Exploring the Trail
Tremendous numbers and diversity of migrant songbirds fill lakeside woodlands in spring and fall. Waterbirds galore pack marshes and the open lake waters, and interesting marsh birds breed in coastal wetlands. Winter brings hardy northern ducks, gulls, and raptors. There is never a dull season.
The sites included in the Lake Erie Birding Trail are the best of the best, and collectively nearly 400 species have been seen in these areas. There is a wealth of information for each site, and we hope that our trail helps to make your visit to Ohio and Lake Erie a bird-filled adventure!
The Lake Erie Birding Trail is divided into seven loops. The sites within each loop are similar in habitat type and landscape. You may choose to visit the entire trail in one trip or explore the trail loop by loop.
Birding Lake Erie
Get ready for your Lake Erie, Ohio birding adventure by reviewing these birding basics. Over time, and with practice, you will feel comfortable with your identification and birding technique.
Taking to the Field
Learning Ohio’s birds can be a daunting task for greenhorns. Well over 400 species have been recorded thus far, and that’s a lot of birds! But most birds are easily identified and new birders quickly master recognition of most birds that they see. Arriving at a correct identification is largely a process of elimination that involves placing the mystery bird into increasingly smaller groups, thus narrowing the possibilities. After all, it’s pretty easy to tell that an American Wigeon is not a songbird and that eliminates nearly half of all possible species. Even the newest birder will quickly be able to place the wigeon amongst the waterfowl and from there it should be a simple matter to determine its specific identity.
And so it goes for nearly all of our birds. There are exceptions. Gulls, for example, can be very tricky to identify and some individuals can leave even the experts baffled. Distant raptors in flight and sandpipers are always regular sources of confusion for less experienced birders. For the relatively few groups of birds that are problematic to identify, there is no substitute for field experience. Good bird guides aid considerably in understanding their identification, but confidence in their recognition will come primarily with direct experience.
Familiarity with a species’ typical occurrence is very helpful. Probably not a winter passes without someone reporting a Broad-winged Hawk. A quick check of an Ohio reference book should reveal that this species is highly migratory and there are no winter records. Such information can help direct the observer to investigate more likely candidates. We have provided a comprehensive checklist of all known species that have been recorded along the Lake Erie Birding Trail, along with seasonal occurrence statuses and annotated notes for each. This information cannot only help with fine-tuning identifications, but is also a tool for knowing when to look for targeted species.
The best birders are those who not only can recognize a bird visually, but also know their vocalizations. Most people are visual learners and have a much harder time learning sounds. Birders who know songs and calls will find WAY more birds, though. Treetop singers such as Cerulean Warblers rarely reveal themselves, but if one knows their song and can thus pinpoint the singer, it is much easier to track it down for a look. That’s also true of many marsh birds. An early morning marsh can be a cacophony of strange sounds: Common Gallinules, Pied-billed Grebes, Marsh Wrens, Swamp Sparrows, Sora, Virginia Rail, and perhaps a bittern or two. Knowing their various calls brings order to the acoustic chaos and makes one’s understanding and appreciation of wetlands much greater.
Help us protect what we all treasure. Consider these guidelines for visiting Lake Erie birding spots without harming their futures. Thank you, and enjoy your exploration.
- For your protection, as well as for the protection of the environment, always follow designated trials and paths.
- Please respect private property that is adjacent to public lands.
- While driving a car or golf cart along island roads, be careful to avoid reptiles and amphibians which frequently cross the road.
- Leave flowers, shells, nuts, and animals for others to enjoy. Sometimes even touching a fragile plant is enough for its demise.
- Birds and animals sense disturbances to their nesting sites and may abandon their young if a threat is perceived. Please stay a considerable distance from nests and dens.
- Use binoculars or zoom lenses to get up close and personal. Never knowingly disturb wildlife by getting too close, moving abruptly, or speaking loudly.
- Avoid chasing or repeatedly flushing birds.
- Obey state and federal regulations. You will be prosecuted for venturing beyond signs posted “Endangered Species Nesting Area – Trespassing Unlawful.”
- Migratory birds need peaceful areas to rest and refuel before continuing their journeys. Keep disturbances to a minimum. An international treaty, as well as state and federal laws, protects migratory birds.
- Be careful not to point optics toward people or houses. Keep voices low and vehicle noise to a minimum before 9 a.m.
