SITE: Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Oak Harbor, Ohio
Habitat Restoration in the Maumee Area of Concern
By: James Cole and Jennifer Thieme, The Nature Conservancy, 29 July 2013
Intended Migratory Bird Outcomes
This project will provide 512 acres of critical stopover habitat for neotropical-nearctic migrants, shorebirds, waterfowl, and raptors as they concentrate near and migrate across Lake Erie.
The biologically productive coastal systems of Lake Erie provide critical stopover habitat to spectacular congregations of neotropical-nearctic migrants, shorebirds, waterfowl, and raptors; however, the western Lake Erie landscape has lost nearly 95% of these valuable marshes due to anthropogenic alterations in the last 200 years (Bookhout et al. 1989). Extensive ditching and draining, conversion to agriculture, and modified sedimentation patterns continue to threaten this coastal system, further reducing the amount of habitat available for both wetland and upland natural communities. Additionally, greater peak intensity of storms, a predicted result of climate change (Wuebbles and Hayhoe 2004), are likely to increase stress on these systems from non-point source pollution. Restoration is therefore essential to ensure the health and resilience of this stopover habitat.
In 1961, the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge was established to provide habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds, resident wildlife, and endangered and threatened species. The Refuge now exceeds 6,500 acres, including both restored habitats, such as emergent marshes and native prairies, and unrestored agricultural lands. A major component of this project included the conversion of 171 acres of these agricultural lands (hereafter, Blausey unit) to emergent marsh and reconnecting them to Lake Erie surface hydrology. Other project priorities included the native reseeding of wet meadows, reforestation of 80 acres of forest, invasive plant species removal, reconnecting 80 acres of emergent marsh to Lake Erie hydrology, and monitoring biological changes related to these actions. This summary will primarily focus on the restoration of the Blausey unit, expected to benefit state or federally listed species, such as America bittern, black tern, king rail, piping plover, and trumpeter swan, in addition to migrating birds.
Restoration Plan, Project Summary, And Results
Project development and funding sources
The 171-acre Blausey tract’s location adjacent to the Toussaint River and less than three miles from Lake Erie rendered it prime potential habitat not only for migrating birds, but also spawning fish. In 2011, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife service collaborated to establish project details and examine potential funding sources. Wildlife habitat and water quality improvements at this site, combined with restoration at several other sites, aligned well with the goals of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Nature Conservancy submitted a proposal to NOAA and was awarded $1,306,520 to lead the project beginning fall 2011. Match was provided by TNC in the form of unrecovered indirect costs and contractual expenses for invasive plant treatment. The bulk of the award amount was sub-awarded to Ducks Unlimited for project engineering and construction management. The entire project would enhance 512 acres of coastal wetland and associated upland through a combination of native reseeding, reforestation, contouring, invasive plant removal, and installation of water control structures, and was slated for completion within 24 months.
Blausey wetland restoration
The first step to restoring the Blausey unit was to take the 100 acres currently in row crops out of production. Next, Duck Unlimited provided topographic surveys, engineering and design, and management for construction activities. Drainage tiles were severed to prevent water from being funneled directly off the property. A pump system was installed between the Blausey unit and an adjacent agricultural ditch to allow managers to pump water from the ditch into the unit before reaching the Toussaint. Because the unit is at a higher elevation than the Toussaint River and agricultural ditch, the pumps were necessary to provide the ability to manage water levels. Additionally, directing water from the ditch through the wetland prior to reaching the Toussaint allows nutrients and sediments to filter out along the way, ultimately improving the quality of water reaching the Toussaint. The levee between the Blausey unit and the Toussaint was breached, and a fish passage added to allow both water and nutrient exchange. The fish passage includes a ladder that allows fish to access the wetland even when the Toussaint water level falls below that of Blausey. Carp grates were included to minimize the risk of carp accessing the new wetland. To retain the water within the unit, the western perimeter of the unit was also elevated.
The construction process began soon after the funds were awarded in late 2011, and enhancements were complete by the early months of 2013. A seiche (wind) event in April 2013 flushed water from Lake Erie up the Toussaint and into the newly restored Blausey wetland. Almost all of the 100 acres that were in agriculture production a few years ago were flooded with up to three feet of water. The positive response of the biological community, including avian migrants, was apparent almost immediately through standardized monitoring efforts.
