Eight small islands, totaling 147 acres, make up the Huron National Wildlife Refuge. It is located just three miles off the south shore of Lake Superior in Marquette County, Michigan. Huron National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1905 as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife, especially the herring gull, which has large nesting colonies on the islands. These early, bird sanctuaries were vital for a number of species of birds, including the herring gull, whose populations had been drastically reduced by plume hunters and egg collectors in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Lighthouse Island is the second largest island at 40 acres and the only one open to the public. In 1868, a lighthouse was built on the island to aid in navigation and in 1972 the light was automated, eliminating the need for a lighthouse keeper. Today, the lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
McIntyre Island is the largest of the islands at 77 acres and supports the most diverse habitats. Cattle Island (12 acres) and Gull Rock (15 acres) are the sites of large herring gull colonies. The four largest islands all support some boreal forest. In addition, McIntyre Island has a few small patches of sphagnum bog. The remaining four islands make up only three acres and are little more than granite outcroppings. While the nameless bare rock islands are small, rising just 10-50 feet out of the water, Lighthouse and McIntyre Islands rise 160 feet above Lake Superior. There are no permanent streams on any of the islands, but there are a few calderas on the largest islands that collect and hold rainwater.
The granite outcroppings that make up the islands are billions of years old. Covered in glaciers during the last ice age, the islands would have been little more than bare rocks and thin soils when the glaciers retreated. The plants and animals inhabiting the islands have found their way there over the last 8,000 to 15,000 years.
Due to the remote nature and primitive quality of these islands they have been designated a Wilderness Area.
Huron National Wildlife Refuge is the perfect nesting ground for the herring gull, a year-round resident in the Great Lakes Region. They prefer to nest in areas surrounded by water where they are protected from predators and the rocky islands of Huron Refuge fit the bill perfectly. Today it is one of the most common gulls in the northeastern United States, but it was almost extirpated (locally extinct) in North America during the 19th century. Before it was outlawed, plumage hunting and egg collecting had huge impacts on many species of birds and the herring gull was no exception. In fact, these islands were established as a bird sanctuary to help protect nesting birds during this trying time, as were many other national wildlife refuges created in the early 1900s.
Our nation’s symbol, the bald eagle, has been known to nest on Lighthouse Island for the past several years. In fact, a bald eagle’s nest can be seen from the trail. This beautiful bird boasts a white head and tail when it is fully mature at five to six years of age. Young eagles are primarily brown with some white mottling and can easily be confused with the much rarer and much larger golden eagle. To survive, eagles generally hunt their prey while on the wing using their coarse talons to pick fish from the water, mammals from the ground or birds in flight. Eagles are also opportunistic and, if carrion is available, may take advantage of the easy meal. Eagles may be seen in the area year round, but are most likely to been seen in the spring, summer and fall months.
The cedar waxwing is a beautiful songbird with a unique buzzy ‘zee-zee’ song. Its brownish head with a well-defined black face mask changes to a slate gray on the back and a buff color on the belly. The wing tips are coated in a red waxy substance that gives the bird its name. The tail is tipped in a brilliant yellow band. This sociable bird can be found in large flocks throughout most of the year, usually moving southward during the harshest portion of the winter. Cedar waxwings eat mainly fruits and berries although during the breeding season they can be seen feeding on dragonflies, mayflies, and other insects.
Wildflowers like this bluebead are abundant at Huron National Wildlife Refuge in the spring. Later, brilliant blue berries will replace these delicate yellow blossoms.