TWINSBURG – An Eastern kingbird flies across the wide field east of Liberty Road by the Old Stone House. The sun is shining in a cloudless sky for the first time in a week. The bird swoops low over the tall grass, looking for dragonflies and grasshoppers.
Naturalist Stanley Stine, who this month marking his 20th year with the city parks and recreation department, says a pair of kingbirds began nesting in the yard nearby for the first time about two years ago.
He said the species, a member of the flycatcher family that overwinters in South America, has a fierce disposition – hence its scientific name tyrannus tyrannus.
"They’ve been known to fight off hawks," he said.
A specialist in botany, Stine is a big man with a Santa’s beard. A bit of a pot belly and large hands with thick fingers used to hard work. As caretaker of the Old Stone House, he has a short drive to work from his home just down Route 82 in Aurora. He says it can take 30 minutes or more to shovel his way into the driveway for work on some winter mornings.
His work is varied: He maintains trails, plants experimental gardens and specimen trees, does programs for the parks department and the Twinsburg City Schools, and organizes and leads nature hikes, along with other odd jobs.
Likewise, he says it takes about a day to mow the former farmer’s field where the kingbird hunts. Usually, the mowing is done in the fall each year to make sure trees don’t take root in one of the area’s few remaining open grasslands.
"I just do what I think needs to be done," he said.
With rainwater still pooling in low spots in the grass, he tries to keep his boots dry while giving a tour of the property.
Stine feels uncomfortable giving his age, but he had already completed a 20-year career with the U.S. Postal Service when he got a part-time job working for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. That was 23 years ago – a career he ended the first week of June.
Shortly after finishing a degree in cultural anthropology – as a middle-aged "non-traditional" student – he was hired by the museum to help inventory the plant life on properties around Northern Ohio where local colleges and universities did not have robust botanical programs. He said such work is normally done by graduate student researchers.
He said his inspiration for studying anthropology was the Mayan culture of Central America, where he says the people degraded their natural environment and suffered their civilization’s collapse.
Since he was hired by the Cleveland Museum, the natural areas under the museum’s stewardship have increased from around 1,000 acres to 10,000 acres.
Jim Bissell, the museums director of natural areas, (also a descendant of the noted pioneer family), said Stine was one of the museum’s best ambassadors for land preservation.
"Nobody does outreach with landowners like Stanley," Bissell said. "He just talks them into maybe not cutting their forest, or not filling their wetlands."
Bissell said he hired Stine after getting to know him while working on botanical projects in southern Ohio while Stine was working part-time surveying plant life for various agencies.
"He’s a fantastic botanist," Bissell said.
As Stine explains it, he would survey properties for plant species after the Cleveland museum sent letters to owners of larger properties, asking for permission to "inventory" their land.
Stine said he would just be honest with the landowners. He wasn’t trying to "convince them" to preserve property, but rather "let them know about what they had."
"Most of the time, they had wetlands that their ancestors avoided – but that’s where the best stuff is," he said. "I was excited for them."
In an oft-repeated story, Stine says former Twinsburg Parks and Recreation Director Wib Cramer hired him full-time as city naturalist shortly after he began working for the Cleveland museum, because Cramer needed "someone who can identify trees."
Since then, Stine’s helped build and maintain trails, and led excursions to witness natural phenomenon such as spring salamander migrations and woodcock mating displays, where the birds fly a couple hundred feet into the air together and then plummet to the forest floor.
He’s also mentored some 50 Boy and Girl Scouts, whose projects can be found throughout the parks.
"That’s been the joy of my life," he said.
Scout projects include two 12-foot, narrow nests for chimney swifts, an overlook where visitors can sit and watch activity in the field off Liberty Road, and an informational kiosk.
There is also a series of bluebird boxes in the field around the Stone House.
A young man once monitored the bluebirds, but Stine said the boy moved on and he took off the fronts of the boxes to keep out invasive English sparrows from nearby residential areas. He said the bluebirds now nest in treeholes in nearby woods created by pileated woodpeckers, which were rare years ago, but are becoming increasingly common.
He said the bluebird nests now provide convenient perches for rodent-eating hawks.
It’s not the only change in the area’s natural history Stine bears witness to.
Twenty years ago, the Center Valley Park area was home to many unique plant species that have been obliterated by an increase in the deer population due to lack of predation.
Likewise, grassland bird species such as bobolink and meadowlark have disappeared due to development and the loss of nearby habitat.
"We used to have plenty of hay fields going up Liberty Road," he said.
Other members of the species would not likely repopulate the area, because passers-buy would see the field as "a postage stamp."
But just as the bluebird ecology has changed, the loss of field birds has had a consequence: Large insects such as butterflies and bees have increased in numbers, as their primary predators have decreased in number.
A lone monarch flutters across the field, but the only convenient milkweed are by the Old Stone House in the Twinsburg Garden Club’s herb garden – it’s meant to attract butterflies.
"The butterflies are doing well, but no one was thinking about the bees," Stine said.
"The bumblebees have taken a steep drop," he said. "I think their burrows all flooded."
Eric Marotta can be reached at 330-541-9433, or email@example.com.