Pilgrims with binoculars

Pilgrims with binoculars

Lake Erie shores offer birding adventures

Story and photos by Jane Beathard


Looking across Lake Erie to the Ohio shore.

Bird watching is best just prior to “leaf out.” Birds are more visible on the bare branches.

Bird watchers are welcome at the Point Pelee visitors center.

Scarlet Tanager

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

Blackburnian Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

It was a memorable 85th birthday for Verna Anson.

“I held that tiny little yellow bird right in the palm of my hand,” she said with obvious delight.

Anson, a veteran bird-watcher or “birder,” spent her May 4 birthday two years ago placing identification bands on the legs of migrating warblers at Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ottawa County.

She drove alone from Maryland to join 40 Road Scholars (formerly Elderhostelers) on a spring bird-watching tour of the Lake Erie shoreline — one of North America’s premier destinations for such activity.

The busy seniors came from as far away as Florida and Connecticut to stalk the lake’s marshes and preserves. They hoped to sight, identify and photograph rare songbirds, shorebirds, waterfowl and other feathered migrants on the move from winter homes in Central and South America to their breeding grounds in far northern Canada.

They joined about 40 other bird watchers on a jaunt across the lake to Point Pelee National Park in Canada. A 90-minute ride on the Jet Express took the group from cool and rainy Port Clinton to sunny Leamington, Ontario. A bus ferried them on to Point Pelee.

Wearing the latest in outdoor gear and carrying cameras with lenses as long as their arms, the travelers took to the park’s trails with enthusiasm — field checklists in hand.

Perky and determined, Anson set her sights (and field glasses) on getting as close as possible to the objects of her delight — migrating warblers of all kinds and colors.

“Our goal is to spot 100 bird species today,” said Tom Bartlett, a guide from the Black Swamp Observatory.

By noon, Anson had checked downy and hairy woodpeckers; Tennessee, black, white and yellow warblers; a ruby-crowned kinglet and red-winged blackbird off her list. Far from satisfied, she gobbled a ham sandwich and headed for the park’s beach in search of wading shorebirds.

But despite the sunny, mild weather, Anson and her fellow travelers recorded a total of only 91 total species — nine short of the day’s goal.

It was a weather thing, Bartlett explained as the Jet Express headed home to Port Clinton.

Several days of stiff winds blowing from the north kept many migrants hunkered down in marshes on the lake’s southern shore.

The birds are smart. They wait until winds blow from the south to aid their journey across the water, Bartlett added.

Rest and refuge

Lake Erie’s marshes are bird rest-stops on invisible, aerial highways between the tropics and Canada’s boreal forests and prairies. Beginning in late February, the winged wayfarers follow coastlines, rivers and mountain ranges to converge on the lake from all directions.

“The lake is a barrier that causes them to stop and replenish a bit,” Bartlett said. “In the spring, many have flown 2,000 miles by the time they get to us.”

They feast on the lake’s midges and mayflies to gain strength for the final leg of their journey north.

While there’s good bird-watching on Ohio’s North Coast nearly year-round, the second week of May offers the greatest concentration of species at one time. T-shirts from the Black Swamp Observatory proclaim it The Biggest Week in American Birding.

“In the spring, birds are in a hurry to get to their breeding grounds,” Bartlett said. “In the fall, they move slower and sporadically.”

Three hundred different species have been recorded at Magee Marsh State Wildlife Area in Ottawa County over the years. It’s common there in the spring to see 30 kinds of warblers alone, he added.

And it’s not just in the lake’s western basin.

Bird-watching is good as far east as Conneaut Harbor and Mentor Marsh and at dozens of points in between. Conneaut Harbor is a shorebird mecca, while birders at Mentor Marsh State Nature Preserve have recorded 250 different species moving through in the spring, according to a study published in 2012 by Bowling Green State University.

The study surveyed bird-watchers at six coastal sites between Ashtabula County on the east and Lucas County on the west to determine their economic impact on tourism. It found birding activities generated $26,438,398 in 2011, created 283 jobs for those living and working in area communities, generated $8.9 million in personal income, and contributed $1.9 million tax revenues to local and state coffers.

Birding is big business

While the Ohio Travel Association can’t gauge just how many bird-watchers are drawn to the lakeshore annually, director Melinda Huntley knows one thing: they come from all over the world and they spend money.

They spend it at hotels, restaurants, gas stations, mini-marts and retail stores. And, they are spending more each year.

Most are older than 45 with 62 percent over age 55. They include about equal numbers of men and women. Ninety-one percent earn more than $50,000 annually, while 34 percent earn more than $100,000, according to the BGSU study.

“You can tell an avid birder by the price of their equipment,” Huntley quipped.

One local adage called them “pilgrims with binoculars around their necks and cash in their pockets.”

But as the outdoor pursuit grows in popularity, demographics appear to be changing.

Not all birders are affluent or hard-core. Some are just curious novices. Others do it as a social activity with friends and family, Huntley said.

All are drawn to Lake Erie because it is so accessible. And you can see birds there that you can’t see elsewhere, she added.

Best places for bird-watching on Lake Erie

• Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge/Magee Marsh/Metzger Marsh — Ottawa County

• Oak Openings Region — Lucas, Henry and Fulton counties

• Maumee Bay State Park — Lucas County

• Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve — Erie County

• East Harbor State Park — Ottawa County

• Lake Erie Islands — Ottawa County

• Old Woman Creek State Nature Preserve — Huron County

• Huron Lakefront — Huron County

• Lorain Harbor — Lorain County

• Cleveland Lakefront — Cuyahoga County

• Mentor Marsh State Nature Preserve — Lake County

• Headlands Beach State Park — Lake County

• Conneaut Harbor — Ashtabula County

• Point Pelee National Park — Ontario, Canada

Additional information is available at lakeeriebirding.ohiodnr.gov.

Salt Magazine

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