Get to know the waders of Près Isle

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Known for their penchant for living in moist habitats, waders can be found near lakes, swamps, beaches, and even small ponds. They make up an entire section of most bird books. We are lucky here in Erie and in Près Isle State Park that herons, bitterns and egrets regularly visit or live in northwestern Pennsylvania.

What makes a wader? Most have longer, pointed beaks for striking or scooping up food. Their long necks allow them to strike quickly and easily. In most cases, they have long legs which keep most of their body feathers dry when standing in deeper water or mud. All have wide, splayed toes that act like snowshoes. This prevents them from sinking into the mud. Some have high-density light receptors in their eyes that allow them to hunt day or night.

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Wading birds love Almost Isle Bay and the Lake Erie shoreline and can be seen from spring through late fall. The easiest to see on Almost Isle are the Great Blue Heron and the Green Heron. In spring, you can also see: great egret, cattle egret, black-crowned night heron, tricolor heron, American bittern and least bittern.

If you’re interested in exploring wildlife and birds, a great location is the inner lagoons of Almost Isle State Park. You might consider doing this from the end of April to the first week of October. Exploring the peaceful peninsulas of Près Isle by kayak or canoe will give you a glimpse of the flora and fauna found in the treasured Erie Park. You will find absolute calm and discovery.

Leisurely paddling the lagoon waters, you will only see kayaks and canoes as only these are permitted on these waters. No motor boats are allowed. This inland waterway is shallow, calm and the perfect place for beginners to practice paddling. You must always wear a life jacket in the lagoons and Almost Isle Bay.

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One of the first things you might encounter is turtles splashing in the water from an old shore log. You might see a red-tailed hawk hovering just a foot or two above the waterline, fishing for the day. If you’re lucky, you might see a bald eagle overhead. You will hear the symphony of birds all around you. This bird song comes from a chorus of over 300 distinct species of birds found in the park.

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You might find a great blue heron fishing. This huge bird loves to fish near the shore and in many marshy ponds. With long legs and long beaks, they are skilled fishers. Their wingspan ranges from 65 inches to 84 inches. A few of these birds also steal fish and bait from anglers at the North Pier or Waterworks Piers.

The green heron is solitary most seasons and often secretive, living around small bodies of water or areas with dense vegetation.

One of my favorite wading birds in the park is the much smaller green heron. They have shorter legs and hunt and feed in shallow water or on old logs near ponds and coastal swamps. It’s one of the easiest birds to photograph, but it tends to get nervous if you move around too much. So move slowly and be quiet. They have a wingspan of 26 inches. They are difficult to spot as they can blend effortlessly into their surroundings. They are smart hunters and they stay still like rocks when hunting. They sometimes even use insects or twigs as bait to attract nearby fish or frogs so they can catch them.

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In addition, a few Great Egrets and Bitterns visit Almost Isle every year. Remember that the park’s bird population changes as they pass through our region on their annual migration. You might also see a beaver, muskrat or deer or two on your trip.

Vast freshwater marshes are the favorite haunts of this hardy, solitary great heron.  The American Bittern is rarely seen gliding through the reeds, but its strange pumping or growling song, often heard at dusk or at night, carries for long distances through the marsh.  It has seriously declined in the southern part of its breeding range, which includes Florida, mainly due to habitat loss.

National Audubon Society Pocket Guide to Familiar Lake and River Birds” and “A field guide to the birds of Près Isleby local author Robert K. Grubbs.

If you want to have fun and learn about nature in this area, take a few trips around the park and see what kinds of birds you find. These books are not only about wading birds, but about a number of other species as well.

See you at the park!

Gene Ware is the author of 10 books. He sits on the board of directors of the Près Isle Light Station and has served as chairman of the boards of the Tom Ridge Center Foundation and the Près Isle Partnership. Email him at [email protected].

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