This is a tale of two hikes, the first being aborted when a violent pop-up thunderstorm sent us scurrying one half mile out of the woods for safety. Our eldest and I returned 11 days later to complete the loop, as the photographer recovered from our Covid experience.
I had been following Cardinal Land Conservancy on social media for some time. They are a not-for-profit organization that states its mission is “to preserve natural habitats, waterways, agricultural lands and open space we love in Southwest Ohio by working with individuals, families, and communities”. Through donations, conservation easements, and purchase, they have protected 9000 acres in the region. Once property is acquired, Cardinal staff, members, and volunteers work to improve and restore these properties, by planting native plants, removing invasive plants, and placing trails and infrastructure. They also do community outreach and environmental education. For example, I enjoy their Eagle Camera that live-streams a Bald Eagle nest that is high in a Cottonwood tree at the Bortz Family Nature Preserve, where the Little Miami River runs into the Ohio River on the east side of Cincinnati. This past spring I watched the live-stream daily as 3 eaglets progressed from eggs to fledglings, and shared that experience with family and friends. Since the eaglets have left the nest the live streaming has ended for 2023. Frankly, I love the work of independent land conservation groups who use private donations and some public grants to protect ecologically significant habitats from development.
For that reason I was excited this spring when I read that Cardinal had opened four of their eleven preserves for public use. I selected the 59 acre Rinsky Woods for this July hike because I am a sucker for the label “Old Growth Forest”, and because prairies are not at peak flowering yet.
Our first outing was on July 6th and the weather app said there was about a 10% chance of rain that morning. The trail is what I refer to as a lollipop trail, it leaves the parking area and crosses a somewhat narrow woodland corridor that passes between farm fields, and then meets up with the loop trail. To get back to your vehicle you return via the corridor.
As we entered the trail, we found a landscape that met the descriptions I had read – a mature deciduous wood that could best be characterized as “wet”. It had not rained for days but the trail was still damp. There were low areas that clearly held water much of the season. This is because the soil has a clay base that does not drain well. The common plant was sedge, but of many different varieties. They have an affinity for wetlands.
It was in the first lowland that we saw this somewhat rare shrub that we caught at the height of its bloom – Buttonbush – hoisting its flowers that resemble dandelion seed heads.
To be honest, from a distance it is rather bland – but on closer inspection the flowers are spectacular.
When we returned 11 days later we saw progression in the fruiting process, with the flowers waning and seed heads forming.
It was fascinating to see the progression. The short display period and need for consistent moisture makes you understand why it has somewhat limited use as a landscape garden plant.
This presentation of mosses on a log reaffirms that this indeed is a moist habitat.
It was then, as we approached the loop trail, that we saw the destruction. We went from deep shade to an area where a large section of the forest canopy was missing. This Ohio area was hit by an F-2 tornado in July of 2022. I found this description for an F-2 – “113-157 mph winds, considerable damage, mobile homes demolished, trees uprooted”. What it did to a section of this forest was staggering.
This photo gives you a feel for the torsional forces that caused this tree to be twisted. We saw this many times over.
The devastation was everywhere for several acres. But still the area abounded with life.
On the original outing we had turned right, heading west, frankly because the trail looked more open. We worked our way through a mixed mesophytic (wet) forest, awestruck by the bird calls we heard in the canopy. But perhaps the most interesting thing we saw were the ponds at the base of trees blown over by the tornado. These appeared to hold water consistently and were hosting amphibians. If we saw this once, we saw it ten times over the course of the two hikes.
The photographer caught this photo of a frog, many of which were seen positioned on the edges of these small pools.
On the first visit the hike continued through the moist wood, which featured mature trees of White Oak, Chinkapin Oak, Shagbark Hickory, Bitternut Hickory, Red Maple, Sugar Maple, Red Oak, and Beech; with midstory trees just waiting to take over the lead role, should one of the matriarchs fall in a storm.
We saw a lot of familiar plants including Spicebush, whose berries are held prominently along the branch, and will turn red in the fall.
But then the three of us had a breath taking moment. We stumbled on something none of us had seen before. In a section of deeply shaded forest there was a wide display of “puffball” like flowers.
They extended to cover an area that measured 60 feet by 60 feet. I was baffled, but the science teacher Caroline, and her phone, were on top of it – they were Ramps – which she immediately recognized as an onion family member that is very popular in the culinary world. It sends up leaves in early spring, which then regress, and then flower stalks in mid summer. We were seeing the isolated flower stalks.
It was clear that we are plant nerds as we danced along the trail studying and photographing these plants that were new to us – and in this case the specimens were countless.
But it was on the close up view that you came to appreciate this flower, and its ties to the onion family.
As we were exalting in this find we realized that an ugly storm had blown in – and a mature wood is not where your want to be in sustained winds. We hustled out and made plans to return in a few days. But then Covid struck our household and we went to Plan B. Yes, I was the signature case, but, thanks to vaccinations, I bounced back relatively quickly. As expected, the photographer developed symptoms a few days later, which kept her off the trail.
Luckily our eldest, also a hobbyist photographer, was available to stand in. For whatever reason, on this latter outing we opted to take the loop trail in the opposite direction.
As we headed left instead of right, the first observation was that this was a “long pants” trail – with knee high sedges and poison ivy. Bare legs were at risk here. The path was not clearly worn, but we could discern the route.
