One of my favorite places is the Wilds in Muskingum County.
Sprawling across almost 10,000 acres, the massive conservation center is a bonanza for bird-watchers. In the summer, its meadows ring with the songs of bobolinks, Eastern meadowlarks, and many other species.
Wintertime brings raptors: Northern harriers, short-eared owls, rough-legged hawks, even rare golden eagles.
I was there Dec. 26 to participate in the Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count, which includes the Wilds. Although plenty of wild birds were to be found, it's the mammals that steal the show.
It's surreal to be scanning the meadows for birds and spot a trio of Bactrian camels on the horizon. A group of distant animals materializes into a herd of fringe-eared oryx. These muscular African antelopes sport long spikelike horns. A large pack of American bison dots a neighboring hillside, while Przewalski's horses - native to Mongolia - graze on another slope.
Of the Wilds' exotic stock, my favorite is the Sichuan takin (tock-in). The lumbering beasts resemble musk oxen and project a standoffish surliness that is somehow endearing. Big bulls can weigh more than 700 pounds. Although takins are occasionally referred to as "goat-antelopes" because of similarities to those animals, they remind me of a cross of a moose, bear, and wildebeest. They'd fit well in a Dr. Seuss story.
Takins are hardy animals, native to the frigid highlands of the Himalayans in Tibet and China. Their massive nostrils warm air before it enters the lungs, and oily skin secretions prevent water penetration, further protecting them from bitter cold. They typically inhabit dense bamboo forests, sharing habitat with a more famous mammal, the giant panda.
The takin's coat is a spectacular patchwork of dense brown and black fur capable of keeping the animal warm in the frostiest air. It has been claimed that the takin's beautiful pelage was the inspiration for the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts of Greek mythology.
The Wilds is North America's premier wildlife conservation center, housing nearly two dozen species of large mammals. Many of them are imperiled in their native ranges. The staff has been successful in breeding many species and advancing knowledge that aids in conservation of wild populations.
Visitation opens in May, and I highly recommend a trip. Visit thewilds.columbuszoo.org
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com