Woods, Waters & Wildlife

Gray fox

Red fox, gray fox, and wily coyote

When wild animals face a change in their environment, they have three options: adapt, migrate, or die. When those animals happen to be three top-tier predators attempting to occupy the same habitat, things can get dicey.

According to Katie Dennison, furbearer biologist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, an annual survey indicates “a long-term declining trend in red fox and gray fox sightings since the survey began in 1990, which is indicative of a decline in both fox populations in Ohio. However, the trend does appear to have leveled off during the past five to seven years.” Dennison adds that the survey relies on deer-bowhunter observations, so “is biased toward describing fox population trends in rural areas.” 

Screech oil

Birds of a feather

A professor of biology and ecology at Ashland University, Merrill Tawse has been running the same wild-bird survey route annually for more than 40 years. It’s not for his work, though; it’s purely for pleasure.  

Before 1900, rural people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “side hunt.” Sides (teams) were chosen, and team members fanned out through the countryside with their rifles and shotguns. Whichever team amassed the most feathered or furred quarry by the end of the day won the contest.  

Bobcat in carrier

On the prowl

Bobcats were supposedly extirpated from Ohio by 1850, but that may not actually have been the case — especially in the extreme eastern part of the state, particularly Belmont County.

Bobcats were taken off the state-endangered list in 2014. At the time of delisting, the population in Ohio was about 1,000 individuals, and since that time, the bobcat population has continued to increase in both size and distribution. 

Brycen Burkhart with fish

The big one

If you’re an angler, how would you like to catch one walleye worth over $100,000? James Atkinson Jr. of Streetsboro did exactly that last fall, his whopper walleye weighing 12.395 pounds and measuring 31.5 inches.

The Fall Brawl is coordinated by Frank Murphy of North Royalton, who volunteers his time — lots of it. A fisherman all his life, Murphy says, “I just want to give something back to the fishing community for what fishing has done for me through the years. That’s why there is 100% payback of all the entry fees to the top five derby winners.”
Nearly 8,000 anglers participated last year, and Murphy anticipates as many as 10,000 will this year, each plunking down $30 for the privilege. Do the math, and that’s $300,000 in prize money that gets split five ways.

Man with large lake sturgeon

Monster rebirth

Is there really a Lake Erie monster, as some claim? Well, yes, at least potentially. In fact, thousands of small ones are swimming in the big lake right now. Let me explain.

By mid-century, however, market conditions were rapidly changing, and from 1850 to 1870, products derived from sturgeon transformed this once-worthless fish into a valuable commodity. Caviar, fish oil, and a substance known as isinglass — a gelatin used in adhesives made from the air bladder of various fish, especially sturgeon — became extremely valuable. The fish became so sought after, in fact, that one of the largest sturgeon fisheries in America developed on Lake Erie. In 1885 alone, commercial fishermen on Erie netted more than half a million pounds of lake sturgeon.  

Mt. Denali National Park

Learning to "see"

One of America’s leading naturalists of the 19th century was the prolific Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), who, while teaching at Harvard, taught his students the skill of in-depth observation of natural objects. He did it by what his students termed “the incident of the fish.”

The same approach can be used to learn outdoor photography. Not that you have to stare at the same photo subject for hours on end, but developing the ability to “see” the details of photos before you attempt to take them is a crucial skill — yet one that anyone can learn.

One of Ohio’s best outdoor photographers is Art Weber, founding director of the Nature Photography Center for Metroparks Toledo. He says there’s a difference between looking at the natural world as an artist and as a photographer.  

River otters

Nature's clown prince

No one wrings more fun out of life than a river otter. Unless, of course, it’s a family of river otters.

Over a period of seven years, 123 otters were live-trapped in Louisiana and Arkansas, then released in the Grand River, Killbuck Creek, Little Muskingum River, and Stillwater Creek watersheds. From those four modest stockings, the population expanded rapidly, and today, river otters have been confirmed in 75 watersheds in 83 of Ohio’s 88 counties.

Bison herd

Where the bison roam

The year 1803 was pivotal in Ohio history. It was a year when what had always been — the frontier — was rapidly passing away, and what would be was now arriving.

Other large wild animals living in the state, what present-day wildlife biologists refer to as “charismatic megafauna,” were soon to follow the bison into extirpation. Elk were gone by 1838, wolves by 1848. Some reports claim that mountain lions may have survived until as late as 1850.

Doug Wynn

Species on the edge

Unlike many people, Doug Wynn likes snakes. He likes them so much that he began studying them decades ago, and has since become Ohio’s leading expert on the state-endangered timber rattlesnake.

Wynn has never been bitten, yet is still extremely cautious around the snakes, always handling them with a metal catch-stick. “A rattlesnake can strike the entire length of its body,” he says. “Meaning that a 3-foot snake — which is about the typical length in Ohio — can strike a distance of at least 3 feet. So, if you ever happen across one in the woods, give it a wide berth.”

American Bittern

One weird bird

I don’t consider myself an avid birder, but I understand enough about Ohio birds to know when something unusual shows up.

American bitterns are not easy to spot, for two reasons. First, there aren’t very many of them — they’re state-endangered. Second, they are masters of camouflage. The bird kept its heavily streaked breast turned toward me at all times, rotating slowly as I moved back and forth for a better camera angle.