Tuesday, March 10, 2015

OH: March 10 Trip Log - Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Lake Erie, Ohio

"It was a dark and stormy night." Um, day. It was a dark and stormy day. I'm out here in Ohio to do some PhD research in Columbus and today was my 'play day' to explore!  I've never seen Lake Erie so I stayed the night in Sandusky and birded the lake shore reserves and parks in a light rain. The light really sucked - so did most of my photographs. The highlight was spending most of the day at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge - a Blue Goose gem! I had a bird list of only 30 birds. It was gray, warm, and wet and not much other than waterfowl and raptors were out. But there were surprises!

I finally get to meet Lake Erie - famous  for generating South Central PA's 'lake-effect snows' 

Marblehead Light and Lightkeeper's House.

The lake was frozen over except for an open lead way out beyond the stacked shore ice.  A lone eagle (one of dozens I would see today) watched rafts of sea ducks. It was a sobering scene, dark and foreboding with rain clouds overhead. I quickly made for the shoreline to check out the  ancient limestone  reef on which the light and the town of Port Clinton are built upon.  I had to be careful of icy ledges as I kept one eye on the threatening skies overhead and the other eye on the rich fossil rock under my boots. 

Frozen Lake Erie beneath a threatening sky

Maclurites - a reef snail from Middle Devonian Period.

Receptaculites - an ancient relative of the sand dollar.

The matrix around this Receptaculites is thick with Crinoid stems and 'flowers'

Horn Coral.

The shelf the lighthouse is stands on represents the top layer of limestone that defines a Middle Devonian reef. It is packed with  fossils and had it not been for the rain becoming steadier, I would have switched to my macro lens to capture what paleontologists call "fossil hash." But I was getting wet so I jogged over to a boat shelter and joined a older couple already tucked in out of the rain.  Mike and Linda were Port Clinton residents out for a walk to the Point and were thankful it was 43 degrees above zero and not 43 below. Mike had been a laker's mate, an ore carrier pilot's assistant, assigned to helping the guy who got those big ships through of tight places and into the shipping lanes where the captains would take the helm. He had served on a lot of ships before he was made pilot. He retired in 1995 after forty years of laker service and moved here.

Bald Eagle watching sea ducks.

Mike knew of the Edmund Fitzgerald and had been aboard the Wilfred Sykes loading next to her the night she left port for her last voyage carrying 26,000 tons of ore on November 10, 1975. Standing under the boat shelter listening to Mike describe that night I could only shiver while looking out at Lake Erie. Lake Superior of course is a much bigger lake - really an inland sea - so I can only imagine how angry that body of water must have been and how hellish it must have been for the crew and captain of the Edmund Fitzgerald. "All souls lost, not a soul found," said Mike, "This coming November will mark forty years. Seems like yesterday." Linda was quiet the whole time, except to nod and say "Yes, yes."  For the rest of the day I had Gordon Lightfoot singing "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" stuck in my head.

I realized that the gravel we were standing on was crushed limestone from a quarry nearby. I quickly snatched up some crinoid fossils. Linda suggested I visit the Castalia quarry about fifteen minutes inland to see the full reef, now a park. It sounded like a good way to wait out the  rain that was falling and hope for better light. I was getting cold and a nice warm drive in the car sounded nice.

Wagner Quarry at Castalia - now an Erie Metropark.

Limestone reef - over a hundred feet tall - was mined to make crushed stone aggregate.

Castalia Quarry 1930s.

Wagner Company steam shovel on track - 1930s.
It was warm enough in the car but as soon as I got out at the quarry to do the two mile hike around and into the pit, I realized I would soon be slogging in foot-deep slush, working up a sweat, and most likely start to shiver again. Which I did. The light was getting a bit better however. I finished the hike and changed clothes in the parking lot. (I didn't care who saw what.)

My final destination for the day - Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge!

Another thirty minutes in a warm car and I was pulling to my final destination for the day! I love our National Wildlife Refuge system and everywhere I travel I make a point to visit the refuge closest to where I am working/staying. The lake was just beyond the trees and ponds and I couldn't wait to get out on the trails. But first - the very nice visitor center - the very warm visitor center.

Does this even need a caption? I think not.

A replica of the warming room of the now gone Cedar Point Lodge, circa 1890s - 1920s.

