Richard Durtsche is standing in a pond in Melbourne, Kentucky, giving me an impromptu lecture on the amphibians that live in the waters around his boots. Suddenly, his eyes widen and he stops mid-sentence. “Did you hear the ‘go-umph?’” he asks with excitement. I shake my head, confused. “That was a green frog,” he explains. “It sounds like an unstrung banjo.” I listen closely for a few minutes and there it is: “Go-umph.”
If you walk the trails of Melbourne’s St. Anne Woods and Wetlands with Durtsche, you learn to listen for the calls of the frogs. Durtsche, a biological sciences professor at nearby Northern Kentucky University, is director of NKU’s Research and Education Field Station. A small house converted into labs and conference space, the station hugs the border of the 155-acre St. Anne nature area, and provides home base for researchers studying everything from the diversity of longhorn beetles to a blight that’s attacking honeysuckle leaves. The station, which opened in May 2017, also hosts community events—from talk-and-walks on bats, monarch butterflies, and wildflowers during the summer to turtle races and scavenger hunts in the fall.
On this summer morning, Durtsche and three of his NKU students are walking me through the process of studying frogs, toads, salamanders, and other wetland animals. Already, they’ve introduced me to a six-inch Jefferson salamander. “This is a pretty big one,” Logan Osborne says as the salamander crawls between his hands. Osborne points out the animal’s blue speckling. “He’s one of the prettiest salamanders we’ve got out here,” he says. But scientists appreciate these creatures for more than their appearance. They’re sensitive to pollution, Osborne adds, so their presence indicates a healthy habitat.
NKU’s Research and Education Field Station’s next event, Nature Adventure Day, takes place Sept. 28.
As Durtsche and his students document wildlife in the St. Anne Woods and Wetlands, they are literally following in the footsteps of one of the nation’s most prominent ecologists. E. Lucy Braun, a University of Cincinnati professor and the first woman president of the Ecological Society of America, first described the forest on the flood plain of the Ohio River at Melbourne in the early 1900s.
Since then, interstates, shopping complexes, and the NKU campus have reshaped Campbell County’s landscape. But the Sisters of Divine Providence, who owned this slice of the county surrounding their St. Anne Convent for decades, purposefully prohibited such human constructions. Their goal was to care for and preserve the land. “From 1945 to the present, the shrubs and the trees just grew,” says Sister Mary Jo Hummeldorf, who entered the convent 68 years ago. The sisters eventually opened the land for educational purposes. In the tradition of Lucy Braun, scientists from across the region have taken advantage of the natural oasis, just 11 miles from downtown Cincinnati.
Their effort got a boost in 2008 when NKU approved a $23,000 grant to develop trails, informational kiosks, and promotional resources to encourage public visits to the wetland area of the property. But before Hummeldorf could complete the mission of opening the wooded portion to the public, the sisters decided to sell the land. In 2013, the Campbell County Conservation District bought the site through a grant from the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund.
Two years later, the district hired Amy Winkler as coordinator. Winkler, an NKU graduate who had spent many hours monitoring chickadee nests at St. Anne for a college research project, says the conservation district shares the sisters’ goal of protecting the land from commercial development. “It’s a unique property—one of the last old growth forests in the area,” she explains. Winkler has also taken on Hummeldorf’s effort to open the wooded section of the site to the public. But she faces several obstacles, including providing parking spaces for visitors. The district had to put plans for a parking lot on hold after a 2016 biological inventory showed the presence of a plant that is important to the declining American copper butterfly. Other challenges include clearing and repairing trails and working with neighbors who sometimes view untamed nature as a weedy eyesore. “We’re on the right path, but it’s a slow moving train,” Winkler says.
On a steamy day about a week after my walk with Durtsche and his students, Maggie Whitson leads me along the same trails. This time, she focuses my attention on the dark bark of black cherry trees, the distinctive odor of wild onions, and the slimy coating protecting the water lilies. Whitson, director of the John W. Thieret Herbarium at NKU, visits St. Anne regularly as part of her job to collect and catalog the plants of Northern Kentucky.
“When I’m out here, I’m always looking for something new or unusual,” she explains as we walk. “The end goal is to have an up-to-date list of what we’ve got here.” Whitson also appreciates the property’s hands-on opportunities. “I have students smell things and squeeze little fruits so they explode,” she says. “We touch things to see if they’re fuzzy or sticky.” She even encourages students to eat the pawpaws, a sweet, tangy fruit with a strong floral aftertaste. “It’s the full sensory experience,” she says. Whitson believes such experiences are important. “Once people realize what kinds of cool organisms we have, they will care a little more about them.”
After we turn to walk back to the field station, I become aware of an odd but familiar sound. My brain registers it immediately. It’s the call of the green frog: “Go-umph.”