The online messaging is clear – this is a wet trail, and we concur. Our second visit was just one day after the region had significant rain and there were marshy areas here and there – not enough that you would sink in, but your shoes will get muddy. Cardinal, on their website, requests that visitors remain on the trail, accept the muddying of their shoes, and not damage the surrounding plants in attempts to avoid the mud.
On the northern aspect of the preserve, what you notice is the productivity of the trees – the ground is carpeted with the shells of last year’s hickory nuts.
It would be hard to impress upon you the immensity of the trees in this preserve . The stand-in photographer and I conversed, and immediately agreed that some of the mature specimens appeared to be 120 feet or more in height.
And because of the denseness of the canopy, the understory in this area is virtually non-existent this time of year. I would suspect that it hosts great ephemeral flowers in the spring however.
What is striking is the branching architecture of the mature trees – huge branches cantilever out, shading large sections of the forest floor.
One of my favorite stretches of the trail displayed these massive White Oaks – perhaps “three sisters” since they appear the same age.
But the midstory – trees waiting to take a lead role – was thick. This prevented visualization of the birds whose calls were broadcasting down from the canopy. I used the Merlin Bird ID app Sound ID function on and off on this second hike, and an impressive list was noted: Tufted Titmouse, Wood Thrush, Acadian Flycatcher, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Eastern Wood Pee-wee, American Robin, Red-eyed Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Blue-gray Knatcatcher, Chipping Sparrow, Yellow-throated Vireo, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Killdeer. We saw some but the thick foliage for the most part prohibited effective photography. Early on however, Caroline did capture this resting Hummingbird.
While we were there it struck me that the hummingbird looked bigger than the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that we see frequently in our garden. Then when I got home I started to investigate it more. The specimen that we saw was not as iridescent as usual. Online reading led me to the term “vagrant” hummingbirds. These are birds that are not usually seen in a location, but due to migration error, end up in a non-endemic area. It is an interesting topic. While it is said that the Ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummingbird to breed east of the Rockies, other hummingbirds can be seen. In North Carolina another 11 species of hummingbirds have been identified – the “vagrants”. I have attached a link below. So was our specimen a less flamboyant female Ruby, or one of the vagrants? Science is about observation and questioning, and nothing is sacrosanct.
A unique feature of Rinsky Woods, is that while it is “Old Growth” it is surrounded by agricultural fields, mostly soybeans. That provides a transition zone – another habitat.
It was in this forest edge that we saw many Little Wood Satyr butterflies. They seemed to occur in groupings of 10 to 20. Their presence here was not surprising as the sedges that grew in the moist edges are a favorite larval food source, and therefore where they lay their eggs.
And the sedges were everywhere. Sedges are grass like plants, but as we have said before, they have “edges”, meaning that the stalks of the leaves are not round like grass, but triangular as seen here. In addition, the stems are solid, whereas grass leaf stems are hollow. This is a photo of a cut sedge stem – triangular and solid.
It led Caroline and I to coin the term – “Sedge Head” – for the interesting seed structures that were on display from the many species of sedges present.
Along the path there were other interesting observations. This Oyster Mushroom was the size of a hand, arising from a log that had been removed from the trail. Notice the slug that was heading over to dine on the fungus. Fungi are a common food source for slugs.
This small specimen caught our attention. Is it a fungus or a plant? It is actually Indian Pipe, a rare plant that has no chlorophyll, and therefore not green, and gets its nutrition from fungi in the soil. It is considered uncommon and only found in mature woods. It does flower and set seed. After it flowers and is pollinated, the seed head will be held upright, not bent over as seen here.
Earlier we touched on the number of hickories seen in this wood. Some were Bitternut, but most appeared to be mature Shagbark Hickory. Many of these seemed to display an exaggerated “shagginess”. Perhaps it was a genetic characteristic.
As Caroline and I exited the woods via the corridor, she saw this – a striking insect. It is a Net-winged Beetle – named for the texture pattern on its wings. It is believed that the coloration is an advantage as many orange and black insects taste bad, and therefore makes this a less desirable prey to predators.
And as we end the story one last insect to enjoy – a very peaceful grasshopper, hugging a sedge, and just hoping that we would leave him alone.
In summary, Rinsky Woods did not disappoint. It is an outstanding Old Growth Forest with many massive trees. While I am sad that some of it was lost to the 2022 tornado, it will be interesting to watch nature recover from this trauma, and see which species benefit. As Caroline and I were completing the loop, we were already discussing how this venue is really a four season stage – it was certainly impressive in the mid-summer, but we think its fall colors should be excellent, that the winter will feature the architecture of the massive trees, and that spring wild flowers here should be outstanding. Put this on your list folks – it is unique. The teacher, photographer, and I will be back over “winter break” – to study the architecture of the old growth trees, and perhaps, if we are lucky, see a few owls. We will also begin to ponder how we may best support Cardinal Land Conservancy, as this outing left us with a good impression of the work they are doing to preserve critical habitat and greenspace in the region, and helping people get in touch with nature.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns and Caroline Burns Grizzle.
Location – 37 miles from downtown Cincinnati in Edenton, Ohio, near the intersection of Leuders Road and Bishop Road.
Parking – gravel lot for 6 cars.
Trail Conditions – largely bare dirt but there are areas where sedges and poison ivy encroach on the trail. Wear long pants!
Benches –there is a nice bench halfway through the trail. There are a couple of derelict benches in the easement.
Picnic Tables – none.
Kids – given the wetlands and puddles, I would suggest 6 and over.
Dogs – prohibited.
Suggested Paired Hikes – None.