Wild Side: A naturalist visits America

Southern Ohio is, naturally, nothing like the Vineyard.

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As much as I love the wildlife of Martha’s Vineyard, I have to admit that mainland America has a lot to offer as well. I’ve just returned from a 10-day excursion out to southern Ohio, missing the fair, Illumination Night, the Oak Bluffs fireworks, and all that goes with them. I guess I regret not visiting the animal barns at the fair, always my favorite part, but otherwise, I was happy to trade the Island’s most frantic week for a chance to naturalize in new surroundings.

Southern Ohio, while it doesn’t seem so far away on a map, is practically a different world from the Vineyard if viewed from the naturalist’s perspective. It’s a region of deep limestone bedrock, sometimes manifesting as flat, fertile farmland, sometimes as dramatic terrain deeply incised by river and stream drainages. This underlying geology creates much less acidic environments than we have on the Vineyard, and it also means that bedrock is often at the surface, instead of smothered under hundreds of feet of sand, as it is here.

Most of the area I was in lies south of the southernmost limit of the last period of glaciation. The land was never ground flat by continental ice sheets, sandy glacial deposits such as those that make up the Vineyard are absent, and the local wildlife was not wholly extirpated by a deep layer of ice. These characteristics all strongly influence what occurs there to this day, making the area startlingly un-Vineyard-like to my eye.

The area is also farther south than the Vineyard, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky. And accordingly, the weather was hotter and even more humid. I left gallons of sweat behind. Finally, southern Ohio lies on the far side from us of a significant mountain range, which serves as a barrier to the mixing of their wildlife with ours.

All this — climate, soil chemistry, geological and social history — translates to profound differences, and I hugely enjoyed exploring the region. The woodlands out there, for instance, have a much greater diversity of trees and shrubs than our forests do, and they’re dominated by species that are rare or absent here: hickory and walnut, tulip tree and sycamore, even magnolias growing in the wild. Limestone ledges at one park supported more than a dozen species of ferns, all new to me.

Ohio also features remnants of pre-European cultures. For instance, I spent an enjoyable couple of hours at the famed Serpent Mound, a winding ceremonial berm in the shape of a giant snake, about four feet high and some 1,400 feet long, built by a vanished society (archaeologists are still unsure of the site’s age or the identity of the culture that built it). The woodland edges of the cleared area around the mound offered productive bugging, and I liked to imagine that the bugs I was watching were descendants of insects that watched the mound being constructed.

Many of the sites I visited were actually reclaimed ones, abandoned relics of earlier stages in Ohio’s economic evolution: sandpits, cornfields, quarries, and even a uranium processing plant, rendered superfluous by economic change and converted into conservation land through the reintroduction of native plants.

Many such sites seemed convincingly restored, to my admittedly inexpert eye. A prairie restoration at Miami Whitewater Forest in Hamilton County, for example, appeared to be former farmland now (that is, once again) dominated by an amazing diversity of tall grasses and flowering forbs. Big bluestem grass grew eight feet tall there, and the site looked to me like a fine example of the now-rare tall-grass prairie that once dominated many moister portions of the Midwest.

With the different flora and climate, of course, comes a different mix of insects, and I was happy to find dozens of species I’ve never before encountered. (I shot almost 1,000 insect photos on this trip.) In particular, Ohio was rich in orthoptera, the crickets, katydids, and grasshoppers that are the current focus of my studies. At some sites, I found two or three times the diversity of this group I’d expect in similar Vineyard habitat. And at night, the calls of nocturnal insects were practically deafening.

Almost as enjoyable as the new species, though, was finding some familiar ones, adaptable generalists that do as well out there as they do here. The round-tipped conehead, for example, a midsize katydid that flourishes in my Oak Bluffs yard and quite widely elsewhere on the Vineyard, was a common insect in southwestern Ohio as well. Its familiar, buzzy song was an enjoyable reminder of home.