- Look, but never touch. Lake Erie water snakes may be fascinating and non-venomous, but they are quick to bite curious hands.
- Express gratitude to individuals and businesses that go out of their way to accommodate your interest and needs in the natural world.
- Wear binoculars and carry your field identification guides everywhere! It’s the best way to share the economic importance of our resources.
- Divide large groups of people into smaller groups. Smaller groups are less disturbing to wildlife.
- Use bird calls, tape recordings of calls, or other devices sparingly. They can disturb breeding and drive birds from territories.
- Some of the areas cherished by birders are also cherished by waterfowl hunters. It is important to share the field with these outdoor enthusiasts during Ohio's hunting seasons.
The American Birding Association (ABA) offers a Code of Ethics for all birders to follow. Familiarize yourself with these principles before heading to the woods or wetlands.
Code of Ethics - Summarized from the ABA
- Support the protection of important bird habitat
- To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming
- Before advertising the presence of a rare bird, evaluate the potential for disturbance to the bird, its surroundings, and other people in the area, and proceed only if access can be controlled, disturbance can be minimized, and permission has been obtained from private landowners
- Do not enter private property without the owner’s explicit permission
- Respect the interests, rights, and skills of fellow birders, as well as those of people participating in other legitimate outdoor activities
- Keep groups to a size that limits impacts on the environment and does not interfere with others using the same area
Weather & Birds
Weather conditions have a profound influence on birds. Birders will do well to pay attention to weather, and thus optimize the chances of finding the most birds and the best birding.
Weather & Travel Links
- National Weather Service Marine Forecast
- National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- The Weather Channel
- Ohio Tourism
- Ohio Department of Transportation
Weather's Influence on Birds
Weather conditions have a profound influence on birds. Birders will do well to pay attention to weather, and thus optimize the chances of finding the most birds and the best birding.
It is also prudent to be weather-aware in a region such as the Great Lakes, which is renowned for volatile weather and abrupt changes in conditions. The eastern end of Lake Erie, from Cleveland to Conneaut, is a renowned “snow belt.” Heavy winter snows can crop up with little warning, making travel perilous. It’s not much fun seeking birds if you aren’t prepared for the elements.
Oftentimes, the worst weather for people to endure is the best for finding birds. For instance, frigid blustery days in November, with north winds roaring off Lake Erie, is frequently the best weather for finding unusual birds. These are the conditions to watch the lake from select vantage points, and look for jaegers, scoters, or perhaps a Harlequin Duck. Thanks to systematic aerial surveys of the open waters of Lake Erie, we know that many species migrate well offshore and often can’t be seen from shoreline observers. For instance, some of these aerial surveys in November might tally well over 100 Common Loons, while shoreline observers might only note a handful of loons during the same period. Strong northerly winds seem to push birds near shore, where they are visible to birders on land.
When Lake Erie crusts over with ice and temperatures plummet well below freezing, power plant warm water outlets can provide fabulous birding. Such sites are often the only consistent areas of open water, and hardy species such as Greater Scaup, Common Merganser, Common Goldeneye, and many species of gulls, can be numerous. The open leads behind the Avon Lake Power Plant can be packed with ducks and gulls, and a careful searcher is often rewarded with uncommon Arctic species such as Glaucous and Iceland gulls. But the observer is liable to have to tolerate single digit temps and icy winds in the face, so be prepared.
Tremendous migrations of raptors – birds of prey – can occur both spring and fall along the shores of Lake Erie. Strong southerly winds are best for finding big numbers of birds in spring; winds from the north tend to produce the best flights in fall. Even though checklists and other references might note that the peak of Broad-winged Hawk migration occurs throughout September, it’s often only one or a few days that experience the greatest numbers. Typically, strong northwest winds on the heels of a cold front push through large numbers of Broad-winged Hawks and other raptors. Raptors take advantage of thermals – strong upwellings of air – as riding these “waves” of air allows them to expend less energy. As thermals don’t form very well over the open lake waters, the raptors tend to hug the shoreline where there is more thermal activity.
The southern shore of Lake Erie is known for producing spectacular “fallouts” of spring songbird migrants. Such days are unforgettable, as lakeside patches of woodland can be filled with hundreds or thousands of vireos, warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks, flycatchers and others. Even though there is a parade of different species of songbird migrants passing through the Lake Erie region from March through May, we are lucky to see one or two good fallouts each year. The atmospheric condition that can create spectacular fallouts is typically the first warm push of southerly winds after a period of cool weather characterized by northerly breezes.
