Here there be giants: Observing life on the Little Miami River

By Jared Merriman

Take a walk along the Little Miami River.

Wander the trails of Narrows Reserve, Glenn Thompson Reserve, or Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve. You will notice them. Even if you don’t spend any time looking directly at them, you will feel their presence. River giants with light brown bark falling away to reveal a crown of white branches — sycamores. The best way to learn about wildlife along the Little Miami is to watch the happenings in and around a sycamore tree as the seasons change.

Sycamores meet winter’s chill with mostly bare branches. Only their seed balls and the occasional squirrel nest are visible among their widely spread limbs. Sycamore seeds grow in round clusters about the size of a golf ball. These seed balls will hang from the trees branches all winter long only occasionally being eaten by squirrels or goldfinches.

Winter is a great time to observe squirrels and owls because they love to nest in the numerous cavities that form in sycamore branches. Winter can also be a great time to catch a glimpse of a mink along the river. Mink are large weasels with dark brown fur and bushy tails that eat fish and birds. They can most often be seen in the mornings and evenings sneaking along rivers and streams. Sycamore roots often provide stable places for mink to walk on the banks of the river, especially as snow begins to melt, turning the riverbank to mud.

In spring, sycamore seed balls begin to break apart, and the tiny individual seeds- about one sixteenth of an inch wide and half an inch long- start to drift away from the parent tree. The seeds’ small fluffy parachute helps them to sail on the wind or float on top of the water. As the seeds leave the tree, its leaves begin to grow. Sycamore leaves are some of the largest leaves in Ohio and offer caterpillars a feast! Shortly after the leaves and caterpillars emerge from a winter slumber, migratory birds arrive back in Ohio. After flying North from South America, the caterpillars on sycamore trees are a welcome source of protein. One migrant, the Northern Parula, is especially fond of sycamore trees.

The parula is a warbler; a small, brightly colored songbird with a sharp beak designed for grabbing insects off of the branches of trees. In Ohio, parulas nest in clusters of sycamore leaves, which they sew together using plant fibers as thread. Once the leaves on sycamore trees are fully grown, it becomes nearly impossible to see the small birds among the foliage, but the rising trill of their song can be heard throughout the summer.

The bright sunlight and long days of summer make for excellent growing conditions for sycamores. Their large leaves catch the abundant sunlight available along the river banks. The sycamore branches hanging over the river provide shade to the water below, which allows fish to gather in the cool waters. In riffles, the shallow places where rocks churn the water, the shady, cool water is high in oxygen and serves as a home to many small fish, including the brilliantly blue and orange Rainbow Darter. In deeper waters, the tangled roots of sycamores provide hiding places for larger fish like bass and bluegill. The fish will often stick to shady waters until the coolness of autumn settles in.

As the days grow shorter, the sycamores’ leaves begin to change. First they turn bright yellow, then brown, finally falling from the trees around Halloween. Many of the leaves fall into the river, where they break down and become the foundation of a food chain. The larvae of mayflies live in the river and feed on small bits of leaves. Mayfly larvae are then eaten by larger invertebrates like damselfly larvae, which are then eaten by fish like bluegill. The fallen leaves of sycamores provide a source of energy that fuels the rivers food chains throughout the year.

No matter the season, life along the Little Miami depends on sycamores. So go out. Watch, listen to, and experience life among giants.

By Jared Merriman

Jared Merriman is a naturalist for Greene County Parks & Trails.

Jared Merriman is a naturalist for Greene County Parks & Trails.