Picture Ohio! – Winter at the Wilds

View from the Visitor Center, the Wilds
View from the Visitor Center, the Wilds

On a map of southeast Ohio, draw a triangle that connects Zanesville, Cambridge, and Marietta. In the center of this triangle, south of the old mining town of Cumberland, lies some of the wildest country in the Buckeye State. From 1969 to 1991, much of this land was strip-mined for coal by a 13,000-ton walking dragline known as Big Muskie. Today more than 30,000 acres of restored strip-mined lands, known as the AEP Recreation Lands, offer unique opportunities for winter birding, as well as the chance to observe and photograph some fascinating mammals from Asia, Africa, and North America at a remarkable place called the Wilds.

Przewalski's horses grazing at the Wilds
Przewalski’s wild horses grazing at the Wilds

The photo above was taken just after sunrise on a cold but beautiful foggy morning in February, 2008 during a winter visit to the Wilds, one of the largest conservation and breeding facilities for rare and endangered animals in North America. The Przewalski’s (pronounced “shuh-VAL-skee”) horses grazing in the photo are the world’s only truly wild equines, native to Mongolia in east Asia. At the Wilds, they are affectionately known as “P-horses.” P-horses have never been domesticated and you would be taking a grave risk if you tried to approach one on foot in their native habitat.

A trio of Sichuan takins at the Wilds
A trio of Sichuan takins at the Wilds

You would be taking an even more hazardous risk if you tried to cozy up to the three formidable critters shown in the photo above. These are Sichuan takins, and they are my favorite animals at the Wilds. Takins have been described as a cross between a goat, an antelope, a bear, and a musk ox. A mature male takin may tip the scales at 500-700 lbs, and stands 48-55 inches at the shoulder. In their native habitat in the foothills of the eastern Himalayan Mountains in Sichuan takins have few predators, except perhaps a very hungry and determined snow leopard or a hunter armed with a high-powered rifle.

Sichuan takin at the Wilds
Sichuan takin at the Wilds

I made these photographs from the safety of a battered Wilds pickup truck inside one of the large enclosures, surrounded by electrified fencing, that the takins call home and the  Wilds staff refer to as “pasture.” The staff person who drove the truck informed me that I was safe as long as I stayed in the passenger seat or the bed of the pickup truck. Takins are very formidable critters, tough as nails with a grumpy disposition, and I was happy to follow instructions and never left the vehicle.

Bactrian deer at the Wilds
Bactrian deer at the Wilds

The Bactrian deer, also known as the Bukhara deer, is a type of red deer that is native to central Asia. At the Wilds, their herd of Bactrian deer live in a large enclosure near the main entrance on International Road. They are a gregarious species, and often pose obligingly for pictures in tight groups.

Bactrian camel trio at the Wilds
Bactrian camel trio at the Wilds

During one of my winter visits to the Wilds, we encountered a living road block during a drive through pasture – a trio of Bactrian camels. An adult Bactrian camel is 6-7 feet tall at the shoulder and weighs up to a ton – the curb weight of the small pickup truck we were traveling in that day. A Bactrian camel has two humps, unlike its cousin, the single-humped camel, or Dromedary. A Bactrian camel can survive in temperatures from – 40 degrees C to + 40 degrees C, so Ohio’s coldest winters and hottest summers are easily handled by these large, central Asian  ungulates with their thick, warm coats. When  it finds water, a camel may drink 10-15 gallons at a time, and can survive without drinking for several months if necessary. Contrary to popular belief, the camel’s humps store fat, not water.

Cheetah enjoying a stroll in the snow, the Wilds
Cheetah enjoying a stroll in the snow, the Wilds

Although most of the animals at the Wilds are herbivores, there is also a carnivore center with cheetahs, African hunting dogs, and dholes, which are native to India. The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal, capable of sprints up to 60 mph. The cheetahs at the Wilds are fed a meat-based diet, supplemented by the occasional cottontail rabbit or groundhog unlucky enough to stray into the cheetah’s enclosure. On balmy winter days, the cheetahs enjoy a walk in the snow.

American Bison, the Wilds
American Bison, the Wilds

The Wilds is home to a small herd of American bison, another animal renowned for its toughness and ability to survive in winter weather that would be lethal to more delicate animals, as well as people.

White-tailed Deer, the Wilds
White-tailed Deer, the Wilds

The Asian and African animals at the Wilds are heavily outnumbered by a large population of native white-tailed deer, dozens of which may be seen throughout the year as you drive along the perimeter roads that surround the Wilds. The photo above was taken from the Jeffrey Point Birding Station, which provides a spectacular view of the open grassland terrain at the Wilds. How many deer can you count in the photo?

Short-eared Owl, the Wilds
Short-eared Owl, the Wilds

The Wilds and the AEP Recreation Lands nearby are a prime destination for birders throughout the year. In winter many raptors may be seen, attracted by the large population of rodents that live in the grassland habitat. You can expect to see northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, an occasional prairie falcon, bald eagles and even a golden eagle from time to time. Short-eared owls are also regular winter residents at the Wilds, and may be seen at twilight flying above the grasslands like giant moths.  Northern shrikes and eastern meadowlarks have also been observed here in winter.

Trumpeter Swans, the Wilds
Trumpeter Swans, the Wilds

The Wilds is also home to a small breeding population of trumpeter swans, the largest species of waterfowl in North America. Trumpeter swans were extirpated from Ohio during the 1800s, but a small population of 25-35 breeding pairs has been reestablished in the Buckeye State over the past several decades. This group was sunbathing on the ice covering one of the many lakes at the Wilds.

The Wilds is closed to the public during the winter months, but winter tours are available by appointment. Also popular is the annual winter birding visit to the Wilds organized by the Ohio Ornithological Society (OOS), which attracts 100-150 people. Known as the Wilds Winter Raptor Extravaganza, this trip will be held on Saturday, January 17th, 2015. For more information, check out the OOS website. For more details about winter tours, visit the Wilds website.

 

 

 

 

 

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