A Great Blue on the Hunt

June 2, 2015.  Early this morning a red-shouldered hawk is hunting in the muck swamp close to the high boardwalk. I first spot him from the corner of my eye, sailing low through the trees, so low as to actually fly under the boardwalk! He perches nearby on a low limb twelve feet off the ground.  I am a hundred feet away, watching with binoculars. After a few minutes the hawk flies down to the base of a maple tree next to the boardwalk. Unfortunately, it is on the other side of the tree, and I can’t see anything except the tail of the hawk sticking beyond the trunk. It flies off shortly, empty handed, with muddy talons and feet. I walk over and inspect the tree, which has a recessed cavity at its base that looks like a great place for some critter to call home. Unfortunately, I can’t tell what attracted the hawk’s attention; all I know is that it is lucky.

The green frogs, aka bronze frogs, start calling with their banjo repertoire, probably in response to recent rains that have put water back in the muck swamp; soon the Cope’s gray treefrogs join in. The green frogs don’t call long, but the treefrogs keep at it a little longer. This time of year they are apt to call sporadically all day long.

The deer flies are bad as I walk down the Sims Trail. Bad is a relative term since this is nothing compared to being at the Santee Delta in June when the flies can carry you off. But they are still irritating, and I finally resort to a small switch cane branch to shoo them away. This could actually make things worse since deer flies are attracted to motion (and dark colors), but at least it makes you feel like a pro-active victim.

A great blue heron poses for the camera at Tupelo Alley.

At Tupelo Alley a great blue heron is feeding in a shallow pool by the bridge. It is within thirty feet of me and completely oblivious to my presence. The heron’s feeding behavior is interesting: it stands still for long periods of time, erect with its neck in a loose “S”. The pool is small, shallow, fairly clear, and the bird is standing in water up to its “knees” (they are really the heels of its feet). When it finally sees something that gets its attention it stretches its long neck out to the fullest and, if necessary, slow-l-l-y walks toward the object of interest. The heron moves in for the kill by lowering its head down, peering intently into the water, beak poised at the ready just a few inches above water. Then with a quick thrust it hauls its quarry, struggling in its beak, out of the water.

The first victim is a four-inch catfish; the heron drops it but grabs it in its beak before it hits the water. After briefly holding the catfish sideways in its beak, it gets the right purchase and swallows it headfirst (a catfish swallowed tail first could be disastrous for the heron since the fish would be able to expand its sharp pectoral spines and lodge against the heron’s gullet). Afterwards, it scoops up a little water, perhaps as a rinse to flush out the fish slime. I watch the heron for nearly an hour and during this time it grabs another catfish, about three inches long, followed by a three-inch crayfish, which it swallows tail first; then, two small unidentified fish three-to-four inches long; and finally a small crayfish which it drops. All in all, I’d say the heron is eating well with a minimum expenditure of calories.

The big bird finally walks out of the shallow pool and over to the far side of the bridge, where it hops up on the hand rail and poses in the sun for a minute or two. There is a long, slender, black plume that hangs down six inches beyond the black cap of the heron that gives him a really sporting look, as well as a number of plume-like feathers, glistening in the morning sun, that hang down from his neck and add considerably to his beauty.

Referred to as aigrettes, these breeding plumes, especially from white herons and egrets, were highly desirable fashion items for the millinery trade (women’s hats) a century ago. This led to a relentless slaughter of wading bird rookeries that drove some species to the brink of extinction. Modern conservation first started with the protection of wading bird nesting colonies, and to this day the great egret is a symbol of the National Audubon Society.

While watching the heron, which soon flies off into the back end of Weston Lake, I notice a Carolina wren flying back and forth under the bridge. This can only mean a nest, so I look under the bridge and find it, built on top of the bridge cross-beam support, just under the bridge decking. Every day dozens of people are walking literally on top of a wren nest less than two inches under their shoe soles. It never ceases to amaze the weird and strange places these little brown dynamos put their nests.

Lizard tail blooms in late May and early June.

I get back on the Sims Trail and continue walking south to the old clubhouse clearing at the edge of Cedar Creek. Along the way I notice the lizard tail has started blooming in the now-dry depressions and low spots that held standing water a few months ago. Some of these depressions, as well as the trail itself, are littered with the spent catkins of water hickory, which have finally fallen and are perhaps the last reminder of a departing spring.

Wild petunia, Ruellia, in bloom at the old clubhouse clearing.

As I approach the one-acre clearing, I’m always startled at the contrast of the dense canopy I’m leaving behind with the full sun and clear view of the overhead sky I’m about to see. The old opening is gradually being captured by young sweetgum trees and saplings, as well as swamp chestnut oak, elms, and other trees, bushes, and vines. It still has a good bit of interesting herbaceous vegetation rarely found in other parts of the floodplain, primarily because it is a high site that receives full sunlight and rarely floods. Verbena brasiliensis, sometimes called Brazilian vervain, is one such plant; its small purple flowers attract a variety of butterflies. Another wildflower that catches my attention with its attractive lavender blooms is wild petunia, Ruellia caroliniensis. This plant actually prefers dry upland, sometimes rocky soils.

