You’ve come to Cleveland in the dead of winter for amazing waterfowl, rare gulls, and a glimpse of that ghostly rarity: the Snowy Owl. The cold might be expected, but you’ll soon learn something else: There’s nothing dead about winter in Cleveland.
Cleveland offers many charms and birds in all seasons. In late April and May, migrating warblers gather in lakefront parks where they prepare to cross the Great Lakes. In late summer, when the city’s cultural scene comes alive, shorebirds hit the area beaches on their way south. And when the temperature dips near the end of the year, heftier (and easier to spot) species like Tundra Swans and Great Black-backed Gulls start to move in. Winter in Cleveland is bracing but merry—especially if you’re into ducks and pelagic birds.
Rounding the north end of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, it’s time to start holding your breath: A Snowy Owl sighting could be minutes away. Pull into the parking lot of the 100th Bomb Group Restaurant—a place resembling a WWII museum—and drive to the far eastern end. Start scanning the fields and runways of this well-known Snowy Owl hangout. Pay close attention to the light posts and sign boxes near the taxiways. Don’t be surprised if a Rough-legged Hawk or American Kestrel shows up. If your owl isn’t there, don’t despair—there will be other opportunities.
Head just west of downtown to Wendy Park, where Redheads, Canvasbacks, Common Goldeneyes, and scaup mingle among flotillas of Common and Red-breasted Mergansers. Scan the gulls in the harbor for white-winged species—Glaucous, Iceland, and Thayer’s—that visit in the winter. While Cleveland is known for its “lake effect”—when water vapor from the lake hits the cold landmass and causes huge snowfalls—its birds benefit from a kind of “lake effect,” too.
If you can still feel your limbs, walk out to the lighthouse on Whiskey Island. This abandoned 1940 structure is a beautiful example of Art Moderne architecture (Art Deco’s curvy cousin). Scan the mouth of the harbor for passing jaegers and check the bushes for the Hoary Redpoll, an uncommon visitor that was spotted here last winter.
Lunch calls for a visit to a Cleveland landmark: the nearby West Side Market, a thriving food bazaar in the Ohio City neighborhood. Authentic and boutique-free, the market has something for everyone—bratwurst, falafel, crepes, you name it. Find the hidden steps to a seating area overlooking the market. Treat yourself to a parting gift of lemon ricotta cookies from Vera’s Bakery and coffee from City Roast.
Owls and Ice
Travel east along Lake Erie on Route 2 to catch a glimpse of downtown Cleveland. The dramatic white I. M. Pei structure on your left is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s a famous destination, but you’ll likely want to keep going farther east to another good Snowy Owl lookout: Burke Lakefront Airport. (The open, grassy expanses of airports remind these owls of their native tundra.) From East 9th Street, drive along North Marginal Road and the airport. There are pull-offs at various closed gates where you can get off the road and scan the fields.
Continue east to the 55th Street and 72nd Street piers. If they aren’t iced over, they’re great spots to explore. Horned Grebes and diving ducks ply the waves, while a variety of gulls present a great ID challenge. Bald Eagles are a common sight in the area, too.
Use the dinner hour to explore the city’s reviving downtown. A meal at Noodle Cat offers rich bowls of ramen, plates of spicy noodles, and heavenly steam buns filled with lake walleye or tempura onion.
History Comes Alive
Begin with a walk through Lake View Cemetery, 285 acres of trees, ponds, and monuments. Woodpeckers and the ghosts of Rockefellers past will haunt the path to the Garfield Monument, the soaring and sooty Romanesque resting place of our 20th president. Make a mental note to visit again, since the interior is only open from April 1 to November 19. Likewise, those are the dates for visiting Wade Memorial Chapel, which features a stunning 60-foot-long, 12-foot-high Louis Comfort Tiffany mosaic.
Lunch in Little Italy
Stroll out of the cemetery via Mayfield Road and find yourself in Little Italy at lunchtime. Visit the century-old Presti’s Bakery and Cafe for a thick slice of pizza topped with artichoke and garlic or pepperoni and sausage. Leave with a pound of small, delicate cookies in a white box tied with a string. It’s “old school” at its best.
If you want to take a break from the elements, University Circle boasts some of the country’s greatest cultural institutions. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History has a serious ornithology department, led by Dr. Andy Jones, who is an avid birder himself. And the Cleveland Botanical Garden and the Cleveland Museum of Art are a stone’s throw away. Stroll a block east to see Case Western Reserve’s Peter B. Lewis Building, a Frank Gehry explosion of twisting metal shapes emerging from brick. Stately Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra, looms to the south.
Birding the Flats
Finally, venture deep into the industrial heart of Cleveland. Starting downtown, descend into the eastern side of “the Flats,” an area along the Cuyahoga River dominated by huge piles of coal, gravel, and ground glass. When Lake Erie is iced over, the open waters of the river play host to thousands of birds. Stop at Settler’s Landing Park and Scranton Flats to look for white-winged gulls, Peregrine Falcons, and passing freighters. Be sure to check the bushes for Common Redpolls.
Counting Birds, Not Calories
Just up the hill to the west is Ohio City, the perfect place to warm up with a local brew and enjoy some haute-comfort food. Sit back, review your lists, and reflect on the “lake effect” Cleveland’s had on you.