Birdwatching at Magee Marsh and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio
30,000 acres of wetlands on Ohio’s Lake Erie shoreline offer some of the best birding on the continent
Published: November 1, 2002
|It’s a long way from the Bahamas to northern Lower Michigan, especially if you’re a six-inch, incredibly rare warbler weighing mere ounces.|
Just try to imagine it: You’re navigating north from your winter home to expanses of juvenile jackpine, where you hope to find a mate and a summer nest. Three-quarters of the way there you see a vast expanse of blue. You don’t know it, but it’s Lake Erie. Nuts.
You’re too tired to fly over all that. And it’s too far around the end — over there, 25 miles west. At least for now.
So as you wing near the lakeshore you decide it’s time to stop and rest, maybe feed up on some tasty bugs. The sandy beach ridges and tall cottonwoods and thick, shrubby understory look inviting as you flutter down.
Alighting on low dogwoods just above the sand, you hop around a bit, characteristically jerking your tail as you go. Then you notice a two-legged creature standing nearby, watching your every move. What now?
“Kirtland’s Warbler!” the creature says, perhaps too loudly…
Sometimes I just can’t help myself; it’s the booming voice. I see something like a Kirtland’s for the first time outside its nesting habitat, and I get excited. Big surprise, huh? Birders get excited over neat finds, and this neat find rated a special checkmark on my life list.
The Kirtland’s, after all, is the rarest woodland warbler in the world. It is totally dependent on controlled fires and plantings in young jackpine forests in northeast Lower Michigan. That’s about 300 miles, as the warbler flies, from the southwest Lake Erie beach ridge where I and a host of other rare-bird-alerted birders saw it.
But we weren’t at just any beach ridge. We were on the beach wildlife trail at Magee Marsh State Wildlife Area near Oak Harbor, Ohio. The area is part of a 30,000-acre expanse of state, federal, and private wetlands — including the stunning 8,900-acre Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Complex next-door — that serve as nesting grounds for more than 140 species of birds and resting areas for more than 300 species year-round. Together the areas provide some of the best birding on the continent.
How to get to Magee/Ottawa
The Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Complex is a cluster of three refuges — Ottawa, 4,755 acres, right next to the state-owned Magee Marsh; Cedar Point, 2,445 acres, a few miles to the west; and 77-acre West Sister Island, nine miles offshore in Lake Erie, the state’s only federally designated wilderness area and home of the largest concentration of colonial wading birds on the Great Lakes.
Ottawa Refuge also has two lakeshore satellite units, the 591-acre Navarre Marsh, site of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory’s field station, and Darby Marsh, 636 acres. Additional plots totaling nearly 400 acres are scattered nearby, part of an ambitious program to expand the refuge by another 5,000 acres — from willing sellers — in the next decade or so.
The Magee Marsh/Ottawa area is easily accessible from Toledo, 25 miles to the west, or Port Clinton, 17 miles to the east. Both communities provide a host of hotels and motels for overnighting.
Ohio State Route 2 is the road to southwest Lake Erie birding, easily accessed off I-280 at Toledo. I-280 connects in two places with the north-south I-75 corridor that stretches from Michigan to Florida.
From points east or west, take the Ohio Turnpike, I-80/90, to northwest Ohio. Exits 5/71 and 6/91 are the ones to take. Connect to I-280 at Exit 5/71, then go north to State Route 2 to land you in the Toledo area, or connect to State Route 53 at Exit 6/91 and head north toward Port Clinton and Route 2 from the Fremont, Ohio area.
Year-round bird magnet
The area lies along southwest Lake Erie — from Monroe, Michigan, around and through Toledo and east to Lorain, Ohio, just west of Cleveland. The region is prime, a bird magnet year-round, although the wetlands are just a fraction of the 300,000 acres of natural marshlands that ebbed and flowed with the lake levels in explorer Etienne Brule’s day. He and his band of hardy voyageurs beached their canoes at the mouth of the nearby Toussaint River, so named for the calendar date the Frenchman landed — November 1, All Saints’ Day. In 1615.
