Discovering a Wonderland
One afternoon not long after talking to Gene Rea, I visited the Clear Creek Valley in Hocking County for the first time. I still have my notes and a checklist of the birds I saw. By heeding Gene's advice and taking the less traveled roads, not only did I find the family of Red-headed Woodpeckers - right where he said they would be - I also saw three Dickcissels, a decidedly uncommon bird in Ohio, and a Bachman's Sparrow, a real rarity. But the best was yet to come.
Once I had driven through the glaciated, wide upper reaches of the valley, most of it under cultivation, then passed through one of the covered bridges Gene had mentioned, the road narrowed and followed Clear Creek like a faithful dog at its master's side for over seven miles through a series of rugged hills.
To me, it was a wonderland. Dramatic sandstone outcroppings towered overhead; mature hardwoods and giant hemlocks clothed the slopes, ferns of many species inhabited dark and sheltered ravines and hollows.
A thunderstorm had been threatening and the buildup of towering cumulonimbus clouds accompanied by cooler breezes and the muttering of distant thunder had stimulated the birds into increased activity and song.
Before the storm broke, I saw more birds than I had ever dreamed possible during the month of June in Ohio. Warblers, tanagers, and orioles flashed before my eyes. From the deeper woods I heard the silvery harmonics of Wood Thrushes, the teacher-teacher-teacher rhetoric of Ovenbirds, the burry, repetitious singing of a Yellow-throated Vireo, and the raucous yelping of Pileated Woodpeckers.
About five o'clock the sky darkened, followed by a rustling sound in the high leaves. The tall trees bent to the chill breath of an approaching squall line. Lightning split the sky like an electric-knife and the booming of thunder reverberated through the hills.
Ferns and black-eyed Susans twitched and trembled as the first tentative drops reached the ground and splattered along the dusty road. A moment later the rain came down in torrents. Through the car's windshield wipers, I remember seeing an Indigo Bunting diving for cover.
That was how I came to know the Clear Creek Valley. It was to be the first of hundreds of subsequent visits over the years. My continuing interest in ornithology was to reach ever deeper commitments, in large part because of the remarkable birdlife I found there.
In the late 60s, Edward S. Thomas and Ed Hutchins, who later became director of the Columbus and Franklin County Metropolitan Parks, were among the first to express concern over a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' proposed project to dam Clear Creek and flood over half of the valley.
When I heard this news I decided to do all I could to thwart such a thoughtless scheme with its resultant loss of plant, animal, and bird life. I was reminded of the old song, Big Yellow Taxi, in which Joni Mitchell lamented:
Don't it always seem to go,
That you don't know what you've got
till it's gone.
They paved paradise
And put in a parking lot.
Well, in this case a dam, but in that state of mind the idea came to me to take an annual census of the nesting birds in the valley, hoping in such a way to provide data that could be used to divert this travesty of bureaucratic nonthink.
As it turned out, the dam was never built, in large part due to an outpouring of criticism raised in opposition to such a boondoggle. By the time the final decision was made, I had completed the first two years of the census, which I started in 1970 and with the exception of 1973, when I was doing a North American Big Year, have undertaken every year since.