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Lake Erie Marsh Region

Site Facts

Country, State, Province/Region:

Ohio and Michigan, United States

Relative Location:

Site is at the western end of Lake Erie in Erie, Sandusky, Ottawa, and Lucas counties of Ohio and Monroe county of Michigan.


Bounded by 41 45'N, 82 34'W; 41 24'N, 83 31'W;  41 45'N, 83 29'W; 42 01'N,83 16'W. 



Basis for Designation:

More than 20,000 shorebirds annually.


16,187 hectares (40,000 acres)


September 2000

Site Owner/Steward:

First Energy Corporation, Michigan Dept of Natural Resources, Ohio Division of Wildlife,  The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Site Partners:


Human Population within 100 km:



Julie Shieldcastle
Conservation Director
Black Swamp Bird Observatory

Ron Huffman
Wildlife Biologist
Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge


"The Lake Erie marshes are the most important stopover sites between Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas and Delaware Bay on the east coast."

-Black Swamp Bird Observatory

DUNL on Lake Erie, USFWS

The Lake Erie Marsh Region makes up the wetland components and associated uplands of what is left of the Great Black Swamp. The area extends from Huron, Ohio to the mouth of the Detroit River in Michigan. Once totaling over 300,000 acres, the wetland habitats consist of less than 40,000 acres today. Ownership is very diverse. Principle wetlands consist of federal lands (Ottawa and Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuges), state lands (Mallard Club, Metzger Marsh, Little Portage, Pickerel Creek, Willow Point, Pipe Creek, and Magee Marsh State Wildlife Areas; Point Moullie State Game Area; and Sheldon's Marsh State Nature Preserve) and private ownership. Magee Marsh Wildlife area is also home to the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, a research, education, and outreach organization active in Northwest Ohio and an important site partner.

The Lake Erie marshes provide a consistent habitat during both spring and fall migration for all groups of migrating birds utilizing wetland habitats. Shorebird usage is heavily dependent on annual habitat availability and annual management of the region's wetlands. It is unknown if shorebirds utilizing interior migration sites represent a subsample of shorebird populations, differential age movement, or separate geographic origin populations of arctic breeding species. 

A total of 38 species of shorebirds have been reported on surveys since 1993. For more general information on a particular species, please consult the Species Conservation Plans

Habitat usage has categorized into five basic types. Beach shorebirds tend to be specialist and include Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, and Piping Plover. Dry-mudflat specialists in the region include Baird's Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, the large plovers, and Killdeer. Moist-mudflat species include the small peeps, Pectoral Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Red Knot, and Common Snipe. Shallow-water shorebirds include the yellowlegs, Dunlin, dowitchers, and Willet. Deep-water species include the palaropes, Whimbrel, godwits, Stilt Sandpiper and American Avocet. Black Swamp Bird Observatory has been doing shorebird surveys in northwest Ohio for years. Several years' worth of annual reports on these surveys can be found HERE by scrolling down to "Shorebird migration studies."

The wetland habitats of the Lake Erie Marsh Region are predominately preserved by man-made dikes designed to protect the vegetation from high lake levels. Wildlife diversity is the primary goal of government owned lands. Normal practices include spring drawdown of wetlands to expose soils for seed germination of native wetland plants. These units provide spring migration habitat for shorebirds during their passage. Natural mudflats are also created by the varying water levels of Lake Erie itself. Lake Erie has a natural seiche effect that results in water level changes from inches to 10 feet in a 24 hour period depending on wind direction and intensity. This creates extremely transitory habitat conditions that can be utilized by migrating shorebirds.

Black Swamp Bird Observatory has an excellent reference on the timing of Fall Shorebird Migration including general patterns and information for specific species.

Ecology & Conservation


Sections from the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Complex Comprehensive Conservation Plan applicable to shorebirds:

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service completed the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan in September 2000. The comprehensive conservation plan is intended to outline how the Refuge will fulfill its legal purpose and contribute to the National Wildlife Refuge System's wildlife, habitat and public use goals. The plan articulates management goals for the next 15 years and specifies the objectives and strategies needed to accomplish these goals. While the planned future condition is long-term, we anticipate that the plan will be updated every 5 to 10 years based on information gained through monitoring habitat and wildlife, as well as recreational usage.


Located east of Toledo, Ohio, on the southwestern shore of Lake Erie, the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Complex provides critical wetland habitats for a diversity of wildlife, fish and plants. As a major migration corridor, the area is vital to migratory birds including waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors and songbirds that need rest and food either after crossing Lake Erie on their way south or before they head back north over the water.


The Ottawa Refuge Complex and nearby Lake Erie shoreline serves as an important spring and fall migration stopover for a variety of shorebirds. According to Black Swamp Bird Observatory records, the peak time for spring shorebird migration arrivals is April 11-20. Common snipe, greater yellowlegs, killdeer and pectoral sandpipers are among the species commonly seen during this time period. Peak arrival times for dunlin, semi-palmated plover and black-bellied plover are May 11-31. Fall migrations begin in mid-July and continue through early November. It is not uncommon to see a great variety of shorebirds well into October if the weather is mild and winds shift directions frequently. Shifting wind patterns typically dry out the western basin of Lake Erie, creating mudflats that are ideal for shorebird feeding

Wetland Management

Managed wetland impoundments (units) are the primary habitat type encountered at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Refuge wetlands are managed to provide high quality food and cover for migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, and other wetland-dependent wildlife species. Permanent and semi-permanent marshes of cattails, bulrush, and other emergent vegetation as well as a variety of submergent vegetation provides habitat for a variety of species. These areas also provide foods in the form of seeds, roots, tubers, and aquatic invertebrates. Management is directed at keeping these marshes in a highly productive state by simulating the natural cycle of water level changes which in turn stimulates good aquatic vegetation growth and a variety of plant and animal species within these marshes. Marshes are managed to provide a mixture of open water, submergent and emergent vegetation communities. A mixture of communities provides diverse habitat, which wildlife need for feeding and resting as well as courtship and reproduction.

Special Information



The Biggest Week in American Birding

From the website's FAQ:

Q: What is the Biggest Week in American Birding?

A: Organized and hosted by Black Swamp Bird Observatory, The “Biggest Week" is a 10-day festival featuring some of the best birding North America has to offer. If you are anywhere else in the world in mid-May, you are in the wrong place. Think about it: A 10-day birding event featuring workshops, guided birding activities, half-day birding bus tours, keynote speakers, and more. Among the myriad of events offered during the festival are workshops, Woodcock Extravaganzas to observe the extraordinary displays of these woodland shorebirds, daily walks at the world famous Magee Marsh boardwalk and other area birding hotspots, evening keynote presentations, birding by ear workshops, and presentations on world birding. On top of all of that, birding guru Kenn Kaufman will be teaching several bird identification classes!



Lake Erie Shorebirds:
Stuck in the Mud... Peeps and Probers

from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.


Julie Shieldcastle


Conservation Director
Black Swamp Bird Observatory


Ron Huffman

Wildlife Biologist
Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge


Additional Resouces