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The transformation of an urban wasteland

The Grange Insurance Audubon Center, which smacks right up against downtown Columbus, Ohio, takes shape. I made this photo on December 3, 2008, when the center was under construction. It was officially dedicated on August 3, 2009 and is now a vibrant center that hosts lots of events and provides outreach within the urban core of Columbus.

I was there yesterday to present a program as part of a dragonfly workshop - just one example of the varied events that take place at GIAC.

This Google Earth map is a few years old, and shows some of the former uses of the Whittier Street Peninsula, where the GIAC is located. The big parking lots are part of the former City of Columbus Impoundment Facility; many an irate driver had to to make the pilgrimage here to retrieve a misparked vehicle. The impound lot is gone now, moved to a new locale on the south side. Franklin County Metro Parks owns and manages much of the peninsula as the Scioto Audubon Metro Park, and has made great strides in improving the local habitat.

I've long been familiar with this area. Ever since I was a kid, I'd head to this wide spot in the Scioto River - courtesy the Greenlawn Avenue dam - to look for birds. The pooled waters behind the dam are, and were, a beacon for waterbirds. Many a rarity has turned up here over the years, and yours truly has found Great Black-backed Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake here - both major central Ohio rarities.

While we were always interested in the river, birders pretty much shunned the terrestrial habitats of the Whittier Street Peninsula. It was a rough place, peopled by unsavory characters frequenting unsavory habitats. Excepting a narrow fringe of cottonwood, silver maple and a few other riparian trees along the river, there just wasn't much habitat worth exploring.

A Virginian tiger moth, Spilosoma virginica (I think) peers at your blogger. After yesterday's talks had concluded, we split the group up and headed outside to look for dragonflies and other critters. What a change has come to the Whittier Street Peninsula since the pre-GIAC days! Restoration and recovery of habitat has led to an enormous spike in native plant diversity, and with that increase in botanical diversity comes a huge increase in animal diversity.

We only had an hour and a half to poke around, and it went fast. While the dragonflies weren't overly exceptional, although we did see quite a few, there were scads of other interesting animals and we nearly always had something noteworthy in our sights.

A locust borer, Megacyllene robiniae, feasts on goldenrod nectar. What was not long ago waste ground is now reverting to meadow, and much of it is rich with Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis. I am an unabashed goldenrod fan; if you want to find fabulously diverse insect communities, just dive into the local goldenrod patch.

A gray hairstreak, Strymon melinus, delighted the group and for a brief time, become a Lepidopteran celebrity with cameras clicking all around. We saw lots of butterflies of many species, including immigrants such as the common buckeye. Metro Parks and GIAC are augmenting the natural flora of the area with native plant plantings, and it's working - the local biodiversity has exploded compared to what it was just a few short years ago.

I was especially pleased to find this gorgeous caterpillar - it is the larva of the snowberry clearwing, Hemaris diffinis. This is one of the day-flying "hummingbird moths".

We saw far more during our brief foray than I can share here. Many species of dragonflies were frequenting the newly created wetlands, and the buffering meadows were full of cool insects. A Pied-billed Grebe and a couple of Blue-winged Teal loafed in the water, and a muskrat put on quite a show, as did a big snapping turtle accompanied by a painted turtle that was attempting to graze algae from the larger turtle's back. Especially exciting was the appearance, directly overhead, of a pair of Peregrine Falcons, probably the local downtown nesters.

The Whittier Street Peninsula will only improve with age. As the wetlands, meadows, and woodlands mature and diversify, the attendant animal life will also improve. Given its location in such a highly urbanized area, the Audubon Scioto Metro Park serves as a major beacon to migratory birds and insects. I suspect some very noteworthy records will be made here in coming years.

It has been gratifying to watch the ongoing restoration of what, not long ago, was pretty much an urban wasteland. The transformation of the Whittier Peninsula from impound lot/industrial refuse to vibrant natural habitats is a great positive for the City of Columbus, and should serve as a model of urban brownfield restoration.

To learn more about this area, CLICK HERE, and HERE.


Anonymous said…
What plant was the clearwing larva on? I have found the other one (thysbe?) on a Viburnum opulus- European version.

Jim McCormac said…
Hi Brian,

It was feeding on Amur honeysuckle, Lonicera maackii. I don't know if the early instars can eat this stuff, or if the older instars shift to it after partially maturing on some other host.

I've seen Baltimore checkerspot cats eating nonnative honeysuckle but only in the final instar. They obviously got their start on turtlehead.

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