Woods, Waters & Wildlife

Teddy's bear

Teddy bears will be purchased in untold numbers this Christmas season as gifts for children, both around the country and around the world. Ever stop and wonder why?

Guiding the president for several days was Holt Collier, the most famous bear hunter in the state. Born a slave, Collier was now a freed man who made much of his living by bear hunting. He and his pack of top-notch hounds were said to have taken more than 3,000 black bears. 

Had it not been for Ohio’s duck hunters, much of Ohio’s marshland, which is so important to both birding and hunting today, may well have been lost to development.

Birding vs. hunting

"There’s a singular reason that some of the best Lake Erie marshes in Ohio have been saved from destruction. One reason, two words: duck hunters. It sounds blunt and oversimplified, but from the viewpoint of wildlife, duck hunters saved the marshes.”

During settlement, the Buckeye State lost an estimated 95% of its original wetlands, much of that the Great Black Swamp, which once covered nearly all of northwestern Ohio and northeastern Indiana. That gigantic region was a haven for wildlife of all sorts — not just waterfowl — as the water slowly drained into the vast marshes that ringed the western edge of Lake Erie from Toledo to Sandusky.

Hellbender

What the heck's a hellbender?

Herpetologist Greg Lipps, standing knee-deep in the Kokosing River in Knox County, lifts the side of a large, flat rock and tilts it up on edge. As the swirling mud below slowly clears, he stares intently into the water.

No one seems to know for sure how or where the name “hellbender” came from. One theory claims that this docile, harmless salamander was named by early American settlers who thought it so ugly, “it was a creature from hell where it’s bent on returning.” Other common names for Cryptobranchus alleganiensis include devil dog, mud dog, water dog, and grampus. My personal favorite — for the disgusted reaction it triggers — is “snot otter,” describing the heavy coating of mucus that covers the creature’s wrinkled, mottled-brown skin.   

Feathers from some birds, such as the great egret, were in such demand by the millinery trade that they were worth twice their weight in gold.

A feather in your cap?

Sometimes, it’s good to remember just how far we’ve come in wildlife conservation.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, bird feathers were the fashion fad in the millinery — hatmaking — trade. Some feathers, especially plumes from great egrets and snowy egrets, were in such demand that they were literally worth twice their weight in gold. During the 1890s alone, it’s estimated that 5 million birds were killed annually for their feathers. To make matters worse, those birds were taken almost exclusively during the breeding season, their eggs left to rot or their hatchlings to starve and die.

A ghost plant found in Ohio

Specter of the forest

I enjoy reading — always have. One of my favorite books is Wilson Rawls’ 1961 classic, Where the Red Fern Grows. The author reveals the origin of the title of his fiction novel through his young protagonist, Billy Colman, who lived in the Oklahoma Ozarks: 

The plant grows in such deep, dark forests and is so short-lived that I’ve only seen a handful during a lifetime of wandering the woods. One was growing along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, spotted during a day hike with my wife. Several other plants I’ve stumbled across here in Ohio (not literally, thankfully), but not often. Each serendipitous find is truly a special event to be celebrated and, of course, photographed.

A black bear lounging in a tree

Shooting black bears!

I’ve lived in Ohio all my life, spent tons of time in the outdoors, and have never encountered a black bear in the wild in the Buckeye State. That’s not to say they’re not here, of course.

Predictably unpredictable, black bears are not the bumbling oafs or cuddly teddy bears they are portrayed to be on some television nature programs. No matter where they live, by nature a bear is still a bear, and they are much stronger, smarter, and more adaptive than most people realize.  They are also fast, able to run 30 miles per hour for a short distance (the best an Olympic sprinter can do is in the low 20s). It is the wise wildlife photographer who gives bears a wide berth.  

The 'Lake Lady'

Gone fishing

If you’re an angler, at least once during your lifetime you must experience the unique, majestic beauty of a Lake Erie sunrise.

“I enjoy teaching people, male or female, young or old, the sport of walleye and yellow perch fishing on Lake Erie’s Western Basin,” she says. “I probably average about 100 guiding trips per year, from the islands east to Huron, depending on where the fish are biting.”

Preening woodcock

Sky dancer

Head outdoors with me after supper some evening during the month of April, and remember to take a jacket, as it will be chilly by the time we return after dark.

You’ll likely hear a woodcock long before spotting one, the sound beginning just after sunset. The woodcock’s call has been described as a single loud “peent” or “buzz,” spaced every few seconds. That usually continues for several minutes before the male finally takes wing in a spiral flight skyward, making a twittering sound as he climbs.  

Snapping turtle

Lizards and turtles and frogs - oh my!

There are countless unique ways to earn a living in 21st-century America, but not many more unusual than that of a professional herpetologist. The study of amphibians and reptiles, herpetology deals with wild critters that lots of people find repulsive.

“I grew up in Cincinnati, where my father owned a pet store and delivered supplies to other pet stores,” Lipps says. “I rode along with him whenever I could and was always fascinated by the animals in the various shops we visited — particularly the reptiles and amphibians.”