearns 1978). Along Lake Superior, extensive sand beaches occur at Oronto Bay and within some bays of the Bayfield Peninsula, at Wisconsin Point, on either side of the Brule River mouth, and at Long Island-Chequamegon Point. Dunes are seldom more than a few meters high but are present at Wisconsin Point, Long Island-Chequamegon Point, and on barrier spits that protect embayments along the northern portion of the Bayfield Peninsula (WDNR 2005). Beach and dune complexes also occur on several islands in the Apostles Archipelago. More Lake Superior shoreline is publicly-owned, with approximately 57% in private ownership, 26% federally owned, and 17% non-federal public land (Zube and Dega 1964, USACE 1971). This shoreline is less intensely developed than on Lake Michigan but the amount of undisturbed shoreline has declined in recent years due to increased recreation (Matteson 1996).

Natural Disturbances and Threats

Great Lakes beach and dune habitats depend upon regular sediment transport and thus are in a constant state of change. Storms, lake levels, wave action, frost and ice action, underground water seepage, and surface runoff are capable of moving material on, off, or along the beach. Wind is the primary force responsible for building dunes but also shifts and/or removes those left unprotected (Striegl 1968, USACE 1971, GLBC 1987, Penskar 1997). Actions or structures that interrupt these dynamic processes may alter the sediment patterns and hydrology of these habitats and thus threaten their integrity. Residential and commercial developments pose the greatest threat to the natural diversity of beaches and dunes. Coastal development can impede sand transport and consequently narrow beaches and eliminate dune habitat (Nordstrom et al. 2000, Nordstrom 2005). Increased human use along these developed shorelines often results in trampled vegetation, compacted sediments, destabilized dunes, and disturbances to wildlife. Foraging shorebirds often are repeatedly flushed at high-use beaches and thus spend more time avoiding humans and less acquiring food (Burger 1994, Thomas et al. 2002). Furthermore, beach-cleaning efforts employed at some beaches often clear the natural debris that provides refugia and nutrients for invertebrate prey (Nordstrom 2005). In some cases, mobile beach-cleaning machines filter not only debris from the sand, but also any small animals near the surface (Brown and McLachlan 2002). Chemical pollutants also are problematic and may persist for long periods of time in shore sediments. Prolonged exposure to certain residues can result in reduced parental care, hatching success, and mass gain in chicks of some waterbirds (Andres 1999, Cuthbert and Wires 1999, Nisbet 2002).

Beach stabilization activities such as planting of vegetation and construction and maintenance of seawalls, breakwaters, and other off-shore stabilizing devices can impede natural overwash processes and inhibit dune formation (USFWS 2001, USFWS 2003). Beach nourishment also is a common remedy for shoreline erosion and is often touted as being beneficial to wildlife. However, many nourishment projects completely alter the beach’s dimension, shape, microtopography, grain size, and moisture-retention characteristics, thus changing habitat features and adversely impacting certain species (Rumbold et al. 2001, USFWS 2003). Native plants may be buried during the process and replaced with non-native, ornamental varieties. When sediment dredged from navigation channels is used to replenish beaches, the dredge spoil may contain seeds, culms, or rhizomes of vegetation not found on the beach or dune that can alter the plant community. In some cases, this has resulted in the colonization and spread of invasive plants such as common reed, Lyme grass, and spotted knapweed. Because numerous variables are associated with beach nourishment, perceived benefits of one project should not be extrapolated to other projects (Rumbold et al. 2001, Nordstrom 2005).

Related WBCI Habitats: Great Lakes Open Water.

Overall Importance of Habitat for Birds

The Great Lakes beach and dune avifauna includes an assortment of habitat specialists and representatives from other habitat types. The state endangered Piping Plover nests exclusively on sparsely vegetated beaches that are isolated from human disturbance. With beachfront property in higher demand, undisturbed beach habitat is limited in Wisconsin and thus breeding opportunities for this species are few. Although historically found along the Lake Michigan shore, today the Piping Plover only nests locally along the Lake Superior shore at Long Island-Chequamegon Point and at Outer Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (USFWS 2003, Matteson et al. 2007). State endangered Common and Caspian terns historically nested in colonies along Lakes Michigan and Superior shorelines along with other colonial waterbirds such as Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, and Double-crested Cormorant. Limited availability of undisturbed beaches and intense interspecific competition at suitable sites has resulted in terns shifting to dredge spoil islands and other artificial islands for nesting (Matteson 1988, Matteson 1993). Spotted Sandpiper and Killdeer nest along unvegetated to sparsely vegetated shorelines but will nest elsewhere if this habitat type is limited (Oring et al. 1997). Beaches and dunes vegetated with short grasses provide nesting and foraging habitat for grassland birds including Savannah Sparrow, Bobolink and rarely Eastern Meadowlark. As dunes are colonized by shrub and tree species, species diversity increases and Black-capped Chickadee, Mourning Dove, Eastern Bluebird, Yellow Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow, and Indigo Bunting appear (Matteson 1996).

