Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve

Tips for Birding

Headland Dunes State Nature Preserve is one of the best-birded sites in Ohio and is famous for its rarities and big fallouts of migrants. The rock jetty that runs out to the lighthouse is a fantastic observation point for conducting “sea watches” as well. The total Headlands list is well over 300 species, approximately 75% of the entire Ohio bird list. Not bad for a 25-acre preserve!

This nature preserve has sensitive and rare flora and fauna, so please stay on marked trails.

Spring and fall migrations bring a great diversity of songbirds, and sometimes in enormous numbers. Over 100 species is possible on a good May or September day. All of the regularly occurring songbirds found in northeast Ohio can occur at Headlands every year, including all of the warbler species and all, or nearly all, sparrow species.

Late fall and early winter are best for lake-watching from the jetty. Monstrous flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers swirl offshore, and staggering numbers of Bonaparte’s Gulls can gather. Nearly all of the regularly occurring diving ducks and gulls can be found.

The extensive sand beach is great for birding—swimming is not permitted and thus the beach is much more bird-friendly than the busy state park beach to the west. A variety of gulls, terns, and shorebirds can be found roosting or feeding.

The Mentor Headlands area includes Headlands Beach State Park, Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve, Mentor Marsh State Nature Preserve, Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park, and Mentor Lagoons Nature Preserve..

The area has an impressive list of 334 species with single days during the spring migration of more than 130 bird species tallied. Days of 100 or more are common in May and possibly even in April. It is the most heavily covered area in the county and can attract 50 or more local birders on a May weekend. The habitat is diverse including lakeshore, sand dunes, bottomland forest, marsh, upland forest, pine plantings, river, harbor, and open fields, all in an area that is just a 6.6-mile stretch of Lake Erie Shoreline. All of these areas are easy to access and have ample parking.

Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve and the adjacent Headlands Beach State Park is an excellent starting point for spring and fall migrants plus waterfowl, shorebirds, gulls, and terns which can be found walking along the beach and jetty which leads out to the lighthouse.

About this Location

Extensive development along the shores of Lake Erie has all but eliminated the presence of sandy beaches and dunes. Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve, located adjacent to Headlands Dunes State Park, is one of the last of its kind in Ohio.

This community is much more than just an accumulation of sand along a shoreline. It is a living assemblage of fascinating and highly specialized plants and animals occurring in an environment too hostile for most other organisms to survive.

The most important dune developers along the Lake and Ashtabula County coast are switchgrass and/or beach grass (Hicks, 1934). Switchgrass or beach grass becomes established on the upper beach along with annuals, such as cocklebur and sea rocket. These lone grass plants quickly spread into huge root-like mats. Sand rapidly drifts into the relatively quiet vicinity of the switchgrass crown, and deposition occurs. Switchgrass and beach grass have an adaptation shared by many dune plants, such as cottonwood, red osier, Canada wild-rye and sandbar willow. Despite an accumulation of sand around its crown, switchgrass or beach grass continues to grow upward through the sand. As the dune becomes more or less stabilized by the switchgrass or beach grass, grape vines, and poison ivy become established on the dunes; eventually, cottonwood and willow appear, and finally oak (usually black oak). The historical factors which allowed the migration of the coastal species into the Great Lakes are no longer at play; once we lose our sand dune communities, they will be lost forever. Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve protects a vestige of the Lake Erie dunes community.

Located in Lake County west of Fairport Harbor at the north end of OH-44 and extreme east end of Headlands Beach State Park.

Restrooms and handicap accessible facilities at locations identified on Headlands Beach State Park map.

About Headlands Beach State Park

See all hotspots at Headlands Beach State Park

The northern shoreline of Ohio displays the dynamic effects Lake Erie has on our changing landscape. The lake has been a dominant force, shaping Ohio’s natural and cultural development for thousands of years. Erie, meaning wildcat (“it is long-tailed”), is derived from the tribal name of the Indian culture who inhabited this area until 1655.

Lake Erie was originally much larger than it is today. As an eastern outlet opened via the Niagara River, the lake drained down to its present size. Sand beaches from the former lake are still found along the northern shore. The swamplands adjacent to the beaches were once part of the lake itself. Plants more common to the Atlantic coastal plain region can be found growing in the surrounding sand dunes. Sea rocket, beach pea, seaside spurge, beach grass, and purple sand grass persist on the dunes.


  • Restrooms on site

  • Wheelchair accessible trail

  • Entrance fee

  • Roadside viewing

Content from Lake Erie Birding Trail, by Haans Petruschke, Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve webpage, Haans Petruschke, and Headlands Beach State Park website