Mentor Marsh Reborn as Birding Paradise

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The month of May is prime birding season along the Lake Erie shore. 

One of the best birding spots in Northeast Ohio is in Lake County where the Cleveland Museum of Natural History has restored a birding boardwalk.

It's known as Wake Robin Trail, located just south of Mentor Headlands in the Mentor Marsh.


Wake Robin Trail boardwalk at Mentor Marsh [Dave DeOreo/ideastream]

Back in the 1960s the museum was in the process of purchasing the 800-plus acres of the marsh to save it from becoming a marina.

In the midst of the campaign to buy the wetland space, it was discovered that refuse from a nearby salt company was polluting the area.

"A football-field sized pile of low grade rock salt got moved from the nearby Morton Salt facility to a creek called Blackbrook," said David Kriska, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's biodiversity coordinator.


David Kriska at Mentor Marsh [Dave DeOreo/ideastream]

At the time the area was a swamp forest filled with trees and marshland.  But the salt killed the plant life.

"The museum's phones went off the hook. 'Hey the marsh is dying, the marsh is dying," Kriska said.


Dead trees in Mentor Marsh from salt pollution, 1967 [courtesy: Cleveland Museum of Natural History]

With the native plants killed off by the salt, a non-native species moved in and took over- a large perennial grass known as phragmites.


Common reed Phragmites australis [courtesy: Cleveland Museum of Natural History]

"It can grow 10 to 15 feet tall and in a few years it basically occupied the entire marsh, totally changed the marsh.  A lot of folks thought that was the death knell," said Harvey Webster, chief wildlife officer for CMNH.


CMNH's Harvey Webster, Becky Donaldson  and David Kriska [Dave DeOreo/ideastream]

Over time the phragmites became not just an eyesore but a fire hazard as well.

"It created a perfect tinderbox.  The marshes burned about a dozen times with large fires.  The last big one was in 2003," Kriska said.

That 2003 fire burned the museum's Wake Robin Trail boardwalk in the middle of the marsh.


Mentor Marsh after 2003 fire [courtesy: Cleveland Museum of Natural History]

The boardwalk's destruction and subsequent rebuild gave the museum an opportunity to restore the native plant population.

"We had to replace this 86-thousand-dollar boardwalk and we were like 'why don't we push these phragmites back away from the boardwalk?" Kriska said.

The next year, the native plants popped up where the phragmites once were.


Mentor Marsh from Wake Robin Trail Boardwalk [Dave DeOreo/ideastream]

"That's that Phoenix rising from the ashes moment, that a-ha where we were like, 'Hey there's some hope here,'" Kriska said.

Using amphibious vehicles known as marsh masters CMNH staff squashed the phragmites down and used an herbicide to kill off most of the invasive grass.

Today, 15 years later, the phragmites are almost gone and the original plants native to the area have returned.


David Kriska and Becky Donaldson at Mentor Marsh [Dave DeOreo/ideastream]

A variety of birds now occupy the marsh both as permanent residents and migrating visitors.


Red-winged Blackbird at Mentor Marsh [Harvey Webster/CMNH]

"You can hear a whole variety of birds that are occupying this wetland," Webster said.


Virginia Rail at Mentor Marsh [Harvey Webster/CMNH]

Red-winged Blackbirds, Great Egrets, Green Herons, Killdeer and Virginia Rails all coexist with muskrats, water snakes and painted turtles in the revitalized marsh.


Green Heron at Mentor Marsh [Harvey Webster/CMNH]

"It's a natural area, a nature preserve but its embedded right in the middle of the largest city in Lake County - the city of Mentor," Webster said.


Mentor Marsh from Wake Robin Trail [Harvey Webster/CMNH]

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History's Mentor Marsh State Nature Preserve is located at 5185 Corduroy Road in Mentor, Ohio.

 

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