A Visit to Dead River

May 23, 2015.  It’s almost chilly this morning, 55º, when I leave the house at 6:00 AM. Surprisingly, there are no cars when I arrive at the South Cedar Creek parking, even though it’s the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. It is great walking weather, and I head for one of my favorite spots in the park, Old Dead River, three-and-a-half miles away. I don’t see much on the way except for two pigs I flush near the trail.

I arrive at the oxbow lake at mid-morning. In the middle-1700s, this placid, still “lake” (in name only; it’s more of a pond) was a large meander of the Congaree River, and the expanse of land within this meander was known as Kennerly’s Neck. Later it became known as Pinckney’s Neck after Charles Cotesworth Pinckney acquired a plantation here that stretched across both sides of the Congaree River. Sometime during the nineteenth century the Congaree River at flood stage took a short cut across the base of the neck and formed a new channel. The neck was now surrounded by water on all sides and became known as Butler Island after the Butler family acquired the land from the Pinckney estate. And later in the twentieth century it became known as Tabor Island after another change of ownership. Now, there is no island since much of the lake and former river channel have filled in with sediment and growing trees where there used to be open water.

Many of these old oxbow lakes have local, sometimes colorful, names that have been handed down through the years. Upstream from the park at Richland County’s Mill Creek mitigation site, for example, we have Goose Pond, King Lake, Green Lake, Hodges Lake and others. But for some reason Congaree’s Dead River or Old Dead River never acquired a name, at least one that stuck.

Basking yellow-bellied sliders.

But back to the present. I see the usual cooters sunning on logs and a great egret hunting for food at the lake’s upper end. A hen wood duck is swimming along the shoreline closest to me and has a single duckling less than a week old with her. I keep waiting and looking for more youngsters to join her, but this is it. Out of a dozen or so eggs and probably as many ducklings she started out with, she is now down to one survivor. It’s a rather sad and poignant sight. The little duckling sticks close to mom, who by now has spotted me, and they turn south, swimming towards the wide lower end of the lake. There are more wood duck broods there; one hen has five half-grown ducklings with her, another, three. Dead River at this time seems to be functioning as a wood duck nursery of sorts. Also at this end of the lake are another great egret, four great blue herons, three double-crested cormorants, and one anhinga perched in a tree.

This lake always seems more productive for wildlife than Weston Lake. It may have something to do with isolation (few souls ever come here), closeness to the river, and perhaps a higher nutrient content and shallowness, both of which would promote greater microscopic plant and animal growth, which in turn would attract more wildlife. One thing that’s always puzzled me about Congaree’s lakes is that they have little aquatic vegetation. You’d think they would be full of lily pads, cattail, cutgrass, thick clumps of submergent vegetation, duckweed, and more, but they remain remarkably open and free of most aquatic plants.

The weather is warming quickly to the satisfaction of the mosquitoes whose presence is steadily increasing. Fortunately, a cooling wind from the northwest picks up about 10:45; it brings with it the occasional aroma of decay, probably from a dead pig. The wind also starts the trees “talking” with rubbing limbs. One emits a rather high pitched animal-like squeak, while another has a lower baritone that sounds like a deep yell. Tree sounds can sometimes be a little disconcerting when you first hear them while alone and isolated in the middle of a deep forest.

I’ve been sitting on the side of the lake for over an hour, enjoying the sights and sounds, and could easily stay for another hour, but I finally get up enough energy and start moving again. I think it helps being a good naturalist to have a lazy streak, as you will see and hear a lot more while seated and still than you ever will bushwhacking your way through the woods.

Not far from where I was sitting there is an interesting beaver lodge on dry ground, twenty feet away from the edge of the lake. It’s about four feet high, six feet across, and eight feet long. I see no obvious entrance or exit. It may have been built over a large root tunnel of which the collapsed remains are exposed between the lodge and the lake edge. I often see beaver lodges in the swamp built on creek banks and other high ground but still near water and an escape route; lodges built in guts and sloughs are subject to flooding. What do beavers do when a rip-roaring flood comes along and puts their lodge under water for a week or more?

A beaver lodge on dry ground.

As I approach the lower end of the lake, where Running Gut enters, I see ripples at the lake’s edge, ripples from three otters that come into view. I remain frozen, but they must sense me and quickly disappear. Shortly, I see a small, brown bird at the lake’s edge, teetering its body while jerking its tail up and down. The movements remind me of a spotted sandpiper, but it can only be a Louisiana waterthrush. This unusual warbler is picking up food along the lake edge and probably has a nest tucked away nearby in some root ball or crevice in the bank. The nest is almost impossible to find unless you happen to get lucky and see the bird flying to it.

