Ross Lake Wildlife Area, Southern Ohio

Blood, Sweat – and No Tears

Three years after he helped plan a series of timber harvests at Ross Lake Wildlife Area in southern Ohio, biologist Mike Reynolds figured he ought to go back there and see how things were coming along. It was a sunny day in late August, with temperatures in the 90s.

Forest habitat before timber harvest

Bare forest floor in old pine plantations offered almost no food or cover for wildlife./M. Reynolds

Where stands of poor-quality white pine once stood above a nearly bare forest floor, Reynolds found rapidly regrowing young forest: closely clustered young trees, tangled blackberry, and dense shrubs.

Deep gloom had been replaced by bright sunlight on the logged sites. The vegetation was thick, and a lot of it was thorny. Reynolds wanted a close-up look. “I had to choose my path wisely,” he reports with a chuckle. Venturing into that new young-forest habitat, says Reynolds, “I gave a little bit of blood, a little bit of sweat – and no tears.”

No tears need be shed for the wildlife at Ross Lake, either. The relatively sterile pine-woods habitat they were trying to use – or were simply avoiding – has been replaced by something a lot more diverse and valuable to animals. The thick young forest offers wildlife protection from predators along with ample food in the form of berries and other fruits produced by plants springing up where sunlight now reaches the ground.

New Young Forest on the Way

“On the patch cuts we had made, I saw a lot of young trees that had sprouted from seeds blown in on the wind,” says Reynolds, “including white ash, tulip poplar, and black locust. Those little trees were growing close together, and they stood 6 to 8 feet tall – up over my head. It’s really dense cover, and it ought to be a great area for wildlife for years to come.”

Habitat managers survey clearcut

Habitat managers survey a patch cut at Ross Lake WA soon after timber harvesting./C. Fergus

Ross Lake Wildlife Area is in Ross County, in the Scioto River drainage, a key migration route for birds. The landscape is rolling, with steep slopes and flat-topped hills. There’s a lot of mature woodland in the region. What’s lacking, in general, is forest at a much younger growth stage – a type of habitat that’s dwindling across the eastern United States, and one that’s critically important to wildlife. For example, birds like to land in young forest while they’re migrating, to rest in a secure setting where they can load up on the food they need to continue their journey. That food can be safely eaten in the thick cover, which shields the migrators from aerial predators.

At Ross Lake in 2009 and 2010, the Ohio Division of Wildlife engaged logging contractors to harvest the trees on 14 patches containing 50 acres – old fields where white pines had been planted many years ago. The pine plantations were not very useful to wildlife. As they grew, the trees shut out light, which caused other plants that had been growing in the old fields to die off. The ground beneath the pines was nearly bare, carpeted with fallen pine needles. Little food or cover existed there for animals.

Now those areas have been replaced with the riotous, productive growth that is young forest.

Wildlife Sure to Benefit

One bird that will benefit from the new young-forest habitat is the American woodcock, a beautiful, cryptically colored migratory gamebird.

Close-up of regrowing young trees

Three years after cutting, young forest of new hardwood trees grows lushly on the logged sites./M. Reynolds

As the logged areas grow back in young forest, they’ll provide nesting and brood-rearing habitat for woodcock next to grassy and weedy fields that the Ohio Division of Wildlife mows every few years. The fields supply the woodcock with breeding habitat in spring as well as nighttime roosting areas in late summer and early fall. The adjacent young forest functions as high-quality feeding habitat for both local woodcock and birds that migrate through the Scioto River drainage in spring and fall. (Learn more about woodcock at

Among the shrubs and trees growing explosively in the recently logged areas are sassafras, greenbriar, flowering dogwood, and sumac. Fruits of sassafras, dogwood, and blackberry yield important late-summer and early autumn food for songbirds building up and replenishing their fat reserves both before and during the southward migration. The small, dry fruits of sumac hang onto the shrubs into winter, providing foodstuffs for birds that don’t migrate, such as woodpeckers, cardinals, and jays.

What other kinds of birds are likely to use the new young-forest patches? The list is long: whip-poor-will, yellow-breasted chat, blue-winged warbler, prairie warbler, Eastern towhee, brown thrasher, gray catbird, indigo bunting, and field sparrow (several of which are considered Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the Buckeye State), plus many others that are more common, such as cardinals, mockingbirds, and thrushes. Ruffed grouse need thick young forest, and wild turkey hens seek out such tangled places for nesting.

Mammals and Reptiles Are Helped, Too

Cardinals feed on berries in young-forest habitat

Birds like this cardinal depend on berries and other fruits produced by regrowing shrubs and trees./E. Guthro

Mammals that need young forest include cottontail rabbits, woodland jumping mice, bobcats, white-tailed deer, and black bear. Many reptiles are also likely to benefit from the new patches of young forest at Ross Lake, including box turtles, five-lined skinks, and black racers and black rat snakes.

Thanks to the patch cuts made in 2009 and 2010, the overall percentage of young forest within wooded habitats on this portion of Ross Lake Wildlife Area rose from 0 to 12.5 percent – a figure that approaches the percentage of young forest that likely existed in unmanaged, pre-settlement eastern North America.

Reynolds and his fellow conservationists with the Ohio Division of Wildlife are pleased with the habitat that’s springing into life on the cuts. Looking toward the future, “We hope to do timber harvests in areas of nearby forested land,” Reynolds says. “We want to create new patches of young forest every five to ten years. Such habitat patches will really help wildlife – both resident animals and ones that migrate through the area.”

Funding and Partners

Ohio Division of Wildlife, U.S. Geological Survey, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Wildlife Management Institute

How to Visit

The 1,112-acre Ross Lake Wildlife Area lies two miles east of Chillicothe. Easy access is available from U.S. Route 35 via the East Main Street exit and Blacksmith Hill Road (County Highway 238). The young-forest habitat improvement cuts took place on the Wildlife Area’s northern unit, which has been designated a Woodcock Management Demonstration Area.

For more information, contact John Jenkins, Wildlife Area Supervisor, Cooper Hollow Wildlife Area, 740-682-7524,; or biologist Mike Reynolds, Wildlife District Four, Athens, 740-589-9921,