I happen to have a friend who lives in Ohio, which means that I have the pleasure of visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park once or twice a year. A 33,000 acre park, Cuyahoga Valley has many lovely nature trails and waterfalls. I have had the opportunity to explore many of them on my various visits. However, my absolute favorite is without a doubt the Towpath trail through the Beaver Marsh. Although I have never seen a beaver here, this spot is always alive with activity. Previously I have visited in the early spring and winter but this year I had the opportunity to check out the Beaver Marsh in the midst of summer.
The Towpath starts off as many do, a large even dirt path, fairly wide. This towpath is a big favorite among bikers and the morning air was filled with the friendly “tink-tink” of bicycle bells, followed by barks of “on your left!” As you would expect, the towpath follows a stream of water on one side, never particularly deep, but it provides a source of flowing fresh water for the animals that live here. Not very far from the Ira Trailhead parking lot is the remnants of a lock. Just a bit further along the Marsh opens up on both sides of a lovely boardwalk and viewing platform. This is where most of the action is.
On this particular visit I was spoiled by nature. I had decided to take an early morning hike before driving back to New Jersey, so I headed out to the park around 9am. It was a beautiful, sunny morning and a refreshing walk seemed like the perfect compliment to a lovely and relaxing weekend with friends. I was pretty content, birds or no birds.
Before I even walked far enough down the trail to see the lock, I noticed a lone female Wood Duck, standing on a log. I was pretty excited because this was the closest Wood Duck I have had the opportunity to photograph, most of them tending to shy away from paths toward more secluded sections of water. I snapped some photos of her standing on her log and continued along my way, even more perky.
Little did I know, Cuyahoga had much more in store for me. I decided to divert from the trail and have a closer look at the lock, which is when I noticed my second great surprise. A Great Blue Heron, perched in a tree. It didn’t seem remotely bothered by my presence but just kept on preening and scratching its head. It seemed particularly itching and I had to wait a while before it settled down for me to get some full body photos.
Next I walked out onto the boardwalk and was dazzled by the purple flowers growing in the marsh. Everything was green and purple. White water lilies with glowing yellow centers dotted the water. The air above the water was buzzing with activity as a colony of Tree Swallows flew overhead, swooping down on unsuspecting insects. A pretty gluttonous Song Sparrow landed on a bush full of berries. It hopped from branch to branch scoffing down the blue-purples spheres with great vigor. The only evidence of his over indulgence was some berry remnants stuck to the outside of his beak. The Marsh viewing area was pretty crowded, so I didn’t hang around too long, hoping to get ahead of the crowd and check the Marsh out on my way back to the car.
As I made my way from the Marsh, the stream went back to a small meandering vein flowing ever so slightly. Another Wood Duck appeared, this one slowing swimming against the meager current. This duck struck me odd. It felt different from the first Wood Duck I had just seen, but it took me a moment to put my finger on it. While the plumage was similar in coloring, the eyes were different. This ducks eyes were blood red. What I had before me was a male Wood Duck showing his non-breeding plumage. Like several other types of ducks, the male Wood Duck molts his green head feathers after he has successfully attracted a mate. Presumably the brown head allows for better camouflage during the rest of the year.
Only a bit further downstream I encountered still more Wood Ducks. This time it was three juveniles hanging out together. They were still a little fuzzy, a telling sign of their age and their overall behavior seemed more hesitant. They swam for a bit before setting on a log together.
After the group of juvenile Wood Ducks the Towpath leaves the stream behind for a bit and is wooded on both sides. The air was punctuated by the calls of Catbirds and Blue Jays, but it was a different kind of wings that attracted me. Several moths and butterflies fluttered around, feeding off the nectar of various plants that grew along the side of the path. An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail was so focused on nectar extraction that it stopped moving its wings long enough for me to get some nice photographs. A rare opportunity as butterflies, like hummingbirds, seem unable to hold themselves still but are just bursting with energy and the need for flight.
Speaking of hummingbirds, I also managed to spot and take a few photographs of the Hummingbird Moth, a fascinating creature. As you might expect, the Hummingbird Moth behaves similarly to the Hummingbird, fluttering its wings to hover in the air over a flower from which it drinks with its extended tongue-like proboscis. There are many varieties of Hummingbird Moths in the United States and it was really great to see one in action up close.
At this point in my walk I turned around and headed back to the boardwalk. As I had hoped, the crowds had all moved on and the space was pretty empty. I settled down along the rail at a good vantage point and scanned the water. Snapping turtles are among the wildlife I have seen here before, and I could hear frogs, so I was trying to notice any and all movement. A pair of Wood Ducks slowly swam among the lily-pads, searching for a nice snack under the leaves. In the relative silence, the buzzing of blue dragonflies created an audible current in the air. One of the dragonflies met a sad end and became dinner for a hungry female Red-winged Blackbird. The water lilies also humming with bees, busy pollinating. The fish were remaining pretty still, trying not to attract any attention as they waited just below the surface. Only their bubbles gave them away. A lone fluffy flycatcher sat on the branch of a dead tree, waiting for the next insect to come within reach.
All too soon my time was up and I need to head back to my car and get on the road. It had been a great morning, so it was only with a tinge of regret that I pulled myself away from the railing and headed back to the towpath. But Cuyahoga Valley had one last surprise. Just beyond the lock and almost back to the parking lot, I noticed a Green Heron, slowly and deliberately making its way through the mud. Shorter than the Great Blue Heron by almost thirty inches, the Green Heron’s size also helps it to blend in more subtly into its habitat. With that final sighting I headed back to my car, already thinking about when my next trip to Ohio would be.
If you are interested to learn more about Beaver Marsh, visit: https://www.nps.gov/cuva/planyourvisit/the-beaver-marsh.htm