Revamped Magee Marsh Visitor Center delights lovers

If it weren’t for duck hunters, one of the best birding spots in the world, Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in Northwest Ohio, might not exist today.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, hunters flocked to the marshes along Lake Erie in Northwest Ohio and built duck clubs, where they would hunt in pristine habitat that was a mecca for the birds.

While the Great Black Swamp, which stretched from Northeast Indiana across Northwest Ohio, was being drained for farmland, these duck marshes remained intact, and many of them are still preserved today.

In 1903, Elmore banker John N. Magee bought what is today Magee Marsh from some of these hunt clubs. He tried to drain the marsh for farmland, but high water that continued to flood the area thwarted his efforts.

Magee decided to keep the land a marsh, and for decades, he and his descendants leased it to duck hunters. In 1951, the state of Ohio bought Magee Marsh from the Magee family and turned it into the prime birding and outdoor activity spot it is today. 

This legacy of preservation is one of the stories prominently told through exhibits at the completely renovated Magee Marsh Visitor Center, which opened in early May. Magee Marsh covers more than 2,000 acres and is located north of Oak Harbor. 

“We wanted to celebrate migratory birds and what the sportsmen brought to this area,” says Kelly Schott, who leads the center’s operations and is a wildlife communications specialist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. “It was really the duck hunters who sort of screamed ‘We’re losing our habitat and our waterfowl. I think we did a really great job of preserving that history.”

The two-story center shares this story while celebrating the numerous migratory birds and resident wildlife of Magee, including mink and muskrats. 

In addition to the exhibits, ODNR updated the center with handicapped-accessible bathrooms, a chair lift to the second floor, improved energy efficiency and exterior glass that deters bird collisions. It also has all-new upper and lower decks and an accessible walkway around the building for wildlife viewing and a small gift shop run by the Friends of Magee Marsh.

“It’s such a phenomenal transformation and to have such wonderful amenities for the visitors,” says Kendra Wecker, chief of ODNR, Division of Wildlife. “We know the birds come every year. Now we need to accommodate the humans who follow the birds.”

The $4 million project was funded by capital bond money from the General Assembly and Gov. Mike DeWine, the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and hunting license sales. 

The center was built in 1970 and was known as the Sportsman’s Migratory Bird Center until the grand reopening and unveiling of the renovations in May. An estimated 100,000 people visit Magee Marsh each year, and Schott estimates 20,000 stop in each year.

When visitors walk in, they first see a 20-foot-tall tree showing a rookery of birds found at Magee, including cormorants and a black-crowned night heron. Some are taxidermy birds, and others were created from resin. 

The lower floor gives background on the Great Black Swamp, including a map showing the area and the impact of draining it. Nearly impassible due to its thick marshes and trees in the early days of settlement, the swamp was drained and turned into the rich farmland much of it is today. 

“That is something I wanted people to understand,” Schott says. “I think knowing how we have changed the landscape is important when we look to the future and what we are doing with our wetlands.”

Throughout the first floor, displays with hand-painted backgrounds show animals and habitat across the marsh, from forested wetlands to beach habitat. Scenes show a swan and cygnets resting on a muskrat house near a fox chasing a snake, what winter looks like at the refuge with migratory ducks and other birds and other habitats. 

Another area highlights the remarkable recovery of the bald eagle population in Ohio and details eagle populations in Ohio. Ottawa and Sandusky counties have the highest populations with Erie County not far behind them. 

Birders visiting during migration can view resin likenesses of the more than 30 warblers that are known to migrate through the area in the spring and fall. Each spring, thousands of birders come from all over the world to see these tiny songbirds. 

“A lot of birders come into the center after being on the boardwalk wanting to identify the birds they saw,” Schott says. 

The second floor focuses on the duck hunters and duck decoy heritage through exhibits, preserved decoys, and interpretive panels. A punt boat, used in duck hunting, hangs from the wall, showing the supplies a hunter would bring on a trip. 

Panels tell the story of John Magee and his descendants, including two of his daughters, Ruth and Julia, who leased the marsh to duck hunters but retained trapping rights. They ran a successful muskrat-trapping business that furnished pelts to the fur coat industry.

Another display features the art of carving duck decoys, and the education room, which will be used for school field trips and other programming, shows decoys through the years. In the 1800s, decoys were used in hunting but were very heavy wood. They evolved to being made of canvas and cork, and today, they’re made of plastic, Schott says. 

In the 1960s and ‘70s, decoy carving moved more toward competitions with an artistic emphasis. One of the decoys of note includes a mallard decoy made in the early 1900s by Mason Decoy Factory near Detroit, which was one of the first decoy manufacturers and was known for durable decoys. The Magee family is donating this piece.

“One of the things that was important to me was keeping the heritage of the decoys,” Schott says. 

Throughout the Biggest Week in American Birding, which took place May 5 – 14, the center was packed with visitors. It’s the busiest time of year for the marsh and center, but people visit throughout the year, Schott says. 

In the summer, visitors like to see the marsh roses, and families stop by while on summer vacation. In the winter, visitors often ask about the muskrat houses, and many like to see the migrating ducks in the early part of the year. 

Fall birding, when the warblers return to the area on their way south but look very different without their spring breeding plumage, also is growing in popularity, Schott says. 

“We really focus on wetlands education and conservation,” Schott says. “Visitors are just so amazed at the job that was done. They’re really happy.”

The Magee Marsh Visitor Center is located at 13229 W. State Route 2, Oak Harbor.