Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Complex: Ohio’s only National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Northern pintail drake taken at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge by volunteer photographer, Tony Everhardt.

Brief history of Northwestern Ohio

Northwestern Ohio and the Great Lakes Region has a rich history, one that this blog post will not even scratch the surface of. I will first start by looking back 20,000 years ago, when the Wisconsinan glacier covered this area, carving out the Great Lakes as they moved further south into Ohio. When they began to melt and retreat, they filled the Great Lakes. But, the Great Lakes weren’t the size and shape they are now, until about 3,000 years ago. When Lake Erie receded to its present day size and shape, it left behind a vast expanse of a variety of habitats, including swamp, wetland, marsh, forest, and dune ecosystems.

The land we now know as Ohio was home to a number of American Indian tribes including the Shawnee, Erie, Kickapoo, Chippewa, Ojibwa, Lenape (Delaware), Wyandot, Eel River Indians, Kaskaskia, Iroquois, Miami, Munsee, Mingo, Ottawa, Piankashaw, Sauk, Potawatomi, Seneca, and Wea. The Ottawa tribe, a name derived from the Algonquin word adawe, meaning “to trade”, migrated to Northwestern Ohio near Toledo from areas in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Ontario to participate in the fur trade. Several Native Americans tribes of Ohio fought against the British in the French and Indian War and later the Americans in the American Revolution in attempts to defend their land from colonization, but were ultimately unsuccessful. After losing to General “Mad” Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, most American Indian tribes in Northwest Ohio were forced to flee. The passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced all remaining tribes to relocate to other states such as Kansas and Oklahoma.

Historic Map of the Great Black Swamp. Created by Gary L. Franks for “The Maumee & Western Reserve Road: Its History and a Survey of the Milestones” published in 2008.

Left behind when Lake Erie receded, the Great Black Swamp covered a large swath of land, extending as far east as present-day Sandusky, as far south as Findlay, and as far west as Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Great Black Swamp was viewed by the European settlers as a horrible, mosquito-infested wilderness that was nearly impossible to traverse. This swamp impeded on Manifest Destiny and America’s westward expansion, and was eventually clear-cut and drained by placing tiles under the soil. This opened up the use of Northwestern Ohio for agriculture. The soil was rich, and agriculture boomed. But not all of the Great Black Swamp was drained. Of the original 300,000 acres, 15,000 acres remains. Much of the remaining Great Black Swamp existing along the Lake Erie shore was preserved by privately owned waterfowl hunt clubs during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Lake Erie algal bloom at Maumee Bay State Park by Jessica Duez

The drainage of the Great Black Swamp and the removal of over 90% of Ohio’s wetlands have lead to serious problems that Northwest Ohio continues to face today. On August 2, 2014, the city of Toledo was told not to drink the water, bathe in the water, or cook with the water. This was due to harmful algal blooms in the western basin of Lake Erie, where Toledo’s water is sourced. The toxins from the algal blooms, called microcystin, are harmful to human and aquatic health. This crisis lasted in Toledo for nearly three days, and soon after, nearby Pelee Island, Ontario experienced a similar crisis that lasted two weeks. Algal blooms occur in the western basin of Lake Erie as a result of the drainage systems put in place over a century ago. The Great Black Swamp acted as a filter for the water that would eventually makes its way to the Lake. Without the swamp, and with a system that sends runoff into the lake very quickly, nutrients are not filtered out. Nutrients from agriculture, like phosphorous and nitrogen, are what fuel these algal blooms, along with warm temperatures. An ongoing effort is being made by local, state, and federal agencies to address Northwest Ohio’s water issues. This includes restoring, enhancing, and protecting wetlands, like those in Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Complex, as a means to improve the water quality of Lake Erie.

Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Complex

Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Complex is made up of three national wildlife refuges: Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge, and West Sister Island National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, manages the 10,000+ acres of the Ottawa complex, as well as the Schoonover Waterfowl Production Area in Michigan. Managed habitat includes marshes, open water, wooded wetlands, coastal wetlands, shrub/scrub, grasslands, forest, and an estuary. The Biggest Week in American Birding is a 10-day festival that brings around 90,000 people to Northwest Ohio, “The Warbler Capital of the World!” to enjoy the spring migration of neotropical migratory songbirds. People flock to Ottawa NWR and our next door neighbor, Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, (managed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources) to bird.

West Sister Island National Wildlife Refuge

West Sister Island sits nine miles off of the north shore of Ottawa NWR in Lake Erie. West Sister Island, along with Put-in-Bay, Middle Bass, North Bass, and Kelleys Island, is the region in which Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry fought and defeated the British at the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813 during the War of 1812, later sending his famous message to General William Henry Harrison after the battle, “We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop.” Around 1847, a lighthouse was built on the west end of West Sister Island to mark the west end of the passage through Lake Erie’s Bass Islands. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established West Sister Island “as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife…”. In 1975, 77 acres of the 82 acre island were designated as a wilderness, part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, becoming Ohio’s only federally designated wilderness. The remaining 5 acres and the lighthouse is managed by the U.S. Coast Guard. The purpose of the refuge is to serve as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife, and specifically to protect the largest wading bird nesting colony on the United States Great Lakes.

