It could have been a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, The Birds, only with a positive spin. I was walking just south of Mansfield, Ohio at dusk on a winter evening when flocks of crows began appearing from the southwest. Having been raised in Mansfield, I knew there was a huge winter crow roost just north of the city, but not having lived in the town for years I had forgotten just how big
As I continued walking and watching the sky, the flocks became larger and larger until a steady stream of these glossy-black birds stretched from horizon to horizon. Awestruck, I finally sat down to enjoy this natural wonder that lasted most of an hour, involving literally thousands of crows.
Fortunately, in witnessing this scene I did not have to ask permission to enter some exclusive piece of private land. Rather, it occurred along the 18.4-mile Richland B&O Trail, one of Ohio’s 40 rail-trails that are free and open to the public for walking, jogging, biking, skating, cross-country skiing, and wheelchair use. Some trails even allow equestrian traffic.
Wildlife viewing along Ohio’s 40 rail-trails is becoming more popular each year. But wildlife watchers should remember to be courteous to other trail users. Make sure you move off the trail surface when stopping to view or photograph wildlife.
Birds, such as this dickcissel, are the most common type of wildlife seen along rail-trails, but mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects are there too if you slow down and take the time to look for them. Nationally, there are more than 1,000 rail-trails, stretching over 10,000 miles. On average, a rail-trail adds about $1.25 million annually to a local economy.
As popular as these trails are for recreation and fitness, they are also great places to watch wildlife. In some locations, especially near urban zones, rail-trails may be the only wildlife habitat in the area, attracting a surprising number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.
Two men who were instrumental in establishing the Richland B&O Trail are Steve McKee and Merrill Tawse, director and assistant director, respectively, for the Gorman Nature Center located in Mansfield. "It took 9 1 /2 years for our work and that of others to finally come to fruition," McKee said. "Including a 2 1 / 2 -year federal court battle. But now that the trail has been open for several years, thousands of people enjoy it, and the wildlife that people see along the trail adds to their enjoyment."
One of Tawse’s more unusual wildlife sightings along the trail occurred last fall. "I was doing some trail maintenance when I heard something moving through the leaves," he said.
"Looking down, I saw a six-inch tiger salamander, something you usually see in the spring, and then only if you’re lucky." Another person who views wildlife as an added attraction for Ohio’s rail-trails is Jim Deming, state director for the national Rails-to-Trails Ohio Field Office.
"We see rail-trails as not only good for people, but good for wildlife as well," he said. "My own feeling is that the more we get people out to see wildlife, the more we raise their consciousness of protecting various ecosystems and wild environments."
One of Deming’s more memorable wildlife sightings along a rail-trail was a beaver that he spotted near the 19.5-mile Towpath Trail that runs through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park just south of Cleveland. The marsh where he saw the beaver is just north of the Ira Trailhead and has been designated as one of Ohio’s 80 official Watchable Wildlife sites.
In 1916, America had the largest railroad transportation system in the world. Nearly 300,000 miles of track spanned our nation, a network six times larger than today’s interstate highway system. But cars, trucks, buses, and airplanes gradually replaced trains as modes of transportation in many areas. Today, less than half of the previous U.S. railroad network exists, and track continues to be abandoned at the rate of more than 2,000 miles per year.
But as the railroading era fades, abandoned rail beds have become a boon for both recreation and wildlife. More than 1,000 rail-trails have been developed nationwide, stretching over 10,000 miles. And in Ohio, in addition to the 325 miles of existing trails, 1,200 more miles of rail-trails are projected for the future—making just that many more places to view Ohio’s Watchable Wildlife.
For a free list and location map of Ohio rail-trails, contact the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy:
Rails-to Trails Conservancy
Ohio Field Office
65 E. Wilson-Bridge Road, Suite 203,
Worthington, OH 43085,
or telephone 614-841-1075.
Trip Idea: Spring Valley Wildlife Area An Ohio rail-trail that passes through a state wildlife area is the Little Miami Scenic Trail that bisects Spring Valley Wildlife Area near Waynesville in the southwest part of the state. A commercial fur farm in the early 1900s, Spring Valley today is 842 acres of wetland, woodland, brushland, and cropland wildlife habitat. The rail-trail parallels the west side of the area’s habitat highlight: a 150-acre wetland complex. Ducks, geese, and wading birds are common there, as are muskrats, mink, and beaver. More than 230 species of birds have been recorded at Spring Valley. To receive a free map of the Spring Valley Wildlife Area, one of 80 official Watchable Wildlife sites in the state, click here or call 1-800-WILDLIFE.