I gradually make my way back, walking along the north side of Running Gut. I come to the remains of an old washed-out footbridge where a 1970s logging road crossed Running Gut. More than thirty years ago the Park Service created a long-abandoned hiking trail out of the old road, a trail that led all the way to the river. The bridge provided a key access point to the river, as crossing Running Gut without it is difficult at high water levels. I continue walking west along the north side of the gut, heading towards Horseshoe Pond.

Remains of an old foot bridge at Running Gut from a long-abandoned park hiking trail.

In the soft, damp earth on the edge of the gut I see something that gives me pause. It’s a footprint, actually a boot print, about size 11 or 12, fresh within the last few days I’d say, and going the other way. I feel a little like Robinson Crusoe when he stumbled across another human footprint on the deserted island beach where he was marooned. It’s a rarity to see any sign of humans away from the park’s trail system. In the past forty plus years I can only recall seeing two people in the remote park back country (about 85% of the park). One of these was an ivory-bill searcher, part of a team that spent long hours in remote corners of the park from 2006 to 2008. The other was a guy walking an old, grown-up logging road.

It’s time to head back to civilization. I walk northeast along the edge of Horseshoe Pond, then pick up the old logging road, now grown up, that borders the east side of Fishhook Slough  and eventually rejoins the old river trail. By now the skeets have become aggravating, but I resist putting on bug juice. I would bump up the mosquito meter from “3” (“moderate”) to “4” (“severe”). When I get back to the parking lot at 5:15, I count six cars and several bank fishermen at Cedar Creek near the bridge.

Boardwalk Wildlife

May 21, 2015.  I get to the swamp early this morning before daybreak and walk through the visitor center breezeway and patio. At night the lights here attract a variety of beetles, moths, spiders, and other invertebrates, which in turn attract other critters, mainly frogs, which are interested in dining on the invertebrates. This morning I find various moths, several female wolf spiders carrying a large contingent of young on their backs (giving them an even more formidable appearance), four adult stoneflies, and two green treefrogs. As day begins to break, I hear my first red-bellied woodpecker at 6:15, followed shortly by cawing crows and the jungle-like call of the yellow-billed cuckoo. The pileated woodpeckers generally sleep in later, and I don’t hear my first one until 7:05. The muck swamp is completely dry – we haven’t had a decent rain in more than three weeks. But there are still mosquitoes out, holdovers from April floods. The mosquito meter is reading “2” (“mild”), but I would bump it up to “3” for “moderate.”

Wolf spider mothers carry their small offspring on their abdomen for protection. Courtesy John Grego.

The pileated nest cavity near the low boardwalk I found on May 3rd is empty.  I watch it for more than thirty minutes without any sign of adults or young. Hopefully this means the young have successfully fledged.

I make my way along the low boardwalk towards Weston Lake. Along the way I find a slim, three-foot black rat snake stretched out on top of the boardwalk kick rail and see a red-bellied watersnake in the water from the bridge at “Tupelo Alley” that feeds into Weston Lake.  From this same spot I see a barred owl, its back towards me, perched low in a holly tree on the edge of the slough. I can tell the owl is focused intently on something in the water. After a few minutes,  it flies down to a clump of cypress knees, catches a crayfish, and flies to a low dead limb two feet above the water. While perched with its right leg, the owl proceeds to dismember and swallow pieces of the crayfish which it holds in its left leg. After this quick meal it flies off to another hunting perch farther back in the slough.

I arrive at the Weston Lake overlook a little after 8:30. This is always a peaceful place to meditate and enjoy the beauty and serenity of the swamp, especially early in the morning or late in the afternoon. On the opposite shore of the lake a male water turkey (aka anhinga and snake bird) is perched in a tupelo with spread wings, drying in the sun. Some researchers think the function of spread-wing behavior, also found in cormorants, vultures, and a few other species, is as much about thermo-regulation as it is drying feathers.

The reptilian-like bird spends a good fifteen minutes sunning, at least while I am watching it, then with a racket of flapping feathers flies off down the lake, its profile so thin that it reminds me of a flying pencil. For some reason, though, it returns and lights in another tupelo closer to me. Despite its ungainly appearance (“neck bird” would be another appropriate name) the bird does have some handsome qualities with its glossy black plumage and black-and-white barred wings. It soon takes off, this time for good, and makes several lazy circles over the lake as it climbs higher and higher into the blue morning sky.

A male anhinga enjoys the view from an exposed perch.

