MADISON, Ind. (AP) — Digging around in creek beds and streams is not a new activity for Hanover College graduate Andrew Hoffman.
The 25-year-old Richmond, Ind., native and biologist has had a fascination with insects, birds, trees, amphibians and reptiles — and pretty much all other forms of wildlife — since he can remember.
And this spring, he's using that curiosity and professional training to observe and chronicle wildlife along Madison's Heritage Trail, which begins on Vaughn Drive by the Ohio River, The Madison Courier reported (http://bit.ly/105V6Pw ).
"This is the kind of thing I do in my free time anyway," said Hoffman, who also works as an intern at Big Oaks Wildlife Refuge and will start his doctoral studies in biology at Indiana State University this fall. In addition to his 2010 undergraduate degree from Hanover College, he holds a master's degree in biology from Missouri State University.
Hoffman has been asked by Bob Greene, executive director of the Heritage Trail Conservancy, to conduct a field study to catalog biodiversity along the trail and in Crooked Creek.
The trail follows Crooked Creek and then a paved path that leads to the Madison State Hospital grounds.
Hoffman started observing wildlife on the trail in March. So far, he's found a somewhat urban location with diverse geographic features and a lively wildlife presence above, on top and beneath the soil.
From the babbling brooks and bluffs to the nearby Ohio River, Hoffman has seen signs of a healthy ecosystem that has great potential for growth.
"We have a unique opportunity to do something where we're incorporating a beautiful natural area into a community and also trying to highlight some of the education opportunities that are available," said Hoffman, who hopes to someday become a biology professor. "And I love that."
Hoffman considers himself an amphibians and reptiles expert and has trained and conducted research with Clifty Falls State Park naturalist Dick Davis and the late Hanover College professor Daryl Karns.
At Big Oaks — among other duties — Hoffman has been involved with projects investigating breeding ecology and movement patterns of crawfish frogs.
On the trail, Hoffman is compiling what is known as "incidental observations" — or simply when he walks through the area and logs what he sees — but he also uses quantitative research for insects, reptiles, amphibians, etc.
He keeps a running tally on ebird.com of the birds he sees on the trail. That's a project he hopes that other trail visitors can help with later.
The hobby of bird watching has become an economic boon to some communities, he said.
"I really think above everything else in terms of wildlife attractions, this could become a real birding hot spot," he said. "Birding is one of the fastest growing hobbies anywhere. And it brings in a lot of money and people."
While the Heritage Trail is smack in the middle of an urban area, Hoffman said the cleaned-up area actually makes for a great natural habitat to many animals such as birds, foxes and groundhogs.
An urban habitat provides an area for animals that otherwise might become prey in rural locations. Just 100 yards from the road and near the river, Hoffman already has spotted a fox den.
"So groundhogs or fox, which would get out-competed or eaten by the coyotes, do great here," he said. "Actually the fact that there is so many people here helps them because it keeps out the predators."
In Crooked Creek and the surrounding streams, Hoffman has found numerous species of salamanders and other amphibians, reptiles and invertebrate — all signs of a healthy waterways.
"You'd be amazed by how many things are living under those rocks," he said. "Under one rock, you can find four or five different species of insects."
Hoffman said the number of those insects is encouraging because so many are intolerant of polluted water.
The biggest problem he sees with the stream is erosion, which mainly comes from removal of vegetation near and on the banks. When waters rise, trees and vegetation help stabilize the bank, Hoffman said.
Another issue near the stream has been the presence of invasive species that grow in the forest's understory, like the weed garlic mustard and privet bush. Hoffman often plucks out the weeds he finds and places them on the path — so the plant does not reroot.
"This is a great stream as it is, and just with a little work it can become a fantastic stream," he said.
At the foot of the Heritage Trail, Hoffman said organizers could consider establishing a small wetland area.
Because of the present of insect-eating predators like bats, he said the mosquito population could be controlled.
"It could be a nice, little thriving wetland area," he said.
Hoffman has been able to study and research all across Indiana, and he considers southeastern Indiana one of the most diverse and interesting areas.
With Madison, specifically, he notes that most of the area has been logged out but has made a comeback because of time and the work of those in the community to restore the land.
"What's cool about this is that all of this area is disturbed, but now, you wouldn't know it," he said. "This just shows you that when you take habitat and begin to restore it how quickly it can bounce back. And you get this beautiful place people will want to come and spend their day."
Information from: The Madison Courier, http://www.madisoncourier.com