These habitats also provide important foraging and roosting opportunities for a diverse suite of migrating and breeding species. Priority species such as Whimbrel, Greater Yellowlegs, and American Golden-Plover feed on invertebrates along the beach zone (Matteson 1996). During migration, Sanderling occurs almost exclusively on the sandy beaches of Lakes Michigan and Superior, where Semipalmated Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Dunlin, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Least Sandpiper also commonly occur (Robbins 1991, Matteson 1996). The abundance of invertebrates attracts other insectivorous birds, including Tree, Northern Rough-winged, Bank, Cliff, and Barn swallows, Chimney Swift, Eastern Phoebe, and Eastern Kingbird. The short grasses found on some dunes provide brood habitat for Canada Geese and stopover habitat for American Pipit, Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, and Snow Bunting. The beach zone provides an important loafing area for Canada Goose, Mallard, mergansers, and other waterfowl as well as scavenging opportunities for gulls (Matteson 1996). This diverse avifauna also attracts bird-eating raptors such as Peregrine Falcon and Merlin.

Priority Birds

Species Status Habitat and/or Special Habitat Features
Peregrine Falcon f  
American Golden-Plover M Forages for invertebrates along the water’s edge.
Piping Plover b, m Specialist; requires expanses of sparsely vegetated, undisturbed beaches.
Greater Yellowlegs M Forages for invertebrates along the water’s edge.
Whimbrel m Forages for invertebrates along the water’s edge.
Hudsonian Godwit m Forages for invertebrates along the water’s edge.
Marbled Godwit m Forages for invertebrates along the water’s edge.
Dunlin m Forages for invertebrates along the water’s edge.
Caspian Tern b, M Specialist; requires expanses of sparsely vegetated, undisturbed beaches.
Common Tern b, M Specialist; requires expanses of sparsely vegetated, undisturbed beaches.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow f  
Bank Swallow f  
Barn Swallow f  
Eastern Meadowlark f  
Bobolink f  


Stay tuned……. will incorporate habitat acreage objectives from Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Region Joint Venture Implementation Plan.

Management Recommendations

Landscape-level Recommendations

  1. Develop a coastal shore and upland habitat conservation program to coordinate funding for conservation projects (GLRC 2005).
  2. Increase funding for existing landowner incentive programs to protect important native species and landforms (i.e., dunes) and encourage use of natural landscaping options. Work with willing private landowners on agreements to protect relatively undisturbed areas where possible (GLRC 2005, WDNR 2005).
  3. Educate the public and stakeholders on the importance and fragility of coastal habitats and their biota through signage, brochures, and guided informational walks.
  4. Prevent the introduction of additional exotic species and slow the spread of existing aquatic invasives through improved regulations, education, and management.

Site-level Recommendations

  1. Reduce recreational activities or other forms of human disturbance wherever Piping Plover, Common Tern, or other disturbance-sensitive species are nesting.
  2. Encourage beach users to stay a minimum of 30 m away from foraging shorebirds (Thomas et al. 2002).
  3. Enforce leash laws or eliminate pet access at sites managed for conservation (Thomas et al. 2002).
  4. Restrict off-road vehicles to designated sections of beach and prohibit use in areas frequented by rare or endangered species (Brown and McLachlan 2002, Thomas et al. 2002).
  5. Control common reed, Lyme grass, spotted knapweed, and other exotic vegetation through chemical and biological means.
  6. Eliminate mechanical beach-cleaning operations and only manually remove human debris at sites managed for conservation (Nordstrom 2000).
  7. Construct wooden walkways across dune systems to protect their physical and ecological integrity (Brown and McLachlan 2002). Develop financial incentives and information brochures for walkway installment.
  8. Avoid structures or activities that reduce sediment transport and thus alter habitat conditions for coastal species.
  9. Minimize adverse ecological effects of beach nourishment by using fill material with characteristics similar to the original sediment (Nordstrom 2005).

Ecological Opportunities

Ecological Landscape Opportunity Management Recommendations
Central Lake Michigan Coastal Major All
Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Major All
Superior Coastal Plain Major 1,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13
Southern Lake Michigan Coastal Important All

Research Needs

  1. Assess coastal habitat abundance, condition, and trends within and across landscapes to prioritize conservation opportunities.
  2. Identify methods to mitigate the adverse ecological consequences of erosion control structures (Schlacher et al. 2007).
  3. Monitor the long-term, cumulative impacts of beach nourishment projects on species diversity, site fidelity, and reproductive success of coastal species (Nordstrom 2005).
  4. Develop best management guidelines for coastal landscaping (Nordstrom 2000).
  5. Conduct comparative studies on the biodiversity of mechanically-cleaned beaches versus manually-cleaned beaches.
  6. Determine types and extent of common beach activities that are most disruptive to shorebirds in Wisconsin.


Key Sites

Key Partners

Funding Sources

Information Sources


Contact Information

Kreitinger, K., Y. Steele and A. Paulios, editors. 2013.
The Wisconsin All-bird Conservation Plan, Version 2.0. Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Madison, WI.

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