From the high boardwalk near the visitor’s center I spot a crimson red movement almost at ground level, a red that belongs to the crest of a male pileated woodpecker. He’s going over a large log on the ground, peering and poking into various cracks and crannies. He soon hops onto a nearby smaller limb and goes through various contortions with his head and body while holding onto the top of the limb. He calls one time with a brief wik-wik-wik. I’m not sure what this means unless he’s just checking in with his mate somewhere, but it’s strange to hear this loud call coming from ground level. From the log the pileated clambers over to a large tupelo snag and proceeds to scale the tree, carefully inspecting along the way the numerous hiding places in the long-dead wood that likely harbor prime woodpecker food. Finally, after more than twenty-five minutes the pileated starts acting like a real woodpecker and flies off into the thick canopy of a tall tupelo tree.

I return to the park later in the evening, having heard that the synchronous lightning bugs are out, perhaps a bit early this year. I arrive at 8:30 PM and find the word has gotten out, based on the number of cars in the parking lot. The bio-luminescent beetles start blinking in unison about 8:45 while it’s still twilight. Most are located on high ground near the high boardwalk between the visitor’s center and the edge of the bluff where it drops off into the floodplain by the large beech tree. It’s quite a show and reminds me of Christmas lights, all blinking on and off in unison. The lightning bugs stay low to the ground and put out a steady pulse of light for a good forty-five minutes; it seems to peak about 9:15 and pretty well stops by 9:30.

Mulberries

May 13, 2015. I park this morning at the South Cedar Creek canoe landing and plan to walk Kingsnake Trail as far as Tear Pond, then cut over to Lost Lake and back to the parking lot. The luminescent lime-green foliage of early spring has now given way to the darker, lusher greens of summer. As I leave the bright, wide-open daylight of the parking lot and enter the dark floodplain forest a few steps away, I feel like I’m walking into a green cave.  It’s dark in here, and made even more so by the overcast sky and lack of sun.

The mosquitoes are a little bothersome, but tolerable, this morning; I am eventually forced to rub some bug juice on me. With all the flooding we had in April, I expected the little blood suckers to be worse.

Pig rootings are extensive and everywhere along the trail. The oinkers have benefited from the wet and softened ground produced by the flooding. There are also abundant piles of leaves, twigs, rafts of dead wood, and other debris washed in by the flood – heaped up everywhere on the floodplain floor like beach wrack from a spring tide. Pigs especially like rooting through these loose piles for earthworms, insects, and other invertebrates, as well as nuts, fruits, and other plant material brought in by flood waters.

A female hummingbird is nectaring at some Japanese honeysuckle growing on the side of the trail. Right now I don’t see much else blooming in the swamp in the way of hummingbird flowers. The crossvine has bloomed out, and it’s still early for the summer-blooming orange-red trumpet creeper.

At Summer Duck Slough I see, appropriately, a hen summer duck with a brood of six pullet-sized youngsters. The hen is unsure of my intentions and herds her charges ahead. They make a brief visit to dry land, then get back in the water and continue on their way.

If it’s mid-May in the swamp, it means the cottonwoods are in bloom.

By mid-morning a front has pushed the overcast out, bringing a cooling wind to keep the mosquitoes at bay a little. The downy white blooms of swamp cottonwood have begun falling, and some of the dry sloughs and backwaters are sprinkled with white cotton.  Another white bloom falling belongs to tall persimmon trees.

I turn west at the right angle of Kingsnake Trail and the bridge over Summer Duck Slough. Between here and Circle Gut, a stretch of about three-fourths of a mile, there are a number of mulberries about six-to-eighteen inches in diameter and twenty-five-to-fifty feet high. They are  easy to pick out during the growing season with their very large, catcher’s mitt-like leaves. Most are bearing no fruits. Red mulberry has an interesting sexual biology in that the trees can either be monoecious or dioecious, having male and female flowers on the same or different trees.

The biggest mulberry I’ve seen in the park, growing on the edge of Running Gut near its junction with Horseshoe Pond, is a barely-living specimen with a circumference of 6.6 feet, about two feet in diameter. Most of the trunk is dead (with a clump of ebony spleenwort growing out of it), with only a small upper canopy limb or two still alive and putting out leaves. This tree appears close to maximum attainable size for mulberries in the Congaree. The reddish, smooth, bark-less trunks of dead mulberry, nothing but rotten snags standing eight-to-twelve feet high, persist for many years in the swamp and show why the tree was once used for fence posts.

Mulberry fruit production in the swamp is spotty and erratic. I didn’t see a single fruit last year and not much this year, either. The sweet fruits were an important food for the Southeastern Indians, as pointed out by Hernando De Soto, John Lawson, and other early explorers. De Soto and his army of Spanish conquistadors were re-provisioned with corn and mulberries at the Indian village of Hymahi, thought to be located in the forks of the Wateree and Congaree Rivers, when they came through the area in 1540. The Spaniards also reported that the Indians grew mulberries in the open, almost like orchards, a system that guaranteed more blooms and fruit.

Mid-May also means that Indian pink is blooming.

