Huron, on Lake Erie, is a bird-watcher's paradise
December 6, 2015
HURON, Ohio — I recently traveled to the Lake Erie town of Huron, population 7,000. Huron, which was voted one of “America’s Coolest Small Towns” for 2015 by Budget Travel magazine, is the epicenter of Erie County bird-watching.
Our second-smallest county is probably best-known as the birthplace of Thomas Alva Edison and the home of Cedar Point. It also hosts a remarkable suite of Lake Erie bird-watching hot spots.
Bookending Huron is Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve and Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve. Three miles downstream on the Huron River is another state nature preserve, DuPont Marsh.
My destination was yet another hot spot, the municipal pier at the confluence of the Huron River and Lake Erie in the middle of town. The half-mile-long pier’s terminus puts observers in a fantastic location to spot birds.
November and December brings the most birds to Huron. The concentrations of red-breasted mergansers can be staggering. One-day estimates of these fish-eating ducks can range into the tens of thousands. Massive flocks resemble storm clouds scudding over Lake Erie.
The mergansers are joined by thousands of gulls, most notably Bonaparte’s gulls. They’re there for the fish, too. Lake Erie’s abundant fishery accounts for most of late fall and early winter’s avian bounty. Emerald shiners and gizzard shad probably form the bulk of the food base.
My fellow observers and I noted hundreds of common loons near the river mouth. They were accompanied by hundreds of horned grebes, another diving fish eater.
Birders love to find rare birds, and Huron has an amazing track record. At least three first state records have been found, and lesser rarities are almost to be expected on a good day.
My trip was successful on the rarity front. Best was a Pacific loon found by Robert Hershberger, an Amish optics vendor and ace birder. The first recorded sighting of the bird in Ohio was in this same spot in 1985, and only a handful have been reported since.
We saw three jaegers, which are Arctic-nesting gull-like birds that pirate fish from other birds. Both white-winged and black scoters landed nearby, offering good looks. Sometimes dozens or even hundreds of these sea ducks can be seen here. At day’s end, I found an eared grebe in the river. Only a few turn up in Ohio each year.
In terms of sheer spectacle, the red-breasted mergansers stole the show. At one point, a feed swarm numbering over 10,000 birds stretched for perhaps a quarter-mile just offshore. Many other flocks, large and small, continually passed by in the distance.
Lake Erie is an incredibly rich biological hot spot, and the birds bear this out. I hope we can do a better job of caring for it.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blog spot.com.