wildlife

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.   

Wildlife Officer Reid Van Cleve is a veteran of the survey.

Counting the dead

Mostly in life, possums, skunks, groundhogs, and racoons don’t get much respect. That’s especially so for the ones who spend their last earthly moments on Ohio roadways, just before they get hit. 

Katie Dennison is a research biologist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife. At the Olentangy Research Station in Columbus, she oversees the annual Furbearer Roadkill Survey. And yes, that’s the official name.

Around 200 elk are home on the range at Dave Flory’s Quiet Harmony Ranch in the rolling Preble County hills.

Antler ag

Around 200 elk are home on the range at Dave Flory’s Quiet Harmony Ranch in the rolling Preble County hills. 

After viewing an informational movie, visitors can drive through the elk park to view the statuesque animals lounging in pastures and paddocks or opt for the 50-minute Outback Encounter, which affords a closer look and commentary. The inquisitive elk often approach fences for a peek at visitors or simply watch from their open shelters.

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 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.  

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.  

Libby Greenbaum, Union County’s first female Eagle Scout, renovated the entrance to Marysville’s America Legion Post for her Eagle project.

Scouts who soar

Head to most parks around the state — from small-town playgrounds to urban greenspace to metroparks — and you’ll often see something that’s been added or improved as the result of an Eagle Scout project.

The path to Eagle Scout includes a rigorous set of requirements that must all be completed before the Scout turns 18: positions of troop leadership, a selection of required and optional learning on a wide variety of subjects (merit badges), and, most famously, completion of a project that benefits the community. 

If you meander too far off the trail, you may find yourself on the edge of a drop of hundreds of feet.

High point

High ground is challenging to find in Ohio. Alaskans, with their towering Denali, or even Arkansans, with their Ozarks, probably chuckle at the thought of our “high spots.” 

Each time of year offers something different. Winter is a solitude of quiet and barren beauty. Spring is a time of reawakening and colorful songbirds. Summertime cloaks the hills in emerald beauty and wildflower bouquets. And autumn? Stake out a spot and watch the trees covering the valley alight in flaming oranges, crimson reds, and crisp rusts.

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.”