Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

Birdwatcher’s paradise turns 55

July 28, 2016

Sunrise at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Ron Huffman/USFWS.
Sunrise at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Ron Huffman/USFWS.

Prothonotary Warbler courtesy of Jen Goellnitz/Creative Commons.
Prothonotary Warbler courtesy of Jen Goellnitz/Creative Commons.

Great-horned owls courtesy of Steve Gifford.
Great-horned owls courtesy of Steve Gifford.

Birding watching by Rebecca Hinkle/USFWS.
Birding watching by Rebecca Hinkle/USFWS.

Today marks the 55th anniversary of Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. At nearly 10,000 acres, Ottawa Refuge conserves and protects some of the last remaining Great Lakes coastal wetlands in Ohio. Located on the south shore of the western basin of Lake Erie, it provides essential stopover habitat for migratory shorebirds and waterfowl for both spring and fall migration.

The whole refuge complex was once part of the Great Black Swamp, a glacially fed wetland that extended for more than 100 miles south west into Indiana. Millions of migratory birds descend into the Lake Erie marshes to rest and rebuild energy reserves to continue their migration journey. The abundance and diversity of both water birds and land birds makes Ottawa important and reflects the critical conservation value of refuge wetlands and other associated Lake Erie habitats.

Designated as a site of regional significance within the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network for providing outstanding habitat in the Lake Erie Marsh Region. The refuge’s coastal wetlands benefit people as well as wildlife. These marshes and shorelines provide clean water to drink, good food to eat and protect us from the effects of extreme weather events like flooding. The wetlands also sustain one of the largest fisheries within the Great Lakes.

More than 600,000 people in the Toledo metropolitan area are less than 20 miles away from this abundance. People come to Ottawa to learn about the natural world, to hunt and fish and just relax. Even though the refuge offers lots of ways to get out and enjoy nature, the vast majority of refuge visitors come to watch and photograph wildlife. In 2015, almost 200,000 people visited just to go birding. This is no surprise, since it’s a birdwatchers paradise! More than 30 species of warblers nest or migrate through. Top of birder’s list for “must-sees” are Kirtland’s and golden-winged warblers.

Ottawa and the surrounding state wildlife areas are considered some of the best birdwatching places in the country and have been called the warbler capital of the world, so it’s a great place to sharpen your birding skills. Refuge staff and volunteers offer interpretive programs throughout the year to help birders, both new and experienced, add to their life list. Field guides, binoculars and kid’s adventure backpacks are all available to borrow during your visit.

Ottawa Refuge boasts more than warblers. It’s also home to six active bald eagle nests! You’re also likely to see trumpeter swans and wading birds, like great egrets and great blue herons. If you’re very observant, you might also catch a glimpse of the resident great horned owls as you take the wildlife drive.

Sandhill cranes and black terns are also rare and special sightings. Even though they are uncommon, there are at least four nesting pairs of sandhill cranes at the refuge, with crane colts being seen with their parents starting in early summer.

Like many of our national wildlife refuges, Ottawa has benefitted significantly from the historical conservation commitment of waterfowl hunters. The Lake Erie marshes that comprise Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge were protected and conserved by duck clubs in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These marshes were later bought by or donated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be included as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Nearly 85 percent of those lands were purchased using federal duck stamp dollars.

Conservation efforts like this continue today, through people like artist, hunter, and conservationist, Harold Roe. Roe has dedicated much of his life to illustrating the amazing wildlife that call Ottawa Refuge home. Roe’s award-winning wildlife paintings have been recognized by our federal duck stamp contest, Ducks Unlimited, and many other prestigious conservation organizations. Sales of Roe’s artwork raised more than 17 million dollars in support of Ducks Unlimited habitat conservation.

Learn more about Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and plan your visit: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/ottawa/

Historic photo by USFWS.

Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

This series of articles is inspired by the long history of land managers and biologists who protect, restore and conserve our National Wildlife Refuge System lands. As our midwest refuges reach milestone anniversaries, we will highlight what makes them special. Look for historic photos, lesser known biological and geological tidbits and reflections from the people who know them best - refuge field staff.

Learn more »