Seasons of Wildlife

Each day of the year offers an opportunity to connect with nature.


Detroit River provides a much-needed winter stopover spot for waterfowl as they pass through the area when temperatures are frigid.

Fun Fact: On average more than 300,000 diving ducks stop over each year to rest and feed on beds of wild celery in the lower Detroit River. Can you find any? Don’t let the cold temperatures keep you away. See yourself in nature all year round!

Naturalist Tip for a Winter Visit: Go for walk in the snowy woods or give snowshoeing a try. This is a great way to see winter wildlife. Look for signs in the snow that animals have left behind.


The protected habitats of the refuge are safe spots for birds migrating north in the spring to rest, eat and find mates on their way to their breeding grounds. Birds aren’t the only ones who can enjoy a meal at the refuge. You can pack up a meal and bring your family and friends to the refuge for a picnic. After you eat, use that energy to take a walk and explore the trails.

Fun Fact: Some birds travel from as far as South America and end up in the Arctic. How far did you travel today to visit the refuge?

Naturalist Tip for a Spring Visit: Sight isn’t the only sense you can use to find birds. Open your ears and listen for their calls and songs. Especially in spring many birds are singing to attract a mate. Listen for the call of the yellow warbler, it seems to be saying “Sweet sweet sweet I’m so sweet!”


Walk along the riverbank and listen for a “plunk!” as a turtle slides off a log into the water. They sun themselves on logs and slip away when they sense danger. If you’re really quiet you can sneak up on a turtle and watch them as they bask in the warmth. Nothing says summer like sitting by the water with a fishing pole in your hands. Even if you’ve never fished before, we encourage you to head out to our fishing pier to give it a try. 

Fun Fact: Wetlands and shoals on the refuge serve as critical spawning and nursery grounds for fish. Can you imagine what a nursery with baby fish might look like?

Naturalist Tip for a Summer Visit: Late summer is a great time to find evidence of monarch butterfly life. Identify a milkweed plant and look for monarch butterfly caterpillars and their frass, also known as, scat.


The leaves are changing color before they drop to the ground in preparation for winter. The refuge is home to many types of trees, some of which have the most brilliant-colored leaves in the fall. How many different leaf types can you spot as you walk the trails?

Fun Fact: Trees that lose all of their leaves during part of the year are called deciduous trees.

Naturalist Tip for a Fall Visit: Keep a reminder of your time at the refuge by making a leaf rubbing. Place a leaf under a plain piece of paper and rub a crayon or pencil across the top. 

Featured Species


The coastal marshes of western Lake Erie and the lower Detroit River provide important feeding and nesting opportunities for waterfowl. On average, more than 300,000 diving ducks stop each year during fall migration to rest and feed on beds of wild celery in the lower Detroit River. This lower river has been designated a globally significant site for congregating waterfowl. 

Historically, diving duck species such as canvasbacks and lesser scaup were drawn to this area because of the extensive beds of aquatic vegetation. However, over the last century, pollution caused by industrial plants and municipal sewage degraded the lower Detroit River ecosystem. This caused a great decline of these preferred foods, and numbers of diving ducks visiting the area dropped due to this ecological shift. Today, as a result of focused conservation and water quality efforts, an estimated 3 million waterfowl migrate annually through the Great Lakes and this significant river ecosystem.

Lake Sturgeon

The lake sturgeon is a North American temperate freshwater fish. Once abundant in the Great Lakes, lake sturgeon suffered from overharvesting, pollution and a loss of migratory waterways. These impacts caused the species to reach threatened status in 19 of the 20 states in its range.

Fisheries biologists at the Alpena Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office and Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge collaborate with partners to re-establish these fish in their historic range. Some success was achieved in 2001 when sturgeon reproduction was documented in U.S. waters of the Detroit River for the first time in 30 years. Successful reproduction of the fish in Canadian waters of the river has been documented since 2009. Although still rarely seen by most recreational anglers, lake sturgeon are an important indicator of a healthy watershed and mark the success of restoration efforts in the Detroit River.

Eastern Fox Snake

A type of North American rat snake, the eastern fox snake is a native resident of the emergent wetlands along Lake Erie and Lake Huron. This species prefers large, open wetland areas with herbaceous vegetation such as cattails for cover. The eastern fox snake is found in Michigan, Ohio and Ontario and is listed as a threatened species by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources — primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Reptiles and amphibians are indicators of environmental quality and can provide critical data to help monitor subtle changes in the environment that may compromise ecosystem health. The eastern fox snake has been given special management considerations within refuge boundaries.

Great Lakes Marsh

Considered a globally imperiled and state vulnerable habitat type, Great Lakes marsh occurs along the shoreline of the Great Lakes and major connecting rivers. Vegetation in these habitats is largely dependent on water level fluctuation, but in general have three distinct zones: wet meadow, emergent marsh and submergent marsh.

Large, contiguous pockets of emergent wetland habitat are rare within the lower Great Lakes landscape. As a result, plant and animal species associated with these ecosystems have steadily declined in most areas of the region.

Species like the marsh wren, American and least bittern, Forster’s tern, common gallinule, black tern and other species are dependent on these wetland habitats. Through careful management and stewardship, Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge provides large swaths of cattail habitat intermixed with patches of arrowhead, bulrushes and pickerelweed on many units within the refuge. These are all important plants used by birds for cover and nest construction.

Lakeplain Wet Prairie

Lakeplain wet prairie habitat is one of the most diverse ecosystems present within Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. This habitat type is globally imperiled, is state-listed as critically imperiled and can only be found in the southern Great Lakes region. Located in a transition zone between wetlands and uplands, this habitat type is typically dominated by blue-joint grass and sedges and located next to emergent freshwater marshes. Lakeplain wet prairies resist most tree growth because of high seasonal water level fluctuations and intermittent flooding and provide habitat for many important native pollinators. The wildflowers, grasses and sedges that thrive here diversify the food and shelter available to wildlife in this unique landscape.

Wet-mesic Flatwoods

Wet-mesic flatwoods is an uncommon forest type, only occurring on poorly drained glacial soils in the Maumee Lakeplain in southeast Michigan. This habitat type is a priority resource of concern for Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, because of its globally vulnerable and state imperiled status.

Wet-mesic flatwoods habitat is characterized by a highly diverse array of tree canopy species including oaks, maples and ash tree species. Like other wet-mesic forest habitats, wet-mesic flatwoods provide important stopover habitat for migratory songbirds.