I chatted with the desk ranger for a good while. I'd never been to Ohio. He'd never been to Pennsylvania. We swapped information on refuges - Ottawa for Blackwater, Heinz, and Eastern Neck. Then out to the trails - oh no! A foot of slush and light rain! Hell with it - this is my free day! Out I went!

The whole inshore area once looked like this - the great Black Swamp is now a tiny fraction of what it was.

Mid-Western Fox Squirrel - as big as a large cat!

This is one big squirrel - more orange than than the Delmarva Fox Squirrel.

I learned real fast to stay atop the levees as the trails through the woods were too wet. The levees are part of an old ditch, canal, and pond system that dates back to when the great Black Swamp was drained and logged to make way for farming. In the rush to create farmland in the 1830s-40s, this enormous swamp, the size of the state of Connecticut was destroyed. The Ottawa Indians who lived along Lake Erie's shores and in the high ground of the swamp were removed in the 1840s. When the refuge was established here in 1960, farmland was re-acquired and again flooded in an attempt to 're-grow' the swamp. With regenerating swamplands come the fox squirrels, repopulating the refuge over the last 50 years. 

The last two Ottawa to leave the swamp - Victoria Caderact and cousin.

This landscape has undergone such brutal change. I kept in mind the visitor center display photographs of how the swamp had looked logged out. In the 1840s ditch diggers carved drain tile into the land to dry it out. Levees were built - even the roads you drive on are atop levees. Everything was constructed to keep the water off the land, although with a foot of melting snow, there's water everywhere. Now, with controlled flooding, there are cattail marshes and muskrat push-ups where once a dense five thousand year-old swamp stood. As I made my way across the almost snow-free levees, I thought of the pictures of the Ottawa people who had found not only sustenance here but a great wealth of food and resources from the lake to the forests. Even though the plan is to bring back the swamp, the people will never return.

Muskrat marsh - regenerating swamp in the background.

Muskrat trappers set flagged poles to mark their trap lines.

A marsh with muskrat greatly reduced.

Today muskrat trapping is a vital tool in controlling the damage these 'water rats' can do to a marsh. Without adequate numbers of natural predators to keep populations in check, human trappers are allowed permits to harvest muskrat. The pelts can bring in a little extra cash and the meat isn't too bad. But the real value is in the quality of marsh that is allowed to flourish after a population has been reduced. I met two trappers cutting and flagging poles to mark a new trap line. They were snug in their waterproof hunting bibs. I was shivering again! So I picked up the pace and hiked quickly along a three mile section of paved road. I saw red...

Red osier dogwood

Red-tailed hawk feasting on a gull.

Northern shoveler with his red flank and flashy white breast and rump.

My bird count was low, but there were too many bald eagles and red tailed hawks to count!  Just past the refuge entrance I caught a red-tailed hawk finishing a gull. Fairly close, it kept pulling and pecking at its meal even though I was within fifty feet. I saw eagle nests everywhere, with the head of an eagle just visible over the lip of the nest and a mate perched nearby. Canada geese honked  throughout the ponds, acres and acres of ponds. Northern shovelers were the duck of the day in the drainage ditches. Finally, on my way back to the main entrance, walking fast on the road to keep my heat up (sweating again) I turned a bend near the last pond and thought I heard a familiar but not quite familiar whistling hoot - tundra swans? Hmmm.  Trumpeters! A large flock of trumpeter swans was tipping up in the open waters of a stream. I've been watching for trumpeters all year back home and here in Ohio - where they are found throughout the Central Flyway - I finally had them! 

The regal trumpeter! This pair will mate for life.

Shivering hard again after standing for almost a half hour admiring the swans, I practically jogged back to the car in a light rain. I stopped at the visitor center to say thank you, and was in the car with the heat on full blast - wet with sweat and cold. The two hour drive south to Columbus in a steady rain was warm enough, but it was worth all the chills and cold to have birded the Lake Erie shore.


Black Swamp Conservancy is a group dedicated to bringing some of the Black Swamp back to function ecologically within a predominate agricultural landscape. http://www.blackswamp.org/

Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge http://www.fws.gov/refuge/ottawa/


  1. When were the pics at marblehead lighthouse taken?

    1. March 10 about 0830 - cold and stormy!

    2. Thanks I have been searching for a pic taken of my girlfriend and I on March 4 it was a day much like the one in your pics