Monday, May 23, 2011

Birdwatching on Lake Erie

The mission of the Nature Conservancy (TNC) is to protect and promote biodiversity, which includes the wide variety of plants and animals that inhabit our planet.* And while TNC scientists implement comprehensive strategies to preserve habitats for many species, for some of us our blood quickens a little bit more for those certain species with feathers. Yes, wildflowers and rare plants, endangered reptiles and amphibians, and even fish have intrigued me at times, but birds have consistently charmed me and drawn me out of doors to distant places at difficult times of day.

Birds are a signature species for several places in the Great Lakes, and in the spring the Western end of Lake Erie is a particular hot spot for migratory birds on their way from the tropics to the wooded northern forests around Lake Superior and beyond. Thus, it was with some anticipation and excitement that I got to spend a Saturday morning in May at the Erie Marsh Preserve just north of the Michigan-Ohio border. Those of us on the outing were particularly fortunate to have with us a first-rate birder, TNC's James Cole, who is as enthusiastic about birding as he is knowledgeable.

Connecticut Warblers, redstart, and other small songbirds can be difficult to spot because of their small size, their proclivity to ascend to the tops of trees or, depending on the species, hide low in dense shrubs. Plus, it seems just as you get a fix on one and lift up your binoculars, the bird chooses that moment to flit to another spot. Thus, a knowledge of bird songs is critical to identification. While we easily saw the common, and very bright, yellow warbler and baltimore oriole, we had to rely on James's song knowledge to find the rare and elusive Connecticut warbler, a bird only occasionally spotted at the Erie Marsh Preserve.

The shoreline of Lake Erie is an important, perhaps under appreciated, resource of the Great Lakes. As birds migrate north through middle America and Ohio, they run into 240 mile long Lake Erie. They either must stop and rest up for a fly over the Lake, or detour around its Western end. In either case, the shoreline becomes an important place for birds to seek shelter while they wait for the right weather conditions, and refuel on the many insects just hatching out in the first few warm days of the year. Studies by TNC and others, as well as the observations of birders for over a century, show that the first few miles of land along the coast are critical habitat areas for migrating birds. Unfortunately, the lakefront has historically been a site for industrial activities and more recently a desirable place for residential development. Now only about 25% of the one-mile area coastal zone is in natural cover; TNC scientists have set a goal of restoring landscapes to achieve a 40% natural cover area.

There are two pieces of good news. First, several significant marsh and other coastal habitats have been preserved in national wildlife refuges, state parks, duck hunting areas, and private land conservancies. Erie Marsh Preserve has been the home of a hunt club since 1870 and TNC and duck hunters still cooperate to protect its critical wetlands. Second, development and bird habitat are not incompatible land uses. Power plants, shipping facilities, and other commercial development typically are surrounded by large expanses of undeveloped land that can be managed to provide habitat areas, often in a cost-effective manner. For instance, 12 of DTE Energy's facilities in the area have certified wildlife habitats. Likewise, landscaping around homes can favor trees, shrubs, and other native species over lawns. Typically, this can enhance property values. The Nature Conservancy and its partners in Ohio have developed a guide Managing Habitats for Migrating Land Birds in the Western Lake Erie Basin that provides interesting background information as well as practical suggestions for landscaping.

Wetlands for birds, wetlands for fish are two of the benefits of coastal marshes. However, we sometimes struggle to meet both goals. In pre-setttlement times, most of Western Lake Erie consisted of shallow waters, extensive wetlands and poorly drained soils; it was hard to determine where lake ended and land began. Not only did this provide great habitat for ducks, shorebirds, and migratory songbirds, the warm quiet waters supported the spawning of fish species and provided shelter for their early growth.

Over time, the draining of onshore wetlands for farming and development, and the rise of lake levels led to the loss of this valuable and variable habitat. Early on, duck hunters saved some of the important coastal waters by building levees and controlling water levels. This has proven to be a boon for waterfowl, but barriers between lake and wetlands have diminished fish habitat. Managing the captive wetlands is also expensive, as pumps are required to control water levels within impoundments (see photo), levees need to be kept in repair, and habitats must be managed for invasive species like phragmites. All of these are issues at Erie Marsh

TNC recently received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) to reconnect some of Erie Marsh with Lake Erie so that fish and other aquatic species can move back and forth from open water to coastal wetland. This project will involve extensive monitoring by TNC to determine the benefits and impacts of this effort; lessons learned here might be applied throughout the Great Lakes. In addition to re-opening marshes, falling lake levels also create opportunities to re-establish coastal wetlands. This too may be a strategy employed in Western Lake Erie.

One last birding reward was had on our day when we stopped to look out over the shallow waters adjacent to Erie Marsh. Amidst a flock of cormorants and some late migrating waterfowl, we spotted a large white bird. Upon close examination, what we thought might be a swan turned out to be a White Pelican, a very rare species in this part of the Great Lakes. Perhaps more pleasant surprises will be created with careful management and attention to the entire Lake Erie ecosystem of land and water.

Directions: Erie Marsh is off Exit 2 on I-75. You will need to head north on Summit Road (this wiil require a U-turn if you get off I-75 southbound). Turn right on Bay Creek Rd, then in less than a mile turn right on Dean Rd. The address is 3149 Dean Rd, Erie, MI 48133. Proceed to the Preserve sign and Erie Shooting Club; park next to buildings. For safety reasons, the Preserve is closed from September 1 to December 31 of every year.

* The full statement: "The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive."

Photo credits: all bird photos are from Cornell Bird Lab; other photos by Anna Owens


  1. Did you see any of the largest deciduous trees in North America? River's Beech?

  2. Not too many large trees in the marsh, but seeing a White Pelican is like seeing a champion tree.