January 1, 2017
Hocking County rich in bird diversity, as new book shows
One of Ohio's smallest counties has long been a favored refuge of Columbus residents fleeing the big city. Hocking County is small, but its 421 square miles are packed with natural beauty.
It's the stunning sandstone gorges, their steep, rocky slopes carpeted in towering hemlock trees, that give the Hocking Hills their distinctive flavor. Iconic places such as Conkles Hollow, Old Man's Cave and Cantwell Cliffs are treasured by tens of thousands of visitors annually.
Because of Hocking County's varied habitats and extraordinary botanical diversity, birds also abound.
A recent book, "The Birds of Hocking County, Ohio" (McDonald & Woodward Publishing Co., 144 pages), does a stellar job of documenting the Hocking Hills' avifauna. The authors are three legends of Ohio natural-history exploration: John Watts, Paul Knoop Jr. and Gary Coovert.
Studies of Hocking County's bird life really picked up steam in the 20th century, thanks to the labors of an early Dispatch writer. Edward Sinclair Thomas, who penned this column for 59 years beginning in 1922, maintained a cabin for decades in what he dubbed Neotoma Valley. The cabin still stands, and it is now part of Clear Creek Metro Park at the north end of the Hocking Hills.
A who's who of naturalists regularly made the pilgrimage to Thomas' Neotoma retreat, and they added much to our knowledge of the region's birds. The first photo in "Birds of Hocking County" is an image of a Bewick's wren taken by Thomas in 1923. While relatively common then, this species no longer occurs in the state.
Those planning a trip to Hocking County in search of certain species will find the book helpful. It documents a remarkable 266 species, describing the status and habitat of each in short accounts. Changes in abundance, such as with the aforementioned wren, are well-described.
Peppered throughout are several dozen photos of birds and habitats. Especially interesting are the images by Thomas, taken nearly a century ago, packaged with modern photos taken by Watts. They make one grateful for conservation — there are almost no trees in the old images! Today, these areas are densely cloaked with timber, thanks to the efforts of conservation agencies.
Especially interesting is the rich introduction, which covers Hocking County's history of nature exploration, its habitats, changes in bird life and excellent sites to seek birds. Among many interesting nuggets, the reader will find historical photos of giant trees — snapshots of what the Hocking Hills would have looked like before timbering.
Hocking County is especially notable for the rare birds that breed within its hemlock gorges. Species such as the blue-headed vireo, hermit thrush, and Canada and magnolia warblers are birds that normally nest far to the north of Ohio. These birds are just part of the highly specialized ecosystems of Hocking County — habitats that should be fiercely protected for their natural treasures.
"The Birds of Hocking County, Ohio" should be indispensable to anyone who visits or lives in the area and is interested in natural history. Birders statewide also will find it a valuable resource. Copies can be had for $24.95 from the Newark-based publisher, or from Amazon.
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