I really enjoy hiking a new venue, especially when the site features a unique ecosystem. That was the case for me when we visited St. Anne Woods and Wetlands.
The 165 acre preserve is managed by the Campbell County Conservation District, having been purchased in 2013 from the Sisters of Divine Providence, with a Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund grant. The sisters, who had owned the property since 1908 as part of the St. Anne Convent, had purposefully prohibited development of the site as their goal was to care for and preserve the land in its natural state. Previous histories noted that the Congregation of Divine Providence describes the site as “a gift of God’s Providence,” and states that “land and property are entrusted to our care as a resource for mission”. Now, all of us have benefited from their longstanding stewardship.
The property is ecologically unique, being one of the last remnants of undisturbed wetlands located along the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky. It also has historical significance in that it was studied by the ground breaking female botanist Dr. E. Lucy Braun in the early 1900s, who described it as “the best depression forest on the Ohio River floodplain”.
Immediately upon stepping onto the trail we were struck by a discordant chorus of animal sounds: From bird vocalizations, to woodpecker hammerings, to calls of a variety of tree frogs. It was both energizing and distracting – a real challenge to try to localize the sources of the various sounds.
Shortly the trail was flanked by flowering spicebushes, reassuring us that we were indeed into spring.
Within 50 yards of the trailhead we come upon these shallow pools of water in some mild lowlands, just off the trail. These are ephemeral ponds, only present during the late winter and spring; the result of snow melt and precipitation accumulating in low lying areas. They are pivotal for the life cycles of numerous insects and amphibians and explain the abundance of species from these groups in this preserve.
These areas, and the ponds themselves, are populated by large Red Maples, Pin Oaks, Cottonwoods, and Sycamores; all species that thrive in wetland soil and can survive with their roots constantly in water. Some trunks featured buttressed bases more common in wet lands.
These bodies of water were very shallow and the bottom could almost always be seen. We also saw these gelatinous masses which may have been amphibian eggs but they were too far from shore for us to get a closer look.
Numerous frogs, salamanders, and toads use the ephemeral pools for breeding, including the regionally rare Jefferson Salamander and Wood Frog which have been documented here.
One sighting seen along the trails at the edge of the pools was our first spring wildflower of the season – Spring Beauty. It is very common but still a welcomed sight, portending warmer days ahead. The flower grows from a potato like tuber that was a source of nutrition for both Native Americans and early settlers in the eastern United States.
More commonly you will see them with faint pink stripes of varying intensity on each petal, reminiscent of a peppermint candy. Here they were somewhat numerous and none had the pink markings.
About one fourth of the way along the trail, the path leaves the ephemeral ponds and heads across a woodland with interspersed small wetlands that require boardwalks to cross them. For the most part the ground was boggy but there was no standing water at this time.
Soon things transitioned into a Beech and Tulip-poplar forest. The reason for this is that the elevation changed ever so slightly: Still a moist wood, with nutrient rich soil, but no standing water. This setting was host to a stream that meandered across the landscape.
This creek was shallow but wide, almost imperceptibly flowing, and perhaps 1 to 2 inches in depth. The stream bed was blanketed in leaves.
This location was surprisingly peaceful: Almost chapel like in atmosphere. Again, largely American Beech and Tulip-poplar but also some surprisingly large Black Walnuts, including this one, whose first branch was tree size on its own.
There is something about a beech wood that oozes serenity.
I mentioned previously the abundant birds noted at the start of the hike, and their presence continued throughout the wood. (Red-bellied Woodpecker, American Robin, Eastern Bluebird, Tufted Titmouse, Hairy Woodpecker).
There were others such as nuthatches, warblers and chickadees that unfortunately we were not able to capture with photography.
St. Anne Woods and Wetlands is in total 165 acres, fragmented into 4 parts. The portion that we hiked is called “Wetland 1 South”, comprises 52 acres, and is identified as “B” in the following photograph.
Unfortunately the other 3 areas are not currently open to the public, but are part of the broader picture for future use of the facility. Track D, “The Woods”, is the most mature forest on the preserve. It is hoped that sometime in the future it will be able to be open to the public. It also includes the pollinator field discussed below.
Home to Science:
The overall site is an active scientific research facility for the regional universities of NKU, Thomas More, and Xavier, and that is why various hardwares are seen throughout the campus. It gives scientific bonifides to the ecological value of the preserve.
Because the development of the facility involved the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves, it has been more thoroughly studied and inventoried than most of the parks and preserves that we have hiked. The results of the required biological and archeological assessments are available on the Campbell County Conservation District link provided at the end of this article. The findings that I found most interesting were:
- 8 bat species were noted on a single night of study, including both the threatened Gray and Indiana bats.
- They identified an excellent large pollinator habitat in the field just south of Route 8 (the field included in Zone D on the aerial view). This included finding the American Copper Butterfly that is declining in Kentucky due to habitat loss.
- Cataloguing 72 bird, 11 amphibian, 3 reptile, and 21 mammal species.
- The presence of 12 species of dragonfly or damselfly (up to that time only 7 had been identified in Campbell County).
- In all, 451 plant and animal species were identified including the Spinulose Woodfern (Dryopterus carthusiana), which is considered rare in Kentucky.
In summary, a hike at St. Anne Woods and Wetlands is an excellent outing. The ecosystem is unique to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area and the trail conditions are excellent. Although the trail is only 0.7 miles long it takes quiet awhile to hike it, if one slows down into observation mode, as there is much to see. It is an outstanding birding location. In addition, it is renown for its amphibian inhabitants and now is an ideal time to see them. Despite being nestled between KY Route 8 and a railroad, it is generally a quiet respite. The only negative that I would mention is that there are no benches. I think that this place is loaded with ideal spots to sit down and let nature come to you. This preserve is a “must see” for outdoor enthusiasts in the region. Hopefully the conservation district will be able to proceed with their plans to open additional areas to the public. In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to follow them on their website to take part in the field days, when they invite the public to tour the closed areas of the preserve. They are planning one for Earth Day Weekend in April.
Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns, with the exception of the aerial photo which is from the Campbell County Conservation District website.
Location – In Melbourne, KY, about 11 miles southeast of downtown Cincinnati.
Parking – Nice gravel lot for 5 – 6 cars.
Facilities – None
Trail Conditions – Excellent and well marked. Much of the trail is lined by fallen timber. Due to the low lying terrain the trail could be wet at times.
Print Map Link – https://campbell.ca.uky.edu/files/stannswetland_v5.pdf. I would caution that this rough map does not show a pipeline that transects the oval. There is a map board at the trailhead that is more detailed and I would encourage you to take a photo of that at your outset.
Benches – None
Kids – Kids 3 and over should do well here with minimal assistance.
Dogs – Welcomed on a leash and the Conservation District request that owners clean up their dogs
Paired Hikes – No other hikes at this venue