Biological monitoring was conducted prior to construction in 2012 and is continuing through 2013: birds and amphibians are surveyed within the unit, fish are monitored within the Toussaint River and Blausey wetland, and water quality samples are gathered from the wetland and intake ditch. Twenty-one species of birds were detected on Blausey during 2012. Most species were old-field and openland birds such as red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, song sparrow, and yellow warbler; only 4% of birds observed were waterfowl or shorebirds. In 2013, 82% of birds observed during breeding season surveys were waterfowl and shorebirds, such as great egrets, great blue heron, pied-billed grebe, and solitary sandpipers. Additionally, hundreds of waterfowl and shorebirds were observed in utilizing the unit during migration season.
Additional restoration units
In addition to the 171-acre Blausey restoration, this project included work at four other locations. Small scrapes were dug out within the 33-acre Kontz tract to retain standing water during spring migration, and the entire unit was reseeded with native wet meadow species (Table A). Ducks Unlimited provided engineering and construction management to install water control structures and a pump to the 180-acre Moist Soil Unit 2. This unit will also be planted with 30 acres of native tree and shrub saplings (Table B) to enhance habitat for landbirds of conservation concern, such as black-billed cuckoo, rusty blackbird, and willow flycatcher. Futhermore, 53 acres were taken out of row crop production and will be replanted to upland forest. Williams Forestry and Associates was selected through a rigorous bidding process to conduct the reforestation work. Species planted in the wet meadow and reforestation tracts were deemed suitable for the area both now and in a changing climate by National Wildlife Federation models. Two adjacent but hydrologically separate wetland units will be also connected via a large culvert, effectively reconnecting 70 acres of coastal wetland (Pool 2a) to Lake Erie hydrology. Ducks Unlimited is leading design and construction management for this work in addition to their other responsibilities described above. The Nature Conservancy also contracted with the Lake Erie Cooperative Weed Management Area and FDC Enterprises, Inc. to remove 130 acres of invasive plants in 2012; additional invasive removal is slated for later years.
During the project’s 24-month span, the Blausey and Kontz unit tasks were completed, and only the reforestation objectives remained to be realized at Helle and Moist Soil Unit 2. The project is now in its one-year extension period to allow this reforestation to occur at the most optimal time seasonally. Additionally, because bids for construction at Pool 2a were much higher than anticipated, this extension allows Ducks Unlimited to seek lower-cost alternatives for connecting Pool 2a with Lake Erie hydrology.
Native seed mix selected for wet meadow seeding, suitable for a changing climate.
- Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus)
- Carex Spp. (Carex Spp.)
- Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
- Nodding Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis)
- Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)
- Bluejoint Grass (Calamagrostis canadensis)
- Brown Fox Sedge (Carex vulpinoidea)
- Gray’s Sedge (Carex grayi)
- Shallow/Lurid Sedge (Carex lurida)
- Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum)
- Ox Eye Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
- Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)
- Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
- Roundheaded Bushclover (Lespedeza capitata)
- Showy Tick Trefoil (Desmodium canadense)
- Hairy Sunflower (Helianthus mollis)
- Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)
- Smooth Aster (Aster laevis)
- Prairie Blazingstar (Liatris pycnostachya)
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
- Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida)
- Nodding Wild Onion (Allium cernuum)
- Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
- White Wild Indigo (Baptisia alba (macrophylla))
- Common Rush (Juncus effusus)
- Early Goldenrod (Solidago juncea)
- Sawtooth Sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus)
- New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae)
- Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina)
- Woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus)
- Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii)
- Virginia Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum)
- Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis)
- Monkey Flower (Mimulus ringens)
- Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
Native tree and shrub species selected for upland reforestation, suitable for a changing climate.
- American Hophornbeam Carpinus caroliniana
- Shagbark hickory Carya ovata
- Eastern Hophornbeam Ostrya virginiana
- Sycamore Platanus occidentalis
- Bur Oak Quercus macrocarpa
- Northern red oak Quercus rubra
- American Basswood Tilia americana
- Red maple Acer rubrum
- American Beech Fagus grandifolia
- Black Walnut Juglans nigra
- Black Gum Nyssa sylvatica
- Black Cherry Prunus serotina
- White Oak Quercus alba
- Slippery elm Ulmus rubra
- Sugar Maple Acer saccharum
- Ohio Buckeye Aesculus glabra
- Honey locust Gleditsia triacanthos
Bookhout, T.A., K. E. Bednarik, and R. W. Kroll. 1989. The Great Lakes marshes. Pp. 131-156. In Habitat management for migrating and wintering waterfowl in North America. (L. M. Smith, R. L. Pederson, and R. M. Kaminski, eds.). Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press.
Wuebbles, D.J. and K. Hayhoe. 2004. Climate change projections for the Unites States Midwest. Mitigation and Adaption Strategies for Global Change 9:335-363.