DEERFIELD, Ohio – Elizabeth Morsillo stepped out of the park ranger truck and aimed her cell phone toward the trees as the sound of bird calls surrounded her.
Within seconds, the phone’s screen filled with bird species identified by the app based on their chirps: prothonotary warbler, white-breasted nuthatch, wood thrush, tufted titmouse. The list grew by the tweet.
“This is just a great day for me, being able to go around looking for and listening to birds. I will never complain about that,” said Morsillo, a park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District working at Berlin Lake.
Morsillo’s interest in birds began when her uncle, Tom Rakestraw, took her on a birding trip a few years ago. She became intrigued by how much he knew and shared, and soon she began to pick up on signs and sounds on her own. She is getting better at identifying some bird calls even without the app.
“For example, the yellow warbler sounds like he’s chirping, ‘Sweet! Sweet! I’m so sweet!’ And then there’s the catbird, which sounds more like a cat meowing, ‘Larry! Larry!’” she said while walking around the woods listening for various species.
Berlin Lake is already well known for its wildlife and fishing destination – with a healthy population of walleye, various bass, crappie, and muskies – but Morsillo said the reservoir is a great birding location many enthusiasts don’t know about.
“I think it’s a hidden gem around here,” Morsillo said. “People go birding all around, but we are becoming a hotspot for bird watching.”
She hopes more visitors discover the reservoir and its surrounding lands for the number of bird species that migrate through the area. Berlin Lake is located between Akron and Youngstown, Ohio. It falls along one of the Atlantic Flyway paths, considered a migration highway, making the reservoir attractive during migration periods.
Morsillo said the brush, wetlands and various habitats – along with being less than 60 miles from Lake Eerie – create the ideal conditions for various birds to thrive.
The lake is also a popular destination for fishing, water sports, hiking and camping.
“I grew up fishing at Berlin. As soon as the weather turns, we get phone calls asking, ‘what’s the water temperature?’ because as soon as it warms up, the walleye and the crappie are going to start biting,” said Curtis Burns, a park ranger.
Berlin Lake is a man-made reservoir constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. They completed the dam on the Mahoning River in 1943 to form Berlin Lake. The reservoir’s congressionally-authorized purpose is to reduce flood damage, provide water supply for navigation and improve water quality downstream.
The reservoir preserves life and property for downstream communities while attracting local citizens for its recreation opportunities.
The fishing popularity at Berlin is already well established, evident from the boat docks and boat launches around the lake. Rangers now want to shine more of the spotlight on the area’s birds.
“There’s just all kinds of cool birds around,” Morsillo said. “It would be cool to make it an even more popular birding spot.”
Bird hobbyists recorded more than 200 bird species around the lake in early May according to the eBird website, which allows bird spotters to submit their finds. Park rangers at Berlin Lake want to see that number continue to grow.
Staff and volunteers have installed hundreds of birdhouses around the lake in recent years. They constructed and installed more than 200 bluebird boxes. They hang dozens of purple martin gourds each spring. Visitors can spot wood duck boxes all over the water or check out a tower built especially for chimney swifts.
Currently, a family of osprey return each year to the same light pole near a boat launch. The light pole isn’t ideal because the nest keeps falling apart, with twigs scattering all over the ground. The lake staff is working to add another pole nearby with a better platform to rehome the osprey family.
Besides shelters, the rangers have put serious thought into improving the entire ecosystem to bring more birds to their lands and waters.
With the help of the community, rangers planted several pollinator gardens to invite a diversity of insects, which offer food options for birds. The lake’s fish population draws not only anglers on sunny days, but also ospreys, herons, and cormorants to feast on the waters. This past winter, visitors spotted 24 bald eagles who came through the area for their own catch of fish before moving downriver.
“People don’t always think about the importance of wildlife. They think about the outside as being outside, but wildlife is interconnected to everyone’s life. When they visit here, we like to educate visitors to hopefully change their perspective and spark their imagination or excitement about nature,” Burns said.
At ranger station, Burns and the team also maintain several beehives to foster a better habitat for local wildlife. They installed an indoor beehive with a passageway through the wall for workers to bring pollen and nectar back to their colony. Burns is trying his hand at beekeeping with a new outdoor hive. He added a “bee hotel” by drilling holes into several logs stacked together for solitary bees.
“The indoor beehive is a big ‘wow’ factor,” Curtis said. “We like to educate the public how each piece contributes to the intricacies of the ecosystem, and how wildlife is an integral part of everyday life.”
With more bees, more plants can grow, bringing more insects, which feed more birds migrating through their area. The staff is constantly working to improve their federal lands and waterways for both wildlife and visitors to make Berlin Lake an even more popular destination for critters and humans alike.
“That’s probably one of the coolest things about the job,” said Troy Moore, the lead ranger at Berlin Lake. “We are always doing something different every day. There is plenty of fieldwork to do, and we all complement each other and lift each other up as a team.”
“Headwaters Highlights” is part of a story series to highlight every one of the facilities or teams that make the Pittsburgh District’s mission possible. Pittsburgh District’s 26,000 square miles include portions of western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio, western Maryland, and southwestern New York. It has more than 328 miles of navigable waterways, 23 navigation locks and dams, 16 multi-purpose flood-control reservoirs, 42 local flood-protection projects, and other projects to protect and enhance the nation’s water resources, infrastructure and environment.