Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Overview

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"One of the world's birding hotspots," is how Chris Crofts describes Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). The 5,793-acre refuge lies on the shore of Lake Erie 15 miles east of Toledo, Ohio, where the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways intersect. Crofts and his brother Mike are highly accomplished birders. They have voluntarily conducted monthly bird censuses on the refuge for 23 years and have been involved in a host of other volunteer refuge activities for almost a decade. Now they are spearheading the campaign to establish a refuge support organization.

Bird watchers flock to Ottawa NWR during the month of May to see the warbler spectacle that occurs as the songbirds pause to build up strength before continuing their northern migration across Lake Erie. Similar staging of raptors occurs during late March and April. Thousands of shorebirds and ducks also utilize the refuge marshes for feeding and resting. As many as 245 bird species have been counted in the spring at the refuge and neighboring public lands.

Fall and winter inhabitants include tundra swans, Canada geese, and bald eagles. The staging of up to 20,000 mallards and black ducks is not uncommon during fall months. The lesser black-backed gull was seen in 1997 only the second time at the refuge, but a total of 274 species are regular refuge visitors.

The largest colonial nesting bird rookery in the Great Lakes chain is located on West Sister Island NWR, a 77-acre island refuge nine miles offshore that is under the administration of Ottawa NWR. The island is a designated national wilderness area, the only one in Ohio. Also under Ottawa's administration is the 2,445-acre Cedar Point NWR, where three large pools attract vast numbers of ducks—8,000 scaup were counted at one time. Ottawa and Cedar Point NWRs provide much of the feeding areas for the West Island NWR rookery that contains 3,500 nests. Studies show that the herons and egrets on the island fly several times a day to the mainland refuges for food to feed their young.

Other wildlife documented at Ottawa NWR includes 32 mammal species: white-tailed deer, muskrat, and eastern cottontail, and 53 species of amphibians and reptiles.

Ottawa NWR represents a tiny remains of what was once the 300,000-acre Great Black Swamp—an impenetrable area to farmers and loggers who drained it in the early 1900s for the timber and fertile soil. Until they were forced out by the Iroquois, the Ottawa Indians were at home in the swamp, where they perfected their great trapping abilities. Many of these Native Americans ended up on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, the largest lake island in the world.

Ottawa NWR was established in 1961 to save diminishing Lake Erie marshes. It was purchased with proceeds from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, the majority of which comes from the sale of Duck Stamps. West Sister Island NWR was public domain land established as a refuge in 1938 by presidential order. Cedar Point NWR became a refuge in 1965 when land with a value of over $2 million was donated by Little Cedar Point Hunt Club.

In an unusual exchange in 1966, the Ottawa NWR obtained the 520-acre Darby Marsh for the construction of the Davis Besse Nuclear Power Station on a portion of the refuge's 591-acre Navarre Marsh unit. Open water pools dominate both marsh units. Although Navarre Marsh is now owned by two electric utility companies, the habitat management of the marsh is done cooperatively by utility company environmental personnel and the refuge staff. Entry to both Darby and Navarre Marsh is by special use permit.

Over 100,000 people visit Ottawa in one year. Besides the migration spectacles, the refuge also draws visitors to an annual open house in October and a special 7-mile auto tour route that is open on one day in May to celebrate International Migratory Bird Day.

A 7-mile system of foot-trail loops on the dikes surrounding several marsh impoundments includes a stretch through a remnant of the historic swamp.

Fishing is limited but selected portions of the refuge are open for waterfowl and white-tailed deer hunting. Because of the large number of hunting applications, hunters are selected from pre-season registrations by computerized drawings.

Refuge public use specialist Rebecca Hinkle echoes the concerns of the Crofts brothers over the lack of visitor center services. Because of its limited size, the refuge headquarters cannot accommodate visitor center facilities. Moreover, outside of regular office business hours and on weekends when visitation is high, the office is closed. "A visitor center is my dream," says Hinkle. And so are a refuge support group and more volunteers, both of which seem closer at hand considering the turnout of 41 people at a first meeting to organize the Friends of Ottawa NWR.

Weekend openings will be a possibility after the friends group organizes, says refuge manager Larry Martin.

Hinkle handles all the environmental education activities on the refuge including the planning for conservation field day when all 500 of the local county's 5th grade students visit the refuge. The students ride by hay wagon to three stations where they see demonstrations and participate in hands-on activities.

Water level management, exotic-plant and pest control, reforestation, and cropland management are some of the regular functions that manager Martin and his small staff attend to.

But comprehensive refuge planning is on Martin's agenda, too. The plan being developed with public participation will be used to guide management decisions for each refuge in the Ottawa complex over the next 15-year period.

The formulation of a comprehensive plan for every unit of the refuge system has been a long-time goal of refuge administrators, although progress has been slowed by limited funding. The pace could quicken, however, now that comprehensive plans are required by the new refuge organic act and 1998 refuge funding was nearly 25 percent more than in the last year.

Martin is also involved in a land acquisition program that will add up to 5,000 acres of wetland and adjacent uplands to the refuge complex. The current (1998) refuge budget includes $1 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to begin purchases from willing sellers of land tracts in a four county focus area.

Thanks to the farsightedness of the planners who made Ottawa NWR possible, another tiny part of America's ecological history is being preserved. And thanks to the staff at Ottawa NWR, the scarce habitat is being optimized for migratory and non-migratory wildlife alike.

Driving Directions to Ottawa NWR
From I-280 in Toledo, exit 7 to OH-2 east, 15 miles to refuge entrance on left.

For more information, contact Ottawa NWR, 14000 West State Route 2, Oak Harbor, OH 43449, 419-898-0014.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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