I sit for a spell on the natural high ridge that borders the east side of Tear Pond. In front of me a handful of grackles are foraging in the shallows of the pond, and I watch one as it catches and dismembers a small crayfish. I’m not sure why there are no herons, egrets, and ibis taking advantage of the easy pickings.

This little ridge of high ground supports a few clumps of one of my favorite wildflowers, Indian pink, now in bloom with beautiful red tubular flowers set off by yellow, star-shaped petal tips and long, exserted stamens. The sedges growing on the ridge with the Indian pink are coated with a thin layer of brown silt, still bent over and pointing east as a result of the recent flooding.

I continue walking northwest on the trail before cutting east towards Lost Lake and eventually get back to the parking lot.

Frenchman’s Pond

May 7, 2015. I’m off this morning to Frenchman’s Pond, off the Oak Ridge Trail. I remember first hearing the name of this attractive cypress-tupelo pond from former hunt club members years ago, and my imagination assumed there was an interesting tale or two to go with it. But as I far as I can determine, the “Frenchman” turned out to be a German named John Frentz, who received one of the first Congaree land grants of 200 acres in 1758. We don’t know much about Mr. Frentz (but see Mark Kinzer’s Nature’s Return, An Environmental History of Congaree National Park for some interesting tidbits about him). He apparently attempted no “improvements” to his swampland, and owned it just long enough to have a large water feature on it named for a corruption of his last name, a name still in use more than two centuries later.

From the low boardwalk this morning I watch a pileated woodpecker feeding at ground level in the muck swamp on fallen dead limbs and pieces of limbs. It’s interesting to see such a large woodpecker spend so much time foraging at ground level in the Congaree, something I believe most ornithologists aren’t aware of because they’re used to seeing the bird in younger, second-growth forests which have little dead material on the ground. It’s not unusual to find Congaree pileateds feeding on the ground on rotten twigs no more than an inch or two in diameter.

A pileated woodpecker feeding at water level by John Grego.

I continue walking east on the low boardwalk towards Weston Lake. At the bridge over the little slough (“Tupelo Alley”) that feeds into the lake I look down for cottonmouths. This time of year it’s not uncommon to see one curled up on the debris piles in the water, taking advantage of the morning sun.  I actually see one, a three-footer (my first of the spring), stretched out in a hunting mode in the dark water, slowly moving with the current. The pit viper swims under the bridge, heading downstream, then disappears into a small debris pile in the water, searching for a victim. It soon appears on the other side, and shortly I lose sight of it as it continues its leisurely pace towards Weston Lake.

A coiled-up cottonmouth on a debris pile at Tupelo Alley.

Green ash seeds are liberally sprinkling the ground floor along sections of the trail. I have never understood why this tree sheds so many of its undeveloped seeds in May since they don’t ripen until the fall.

At 11:15 I hear a turkey gobbling. The spring nesting season has wound down for the year, and many turkey nests have already hatched, but you can’t blame a guy for trying.

A Pileated Woodpecker Nesting Cavity

May 3, 2015, continued. After a delicious breakfast of shrimp and grits, egg casserole, scones, hot coffee, and juice, catered by the Friends of Congaree Swamp, I make a slow bird walk loop along the Sims Trail and the low boardwalk. The morning is still young and the air cool. Along the trail at the edge of the swamp I spot my first vireo nest of the year, hanging down in cup-like fashion from the end of a slender swamp chestnut oak limb eighteen feet off the ground. The owner is sitting on the nest with her tail sticking out, and I see enough of a head to notice the pale iris of a white-eyed vireo. A few pieces of what looks like dried cane leaves, along with a thin grass blade, are hanging down rather carelessly from the bottom of the nest, perhaps indicating this is her first attempt at nest building. This is not intended to be a criticism, however, since a vireo nest is a marvel of avian architecture, especially considering that it’s all constructed with a beak.

White-eyed Vireo nest by John Grego

I notice the green fruit of red mulberries in the few trees I see on the walk and wonder why the fruits don’t ripen in time to correspond with peak spring migration, which is right now. By the time the fruits do ripen in the next few weeks, most of the migrants will have moved on, leaving the resident birds to enjoy the tasty fruit. I would think for maximum dispersal efficiency that having your fruit available for the greatest number and variety of seed consumers would be the best reproductive strategy, but perhaps other factors I’m not aware of have come into play for the red mulberry.

The green fruits of red mulberry, a few weeks away from becoming a favorite bird food.

The catbirds are moving through in good numbers, and I end up seeing five on this one-mile walk (but surprisingly no thrushes). We are now down to four woodpecker species in the swamp, at least until next October: pileated, red-bellied, hairy, and downy. The flickers departed about two weeks ago, the sapsuckers a little earlier than that. I’m predicting a good year later this fall for red-headed woodpeckers since there should be a good crop of red oak acorns to feed them (but how wrong I was; the winter of 2015 turned out to be a bad year for red-heads, and the only red oak that produced any acorns to speak of was the cherrybark).

