A Nature Preserve Conjured from the Bottom of the Burning River

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Photo Credit: Cuyahoga River Gorge and High Level Bridge, by Central News Company

Early last winter on a sunny day before the lake iced up, I stood on the hardened perimeter seawall of the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve and watched a group of Bufflehead Ducks, one male and three females hunting in the shallows. The male was glossy black and white, shot through with the winter sun, gleaming on the calm blue lake.

A decade and a half ago, I wouldn’t have had this pleasure. Just three miles east of downtown, the preserve juts out into Lake Erie, a patch of forest in the city’s urban core that supports some of the region’s most diverse and fragile wildlife.

Once a dumping ground, this 88-acre peninsula is now an important stopover point for migratory birds in every season—from warblers to gulls to raptors. Each trip can provide a different experience.

On this day, the group of buffleheads porpoised up and down the shoreline, diving and then resurfacing several feet away. I followed them, peeking through the dried stems of goldenrod. I watched them plunge underwater, the lake so clear I could see their feet paddling away as they dove.

Each winter, huge numbers of loons, grebes, and diving ducks funnel out of Alaska and Canada to Cleveland’s industrial shoreline. Lake Erie has the most abundant fish population of all of the Great Lakes and draws massive flocks of migrating birds looking for emerald shiners and open water.

A pair of Horned Grebes hunted close to the seawall, snaky heads always scanning for flickering minnows. They are fierce looking little birds with red eyes and sharp bills. When they weren’t feeding, they were preening, worrying their beaks against the feathers on their flanks. Grebes eat their own feathers to create a matted plug in their stomachs, to filter or hold fish bones until they can be digested.

I picked out some larger birds with my binoculars further out on the horizon: Common Loons floating in the gray waves. It seemed odd to see these birds I’ve associated with wilderness lakes in northern Canada bobbing against the Cleveland skyline. I spent every summer as a boy listening to their calls ringing out at sunset on our family fishing vacation. But when I saw them this winter, they were quiet and inconspicuous in their pale, sooty non-breeding plumage. They almost seemed like a different species altogether, but for their chisel-shaped heads and muscular builds.

More diving ducks flew by fast and low, hugging the lake, most likely Red-breasted Mergansers. Hundreds of thousands of these ducks stage here each winter, and up to 80% of the North American population of this species can be found floating just off the southern shore of Lake Erie.

In just a few weeks, most of these piscivorous birds would move on to coastal wintering grounds on the East Coast. But during this refueling stopover in early winter, there is no better place to watch the spectacle of their southern migration.

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This property is the first nature preserve in Cuyahoga County. The abundance of wildlife is incredible, but the backstory of this place is also fascinating.

Linda Sternheimer, Development Manager for the Port of Cleveland, recently hiked the trail with me on the first day of spring and explained how this property came into existence.

The mouth of the Cuyahoga River serves as a 6.5-mile shipping channel for Cleveland’s steel and cement industry. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges the Cuyahoga annually to keep the navigation channel sufficiently deep for the massive ships that serve those industries.

For years, the Corps dredged river sediment and dumped it in Lake Erie or along the shoreline. But following the infamous Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 and the subsequent passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Corps had to confine river sediments within dike walls to prevent contamination or harm to the lake.

“The Port pumped 250,000-300,000 cubic yards of dredged sediment per year into the site from 1979 to 1999, under the direction of the United States Army Corp of Engineers,” Sternheimer explained. “This is roughly enough material to fill up a sports stadium. The water would drain out of the liquid slurry, leaving solid fill dirt behind.”

When the Corps stopped using the site as a disposal facility in 1999, the peninsula sprouted with plants, trees and shrubs that attracted diverse species of birds and other wildlife.

None of it had been planted. All of the trees and shrubs originated from the seed bank in the sediment, or from seed dispersal by animals. When the Port was planning to develop trails to open the property to the public, Sternheimer could only walk about two feet into the new landscape before being forced back by dense vegetation. “The foliage is so thick in the summer, you can’t hear the highway a stone’s throw away,” she remarked.

In 2001 the Port Authority took over responsibility for the property from the Corps, but the site was only opened a few days a year for special events.

In 2006 the Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District tested the land for toxins to ensure its safety for passive recreation, and found all but five acres were safe for long-term recreational uses. The five contaminated acres showed elevated levels of petroleum. The Port capped this area and used 40,000 cubic yards of new Cuyahoga River dredge sediment to finish the remediation in 2013.

“Today the Cuyahoga’s sediment is not clean enough to dump directly in the lake due to trace PCBs and the zero degradation policy Ohio EPA has set for aquatic species health. But it is clean enough to use as fill on brownfield sites,” Sternheimer said.

The Port has since seeded native prairie grasses in the remediated section.

The agency opened the property, which featured 1.2 miles of shoreline and over 2.5 miles of trails, to the public on February 6, 2012. There have been over 50,000 visits since the site opened.