Birdwatching is one of the most popular forms of nature-based tourism. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, an estimated 71.8 million Americans enjoy wildlife watching, and 46.7 million people in this group self-identify as birders. Collectively, wildlife watchers spend about $55 billion annually. Nationwide, birder expenditures total nearly $36 billion, and related industry benefits magnify this to about $82 billion in overall economic impact.
There are an estimated 3.2 million wildlife-watchers in Ohio, and bird enthusiasts comprise an estimated 1.6 million of this total. Wildlife watchers as a whole spend nearly $750 million annually in the state. Each year about 120,000 out-of-state-birders visit Ohio, with Lake Erie the most popular destination. A recent study by Bowling Green State University researchers targeted five Lake Erie birding hotspots, all of which are part of this trail (see go.osu.edu/birding). They determined that birders visiting these areas contributed more than $26 million to local economies. Money is spent on lodging, gasoline, travel expenses, and food.
As the numbers of birders and other wildlife-watchers continue to grow, it is important that local businesses realize the impact that these visitors have on their bottom line. As a birder, you can help to grow awareness of the importance of birding to Ohio’s economy. Tear out the Lake Erie Birding Trail Calling Cards elsewhere in this book and leave them at restaurants, hotels, and even gas stations that you visit during your time along Lake Erie. Make sure that these places know you spent time and money at their establishment because you are a birder.
Source: U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau. 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Xie, Philip, F. 2012, Socio-economic Impacts of Birdwatching along Lake Erie: A Coastal Ohio Analysis, made available by Ohio Sea Grant as OHSU-TS-061.
Ohio Birding Resources
One of the best ways to get involved with birding is to join a group of like-minded people. Fortunately, Ohio has a number of active groups throughout the state that have many birders as members, and most of these organizations host field trips regularly.
Listed below are the names of many of the state’s birding groups, along with publications and education resources that may be of use.
In addition, visit the American Birding Association's website for much more on birding.
- Appalachian Front Audubon Society (South-central Ohio)
- Audubon Ohio (Statewide)
- Audubon Society of Greater Cleveland
- Audubon Society of Ohio (Cincinnati area)
- Audubon Society/Mahoning Valley
- Audubon Miami Valley (Butler County area)
- Blackbrook Audubon Society (Lake County area)
- Black River Audubon Society (Elyria/Lorain area)
- Black Swamp Audubon Society (Defiance area)
- Black Swamp Bird Observatory (Northwest Ohio)
- Canton Audubon Society (Canton area)
- Cincinnati Bird Club (Cincinnati area)
- Clark County Audubon Society (Springfield area)
- Columbus Audubon (Columbus area)
- Aullwood Audubon Society (Dayton area)
- East Central Audubon Society (Newark area)
- Firelands Audubon Society (Sandusky area)
- Greater Akron Audubon Society (Akron area)
- Greater Mohican Audubon Society (Mansfield area)
- Kelleys Island Audubon Club (Lake Erie islands)
- Kirtland Bird Club (Cleveland area)
- Ohio Bluebird Society (Statewide)
- Ohio Division of Wildlife
- Ohio State University Sea Grant
- Ohio Ornithological Society (Statewide)
- Ohio Young Birders Club
- Scioto Valley Bird and Nature Club (Chillicothe area)
- Shawnee Nature Club (Portsmouth area)
- Toledo Naturalists’ Association (Toledo area)
- Tri-Moraine Audubon Society (Lima area)
- Western Cuyahoga Audubon Society
- Black Swamp Bird Observatory Field Checklist
- Checklist of Birds of Magee Marsh (Division of Wildlife)
- Checklist of Birds of Ohio (Division of Wildlife)
- Lake Erie Public Access Guide [link coming soon!]
- Ohio Birds Mailing List
- Ohio Wildlife Field Guides
- Ohio Ornithological Society Checklists
- Bird Education Network
- Flying WILD
- Project WILD
- Ohio Division of Wildlife Conservation Education Programs
Great Lakes Facts
The five Great Lakes – Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Superior – contain about 20% of the world’s fresh water. Learning more about this unique area will help you to appreciate your time at Lake Erie.