A short time after I turn north on the low boardwalk towards the visitor’s center, I hear a noise of wings high above me and turn around to see a pileated woodpecker flying to the side of a tall, slender cypress about sixty feet up. The woodpecker pauses a second, then disappears into a tree cavity! I realize then that it’s a nest and back track for a better look. The nest entrance is a large, almost perfectly round hole, and then I hear the buzzing call of the nestlings, clamoring for food. The sound they make is so loud that you’d think the noise would attract every predator of woodpecker chicks in the neighborhood. The adult stays inside the cavity for a couple of minutes, then flies out, making a bee line to the east. Her brood continues calling for a minute or two after she’s gone.

A Tribute to Donna Slyce

May 3, 2015.  Friends of Congaree Swamp is hosting its Annual Dawn Chorus Bird Walk, again led by the capable ears of Donna Slyce. As we huddle in the cool, pre-dawn 05:30 dark at the visitor’s center, we start hearing a few bird stirrings – a barred owl or two (although not an “official” member of the dawn chorus, barred owls do seem to call more frequently as daylight approaches), followed by a cardinal and then a brown thrasher. Sounds start picking up as the first hint of light opens the eastern sky – songs and calls of the pine warbler, yellow-throated warbler, Northern parula, blue gray gnatcatcher, great crested flycatcher, summer tanager. Soon others join in – white-eyed vireo, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, and Carolina wren.

When it’s light enough to see, we enter the floodplain via the high boardwalk. We quickly add more species to the list, nearly all heard and not seen – white-breasted nuthatch, red-eyed vireo, blue-headed vireo, yellow-throated vireo, hooded warbler, and Acadian flycatcher. By 7:00 the woodpeckers have gotten active – we hear mostly red-bellieds, but a pileated or two lets loose with its loud cry that carries greatly in the quiet morning air. In the distance a turkey gobbles, but we only hear it twice. And always serving as background noise are the persistent cawings of American crows.

By 7:30 the dawn chorus winds down almost as quickly as it starts, and it’s time to return to the picnic shelter at the parking lot and enjoy a hot breakfast catered by Friends of Congaree Swamp. The birds will continue singing throughout the morning, but with nowhere near the intensity and fervor of their dawn song. As expected in such a heavily wooded environment, 80% of the birds noted this morning were heard and not seen. For this environment at this time of year, a good birding ear is a necessity. For that reason and the difficulty of seeing birds in dense foliage, often high in the canopy, it’s sometimes frustrating for beginners to bird the Congaree.

[This was the last time Donna Slyce led the Congaree Dawn Chorus Walk. She passed away of cancer in 2016 at the young age of 54. Smart as a whip but ever humble, Donna graduated summa cum laude from Erskine College and  worked in the computer field at Blue Cross. She was an accomplished field ornithologist who had the respect of her peers and colleagues. Donna, you left us way too soon and we miss you.]

A Long Walk on the Bluff; Medicinal Plants

April 29, 2015.  Water levels in the swamp have finally returned to normal, after more than a week of flooded or partially-flooded conditions. I decide to return to the north bluffs and walk all the way to Toms Creek on the edge of the bluff line, a distance of about five miles (one way) from my access point off of South Cedar Creek Road. However, based on all of the meandering and walking around obstructions, the distance is probably closer to six miles. For some of the way I use old fire breaks and jeep trails, while the remainder consists of bushwhacking and trail blazing. In places the park boundary line lies within feet of the adjoining private hunt club and numerous, well-placed deer stands. It would be foolhardy to walk the boundary during deer season, even if wearing international orange. Although deer season is over, I choose to stay well within the boundary and out of sight where possible. In some areas this means walking along the base of the steep-sided bluff where the terrain is often soggy, angular, and slow going.

I start out at 6:30 AM and finish up the day eleven-and-a-half hours later. Of course, I was taking my time with periodic pauses and sometimes long stops, but even with a steady pace it would still take about five or six hours, round trip, of steady walking due to the uneven, meandering terrain and thickets to bushwhack. Fortunately, the weather is ideal, starting out in the low 50s and ending in the low 70s. Humidity is low, skies partially overcast, and a steady breeze from the northwest blows after 10:00. It feels more like fall than spring.

The wood thrush music, for whatever reason, has died down compared to a week ago, and so has the turkey gobbling. I do find a lot of turkey scratchings in the heavy leaf litter on top of the bluff and flush one turkey perched low in a small tree in a wet hardwood depression near Kitt’s Grave. As I get closer to Tom’s Creek, Cedar Creek has moved well away from the bluff line and has been replaced by muck swamp. In places the steep bluff has changed to a more gradual slope covered in rich woods of beech, buckeye, hickory, white oak, holly, ash, and elm. Partridge berry is prevalent as a ground cover, and I even find a large patch of may apple.

