Road Trip: Oak Openings

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The park sits atop varying levels of sand, which helped give rise to the unique blend of plant species.(Photo: Flickr)
The park sits atop varying levels of sand, which helped give rise to the unique blend of plant species.(Photo: Flickr)

Just west of Toledo is the Oak Openings Metropark, a 4000-acre site that preserves an amazing ecosystem of oak savannahs, abundant wildlife, and extremely rare plant species.

“The Oak Openings, to the untrained eye, looks an awful lot like a regular oak forest or perhaps just a wet area. The beauty of the Oak Openings is up close. It’s not the first glance that gets you, it’s the second, and the third, and the fourth that draws you in,” says Art Weber, a nature photographer.

Weber says the Oak Openings region is a blending of habitats that developed on sand deposited during the last ice age.

“What we have is a layer of sand overlaying clay. And where it’s thick, it’s very, very dry. And wherever the sand is thin it becomes very wet.”

This occurs all over the Oak Openings, and as a result you have all of these super number of habitats very close together. Many of them supporting special animals, special plants, and as a result we have many, many rare species here.

“It is the epicenter of biodiversity in the state of Ohio without a doubt,” says Bob Jacksy, a naturalist with Metroparks of Greater Toledo.

There are more endangered species of plants here than anywhere in the state of Ohio. There a greater variety of nesting songbirds than anywhere in the state of Ohio. A greater variety of butterflies than anywhere in the state of Ohio, including the federally-endangered Karner Blue Butterfly.

“On the one hand you have many rare species which makes it special, but you also have lots of species that occur in different habitats that are very close together, so that’s unusual too,” Art Weber adds.

“The Oak Openings itself what it really means is its kind of forest but its not, and the openings are kind of prairie but they’re not. So what you have is this mixing and mingling of the Eastern hardwood forest with the prairies of the West.”

The Oak Opening Region is actually a mosaic collection of distinctly different habitats coexisting within a small area.

It’s probably most easily seen at the Girdham Road Sand Dunes.

“This is Ohio’s biggest living sand dune. And by living I mean it’s dynamic, the wind is still sculpting it. The prevailing wind comes from the west and it’s pushing the sand about 3 feet per year toward the east towards Toledo,” says Jacksy.

“The Sand dunes here are very dry, tough, sunny conditions, very harsh conditions. You go down a slope, down the other side of the dunes into a very cool wet area. You can find salamanders, amphibians that rely on a lot of water,” Weber says.

“We have Oak Openings like we’re looking at now, we have pin oak flat woods which is a more wet habitat where the dominant tree is pin oak rather than the white and black oak that we’re seeing here,” Jacksy says. “And we’ve got grass lands. If we look about half a mile away we can see the prairie grasses, acres and acres of prairie grasses.”

“There are other openings here that are wet sand prairies,” Weber says, “and those are even more rare globally.

Nature Conservancy keeps track of things like this and they look at habitats all over the world, and they’ve called it “one the world’s last great places”, which puts it on a par with the Everglades and the Pacific Temperate Rainforest and some of the rarest habitats on earth, because it is one of the rarest habitats on earth.

Jacksy says “it has every bit the grandeur of the Everglades or Yellowstone and the difference is it’s smaller but its every bit as interesting. You could spend many lifetimes exploring this place and never get tired of it.”

Just in case you might want other areas to explore in the Oak Openings Region, the Kitty Todd, Irwin Prairie and Lou Campbell State Nature Preserves are also located nearby to protect more of this amazing ecosystem…

You can download this audio tour explore it on your own. It’s Tour number 8. Natural Ohio. Our travel series ends next week but the tours live on at SeeOhioFirst.org where you can download a free tour and take it anytime.

The New Ohio Guide is produced by the Ohio Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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