A local historian quotes a soldier camping in the marshes during the War of 1812 as saying the flocks of waterfowl flying overhead were so vast it would be worth “a journey of five hundred miles” to see them.
Many of the 90,000 people who visit Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in April and May, journey much farther than that to see the 300 species of birds — including 37 species of warblers — that stop there during their spring migration.
Those folks come from all 50 states and many other countries, so it should be no surprise that Magee Marsh has been named one of the top 10 birding sites in the United States.
Of course, the human visitors were notably absent this year. Because of COVID, the marsh’s trails, observation tower and visitor centers were shut down through the end of June, then a long-awaited road construction project again limited access.
The marsh’s famed boardwalk is now open but with reduced hours: Saturdays from 3 p.m. to sunset, and Sundays, sunrise to sunset. But the birds haven’t seemed to notice.
Birds showing up
Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird website also lists more than 300 species sighted at Magee Marsh during the fall migration season from August through November, and those birds are still showing up. That includes nearly 30 species of ducks. And controlled hunts, done by drawings on wildohio.gov, are going on, just with a few changes.
Staff no longer check in hunters, nor tow them out to blinds which are now limited to three hunters in each. Hunters must put their permits in a box, and check themselves out at the end of the day.
Magee Marsh — as well as the other marshes along Lake Erie’s Western Basin — doesn’t just attract migrating birds. Some herons, egrets, wood ducks, mallards and blue-winged teal nest in the area, along with a handful of wading birds, including grebes and bitterns. What the birders, photographers and waterfowl hunters probably don’t think about is the incredible amount of management it takes to attract all these birds and provide them with plenty of food and suitable habitat. As in moving massive amounts of water.
Magee Marsh is divided into 11 units. Each of these units is drained every two to six years in what’s called a drawdown. That allows vegetation to germinate, which in turn provides plenty of seed and food for waterfowl and shorebirds.
“Our goal is to make drawdowns mimic what Mother Nature does,” said Patrick Baranowski, wildlife area supervisor for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. The marshes support a lot of native annuals like millets, smartweed and sedges. “It’s a really healthy seed bank,” Baranowski said.
On the other hand are the invasives that must be removed by mowing or cutting, or treated with herbicides. The invaders, like frogbit, cottonwood and flowering rush, all have a tendency to take over without intensive control. Once the vegetation is managed, water must be brought back in.
“We want to make sure there’s enough water, at the correct depth,” Baranowski said. And that’s the tricky part: It’s hard to please everyone.
Shore birds like very shallow water with a little bit of mud around the edges, while mallards must still be able to eat the seed from millet and smartweed, he said. Gadwall and widgeon eat submerged vegetation and invertebrates. Teal and shorebirds “like shallow, skinny water full of insects and seeds. Shallow, but enough to go over your boots.” There also has to be enough water for fish, such as northern pike, to spawn, and for furbearers to forage.
But refilling is a delicate operation. If the lake water was allowed to flow in unhindered, water levels would soon be four to five feet and the marshes would become a bay. Instead, “the water is brought up slowly through a series of pumps, billows and canals,” Baranowski said. “We try for a level of 18 to 24 inches.”
History of Magee Marsh
John Mollenkopf was the local historian who quoted the young soldier marveling at the flocks of birds in the early 1800s. But things quickly changed in the next few decades. By the 1850s, most of the Great Black Swamp, as the area in Northwest Ohio was called, had been drained for farming, logging or development. Only a thin line of marshes remained, and they were in danger of being lost as well.
Then duck hunters started buying the marshlands for private clubs and preserves, Mollenkopf said in A Brief History of Magee Marsh. In 1903, John Magee bought 2,700 acres of marsh “with the intent of making it farmland,” he wrote. “But when Lake Erie kept overwhelming his dikes he went with the flow, so to speak, and returned it to marshland and private hunting.”
By the 1950s, the 30,000 acres of remaining marshland from Toledo to Sandusky were all owned and managed by private clubs, some of which are still operating today. In 1951, the Division of Wildlife purchased some of that land for the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, and a few years later, more land for the Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area. The Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Ohio’s only federal refuge, was established in 1961. The wetlands around the Maumee River basin were incorporated into Maumee Bay State Park in 1975. More recently, Metroparks Toledo created the Howard Marsh Metropark.
The result of these acquisitions is an enormous haven for migrating birds and resident birds alike, including many on Ohio’s endangered, threatened or “species of concern” lists. Many can still be seen at this time of year, though it tends to be the larger birds; the smaller birds have already gone south.
“In late February or early March, the ducks come through in waves,” Baranowski said. “The last to come through are the smaller shore birds.”
May is the peak for small songbirds, and “by June, we’re pretty much done with migration,” he said. In late August and early September, the songbirds come back through on their way south. They’re followed by small shorebirds, then small ducks.
At the first ice, the larger ducks start to leave, Baranowski said. In November, the gadwall and mallard arrive at Magee. In late November into December, it’s the big shorebirds that will be plentiful, plus “some of the trumpeter swans and tundra swans that wintered here, along with some Canada geese,” he said.
So even as the weather turns colder, it’s still possible to see flocks of birds flying over the marshes on the shores of Lake Erie. And as the young soldier said in the early 1800s, it might be worth “a journey of five hundred miles” to see them.
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