Old Acquaintances

October 31, 2015.  I don’t get out on the Weston Lake Loop Trail until midday, having done a guided walk in the morning for an environmental studies class from USC-Aiken. I am still in the assessment mode for evaluating flood damage. So far I’ve found little change on the Weston Lake Loop Trail. And, as anticipated, the mosquitoes are worse today than a week ago. The mosquito meter at the visitor’s center is reading 5.5, halfway between “ruthless” and “war zone.”

White-throated Sparrow by Ron Ahle

I see, flushing from cane patches and brushy areas along the trail, some old friends from the North, white-throated sparrows, that have returned south for the winter. They first arrived in the swamp about ten days ago. Later, I see other recent arrivals from the North, including hermit thrush, ruby-crowned kinglet, and winter wren. The latter I flush from one of its favorite habitats, the undersurface of the low boardwalk. I am disappointed, however, not to see any red-headed woodpeckers, which must be looking elsewhere this year for a winter’s supply of acorns. Other than the fair crop of cherrybark oak acorns, about the only other acorn producer I see this fall in the swamp is a number of swamp chestnut oaks with only a modest crop at best. For those trees that do have some acorns, the ground around them is well raked and partially cleared from the scratchings of various animal hoof prints and feet.

The pawpaw trees are starting to show a lot of fall yellows, providing a pleasing preview of more autumn to come. Many of the green ashes, however, have already shed their leaves, and their bare looks make them appear dead against a live canopy of other trees that are still mostly green.

I also see more and more mushrooms and fungi popping up on downed limbs, logs, and stumps after being submerged for nearly two weeks. One of these is a tight clump of small, light gray, bell-shaped mushrooms growing from a rotten stump. After consulting my field guides and the internet, I conclude they are Coprinellus disseminatus, commonly known as the “fairy inkcap,”  “fairy bonnet,” or “trooping inkcaps.”   Some of the fungi are just starting to emerge from the wood mulch of the stump, and look like tiny eggs or insect pupa. I have seen this dainty mushroom in the Congaree before but wasn’t sure of its name. Even though they are in the inkcap mushroom family, they do not produce the black, liquid secretions from which the family gets its name.

Fairy inkcap mushrooms.

Both the river and Cedar Creek have risen noticeably since my last visit, with the former getting to 12.5 on the gage before starting to recede, the latter 6.0 feet. From the Weston Lake Loop trail I watch the black waters of Cedar Creek merge with the brown muddy waters, coming from the river, at the mouth of Boggy Gut. It doesn’t take long for the brown water to overcome the black.

Flooding Aftermath

October 23, 2015.  This is my first real opportunity to walk in the park since the floodwaters of October 4th receded, so I take advantage of it and hike the River Trail. Both the river and Cedar Creek have almost returned to normal levels for this time of year, the former reading six feet while the latter gauge, which has been repaired since it went down some days ago, is a little above three feet.

I see where the large beech at the beginning of the high boardwalk has finally started shedding its sweet fruits on the boardwalk, more than six weeks after some of its beech neighbors started dropping theirs.

A cherrybark oak flood casualty; Jody Lumpkin (middle) is 6 ft 10 inches tall.

As I get farther out in the floodplain, I note the strange sensation of seeing a line of silt and debris from the flood in the understory seven feet above my head. The lower leaves of pawpaws are especially noticeable with a light tan coating of silt. The first major flood damage I see is a gargantuan root ball, measuring about twenty feet wide and eighteen feet high, of the large cherrybark oak growing by Hammond Gut next to the Oak Ridge/River Trail. And when this magnificent tree fell it took with it the nice Shumard oak growing next to it. The cherrybark root hole is no more than three feet deep, and it is amazing to think that such a large tree, weighing perhaps fifty tons, could have been held up by such a shallow root system.

I pause sadly to reflect on the number of big cherrybarks I’ve seen hit the ground in the past twenty years – many eighteen feet or more in circumference. They need a good bit of sun to get started, more than most Congaree oaks, but once started they are perhaps the fastest growing Congaree oak. Their bigness belies their ages, however, which I feel runs about 150 to 250 years. There is a reason the top heavy, shallow-rooted trees have such large buttresses to help hold them up. I personally don’t believe they can get much bigger, and older, in Congaree than our current state champion (and unofficial national co-champion), measuring twenty six-and-a-half feet in circumference, before they are toppled by wind and water.

And speaking of cherrybarks, there is a fair-to-middling crop of cherrybark acorns now falling on the ground. I was expecting to see a lot more acorns from the red oak group, especially laurel oaks, this year, but so far it is shaping up to be a lean season for Congaree acorns, and consequently a hard year for deer, turkeys, squirrels, red-headed woodpeckers, and a host of other swamp critters.

As I continue on the River Trail I catch periodic whiffs of decayed flesh from a deer, pig, raccoon, or other critter that didn’t make it through the flood. I actually see no dead animals and assume some are buried under the numerous piles of debris and flotsam scattered throughout the forest. I am surprised that the vultures have not made their presence known with all of this pungent scent wafting up into the atmosphere.