Timbering, drainage, agriculture, urbanization — complete with strip-malls, marinas, condominiums, and tourist destinations — have since all but overtaken the lakeshore with a few notable exceptions. Brule would swoon.
Today’s birders can thank 19th- and 20th-century duck hunters for saving most of what was left. From 1880 to 1903, the Magee/Ottawa area was a 4,000-acre, natural deep marsh and was called Crane Creek Shooting Club. Club hunters traveled by rail from as far as Pittsburgh and Detroit to shoot the marsh, making the last few miles from the depot at Rocky Ridge, Ohio, in horse and buggy. Salted ducks in barrels, taken by professional market hunters, were shipped to the same distant cities from the same depot.
In 1903, the era of artificial management began, as attempts were made to dredge channels and dike the area off from Lake Erie, drain it, and turn agriculturally “useless” land into truck-crop land. Fortunately, the farming schemes failed — Lake Erie’s spring storms proved too tough to beat. The area reverted to muskrats and ducks, and from the 1920s to the 1950s it was leased to waterfowl hunters.
But the cost of maintaining dikes and losses of barrier beaches during high lake levels proved too costly. So did bank mortgages. In 1951, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources bought what now is Magee Marsh. Ten years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began to assemble Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.
Virtually all of today’s remaining Lake Erie wetlands are conserved by dikes and pumped water-level management. In an explorer’s age, it didn’t matter whether the marshlands ebbed and flowed inland for miles with the cycles of lake levels. But settlers, bent on farms and cities, had no truck with such variability.
So if the remnant wetlands were to be saved, it would be via diking out the lake and seasonally adjusting internal water levels to benefit marsh plants and wetland bird species, from waterfowl to shorebirds. It also meant keeping the once-movable marshes in one place, so they would not interfere with “progress.”
One public wetland area, 908-acre Metzger Marsh, is maintained with an experimental water-control structure that allows lake levels to ebb and flow naturally. The state and the Fish and Wildlife Service own Metzger, which is situated on the northwest corner of Ottawa’s main property.
Locals refer to the Magee/Ottawa area as Crane Creek after the tributary that enters the lake near the Magee/Ottawa boundary. Crane Creek State Park is here too, tucked along the beach and surrounded by Magee Marsh. The 79-acre vest-pocket park may become part of the Magee complex because of state budget-cutting measures. If the name-game is not confusing enough, the Ohio Division of Wildlife operates its Crane Creek Wildlife Research Station at Magee Marsh.
The 0.6-mile Magee Marsh Bird Trail, a cleverly designed, wheelchair-accessible boardwalk that winds through a seven-acre wooded beach ridge between lakeshore and marsh, has become almost legendary for spring songbird migrations. Waves of passerines rest and refuel there by the thousands in April and May, and birders have not kept it a secret.
No less than 153 species of songbirds — from wrens and vireos to flycatchers, tanagers, and orioles — have been seen at Magee Marsh. Thirty-eight of those are highly prized, brilliantly colored woodland warblers, including Yellow-rumped, Blackburnian, Hooded, and Cape May — and the occasional Kirtland’s.
“I think the Magee Marsh Bird Trail is one of the finest places to see migrating birds. I wouldn’t put anything in North America above it,” says Harold Mayfield, a world-renowned ornithologist from nearby Toledo. “It’s a concentration point, and the viewing area is just ideal — trees overhead, the marsh in front of you, and the lake beyond. You can see Woodcock to Whip-poor-wills, things you almost never see on a bird walk.”
Mayfield, a world authority on the Kirtland’s and the Red Phalarope, knows of what he speaks. He formulated a system of estimating nesting success known widely as the Mayfield method. He authored the Birds of North America monograph on Kirtland’s Warbler, and he is also the only person ever to serve as president of three major ornithological organizations — the American Ornithologists’ Union, and the Wilson and Cooper ornithological societies.