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In late January, the perimeter trail around the preserve was covered in animal tracks where the mud had thawed—lots of deer, but also coyote. In the dead of winter, when human visitation is at its lowest, these hyper-aware predators are more likely to use the trail system.

I studied the coyote prints closely—four toe pads around a triangle shaped heel, two-and-a-half-inches long, a little shorter than my index finger. There are no dogs allowed in this preserve.

These animals are incredibly adaptable and find ways to exploit the most urban habitats. But how did the coyotes get onto this preserve, in the heart of the city? The property is fenced, and cut off from the rest of the landscape by five lanes of highway.

They could have used the frozen lake—traversing anywhere they pleased across hundreds of miles of ice.

I picked through a coyote scat, packed with long hair that could only be from a deer. Did they kill one, or just scavenge it? Why are they eating so much hair?

At the northwest tip of the preserve, I found what I assumed was the kill site. There was a mat of deer hair spread on the ground and a trail leading back into a thicket. The coyotes had moved back and forth along this path to get to the carcass.

These non-native predators have expanded their traditional range eastward from the western prairie across the entire North American continent. The earliest documented coyote in Ohio was reported in 1919, and today they are everywhere, all 88 counties. The coyotes here mostly eat meadow voles and small rabbits. Whitetail deer also make up part of their diet, primarily spring fawns and winter road kill, but the coyotes can and do kill adult deer.

I heard a commotion in the woods nearby, and found a posse of wild turkeys picking through the leaf litter. These huge birds were extirpated from the state in 1904, due to forest clearing and overhunting. But today they have made a massive comeback, and apparently have adapted to the urbanization of the landscape.

Although turkeys prefer mature forests, with substantial cover and abundant food sources, they can live successfully in areas with as little as 15% forest cover.

This was a resident flock of about a dozen large animals—multiple people had seen them throughout the year at the preserve. They had found the resources and habitat to thrive in this tiny patch of urban forest.

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The Cuyahoga River is no longer a poster child for environmental outrage. But let’s not kid ourselves. The U-shaped trench and its network of tributaries carry muddy soil, eroded from the deforested suburban megalopolis sprawling across Northeast Ohio. It carries the the storm water sluicing off the streets of Akron and the sewage overflow of the combined water treatment systems, all trundling toward Cleveland where the river dies out in a stagnant, steel-lined channel a few miles from Lake Erie.

We can scoop and barge this effluent into a corrugated steel corral and celebrate what sprouts up. But we can’t call it beautiful.

This reclaimed landscape in the scraggly post-industrial Great Lakes isn’t pristine. The whole region is constantly shifting, being remade. There is rawness to the animal presence. You get the sense that these animals shouldn’t be here, in this demoralized city on the lake.

There are places out West where you can see mountains and forest reeling off toward the horizon for hundreds of miles, where the grandeur slaps you across the face. From the edge of this preserve, you can read the scoreboard at the Factory of Sadness, the Cleveland Brown’s stadium.

But this place is fecund, exploding with diverse, tangible life, whereas the postcard vistas of the Rocky Mountains or Pacific Northwest can feel empty by comparison.

In two years, visitors to the preserve have identified more than 280 species of birds, 42 species of butterflies, 16 species of mammals (including red fox, coyote, mink, deer), 2 species of reptiles, 26 Ohio plant species (including wildflowers and grasses), and 9 species of trees and shrubs.

The preserve, like a lot of disturbed landscapes, is overrun with Phragmites and other invasive weeds. Sternheimer said the Port is beginning to look at managing the land more actively, to increase biodiversity, which might include invasive species remediation.

The site was designated as an Important Bird Area by Audubon Ohio because it provides essential habitat for birds and is located at the intersection of four migratory bird routes.

On the first day of spring, the preserve was packed with Red-winged Blackbirds. And soon the site will be crawling with warblers, orioles, and other Neotropical migrants who have returned to their northern breeding grounds.

“Migration relies on links—food, safe havens, quiet roost sites, clean water, and a host of other resources, strung out in due measure and regular occurrence along routes that may cross thousands of miles. But we are breaking those links with abandon,” writes Scott Weidensaul in Living on the Wind. “Yet the picture is not all dismal. We have, at last, begun to recognize the aesthetic and ecological value of the migratory whole and to work to preserve—in some cases, even restore—the land and resources upon which hundreds of species of migrant birds depend.”

This wooded section in the heart of Cleveland’s industrial shoreline provides essential food and shelter for the tiny birds, and is the last stopover before the journey across the windswept Lake Erie.

Where there once was a disposal site, a place to dump toxic material, now there is a lifeline for migratory bird journeys, as well as other wildlife. I increasingly find myself drawn to this shore, picking my way through the new forest, a witness to a link reforged in a living chain.

Matt Stansberry is a Cleveland-based nature writer with three kids and a day job. He used to fly fish. Follow him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish.

Photo Credits: Top photo of bufflehead by Gavin Van Horn. All other photos by Matt Stansberry.

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