May apples typically grow in large clumps and spread by underground rhizomes.

The beautiful little partridge berry, Mitchellia repens, is in flower and scenting the air with its delicate, sweet smell. Even though this attractive, evergreen ground cover is oftentimes easy to overlook, the white blooms make it stand out this time of year. They must have just opened as I don’t think I would have missed them last week. The flowers are always in pairs, “joined at the hip,” and later produce a single, attractive red berry. Although edible, the berry is rather tasteless. Turkeys, ruffed grouse, and bobwhite quail feed on them.

The plant was named for John Mitchell, a native of Great Britain who came to America in the 1700s. Like many early botanists, Mitchell had a medical background; the two fields were intertwined at the time since plants offered cures or potential cures for many ailments and diseases. Native Americans were ahead of the curve in that respect, and knew that a tea from the dried leaves of partridge berry helped with rheumatism, hives, and swelling, and also aided with childbirth.

May apple was well known to Native Americans who used extracts from the rhizomes to treat tumors, skin disorders, and as a purgative; early colonists used it to treat snake bite. Modern medicine has been using these extracts as anti-cancer treatments and to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

It is unfortunate that so much medicinal plant knowledge developed over thousands of years by the first Americans has been lost. Fortunately, there has been a renewed interest in this field, sometimes referred to as alternative, or indigenous, medicine. Some aspects of alternative medicine are contentious and controversial, but there is no question that many plants have chemical properties that may be of human benefit. I wonder sometimes about which plants in the swamp have such properties, the knowledge of which has been lost through time.

On my return I hear the Kingville train go by and whistle at 4:00 PM and finally hear some wildlife music, made by coyotes responding to the train. The calls, as always, are interesting and a little different this time, sounding like children screaming and yelling at play.

Wood Thrush Walk

April 22, 2015.  The swamp is under water, with Cedar Creek being ten feet and rising, while the river is at seventeen feet. So I opt for an early morning walk along the north bluff. After all the rain, a front came through two days ago and brought with it some great Carolina spring weather – low humidity, cool temps, and a northwest wind that picks up as the day goes along. Even without flooding, I would be here on the bluff this time of year, doing what I call my annual  “wood thrush walk.” The songsters and other Neotropical migrants have just recently arrived from their tropical wintering grounds and are attracted to the hardwood bluff with its rich assortment of trees and shrubs. Most of them are just passing through, on their way to more northerly latitudes to begin the annual breeding cycle. Fortunately, the wood thrushes are here to stay, and the males will be serenading us for the next two months.

The bluffs with Cedar Creek at flood stage; home for America’s greatest songster, the wood thrush.

When I step from the car a little after 7 AM, the first thing I hear is a wood thrush in the distance, and I know it’s going to be a good day. However, the singer goes quiet for some reason, and I only hear him briefly. I make my way through the open pine woods that were prescribed-burned last year, cross a narrow but deep ditch full of water, and arrive at the bluff just south of Dawson’s Lake. A black pig is rooting along the water’s edge, but he’s too occupied to detect me. The high water reminds me again of how few animals you see here along the bluffs and high ground when you’d expect it to be a natural refuge for hundreds of deer, pigs, and other swamp critters escaping the flood. By the end of the morning I’ve walked more than three miles and see only one more pig.

As I continue east, I flush a squawking hen turkey from the ground that makes a noisy getaway flying through the trees towards the swamp. It probably left a nest behind, and it doesn’t take long to find it. There are fourteen eggs, three of which are off to the side about four inches from the snug clutch of eleven. The three eggs are in a line about two inches apart.

I’m afraid many of the turkey nests in the floodplain will be a total loss this year since even many of the ridges and natural high spots the turkeys favor for their nests cannot escape seventeen feet of water. I’m sure some will re-nest, but late nests are generally not as successful as early nests.

I hear more wood thrushes as I walk the bluff line. Some places where I had noted them in previous years appear to be unoccupied, perhaps as a result of prescribed fire which has burned a lot of the hardwood understory preferred by the thrushes.

I go as far as Kitt’s Grave, the old boat landing on the north side of Cedar Creek, before turning back at 10:00. During the mile-and-a half walk, I tally four, possibly five, singing thrushes but never see the first bird.  I do see and hear a fair amount of migrant activity. The black-throated blue warblers are active, as are hooded warblers, ovenbirds, summer tanagers, red-eyed vireos, Northern parulas, great crested flycatchers, and best of all, a single male scarlet tanager. This beauty is moving slowly some thirty-to-forty-five feet up in some white oaks and offers plenty of good views. The show-stopping red-and-black plumage, bracketed several times in the late morning sun, against a backdrop of young, fresh green foliage, is spell-binding and the ultimate eye candy.

