Ohio’s Winter Wildlife – Great Places to Visit!

Herring Gull
Herring Gull, Cleveland Lakefront

Signs of an early spring are beginning to show themselves in the Buckeye State. Skunk cabbage is blooming in wet places in southern and central Ohio, comma and mourning cloak butterflies have been seen flying in Shawnee State Forest, and a few red-winged blackbirds and killdeer are staking out their territories in Ohio’s wetlands. On the other hand, a thin layer of ice covered most of the beaver pond in Cuyahoga Valley National Park when I visited on Tuesday morning, the temperature was in the mid-twenties, and heavy rain followed by several inches of new snow is in the forecast for northeast Ohio for the rest of the week. What’s a winter weary wildlife photographer to do?

Ringed-billed Gulls, Shreve Lake, Wayne County, Ohio
Ringed-billed Gulls Fishing, Shreve Lake, Wayne County, Ohio

Although you may be tempted to bide your time and wait for spring to arrive, now is a great time to dust off your camera gear, take advantage of the low gas prices, and head out to the Lake Erie shoreline or one of Ohio’s inland natural areas, where plenty of photogenic wildlife awaits you. This is also an excellent time to reacquaint yourself with your camera and practice your photography skills before spring arrives.

Muskrat, Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, Ottawa County, Ohio
Muskrat, Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, Ottawa County, Ohio

Large numbers of gulls are patrolling the Lake Erie shoreline, together with increasing numbers of migrating waterfowl. Virtually anywhere along Ohio’s Lake Erie shore can be productive; some of my favorite places include the Marblehead area, Sandusky Bay, Lorain Harbor, the Cleveland Lakefront, Eastlake and Fairport Harbors, Lake Erie Bluffs in Lake County, and the harbors at Ashtabula and Conneaut.

Tundra Swans, Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area, Wayne County, Ohio
Tundra Swans, Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area, Wayne County, Ohio

There are more than 100 state wildlife areas in Ohio, including some of the Buckeye State’s largest inland wetlands, which are important staging areas for tundra swans, sandhill cranes, more than twenty species of waterfowl, and over thirty kinds of shorebirds. My favorites include Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area in Wyandot County and, just a twenty minute drive south, Big Island Wildlife Area in Marion County. Two other excellent wetlands for wildlife observation and photography are Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area, about eight miles west of Wooster in Wayne County, and Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area, just south of Wooster in Wayne and Holmes Counties. This area also hosts the annual Shreve Migration Sensation in early March, a one-day event held at Shreve Elementary School that attracts excellent speakers on wildlife topics as well as guided field trips to Killbuck Marsh and Funk Bottoms.

Killdeer, Big Island Wildlife Area, Marion County
Killdeer, Big Island Wildlife Area, Marion County

Some of these wildlife areas cover thousands of acres, and the best way to search for wildlife subjects is to drive the dirt roads in the area, using a map that can be downloaded from the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s website. Wear warm drab clothing and use your vehicle as a blind. I keep a pair of 10×42 binoculars on the front passenger seat of my truck and make frequent stops to scan the fields and marshes for wildlife. The killdeer trio shown above were spotted in one of the pull-offs at Big Island Wildlife Area in Marion County, and I was able to park close enough to photograph them from inside my vehicle, using a Nikon 200-400mm lens on my Nikon D7000.

Male White-winged Crossbill, West Park Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio
Male White-winged Crossbill, West Park Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio

Cemeteries can also be great places to visit, especially those with a large variety of trees and shrubs, which attract a variety of songbirds. The white-winged crossbill pictured above, a winter visitor from Canada, was feasting on sweet gum seeds at West Park Cemetery in Cleveland. Similar places can be found in other Ohio cities, including Woodlawn Cemetery in Toledo, Greenlawn Cemetery in Columbus, and Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati. The local birding hot line will provide information on interesting birds in your area and where they are being seen.

Red Fox, Ashland County, Ohio
Red Fox, Ashland County, Ohio

Ohio also has many wildlife centers where injured animals are rehabilitated prior to being released back into the wild. Most of these centers also have a variety of resident animals whose injuries prevent them from surviving in the wild, and it is sometimes possible to photograph these animals. The red fox shown above, and the great-horned owl shown below, were photographed at a wildlife conservation area in Ashland County.

Great-horned Owl, Ashland County, Ohio
Great-horned Owl, Ashland County, Ohio

The ring-necked pheasant pictured below was seen while driving farm roads in northwest Ohio, and I managed a few quick photos before it scurried off into the grasses.

Ring-necked Pheasant, Ottawa County, Ohio
Ring-necked Pheasant, Ottawa County, Ohio

Finally, one of the benefits of feeding the birds in your back yard is a constant stream of camera-ready critters, including occasional rarities, like the leucistic American goldfinch, pictured below, that visited my bird feeders for several weeks in winter a few years ago.

Leucistic Goldfinch, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
Leucistic Goldfinch, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

Earlier this winter, a Eurasian brambling drew birders to northeast Ohio’s Medina County, where it visited a bird feeder near Allardale Park for many weeks. I wrote about this bird here.

Brambling, Allardale Park, Medina County
Brambling, Allardale Park, Medina County

Detailed information on many of the places described in this article is included in my books, A Photographer’s Guide to Ohio – Volume 1 and 2, available from my website store.

Signs of an early spring are everywhere in the Buckeye State, but don’t ignore the many wildlife photography opportunities in Ohio during winter’s final fling.

 

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