Picture Ohio – Summer in the Lake Erie Marshes

Dawn, Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve, Erie County
Dawn, Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve, Erie County

Midsummer is not my favorite time for landscape photography in the Buckeye State. July and August bring daytime highs in the eighties and nineties, usually coupled with high humidity, hazy skies, and an abundance of mosquitoes in wetland areas. As the temperature soars my energy level tends to fall, and the air-conditioned comfort of my basement office is hard to resist. Occasionally, during the dog days of summer, the creative urge overcomes my dislike of hot summer days, and sometimes the effort pays off, as exemplified by the above photograph of dawn along the eastern edge of the Lake Erie marshes, near Huron in Erie County. This vivid sunrise, which occurred in early August, 1999 was so spectacular that for almost  a minute I was too spellbound to take a photograph; fortunately the crimson sky lasted for several minutes, giving me time to set up my Fuji GX680 view camera, loaded with Fujichrome Velvia film, and take several exposures.

When the French explorer Etienne Brule visited the western shoreline of Lake Erie in 1615, he encountered vast marshes and swamp forests that covered more than 300,000 acres between the mouth of the Detroit River in what today is Wayne County, Michigan and Vermilion in what would become Erie County, Ohio. Four hundred years later, more than 90 percent of the Lake Erie marshes have been drained for agriculture, housing developments, marinas, golf courses, and other human purposes. About forty square miles (roughly 25,000 acres) of marshes remain, mostly managed for wildlife and waterfowl hunting.

Swamp Rose Mallows, near Sandusky Bay, Ottawa County
Swamp rose mallows near Sandusky Bay, Ottawa County

One of the most spectacular of the many wildflowers that may be found in the marshes is the swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus palustris), whose pink blossoms, up to six inches across, bloom in July and August. Two excellent places to view swamp rose mallows are along the causeway at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in Ottawa County and at Medusa Marsh along Barrett Road, just east of Bay View in Erie County.

Swamp Rose Mallow and Swamp Milkweed, Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, Ottawa County
Swamp rose mallow and swamp milkweed at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, Ottawa County
Swamp rose mallow & purple loosestrife, Medusa Marsh, Erie County
Swamp rose mallow & purple loosestrife, Medusa Marsh, Erie County

Several years ago, when I took the photograph of Medusa Marsh shown above, the native swamp rose mallow was in danger of being overwhelmed by the visually spectacular but highly invasive purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), which was introduced from Europe and Asia as an ornamental plant in the early 1800s. Each mature purple loosestrife plant may have up to thirty flowering stems capable of producing two to three million seeds during its long flowering season, from June to September. It is illegal to sell fertile varieties of purple loosestrife in Ohio. Even so-called “sterile” cultivars can cross pollinate with wild plants to produce viable seeds, so please DO NOT plant purple loosestrife in your garden!

In the last two decades, considerable success has been achieved in finding ways to control purple loosestrife in wetlands. In addition to systemic herbicides, several species of insects have proved to be very effective, especially Galerucella beetles, which feed on the stems, leaves, and flowers of purple loosestrife. More than 1.5 million Galerucella beetles have been released by the Ohio Division of Wildlife at over thirty sites in the Lake Erie marshes since 1994, with considerable success.

American lotus, Catawba Island, Ottawa County
American lotus, Catawba Island, Ottawa County

American lotus (Nelumbo lutea) is another visually striking aquatic plant that forms large colonies in quiet backwaters of rivers and lakes throughout the Buckeye State. The creamy yellow lotus flowers, up to a foot across and borne on long stems above the water surface, bloom from July through September in Ohio, surrounded by the equally impressive round leaves, up to three feet in diameter, also borne on long stems. The large colonies of lotus leaves provide shelter from predators for immature fish, and the seeds, which look like shower heads, are eaten by waterfowl. The rhizomes are eaten by beavers and muskrats.  American lotus spreads rapidly and sometimes clogs waterways, requiring dredging or other control methods.

American lotus leaves, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Ottawa County
American lotus leaves, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Ottawa County
Swamp rose mallow and American lotus, Little Portage Wildlife Area, Ottawa County
Swamp rose mallow and American lotus, Little Portage Wildlife Area, Ottawa County
Common egrets feeding, Medusa Marsh, Erie County
Great egrets feeding, Medusa Marsh, Erie County

In addition to scenic photographs of summer plants, sunrises and sunsets, there are many opportunities for wildlife photography in summer at the Lake Erie marshes. Large gatherings of wading birds are often seen, like the group of great egrets shown above, feeding on frogs at Medusa Marsh. On warm, sunny days, a stroll along the Crane Creek Bird Trail at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area may reveal an eastern fox snake, pictured below, or a Blanding’s Turtle. More than 200 pairs of bald eagles nested in Ohio in 2014, and the majority of these nests were in the Lake Erie marshes.

Eastern fox snake, Toussaint Wildlife Area, Ottawa County
Eastern fox snake, Toussaint Wildlife Area, Ottawa County

Probably the best place to observe and photograph birds and other wildlife in the Erie marshes is at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, and the adjoining Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area. Together, these refuges encompass nearly 9,500 acres of marshland in Ottawa County, north of State Route 2 and about five miles west of the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station. In spring, these marshes are visited by thousands of birders as part of the Biggest Week in American Birding, which celebrates the northward migration of more than 150 songbird and waterfowl species during early May. Summer is a lot less crowded, and there are many resident birds to be seen. Be sure to visit the Black Swamp Bird Observatory building near the entrance to Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, as well as the Visitor Center at Ottawa National Wildlife Area a mile further west. You may hike several trails along the dikes at Ottawa NWR, and one weekend each month you can drive a one-way, 6-mile Auto Drive through the refuge. The Auto Drive is open from sunrise to sunset, and although you are likely to see wading birds at any time a visit early or late in the day will usually be more productive for wildlife observation and photography, as well as providing better lighting for scenics.

Caspian terns, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge
Caspian terns, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge
Sunrise, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge
Sunrise, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge

Google any of these locations to obtain information on websites with more information on these wild and scenic places in northwest Ohio’s Lake Erie marshes.

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Close Menu