Spring Happenings

April 10, 2015.  I’m in the swamp early this morning, an hour before daybreak. At 6:30 AM the “dawn chorus” starts, led off by cardinals, Carolina wrens, and tufted titmice, joined in by two recent arrivals from more southerly climes, the northern parula and yellow-throated warbler. To add to this cosmopolitan mix is a common winter visitor from the north, the white-throated sparrow, with its plaintive “old Sam Peabody-Peabody…..” or “oh sweet Canada-Canada.….” call, depending on your perspective. Something else out this morning is the first mosquito hatch of the spring. They are not that bothersome but get my attention, especially when I sit still for a while.

I’m hoping to hear the gobbler that was calling late in the evening two days ago, but so far hear nothing. I visit my old bird research plot and shortly pick up faint whiffs of odor in the air. The odor becomes more noticeable the closer I get to the plot. Soon I disturb a flock of a dozen or so turkey vultures perched high in the trees and at the same time realize the odor is the decay of flesh. It takes me a while to find it, a well-ripened carcass of a young pig. By the looks of the disturbed ground and leaves and a spot of carcass residue, something has recently dragged the pig remains for about thirty feet.

Black vultures roosting in cypress.

This incident is revealing of how vultures locate their food, a hotly-debated nineteenth-century natural history topic. In the 1820s, John James Audubon conducted one of the first experiments in America to determine how vultures locate their food. Conventional wisdom then, as now, was that they used their sense of smell, but Audubon thought it was done primarily through sight. His research proved the latter, and it was backed up later in the 1830s from tests done in Charleston by the Reverend John Bachman, a friend and collaborator of Audubon. However, there was a problem with their research in that apparently most of the vultures that responded to their experiments were black vultures, which have since been determined to indeed use sight to locate food. The turkey vulture, on the other hand, has been found to have a strong olfactory sense to locate its carrion food. This fact is clearly evident to me this morning as I stand by a smelly pig carcass under a dense, tall tree canopy, a carcass that could only be located by vultures with a sense of smell.

At 8:20 I hear my gobbler calling close and take cover at the base of a large sweetgum, hoping I might get a peek at him. Soon I’m rewarded with the image of a sky-blue dome, the top of his regal head, moving slightly away from me just above the switch cane. I get a full view briefly, about fifty feet away, before he disappears behind some large sweetgums. A few minutes later I hear him gobbling several hundred feet away. I trust he hooks up with some lady friends this morning.

Crayfish are the main link in the Congaree food chain. Photo by John Grego.

I get back on the base leg of the Weston Lake Loop trail and spot a barred owl perched low in a small holly tree on the edge of a slough between the trail and Cedar Creek. Cedar Creek has risen recently to nearly six feet, and the sloughs and backwaters are full of water. The owl looks my way and allows close approach to within fifty feet but then turns back, staring intently down at the edge of the slough. It soon swoops down and grabs a crayfish at water’s edge, then flies up to another low perch where it proceeds to swallow the mudbug in two or three gulps. Its second effort is also successful, but this time the owl remains at the water’s edge while consuming its victim. I watch for a total of thirty minutes, from 9:45 to 10:15, before the owl flies across to the other side of the slough. During this time it made five swoops, was successful three times, and came up empty twice.

I cross the Cedar Creek bridge and turn south onto the Oak Ridge trail, then walk southeast to a large, flat ridge west of Persimmon Pond. This ridge is dominated by even-aged sweetgum with a scattering of large pines, medium-sized cherrybark oak, and a few beech. It was probably cleared or partially cleared in antebellum times, perhaps for pasturage or a cowpen. It is bordered on the southern end by a long, narrow tupelo pond that I call Skinny Pond. As I walk along the east side of the beautiful blackwater pond I find on the edge an otter “latrine,” basically a community or family pooping ground used by several otters over a period of time. The otter poop ranges from very fresh to old and has a reddish color. Based upon my examination, the otters are eating nothing but crayfish as I find not a single fish scale in the remains. And the crayfish would explain the red color.

 

Switch cane in seed – a rare sight at Congaree.

Near the intersection of Oak Ridge and Kingsnake Trail I make an exciting find when I spot a small clump of switch cane with seed heads, something I’ve only seen once before in the Congaree. Switch cane, like most members of the bamboo family, only rarely produces seeds. The dense cane patches found in the Congaree are mostly clonal in nature, created asexually through spreading, underground rhizomes. The widespread abundance of switch cane in the Congaree indicates this is a successful method to colonize new ground.

On my way back, as I approach the bridge over Dry Branch, I finally record my first prothonotary warbler of the year, a male singing away at 2:00 in the afternoon between Dry Branch and Weston Lake. I spend a few minutes in vain looking for the songster, who is perched in the shadows about twenty feet up in some saplings. The next day I do see two males sparring with one another over territory in the muck swamp.