The best wildlife spotting is a little off the shore
Spot some of our nation’s most regal creatures on a wildlife safari across the islands of a remote National Refuge.
Scattered over 3,440-acres, with 22 islands and 4 sizeable chunks of mainland, the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge is one of West Virginia’s most unique protected areas. It preserves massive tracts of critical habitat for tons of native wildlife.
First and foremost, the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge is a sanctuary for birds. You may spot almost 200 different species, like mallards, red-tailed hawks, belted kingfishers and Carolina chickadees. You can see these guys any time of year, and they regularly nest in the riverine protected area.
To spend some time with engaging species like great blue heron, arguably one of the country’s most striking shorebirds, head to one of the hotspots like Fish Creek, Grape and Letart islands.
While there are some year-round residents at the island, most of the bird species found at the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge are transient visitors during seasonal migrations. Visit during the spring to see migratory neotropical birds, like warblers, vireos, flycatchers and tanagers, which pass through the reserve on the way to northern breeding grounds. Some will hang around to nest in the refuge for the season.
Ever wanted to see a bald eagle in real life? Well, you’re in luck. This iconic species regularly congregates in the canopies of the refuge, particularly during fall and winter along Broadback, Neal and Grandview islands.
But bald eagles aren’t the refuge’s only stunning birds of prey. Ospreys, one of nature’s most skillful hunters, which are especially known for being able to pursue prey beneath the surface of the water, had all but disappeared from the Ohio River Valley just decades ago. After successful reintroduction efforts, the captivating raptors have recolonized their historic range along the Ohio River, and you can see their aerial antics regularly during the summer and fall.
Don’t just keep your eyes on the sky, though. The refuge’s islands are also home to a variety of mammals, like white-tailed deer, raccoons and cottontail rabbits. Also, be on the lookout for the rare southern flying squirrel, 1 of only 2 species of flying squirrel native to North America. Along the water, you will find traces of river wildlife, like beavers, muskrats and otters.
Exploring the islands
The 240-acre Middle Island just outside St. Mary’s is one of the few islands you can drive to from the mainland instead of taking a boat. Stretch your legs on 3.5 miles of hiking trails, climb into viewing blinds or drive the 1.5-mile loop around the island, and maybe you’ll see a red fox roaming around— they’re pretty common there!
Go even deeper into the refuge by getting out onto the water. Cast a line and catch one of the 100+ types of fish, like spotted bass, sauger, freshwater drum and channel catfish. You can fish at any of the islands an hour before sunrise and an hour after sunset. State regulations apply.
Underwater, the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge is sanctuary for another vital species— the freshwater mussel. Acting like miniature water filtration systems, freshwater mussels are critical for maintaining ecological balance in the Ohio River. In the refuge, you can find 40 different species of mussels, 6 of which are endangered, like the fanshell, pink mucket and sheepnose. Visit the most diverse mussel bed, with 28 different species, at Muskingum Island.
If you love being outdoors with wildlife, the the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge should definitely be added to your must-see list. From the mighty to the miniscule, there’s enough to see at the refuge to keep you busy for days. And getting to reserve’s remote smattering of islands— all the while discovering sun-kissed river beaches, secret fishing spots and shorebird havens along the way— is half the fun.
This post was last updated on March 16, 2022