We went there with a goal in mind – to find some Skunk Cabbage, the first wildflower to bloom in the new year. While it is rare in the Cincinnati/Hamilton County area, I read that the staff at Miami Whitewater had established a colony of it in the recent past. The naturalists’ office was closed that day, but surely an amateur naturalist like myself could hypothesize where they would put it in the 4670 acre park. The plant inhabits wetlands so, of the trails offered, I thought that the Timberlakes Trail was our best bet.
We were putting on our hiking shoes and readying the camera in the parking lot when the cadence of the woodpeckers got our attention. I’m not talking an occasional percussion. I’m talking the Grambling State University Band performing off amongst the oaks. The rhythms were coming at us from three directions.
We tried to localize the performers but they were high up in the canopy and the low winter light made seeing them difficult. Based on the volume of the sound, one was certainly a Pileated Woodpecker.
We were just a few yards onto the trail when the photographer caught this one – a Redheaded Woodpecker with his “stocking cap” of scarlet. They are the only woodpecker in North American whose entire head is red.
The amount of drumming that we heard was striking and led me to do some research. Turns out that February and March would be expected times to have increased woodpecker hammering as it serves many purposes that are pivotal this time of year: Attracting a mate. Declaring a territory. Excavating a cavity for a nest. That does not include the year round need for feeding.
This section of Miami Whitewater is a medium age forest composed of Red and White Oak, Tulip-poplar, Sugar Maple, and American Beech. In addition, there was a surprising number of Wild Cherry. There was quite a bit of timber on the floor, and most of it was not Ash. I really think that it represented the maturation of the wood with some trees loosing out to competition. It was this transition, with numerous dead snag trees, that made the area so attractive to the woodpeckers.
The initial trail was bare dirt and somewhat slippery given the recent weather. It was a slow descent into a creek valley, and typical for a Hamilton County Park, there were well placed benches offering serenity.
This moist valley was where I hoped to find the Skunk Cabbage, but appropriately the trail kept us away from the fragile creekside, and made inspection challenging.
The valley itself was charming and presented a feel of a rainforest with ferns and mosses abounding. One of the first ferns that we saw was this Ebony Spleenwort, characterized by being evergreen, the alternately placed leaflets, and the dark brown leaf rachis (the fern word for stalk).
Spleenworts are a subgroup of ferns. The term “spleen” refers to the fact the the spore forming structures (sori) on these ferns are not spherical like most ferns, but rather shaped like a spleen or a grain of rice. The term “wort” is just an old word for plant. The sori are located on the underside of the leaflets or pinnae, and their pattern, shape, and whether they are on all or just some of the leaflets, helps in the identification of species.
Later we saw a nice grouping of Christmas Fern just above the creek.
You can identify Christmas Fern by the “stocking like” shape of its leaflets. The yellow arrow points to the tell tale “toe” of the “stocking”. It is called Christmas Fern not because of the “stocking” shape of the leaflets, but because it is evergreen and was used as Christmas greenery in the past.
Perhaps my favorite find of this hike was this log bridging the creek bed.
On closer examination it certainly added to the rainforest vibe.
Another interesting observation was this Christmas Fern that was displaced with this tree’s rootball when it fell many years ago, based on the state of decay of the tree. Clearly soldiering on and thriving in the small amount of soil left. Or perhaps a fern spore landed there after the tree fell, and the fern thrives with the lack of competition….a little natural history speculation.
One more photo to reinforce the rainforest ambiance.
The trail continued to wind its way above the creek, offering outstanding vistas of the understory.
It was hard to be sure who the culprit was but clearly one of these Ashes recently took out a bridge and a new one had to be placed.
Just the other side of the bridge the trail takes a hard left and crosses the dam of an unnamed man made lake. Here the trail became embedded gravel and was more easily traversed.
While the damage looked somewhat old, this was the third hike in a row where we could see evidence of Beavers harvesting trees.
After an extended climb up a mild grade we found ourselves on a ridge trail that featured a number of Shagbark Hickories, one of my favorite trees. And these guys were shagging more than most.
This ridge overlooked Miami Whitewater Forest Lake, the largest in the forest, which can be seen off in the distance in the photo below.
This section of trail was excellent for birding. It was here that we caught the image of the female Eastern Bluebird in the title photo, as well as this White-breasted Nuthatch.
As a reminder, Nuthatches are the only birds that will go down a tree trunk headfirst.
After completing the figure of eight ridge trail, as noted in the previous map, we recrossed the dam and retraced our footsteps, this time climbing up the steady grade in the “rainforest”.
In summary, while we did not find the elusive Skunk Cabbage, we had a good outing. The birding was excellent, and we saw many more species than we captured on photography, but such is the vagrancies of light, timing, and sightline obstruction. Based on the tree composition and the moisture, I am confident that this trail will be excellent for spring ephemeral wildflowers. In addition, if you are a woodpecker and nuthatch person like me, this trail is outstanding. March should be an ideal time as the woodpeckers will be even more active; declaring their territory, attracting mates, and excavating their cavity nests.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Location – 9001 Mt Hope Road, Harrison, Ohio, 24 miles west of Downtown Cincinnati.
Parking – Large asphalt lot.
Facilities – seasonal Porto-let in the parking area. Non-winter offers a formal restroom.
Trail Conditions – bare dirt that can be slippery on the first part of the trail but once on the dam and ridge trail it is embedded gravel.
Benches – Several well placed benches noted.
Picnic Tables – None on the trail but numerous throughout the park.
Kids – Kids four and over should do well.
Dogs – Welcomed on a 6 foot leash.
Paired Hiking Trails – The Badlands Trail shares a parking lot with this trail, but the trailhead is across the road and descends into another valley. It offers some unique geologic features.