Bob Downing

SPENCER TWP.: The noise level at waterlogged Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve was surprisingly high.

The ponds, meadows and woods appeared empty, but the spring peepers were out in force. They were joined by equally noisy chorus frogs and tree frogs.

The noisescape made it loud and clear: Spring was getting closer in the always-wet preserve that has been described as Ohio’s miniature Everglades.

Irwin Prairie sits about 10 miles west of Toledo in Lucas County in northwest Ohio. It lies within what is known as the Oak Openings area. It’s not your typical tall-grass prairie: It is wet, really wet. It is grassy and hummocky with pockets of forest.

It is the finest remaining sedge meadow in the state, says the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Five distinct communities host lots of rare and endangered plants. Its main feature is a lush, treeless wet meadow dominated by sedges, rushes and wetland grasses.

Flood conditions persist for much of the year at Irwin Prairie, named after William Irwin who settled nearby in 1865. The subsurface clay holds groundwater at or above the surface, boosting the wet meadows and the adjoining swamp forests.

A single trail, a boardwalk of 1.3 miles each way, leads into the preserve from the trailhead off Bancroft Road. A walk on the boardwalk — the only way to see the preserve — takes you through a small pin oak plant community and then a dense shrub swamp that includes western prairie grasses.

The trail crosses Irwin Road, and you are into a large sedge meadow in which the dominant plant is the twig-rush, a relative of the sawgrass in the Everglades in southern Florida.

You pass through another pin oak woodlot and another shrub community. That brings you to a small wooden observation tower that looks out over the grassy meadows with pools of standing water known as Grass Lake.

It is an easy, flat hike, although it can get buggy at times.

The preserve’s different plant communities are dependent on water levels. The mixed oak community is found at the driest sites, while the sedge meadow is found in the wettest spots. It is drier on its northern edge, wetter to the south.

The other plant communities are the shrub swamp with dogwoods and willows; the grass meadow with its blue-joint grass; and the pin oak community.

The preserve is home to an impressive collection of rare plants, many of which are no longer found anywhere else in Ohio. Others are found at only a few spots in the state. In fact, 26 state-listed plant species are found at Irwin Prairie.

That includes spiked blazing star, alder-leaved buckthorn, Green Lakes goldenrod, red baneberry, Sartwell’s sedge, small fringed gentian, Kalm’s St. John’s-wort, Riddell’s goldenrod, prairie rattlesnake-root and grass-leaved arrowhead.

It is home to 44 species of wildflowers including five species of goldenrods and several species of orchids.

In the spring, the meadows are filled with frogs. Ducks are numerous, along with snipes, rails, bitterns and grebes.

Marsh wrens, yellow warblers, alder flycatchers and swamp sparrows are among the songbirds that nest at Irwin Prairie. Rare animals include sedge wrens, Bell’s vireos, least bitterns, golden-winged warblers, Blanding’s turtles and purplish copper butterflies. Sandhill cranes were found nesting there as late as 1880.

One of the most interesting creatures found at Irwin Prairie is the spotted turtle, which is on Ohio’s endangered species list. It can be found in the wet meadows and drainage ditches.

The landscape has changed little from when the first Europeans discovered it. There are accounts of Indians paddling canoes through the wet prairies in search of waterfowl.

Today only about 50 acres of the original Irwin Prairie remain. At its peak, the wet prairie was 7 miles long and a mile or more in width. Then farmers began to drain the wetlands, starting in 1859 in Lucas County.

The roads around Irwin Prairie were often impassable until the early 1900s. Stakes were placed at the side of Bancroft and Irwin roads to mark the water depth to help determine whether it was possible to get through.

A group of local biologists studied Irwin Prairie in the 1960s and began a grass-roots effort to preserve the wetland. In 1974, the Nature Conservancy bought the original 142 acres and the state of Ohio acquired the land later that year.

Hours are dawn to dusk daily. You can get more information at 614-265-6561 or www.ohiodnr.gov.

The Oak Openings west of Toledo cover about 125 square miles and are marked by oak forests, sand dunes, savannas, prairies and swamp forests.

Where the sand from retreating glaciers is thick, drainage is excessive and dry soils support scant vegetation, such as the scrubby, widely spaced black oaks and white oaks that give the region its name.

When the first settlers came to northwest Ohio, the area was surrounded by the Great Black Swamp and featured sand dunes and small wetlands. It was called the Oak Openings by early settlers because one could drive a wagon through the sparse woods in any direction.

One place worth visiting is the Oak Openings Preserve Metropark, a 4,000-acre tract southwest of Toledo in Lucas County. It lies south of Toledo Express Airport and is the largest metro park in the county.

It is home to 110 miles of trails for walkers, hikers, bicyclists, cross-country skiers and equestrians. The nine main hiking trails together stretch about 15 miles. There are 5.3 miles of all-purpose trails, 22 miles of horse trails, a 4-mile Nordic ski trail and 50 miles of unmarked fire lanes.

The best place to start is the Buehner Center at Mallard Lake near the center of the park.

One of my favorite trails is the 2-mile red-blazed Sand Dunes Trail that can be accessed near Mallard Lake. It runs through the largest dunes that are 15 feet to 25 feet tall. Park hours are 7 a.m. to dusk daily.

Also nearby is Secor Metropark in Berkey with a nature center, a nature photography center and seven trails in the Oak Openings. For information, call 419-407-9700 or www.metroparkstoledo.com.