Recalling that he has seen a Great Horned Owl’s nest right from the Magee boardwalk, Mayfield can’t say enough about the site. “It’s like being in a natural aviary.” And with lots of birders there at migration’s peak, “you’ve got scouts around and ahead of you all the way. I can’t think of any migrating species that might not drop in there.”
Indeed, the Magee bird list totals 307 species year-round, with 21 more species confirmed nearby. But even that list needs updating. In May this year, Ohio’s first Garganey turned up at Mallard Marsh State Wildlife Area, a 400-acre marsh just west of Magee/Ottawa. The Eurasian teal apparently got blown off course while migrating from the arctic. And some years ago, a Northern Wheatear, a sparrow-size ground bird of the arctic barrens that usually migrates to Africa and India, turned up just east of Magee. So it goes. You just never know.
When to go
While any time is the right time to be birding along Lake Erie’s southwest shoreline and wetlands, some general seasonal guidelines may help focus a visit.
Spring receives the most attention because of the waves of returning migrants. Look for waterfowl — possibly 29 species of ducks and four of geese — in March and April, and Fox Sparrows in March.
The ever-popular neotropical songbirds flow in on great, distinct waves: April 25 to 30, May 7 to 13 (Mother’s Day), and May 25 to 30 (Memorial Day).
Watch long-range weather forecasts for southwest winds, high pressure, and warm temperatures. Each frontal passage triggers a new wave of migration. One local group has confirmed no less than 186 species in the region on a single day in mid-May.
Summer is quieter, but the lakeshore marshes are known for and dominated by colonial wading birds, many of which make their homes on West Sister Island, nine miles offshore. Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets dominate, with occasional Snowy Egrets and Little Blue Herons. Look for Tree, Barn, and Cliff Swallows carving graceful arcs over the marshes.
Shorebird rarities, such as Ruff or Red-necked Stint, are summer possibilities in the region.
The fall migration is much less distinct, more a steady trickle than waves of birds. But the feathered stream flows steadily, September through November, the hardier birds coming in the latter weeks. Warblers, thrushes, and creepers attract attention, as do the hawks. Numbers are better during northerly winds and clear skies on cold fronts. Weather is more important than calendar dates. Shorebirds flock into the exposed mudflats early. And waterfowl, of course. Come in September for teal and “little ducks.”
Winter also can be interesting, if less hectic. A few Snowy Owls come down from the arctic more winters than not. Northern Harriers, Rough-legged Hawks, and Short-eared Owls are good bets. If the lake remains open, look for rafts of ducks, especially divers, offshore. Tundra Swans are likely, too.
|“I’m always telling people here that they don’t know how good they’ve got it,” says Matt Anderson, a prominent Toledo-area naturalist and pillar of the Toledo Naturalists’ Association, a birding group. “You would probably be hard-pressed to beat it with some of the premier spots in the country,” he adds. “It is the premier spot in Ohio for rarities.” He proceeds to tick off such finds as Vermilion Flycatcher, Western Tanager (on the Magee Marsh Bird Trail), and Painted Bunting. Then he rattles off great birds such as Ruff and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. So it goes.|
Besides rare birds, birders can expect to see ducks galore, herons and egrets of all kinds, bitterns, rails, gallinules, coots, Glossy Ibis, and the occasional American White Pelican. The beautifully maintained wetlands are also home to an array of other wildlife species, from muskrats to endangered river otters, not to mention mink, raccoon, coyote, skunk, opossum, fox, rabbit, and white-tailed deer.
The main unit of Ottawa currently has eight miles of dike-top trails for birding, plus an upland woods with trails. A new $1.95 million visitors and education center was approved in the summer, and it should greatly enhance the refuge’s ability to handle the current 130,000 visitors a year, and more.
