Before Lucas Sullivant platted out Franklinton on the Scioto River’s west bank in the late 1790s, the river corridor was a wild place. Massive cottonwoods and sycamores shaded the free-flowing stream, which teemed with fish. Wildlife flourished in the streamside forests, including species long gone from Ohio. The raucous calls of Carolina parakeets rang from the treetops, the festive yellow, orange and green birds filling the forests with color and life. This species is now extinct, having died out by the 1930s. The last wild Ohio birds were seen on the grounds of the Statehouse in 1862, about three-fourths of a mile northeast of Scioto Audubon Metro Park.
Sullivant’s work ushered in major growth, and the Scioto River corridor was soon tamed. By the mid-1900s, the lobe of land known as the Whittier Street Peninsula had long been overrun with industrial activities. Eventually the city’s impound lot was put there, and many a peeved motorist trekked to the peninsula to get a car out of hock.
By the early 2000s, talks were under way to transform the peninsula into a wilder state. Through a three-way partnership, the city of Columbus, Franklin County Metro Parks and Audubon Ohio planned for urban renewal of a natural sort.
Great strides have been made on the peninsula during the past five years. The rows of impounded vehicles are gone, and much of the industrial past has been erased. Metro Parks has constructed wetlands and planted acres of meadows populated by native flora. A crown jewel is the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, which was dedicated in August 2009. This building overlooks the meadows and wetlands, and features numerous exhibits about Ohio’s natural history.
Bird-watchers have long known this area as a hot spot. The Greenlawn Avenue dam widens the Scioto River into a slack-water lake attractive to migrant waterbirds. Many a rarity has turned up, such as the great black-backed gull and the black-legged kittiwake, which are almost unknown in Ohio’s interior. Bird-watchers generally shunned the peninsula’s terrestrial habitats, though, in the olden days — too trashy and overdeveloped to provide a good environment.
I went down to the Audubon center recently to lead a group around the park. What a change the new management has wrought. We were dazzled by myriad creatures using the restored habitats. Butterflies were much in evidence, guzzling nectar from native prairie plants. Our group was especially smitten by a stunning gray hairstreak; camera-wielding paparazzi clicked off dozens of images. They were equally taken with a snowberry clearwing caterpillar that I spotted; the elegant caterpillar will transform into a hummingbird moth.
The wetlands hosted three species of turtles, an extroverted muskrat and more than a dozen species of dragonflies. The screams of a red-tailed hawk drew our eyes skyward — a pair of peregrine falcons had bushwhacked it, and the raptors were dogfighting overhead. Especially apropos are the dozens of great egrets currently hanging around the adjacent riverbanks. This stately white wader is the National Audubon Society’s symbol.
During my visit, I saw dozens of people enjoying the park. The human presence was especially gratifying, as parks are for people, too, and little in the way of wildlife or people visited this site before Scioto Audubon Metro Park was established. The park might not bring back Carolina parakeets, but it has resulted in an oasis for scores of other species.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.