Waterfowl are the big attraction at the always-damp Erie National Wildlife Refuge.
Ducks are the specialty, with up to 20 species frequenting the natural and man-made wetlands that dominate the rolling landscape.
The low-lying refuge is in two tracts that together cover 8,800 acres about 35 miles south of Erie in northwestern Pennsylvania.
The 5,206-acre Sugar Lake Division lies 10 miles east of Meadville in Crawford County, in a narrow valley. Woodcock Creek drains to the north and Lake Creek to the south. Beaver ponds, man-made pools and marshlands along the creeks are bordered by forests, grasslands and wet meadows.
Ten miles to the north is the Seneca Division, a swampy, forested valley with 3,594 acres in the federal refuge. Muddy and Dead creeks provide the pristine wetlands.
The two areas are a haven for migratory birds, with excellent habitat and wildlife.
The refuge -- one of 551 units of the national system operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and covering more than 150 million acres -- was established in 1959. The land was purchased with money from federal duck stamps.
Its purpose is to provide waterfowl and other migratory birds with nesting, feeding, brooding and resting habitat. It also strives to support wildlife diversity and to promote public recreation and environmental education. Farmers cultivate 700 acres, with the leftover crops feeding the refuge's wildlife.
Permitted activities include hunting, fishing, trapping, wildlife watching, photography, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
The best time to visit is March to early April and September to November for waterfowl, May for warblers and summer for shorebirds and wading birds.
About 30 percent of the refuge, or 2,500 acres, consists of beaver-created wetlands and man-managed marshes, swamps, creeks, soggy meadows and ponds.
The Sugar Lake area is more managed for wildlife than the Seneca area.
On peak days during the fall migration, the refuge may be home to as many as 4,500 Canada geese and 2,500 ducks.
Colorful wood ducks are the most numerous waterfowl to nest at Erie. The duck was threatened in the early 1900s by overhunting and loss of habitat. Today its numbers are rebounding, in part thanks to wildlife managers installing nesting boxes. In late May, parent wood ducks parade their young on refuge waters.
The other nesting species are mallards, hooded mergansers, blue-winged teal and the American black duck.
Seen less frequently are pintails, scaups, American widgeons, goldeneyes, green-winged teals, buffleheads and ring-necked ducks.
Tundra swans and the endangered sandhill cranes may stop by the refuge to feed.
Bald eagles nest in the refuge; it has three active nests. Ospreys visit in search of wood. Red-tailed hawks and American kestrels are among the raptors that frequent the refuge.
In all, 237 bird species may be found at the Erie National Wildlife Refuge. Another 16 species are listed as accidentals, with only one or two sightings ever recorded there.
The refuge provides nesting habitat for 113 bird species, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Visitors love the beavers, whose lodges or large dome-shaped constructions of wooden branches are clearly visible. The best time to see the animals in action is at dawn and dusk.
The refuge is also home to 47 species of mammals, 37 species of reptiles and amphibians and 102 species of wildflowers.
The most hiking options in the Erie National Wildlife Refuge are found in the southern Sugar Lake Division.
The most popular hiking trail is the 1.6-mile Tsuga Nature Trail near the headquarters in the Sugar Lake District. It is a flat loop off state Route 198 east of Guys Mills that allows visitors to get a firsthand look at many of the refuge's managed habitats for wildlife: grasslands, shrub lands, croplands, man-made ponds, beaver ponds and mixed forest.
There's even a grove of the trail's namesake, the eastern hemlock or Tsuga canadensis.
The wooden boardwalk spanning the beaver pond is an excellent viewing spot, especially for birds.
The trail features extensive fields of native grasses that provide nesting cover for ducks. The grasslands are also home to sparrows, including the Henslow's sparrow, one of the rarest birds found in the refuge.
Visitor center hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. The center features exhibits, brochures and maps.
Deer Run Trail off Boland Road has an observation deck with telescopes. It overlooks Pond No. 9. The three-mile trail at the edge of a grassland and woods is the longest and wildest trail in the refuge.
Further south is an observation blind next to Reitz's Pond. It is accessible near the intersection of Boland and Ritchie roads. It is 0.2 mile from the trailhead.
The blind is one of the best places to observe wood ducks during the spring and fall migrations.
Beaver Run Trail off Hanks Road is 1 mile long. Trolley Line Trail stretches 1.75 miles along an old railroad right of way. The primitive trail is off Swamp Road.
The northern Seneca Division near Cambridge Springs has one hiking trail: the 1-mile boardwalk that is the Muddy Creek Holly Trail. It is flanked by winterberry holly, also known as black alder, with its bright red berries. It is off Johnstown Road.
The refuge typically gets about 30,000 visitors a year. Hours are sunrise to sunset year-round. No camping is permitted.
There are nine designated fishing areas. Black crappie, yellow perch, largemouth bass, bluegills, sunfish and bullheads are among the warm-water fish found at Erie. Common cold-water species in Woodcock Creek are trout and white suckers.
For refuge information, contact Refuge Manager, Erie National Wildlife Refuge, 11296 Wood Duck Lane, Guys Mills, PA 16327, 814-789-3585, http://erie.fws.gov. The Friends of Erie National Wildlife Refuge, a support group, was organized in 2006. You can contact the friends' group through the refuge headquarters.
Another nearby outdoor option is the Ernst Trail in Meadville. The rail trail runs five miles from Park Avenue Plaza on U.S. 322 to near U.S. 19, parallels Interstate 79 and runs along pretty French Creek.
The trail runs along a railroad line that was built starting in 1880 to provide Meadville with access to the Pennsylvania Railroad at Linesville. The railroad never flourished.
In 1891, it was leased by the Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad Co. For a time, it offered passenger service to Exposition Park (renamed Conneaut Lake Park in 1920). That service ended in 1934.
The Bessemer line was abandoned in 1976. In 1996, Calvin Ernst, who owned the right of way, donated it to the French Creek Recreational Trails. There are three trailheads on the Ernst Trail. For a map and information, go to www.ernsttrail.org.
About 12 miles north of the Erie refuge on state Route 198 is Woodcock Creek Lake. It is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
For information, contact the Corps of Engineers, 22079 S.R. 198, Saegertown, PA 16433, 814-763-4422, www.lrp. usace.army.mil/rec/rec.htm.