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Birding Along The Cuyahoga River

Prothonotary warbler photographed at Eldon Russell Park [Jean Marie Papoi/ideastream]
Prothonotary warbler photographed at Eldon Russell Park

It’s prime time for birding in Northeast Ohio as many species have arrived from warmer winter spots.

ideastream visited two very different places for bird watching along the Cuyahoga River as part of its series, Cuyahoga River Comeback, commemorating the 50 th anniversary of the infamous fire on the water.

One lesser-known place to visit is Eldon Russell Park in Geauga County, tucked away near the edge of Burton and Troy Township. Once there, launch a kayak or canoe on the Cuyahoga River and cruise for birds.

“We will have cuckoos, hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings… quite a number of the colorful warblers and flycatchers,” said Dan Best, a longtime naturalist with Geauga Park District.

Dan Best paddles on the Cuyahoga River in search of birds [Jean Marie Papoi/ideastream]

On a recent weekday morning, Best traveled the river pointing out several species, including the Prothonotary warbler. It’s a tiny, bright yellow bird.

“They annually nest here in the swamp forest along the river,” Best said.

Prothonotary warbler photographed at Eldon Russell Park [Jean Marie Papoi/ideastream]

Since 1992, Best has placed birdhouses along the river for the Prothonotary warblers in order to prevent other wildlife, like raccoons or wrens, from interfering with nesting. He said the results have been positive with the birdhouses until recent years, which he attributes to a rise in water levels.

“What we’re seeing is with the swamp habitat expanded across the floodplain here the birds have much wider choice and tend to go traditional on me with… abandoned woodpecker holes and knot holes as opposed to my birdhouses,” he said.

Conditions are overall favorable for bird habitat as the area is largely undisturbed. When asked how this section of the river has changed in the past 50 years since the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River, Best said conditions have improved with reforestation, which benefits a variety of birds.

 “It’s a combination of private property ownership along the river as well as the city of Akron for their water supply,” he said. “What it all amounts to is that you have a great deal of undeveloped wild land here.”

Prothonotary warbler photographed at Eldon Russell Park [Jean Marie Papoi/ideastream]

This quiet, picturesque spot on the Cuyahoga is much different from Wendy Park, another popular place for birding, where the river meets Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland.

“It’s an active shipping channel and it’s a very urbanized area, but the connectivity between those areas is really important,” said Andy Jones, curator of ornithology for Cleveland’s Natural History Museum. “For the fish diversity to be high they need to come up and down the river, and a lot of the birds actually depend on that as well.”

Andy Jones standing in front of the Cuyahoga River at Wendy Park [Jean Marie Papoi/ideastream]

On a morning bird walk earlier this month along the river and lakefront, Jones pointed out various species of birds from red-winged blackbirds to starlings to mergansers. Double-crested cormorants put on a show, cruising for breakfast in the river and hanging out on the break wall on the lake.

“We have a nice combination of habitats with green spaces on the lake,” he said.

Cormorants line the break wall on Lake Erie near Wendy Park [Jean Marie Papoi/ideastream]

“They started showing up here in the 80s in bigger numbers as water itself improved,” he said.

50 years ago it would have been rare to see a cormorant here, and now there are arguably too many of them.

“For a long time the Lake Erie waters were really turbid, so it’s hard for them to find prey. We didn't see many cormorants around and then the water started improving thanks to quagga mussels and zebra mussels that were accidentally introduced to the lake. Those mussels are filter feeders that cleaned up the water. They caused lots of other problems because they clog a lot of intakes and do a lot of other damage,” Jones said.

As habitat changes, birds often adapt, including the enduring gull population near the lake, which nests on some downtown buildings and shuttered steel factories, Jones said.

While conditions have improved in the last few decades, there are still many urban challenges for the birds.

Osprey flying at Wendy Park [Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.]

“This is how cities are looking all over the world. We've got sort of this balance of some birds adapting to this new habitat and we have people working to help the birds out in these urban areas as well. But we're never going to completely live in perfect harmony with birds. It's necessary to have active management today. We have species that their existence really relies on human intervention,” Jones said.

Many birders do their part by reporting the species they encounter on eBird, an online database managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Using a mobile app or computer, anyone can be a citizen-scientist and help keep track of the birds.

“I try and make sure as an ornithologist I'm actually seeing a live bird every day,” Jones said. “I try and submit at least one eBird checklist every day.”

Gray Catbird photographed at Wendy Park [Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.]

Interested in birding at these spots? Cleveland Metroparks hosts a birding walk at Wendy Park May 26, 9:30 -11:30 a.m. The Geauga Park District has a canoe trip at Eldon Russell Park June 2, 1- 3 p.m. (reservations required).

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.