Dedicated birders know that Ohio's Lake Erie shoreline is the place to be during spring and autumn bird migrations, evidenced by the reported 260,000 visitors making their way to several parks and wildlife refuges in northwest Ohio each year.
The Ottawa Wildlife Refuge, about 15 miles east of Toledo along Ohio's Route 2, was relatively quiet when we visited one recent sunny weekday, but that was several weeks ahead of the annual Biggest Week in American Birding.
The Biggest Week festivities in mid-May feature a full schedule of birding events and tours in the Ottawa Wildlife Refuge and adjoining Magee Marsh over a ten-day period with plenty to see and do for experienced and beginning birders, as well as families and casual nature lovers.
We found plenty to see even during our visit, when the weather was nice enough for a short walk, a picnic lunch, and a visit to the refuge's visitors' center.
Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge is part of a larger complex of refuges in between Toledo and Port Clinton in Ohio that include the Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge and the West Sister Island National Wildlife Refuge, as well as the Schoonover Waterfowl Production area in nearby Lenawee County, Michigan. The combined area is over 9,000 acres. Some of the areas are accessible by permit only, but the Ottawa Refuge is the largest unit and open to the public daily.
Established in 1961, the refuge provides shelter for migratory birds and helps preserve the remaining few Lake Erie marshes in Ohio's shrinking Great Black Swamp area.
Lake Erie presents a bit of an obstacle for some migratory birds initially reluctant to cross the water on their way north each spring. As the birds stop to rest and ponder how to best proceed, the avian population in the marshes spikes, providing plenty of opportunity for birders and photographers to observe and record their bird sightings.
April and October are peak months for waterfowl migration in the area. May, June, and August are peak months for shore birds. Autumn and winter are the best time to see bald eagles in the area, as the refuge is draws the largest number of bald eagles anywhere in Ohio. May is the best time for those seeking songbirds and warblers to visit.
Area birding guru Kenn Kaufman claims photographers capture more warbler images in northwest Ohio during May than they capture anywhere else in the United States. It may not be a proven claim, but I found his claim you could even fairly readily catch a photo of birds near the boardwalks with a handheld camera true (as this photo of a bird atop a birdhouse just off of the boardwalk in back of the visitors' center I captured with my tiny point-and-shoot camera proves).
We checked a short bit of the refuge's 7.5 miles of trails leading off of a small boardwalk loop in back of the visitors' center. Several level, small-gravel trails lead out from the boardwalk loop. A short east-west trail connects the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge with Magee Marsh. The refuge also periodically offers auto tours that take visitors to the marsh and some areas not open to hiking.
We dropped by the visitors' center to pick up some information about wildlife and trails in the refuge. The visitor center, built within the last few years to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver award energy efficiency standards, has exhibit areas, classrooms, meeting rooms, restrooms, and a small bookstore operated by the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Association.
The refuge is free to enter and open year round from dawn to dusk. The visitor center is open daily from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.
Check out the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center page on Facebook for the latest news, which is where I found out that the smoke plumes we saw during our visit came from prescribed burns conducted by the refuge staff.
Want to learn more about birding in Ohio? Try checking out the Birds of Ohio Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.
And I hope you'll visit Midwest Guest later this week for my story about our visit to Magee Marsh.
© Dominique King 2010 All rights reserved