In the five years I've been visiting Oak Glen Nature Preserve, I've heard a lot things: bulldozers, backhoes, high-pressure water hoses, the scrape of rakes on rock. But this visit is different.
"That's a Baltimore oriole singing," observes Bret Henninger, chief of conservation and parks with Great Parks of Hamilton County.
Five years after an oil spill devastated Oak Glen Nature Preserve in Colerain Township, the Great Parks of Hamilton County will finally begin allowing limited public access, beginning with an off-trail hike this Saturday.
When I returned for a sneak peek in early May, I hiked along a once oil-contaminated stream bed with Henninger and nature interpreter Will Buelsing.
"We've just seen about four goldfinches,” Buelsing says. “Two popped over to our left and then two went to our right."
I ask him what, if anything, that tells us about Oak Glenn.
"Realistically, not a whole lot,” Buelsing admits. “Goldfinches are pretty sturdy birds as far as where they're able to live, but just the fact that wildlife is moving back in here and they're stable ...and the pairs would indicate that there's some nesting and breeding going on here.”
However, Buelsing says it’s a good sign in general that life is returning to the area. It’s the first time I’ve seen this much wildlife in five years – I caught sight of birds, butterflies, and at least two different kinds of frogs.
"I similarly feel like we're gradually starting to see things come back,” Henninger says.
Henninger has been on the project since remediation began. In March 2014, neighbors smelled diesel and alerted authorities. A pipeline run by a Sunoco subsidiary had burst, sending 20,000 gallons of crude oil cascading down a stream bed, heading for the Great Miami River.
The flow was stopped, the pipeline fixed, but the damage was done. What should be a foot-wide creek is meters across because of the cleaning process. But formerly missing aquatic and animal life are slowly returning.
As we hike beside the creek, I find myself doing something I've never really needed to do at Oak Glen: watching my step for small animals or their tracks. We spy heron, raccoon, deer, and after some discussion, a large turkey. A small frog hops across our path.
Henninger says all that's left is getting rid of the remaining invasive plants.
"While responding to the oil spill, there were a lot of invasive species, invasive plants brought in,” Henninger explains, gesturing to a wide field filled with shin-high glasses. “We're standing in front of a grassland that has had a lot of work done to remove invasive plants like Tree of Heaven and garlic mustard and several others.”
This grassland was once home to lark sparrows. They went missing in the spill's aftermath. Great Parks recently bought an adjacent property where the rare bird has been spotted, but so far it hasn't returned to Oak Glen.
"We'll just keep listening as they go into the breeding season, we should be able to hear lark sparrows if they're here," Henninger says. "That's something that our staff will keep an eye on."
The preserve was never truly open to the public; it had no hiking trails or parking. Though it remains closed, Great Parks will bring day campers here this summer to learn about nature and do experiments.
Buelsing is leading a hike Saturday where participants can see the rupture site and how much the preserve has changed.
"We really want to invite people out to see where we're at now and get a look of where did it happen, how did it happen, and then where have we come since that time," Buelsing explains. "We want people to learn the story of Oak Glen Nature Preserve."
Water gurgles down the stream thanks to plenty of spring showers. Visitors won't be sloshing in the creek, but we traversed it carefully, looking for signs of life. Henninger spies a tadpole, then turns a rock to find a caddisfly larva.
"This is [a species] that's intolerant of pollutants, so that's a good sign," Henninger says. "We're not finding them in huge abundance – you should find them all over – but it's a really positive step."
To me, it feels starkly different, but I wonder if I’m being overly excited about the plant and wildlife we’re finding. Buelsing dismisses that thought.
"No, certainly not. I don't think there's too much overexcitement that can come after an impact of this level,” he says. “I was not here five years ago when the spill happened, but just a few months ago when I was out here, this is more than I saw at that point. As spring is truly starting to come into full effect and it's getting warmer and things are starting to bloom more, life has just exploded here at Oak Glen and that's fantastic to see."
There are limited spots for the May 25 off-trail hike at Oak Glen. You can sign up online or by calling Great Parks at 513-521-PARK (7275). The hike begins at 11 a.m. and lasts through 1:30 p.m. Visitors should be prepared for strenuous and hilly off-trail hiking.