Neighboring Magee is already well equipped to serve both birds and birders. For human amenities, start at the Sportsmen’s Migratory Bird Center, which serves about 70,000 visitors a year. It houses displays of past waterfowling lore and a prized decoy collection, plus a diorama featuring mounted specimens of more than 300 species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians found on Magee. Educational materials and a schedule of activities are available, and a rare-bird board is maintained right outside the entry-doors. A couple hundred feet away is a 42-foot wildlife observation tower.
Magee and Ottawa, incidentally, are the heart of several endangered species recoveries, most notably that of the national symbol, the Bald Eagle.
In 1979 only four pairs of eagles were left in Ohio, the species having fallen victim to habitat losses and environmental pollution. The final four all resided in the Lake Erie marshes, and an intensive restoration effort has led to a phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes success story: Today some 78 active pairs of Bald Eagles nest in Ohio. The heart of eagle country remains the Lake Erie marshlands.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife also is in the midst of a long-term program to restore the Trumpeter Swan from the Magee/Ottawa complex. North America’s largest waterfowl, Trumpeters weigh 25 pounds or more and spread their wings to seven feet or more. Although the extent of the bird’s historical breeding range east of northwestern Indiana is unsettled, no one disputes that Trumpeters were almost wiped off the map a century ago. The captive-breeding program is expanding Trumpeter numbers in Ohio.
All of the foregoing natural goodness has not passed by unnoticed. The National Audubon Society, Audubon-Ohio, and the Montreal-based Commission for Environmental Cooperation have designated Ottawa and Magee as globally Important Bird Areas.
In October 2000, the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network designated the southwest Lake Erie marshlands a Regional Shorebird Reserve. Revolving around Magee/Ottawa, the area joined Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas as the only such reserves in the Midwest. Some 75,000 shorebirds — as many as 37 shorebird species — visit the region’s marshes each spring and autumn.
What’s more, readers of Birder’s World recently chose Magee/Ottawa as one of their 15 favorite locations to watch birds. (See “Your 15 Favorites,” October 2002, page 39.)
But as important as they are, Ottawa and Magee are not the sum total of attractions for birds and birders in the region.
— A few miles east you’ve got Sandusky Bay with its conservation-minded Winous Point Shooting Club and Marsh Conservancy, America’s oldest duck club, dating to the 1850s. Some 40,000 or more American Black Ducks winter in Sandusky Bay and its smaller sister, Mud Creek Bay. The annual congregation becomes the largest single population of Black Ducks in the world, this for a species of concern among waterfowl conservationists.
— Near Sandusky you can celebrate a conservation success: Pickerel Creek State Wildlife Area. Its 2,800 acres of wetlands were once slated to become a nuclear power plant site. That they did not was an early victory for the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.
— To the west of Magee/Ottawa, you’ll find Maumee Bay State Park and its 10,000-foot boardwalk, a great spot for spring birding.
— And just west of Toledo, look for the Oak Openings, a globally rare oak savanna and wet prairie habitat. The Nature Conservancy in 1999 designated the 620-acre Kitty Todd Preserve in the Oak Openings as one of “America’s Last Great Places.” It’s home to Lark Sparrows, spotted turtles, and rare butterflies.
So there. After your first visit to Magee/Ottawa and the famed bird trail, you’ll realize you have just reached the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end, no apologies to Winston Churchill. You’ll want to stop back and visit again. Just like that Kirtland’s Warbler.
Steve Pollick is outdoors editor of The Blade newspaper in Toledo, and has been birding and writing about the southwest Lake Erie region for 31 years.|
Magee Marsh State Wildlife Area, (419) 898-0960 |
Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, (419) 898-0014
Ottawa County Visitors Bureau, (800) 441-1271. (Be sure to ask for special discounts available to birders.)
Greater Toledo Visitors and Convention Bureau, (419) 321-6404
Maumee Bay State Park, (419) 836-7758
Black Swamp Bird Observatory, (419) 898-4070
Toledo Naturalists’ Association rare-bird hotline, (419) 877-9640
Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Association, a citizens’ group, (419) 836-8411
Friends of Magee Marsh, (419) 898-0960 extension 31