Lake Erie is one of the five Great Lakes, bordering New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario. Ohio's entire, 312-mile north coast is bounded by this lake. Northern Ohio and Lake Erie are top spots for birding, fishing, watersports, and even searching for shipwrecks.
- The five Great Lakes – Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Superior – contain about 20% of the world’s fresh water.
- A drop of water that enters the upper end of Lake Superior will travel through that lake, exiting via the St. Marys River into lakes Huron and Michigan. From there the droplet will eventually flow into the St. Clair River, into Lake St. Clair, and then into the Detroit River and Lake Erie. The water drop will leave Lake Erie by way of the Niagara River, drop over Niagara Falls, and enter Lake Ontario. From there, it will enter the St. Lawrence River and eventually exit into the Atlantic Ocean. The water droplet’s journey through the Great Lakes will take approximately 320 years!
- The five Great Lakes collectively cover about 95,000 square miles of surface area – an area roughly equivalent to the states of New York and Ohio. The total shoreline of the Great Lakes is 10,900 miles – about the distance from Toledo, Ohio to Perth, Australia!
- If the contents of all five Great Lakes were suddenly released, the water would cover the lower forty-eight states to a depth of about nine feet.
- There are about 35,000 islands in the Great Lakes, and most of them are in Lake Huron. The world’s largest island in a freshwater lake is Huron’s Manitoulin Island, and it harbors the world’s largest freshwater lake on an island.
- Lake Ontario is the smallest Great Lake by surface area, but Lake Erie is the smallest by volume. Because of its much greater depth, Ontario could swallow the contents of three Lake Eries.
- Lake Superior is by far the largest of the Great Lakes. It is the world’s 2nd largest freshwater lake, after Lake Baikal (The Caspian Sea is also larger, but it is brackish). Superior is 1,332 feet deep at its deepest, and it could hold all of the other Great Lakes plus three extra Lake Eries!
- Lake Erie is the 12th largest freshwater lake in the world and holds 116 cubic miles of water. Its average depth is 62 feet – shallowest of the Great Lakes - and the greatest depth is 210 feet. The lake is 241 miles long, and 57 miles across at its widest point.
- Because Erie is so shallow, it is prone to developing extremely rough waters very quickly during storms. As a consequence, it is the resting place for about 1,150 shipwrecks – one of the densest concentrations of any water body in the world.
- Lake Erie harbors world class yellow perch and walleye fisheries, which generate approximately $1.1 billion annually.
- Lake Erie and its associated habitats are among the most bird-rich ecosystems in the United States. Large numbers of migrants pass through, and bird species that use Lake Erie radiate out to every country in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
The first checklist of Ohio birds was published by Jared Kirtland in 1838, and included 222 species. In 1968, ornithologist Milton B. Trautman produced a list reporting 344 naturally occurring species. Bruce Peterjohn’s book Birds of Ohio appeared in 1987 and included 387 species. The Ohio state checklist currently stands at 425 species, and it will keep growing. One or two new birds are added to the Ohio list each year on average. The following species have been reported in adjacent states multiple times, but have not yet appeared in Ohio. Lake Erie and its immediate environs have produced an inordinate number of first state record birds. Keep your binoculars clean and your eyes peeled!
- Ash-throated Flycatcher
- Band-rumped Storm-Petre
- Band-tailed Pigeon
- Black-chinned Hummingbird
- Broad-billed Hummingbird
- Chestnut-collared Longspur
- Ferruginous Hawk
- Fork-tailed Flycatcher
- Great Cormorant
- Gull-billed Tern
- Inca Dove
- Lewis’s Woodpecker
- Roseate Tern
- Sage Thrasher
- Slaty-backed Gull
- Virginia’s Warbler
- White-tailed Kite
- Yellow-billed Loon
The Ohio Division of Wildlife is charged with conserving and improving fish and wildlife resources and their habitats for sustainable use and appreciation by all. The primary source of funding for wildlife management, education, and outreach in Ohio, including the Lake Erie Birding Trail website, comes from the sale of hunting and fishing license, federal excise taxes on hunting, fishing, and shooting equipment, and donations from the public. You can also purchase an Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp to show your dedication to our state's future. Thank you for your support as we strive to balance the needs of wildlife, habitat, and people for everyone’s enjoyment.