The Oxbow has been one of my “go to” hiking places for the past 40 years, not often, but consistently, when I needed to check in with the migratory bird world.
The Oxbow is a 2500 acre nature preserve in the most southeast corner of Indiana, just a short drive from Cincinnati and my Northern Kentucky home. Thoughts of it are empowering because this vital ecological resource was protected by the actions of routine citizens, who saw its value 35 years ago, saving it from development.
The Oxbow is a series of lakes, some natural, some man made. It started in 1849 when the Great Miami River, which used to flow through this flatland to the Ohio River, changed course during a flood, and relocated its mouth 1.5 miles east of its previous location. What remained were a series of shallow oxbow lakes, that only connected with the Ohio River during floods. The associated bottomland, with outstanding soil, was farmed but spared development due to frequent flooding.
In the 1980’s there was a proposal to develop a 700 acre commercial barge staging facility in this location, but some local conservationists were able to mobilize financial and political resources to protect it from development for the benefit of wildlife.
The Oxbow is basically a group of lakes with a large amount of surrounding cropland and prairie that is bisected by the right away for I-275, the Cincinnati circle freeway. By no means is it glamorous or pristine. As one looks to the northern margin of the preserve you see evidence that, like many wetlands, the Oxbow area was used as a landfill prior to the preserve’s development. But it is priceless from an ecological point of view.
As one looks centrally, all you see is nature, a respite for migratory birds, both waterfowl and others, that we do not have the opportunity to see routinely in our region.
Nature is where you find it. How often do the directions to a cherished nature preserve tell you to “take the small road between the Shell Circle K and the Waffle House up over the flood wall”, and that the parking lot is within a quarter mile of this thoroughfare? Everything is well marked and easy to find. You park in a lot along a gravel road but within site of the first Oxbow lakes.
The lakes are bordered by wetland trees, especially Silver Maple – for the most part nothing majestic. But immediately you are welcomed by the Oxbow greeter, a flamboyant Great Blue Heron.
We take a short diversion across a dyke between two lakes and see several things: Evidence of beaver, a King Fisher in silhouette, and Canada Geese flying but struggling to maintain their flight “V”.
We spooked a group of mallards that left with a photo worthy departure.
As part of the Oxbow’s management plan, the surrounding lands are leased to farmers, with the caveat that 10% of the crop is to be left in the field for wildlife. We witnessed the benefit of this as we saw herons settling in for brunch.
When you go to the Oxbow you can count on your shoes getting variably muddy, depending on the weather. While there is a “gravel road” that makes up the primary walkway, it is frequently covered with sediment and mud. Interestingly, while we were there, the Oxbow folks were working on roadway improvement.
The real attraction at the Oxbow are the birds, some resident, some migratory. The first migrants that we noted were Ring Billed Gulls.
Another of the transients were these Shovelers.
I admit to having a terrible case of “geese fatigue” from dealing with them on golf courses and other locales, but when you see Canada Geese in the wild they are much more appealing.
Finally, the resident Great Blue Herons, were the quiet sentries, watching over the Oxbow.
There are opportunities to depart the gravel drive and walk around other lakes and through prairie plantings.
A few weeks ago a friend and I went to the Oxbow, without the photographer, to scout whether the migratory birds had arrived. Because the weather up north had been unseasonably warm, they had not pushed south yet. That day we opted to take one of the trails off the Oxbow Road as noted in the map sign photo above, and found this massive Silver Maple growing in a tree line bordering some cropland (see the heart sticker on the map above). That day I did not have my tools for measuring large trees so I brought them on this hike.
To give you some size reference, if you look closely you will see me at the base of the tree on the right. By tying a rope at 4.5 feet above the ground and measuring it, we found out that it was 292 inches (24 feet – 4 inches) in circumference. Using the geometry that we learned in high school (circumference = 2piR), we could calculate that the diameter (=2 x R) was 7 feet 9 inches. A true champion tree contender for the state of Indiana.
While confident in the circumference/diameter measurement, because we were cold and windswept, I used less precise techniques to estimate the breadth (108 feet) and the height (105 feet). All in all an impressive specimen. I will return on a warm day in the early spring to recheck those.
Sense of Place:
What intrigues me about the Oxbow is that such a valuable ecologic treasure, and the wildlife it hosts, are nestled in amongst the human development of the region: Within eyesight are the I-275 bridge, a large power plant, and a Lawrenceberg, Indiana casino. But once you are on the preserve you get lost in the natural activity and truly feel that you are somewhere more remote.
Due to its size and the migratory visitors, no two visits to the Oxbow Preserve are alike. I’ve seen Bald Eagles and Osprey, as well as numerous hawks. With the milder temperatures so far this winter up north, there is still time to catch some birds rare to our region over the next few weeks.
My visits to the Oxbow have mainly involved the areas north and west of the Oxbow Lake and Juno Pond on the map below. I have not ventured to the trails along the railroad to the south and I-275 to the east. That will change in 2022.
Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Location – In southeast Indiana, about 16 miles from downtown Cincinnati, just off I-275. As noted above, you turn south off US 50 in Lawrenceberg between the Waffle House and the Circle K. Follow the road to the stop sign and turn right. The entrance to the Oxbow is on the left, less than 100 yards after the turn.
Parking – Gravel lot
Facilities – None
Trail Conditions – The primary “trail” is a gravel drive that can be muddy. There are grassed trails through the fields and bordering cropland. There are always brochures and maps at the parking area.
Benches – Two noted at the lake overlook that appears as a star on the map sign photo above. It is a nice place for a lunch.
Kids – Kids who are able to negotiate the mud should do ok.
Dogs – No restrictions noted on their website or literature