Mentor Marsh Reborn as Birding Paradise
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
"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.
A variety of birds now occupy the marsh both as permanent residents and migrating visitors.
"You can hear a whole variety of birds that are occupying this wetland," Webster said.
Red-winged Blackbirds, Great Egrets, Green Herons, Killdeer and Virginia Rails all coexist with muskrats, water snakes and painted turtles in the revitalized marsh.
"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.