West Sister Island hosts a rookery for great blue herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, and double-crested cormorants. Because the waters surrounding the island are too deep for wading birds to feed, they must take an 18 mile round trip to the mainland marshes to hunt and feed their young. Access to West Sister Island NWR is not permitted to the public. Ferry tours are held in normal years to allow the public to see the island from the water.

Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge

Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge contains 2,630 acres, and is the largest contiguous marsh on Lake Erie. The name, Cedar Point, comes from the cedar trees that once grew at the properties northern tip. The refuge is part of what was once the Great Black Swamp, which was used by the Indigenous people of the area and later the French to hunt and trap ducks, deer, and muskrat. Later, when the Great Black Swamp was being clear cut and drained, the marsh was set aside and preserved by private waterfowl hunt clubs that recognized the value of the swamp for wildlife. The marsh was donated to the North American Wildlife Foundation in 1964 by the Cedar Point Shooting Club, a foundation that owned the property since 1882. It was then sold to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1965 for $1, with their only request being that the property not be used as a public park, campground, or picnic area. Today the refuge provides valuable habitat for waterfowl and wading birds, and is home to several pairs of nesting bald eagles. Access to the refuge is by permit only, except for a small portion that is open from June-August for fishing, kayaking, hiking, and wildlife observing.

Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge

Also a part of what was once the Great Black Swamp, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge manages over 8,000 acres of wetland, grassland, and woodland habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, and neotropical migrant songbirds, as well as other animal and plant species. Under the authority of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge was establish using Federal Duck Stamp funds to purchase several hunt clubs and farms. In 2000, the refuge was declared an Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy.  In 2001, the Lake Erie Marshes, including the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Complex, were designated a Regional Shorebird Reserve in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. In 2007, the refuge was declared an Important Bird Area by Ohio Audubon. The primary purpose of the refuge is to protect, restore, and manage wetlands. To provide resting, nesting, feeding and wintering habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. To protect endangered and threatened species and their habitats and to provide for biodiversity. 

Satellite Properties

There are almost two dozen satellite properties owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and managed by Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge staff. These properties lie throughout Ottawa county. Some of these properties are open for hiking, hunting, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and wildlife viewing. A few of Ottawa NWR’s satellite properties include the Boss Unit, Marinewood Unit, Nehls Memorial Nature Preserve, Fox Nature Preserve, Turtle Creek Island Unit, Turkey Run Unit, Two Rivers Unit, and Middle Toussaint Unit. Navarre Marsh, once owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was traded to the Toledo Edison Power company in 1966 for Darby Marsh. Navarre Marsh became the site of the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, but the 820 acres marsh is still managed by Ottawa NWR. It is not open to the public, and is accessible by permit only or during special tours. Darby Marsh is 640 acres of wetland impoundments that is managed primarily for migratory waterfowl, and is also accessible by permit only.

What to see at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Complex

The refuge is mostly known for birds. In March, waterfowl numbers and variety increase as they head north. You can see ducks like northern pintails, gadwells, mallards, hooded and common mergansers, bufflehead, common goldeneye, northern shoveler, redhead, and more. Tundra swans are still in large numbers, but will be heading north soon, returning again next winter. American white pelicans have been at the refuge for several years now, and some even stay all year. Trumpeter swans and Canada geese breed and nest atop muskrat cabins in the spring, with cygnets and goslings arriving in April. By mid-April into late May, the refuge is flooded with migratory songbirds and shorebirds. Warblers are the main attraction for thousands of birders that flock here to enjoy spring migration. We see as many as 38 different species of warbler here in the spring.

By summer, things slow down, but there are still things to see. Wading birds like great blue heron, great egrets, snowy egrets, and black-crowned night herons are feeding in the marshes, and bringing back food to their young on West Sister Island, nine miles off shore. Bald eagle young are out of the nests and hunting for fish. Sandhill cranes pairs are raising their colts, and can be tricky to find! By fall, birds are headed back south, stoping over at the refuge. Warblers make their way back, as well as shorebirds. Waterfowl migration ramps back up in October, and tundra swans start to arrive. We occasionally see snow geese, and white-fronted geese in the fall and winter.

In winter, the tundra swans are in great numbers in the fields during the day, foraging for food. They return to the refuge at night to roost near any open water in Crane Creek. Sandhill cranes are now seen in larger flocks in the fields. Bald eagles are busy building and adding to their nests, and begin mating from mid-February – late March. Owls are a popular draw for birders. Ottawa is home to wintering short and long-eared owls. We also have screech owls and nesting great-horned owls. A variety of hawks hunt in the prairies and open grasslands of the refuge, including red-tailed and cooper’s hawks. We do get the occasional rare bird to this area, such as a Swainson’s hawk that was seen here last summer, a roseate spoonbill, a white ibis, a wood stork, and a limpkin.

Other animals that live in the refuge include beaver, mink, otter, muskrat, red fox, coyote, white-tailed deer, opossum, skunk, and raccoon. We also have a few reptiles and amphibians, including eastern fox snakes, Blanding’s turtles, snapping turtles, leopard frogs, bullfrogs, and spring peepers to name a few. There is so much to see and enjoy here at Ottawa NWR complex!

Waterfowl on Crane Creek in winter by Tony Everhardt
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