New Ohio Guide: Magee Marsh

May 13, 2012

Along the Lake Erie shoreline about halfway between Toledo and Sandusky is Ohio’s Marsh Region which includes the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and Magee Marsh Wildlife Refuge. During April and May it is one of the most popular bird watching sites in North America.

"Each year between mid-April and much of the month of May, millions upon millions of songbirds will stop by during their migration north. The stars of the show are tiny birds called warblers and they are here just for a brief time in the spring. And believe it or not, birders from all over the world will gather here just to see these birds," says Kim Kaufman, Director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory.

Her husband Kenn Kaufman is a naturalist and author of the “Field Guide to Birds of North America”.

"Those are the birds that separate the birdwatchers from everybody else because the average person has never heard of warblers and probably hasn’t seen one, and the serious birders put a lot of their attention into finding warblers. They’re tiny birds. They’re very colorful. They eat insects so they can’t survive here in winter so they go to the tropics in winter and they come flooding back north in spring and there are more than three-dozen kinds that come through northern Ohio. Like Blackpoll Warblers for example may be coming from Brazil and going to Alaska and they’re stopping off here in Ohio for a few days on the way," says Kenn Kaufman.

"These little songbirds are migrating at night believe it or not. They navigate by the stars and as they come up they see this massive body of water," says Kim Kaufman.

"And here’s this beautiful little patch of woodland with marsh on one side and the lake on the other side so they really concentrate in here on the south shore of Lake Erie," says Kenn Kaufman.

Magee Marsh encompasses over 2200 acres of wetland habitat and features a raised boardwalk in a small wooded area near the lakeshore.

"The Boardwalk is in a small wooded area its about 7 acres of woods and the boardwalk is ¾ of a mile long," says Kim Kaufman.  "here is possibly nowhere else in North America that you can see these spring migrants as close as you can from that boardwalk."

"Warblers in other places will be up in the tops of tall trees. There is an ailment called “Warbler Neck” that birders get from looking up at the treetops, but here the trees are relatively short and the birds are very concentrated. They’re feeding on small insects that tend to be down low and so here you can stand and look at warblers at eye level," says Kenn Kaufman.

Joe & Marianne Deschenes from Upstate New York are headed west to visit their grandchildren, but scheduled their trip to coincide with the spring migration at Magee Marsh

"We were here two years ago I think and we saw a lot of birds and it was just a good experience," says Marianne Deschene.  "Well I saw a Cape May Warbler that was really just right up in the tree, really, really close. I had a very good view of it. That was the highlight for me."

"Magee Marsh itself is just so great because it’s compact," says Joe Deschenes.  "It’s not a huge area. When I heard that this thing is 7 acres, I think well what can you see in 7 acres but you can walk this boardwalk and you want to come back and do it again and again and again and again. You see so much and they’re all right close in."

"I know some people who come back in May every year for the last 20 years. And there are tour groups that come here based not only in the U.S. but in Canada and in England that’ll bring an entire group here from other countries to witness the spring migration," says Kenn Kaufman.

The warblers are here through May, but other birds including Bald Eagles are visible in the Ohio Marsh Region year round…. From Magee Marsh near the shore of Lake Erie, I’m Greg Tye.

Download a free audio tour of Natural Ohio – Lake and Woods at See OhioFirst.org.

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