The marbled orbweaver is sometimes called the “Halloween spider.” Photo by John Grego.

There are far fewer spider webs in the swamp than there were a month ago. I do see a few marbled orbweavers, Araneus marmoreus, the so-called “Halloween spider,” with their webs strung across the trail and other openings. This handsome spider may get its common name from the fact that it makes its appearance in fall, plus it sports Halloween colors of yellow and orange on its round “pumpkin” of an abdomen.

Mosquitoes are one of the prime beneficiaries of the flood, and as expected, their numbers seem to be growing daily. Unless we get some cold weather soon, I’m afraid they will only get worse.

State champion (and unofficial national co-champion) cherrybark oak.

I finally arrive at the river at 1:30, after a detour checking on the state champion cherrybark oak, which appears to have weathered the flood in good shape. I find it amazing how little debris from civilization has washed into the swamp. I was expecting the ground within a few hundred yards of the river bank to be littered with cast off refuse, especially balls of all descriptions, tires, five- gallon plastic buckets, plastic bottles and cans, pieces of furniture, plastic toys, styrofoam and plastic coolers, and anything else floatable. But there is almost nothing, a fact reinforced yesterday when Frank and I motored the river in his johnboat from the 601 boat landing upstream to Mazyck’s Cut, a distance of eleven miles. We found little in the way of downed trees, riverbank washouts, and other environmental damage, nor did we see much “trash pollution.” The two most noticeable damages were both human-related: the floating dock at the landing was wrecked, having its mooring posts uprooted, and a private, stationery dock at a small development on the south bank of the river near the railroad crossing was swept away.

The metal floating pier at the 601 boat landing was another flood casualty.

A Piebald

October 15, 2015.  I have never seen the swamp stay flooded for this long, now going on for eleven days. The water at the South Cedar Creek foot bridge is about three feet lower than when I was last here a week ago. I’m paddling Cedar Creek this morning and go as far as Tupelo Gut, then turn into Big Snake Slough. Some high ground is starting to poke up through the flood waters along the south bank of Cedar Creek and some of the ridges bordering the sloughs.

Part of the foot bridge at South Cedar Creek landing is still under water, eleven days after the Great Flood.

Big Snake Slough is as quiet as a church on Friday night. About the only sounds I hear are occasional, brief squeals of wood ducks, a few tree crickets chirping, and the ker-plop of falling tupelo drupes. Sometimes the ker-plops turn into loud volleys when several of the large fruits hit the water at almost the same time, as if someone was shaking the tree. A look up reveals the cause to be hungry squirrels feeding in the canopy on the olive-sized, purple drupes. The tree rats have had to scrounge for food entirely in the tree tops for nearly two weeks since their ground caches have been under water.

I suspect the flooding has also made it more difficult for the otters to find food since the fish and crayfish that they prefer to dine on are now so widely scattered across the floodplain. The good news for the otters, however, is that after the high water has receded enough, the remaining pools and sloughs holding water should be full of fish and crayfish. It’s the old feast and famine syndrome at work, a widespread condition in the natural world that used to include us humans.

The paddle through the large slough is peaceful and serene. Evidence of the flood from a week- and-a-half ago is everywhere in the form of a “debris line” of dead leaves, twigs, and other woody material caught up in branches and foliage seven feet above the present water level.

I see a little commotion coming from near the top of a tall water tupelo, and find two flickers and a male pileated woodpecker fighting over a tree cavity. One flicker soon leaves, shortly joined by the pileated, while the other flicker remains in the cavity, hunkered down out of view. The newly-arrived “yellow hammers,” as some folks call flickers, have wasted no time laying claim to their winter quarters. I can’t imagine in a Congaree forest with perhaps the densest number of woodpecker holes and cavities of any park in the country, that there would be much need for conflict over such housing.

Piebald deer. Credit: Gary Frazier, Facebook.

On the way back to the landing, made all the more difficult by paddling against a strong current, I pull over on the left (north) bank, which has high ground in places, and get out to stretch my legs. I find a big fallen pine to lean on, and shortly after getting comfortable, spot movement to my right about a hundred feet away. I’m startled to see the movement has so much white on it, and quickly scope it with my binoculars. First impressions are someone’s Dalmatian dog running loose. There are several large trees between me and the movement, but I get another quick glimpse – too big to be a dog – maybe a small cow? I can see clearly now small, black blotches on an otherwise pure white body before it disappears behind more trees. Then it very briefly comes into full view before disappearing for good. I see the complete outline of a doe deer and realize it’s one of those rare piebalds, sometimes called “calico” or “pinto” deer. I’ve never seen one in the wild, but my serious deer-hunting friends normally see a few over a long, deer-hunting career. The piebald coloration, caused by a rare combination of recessive genes, is found in less than one percent of the deer population. It’s somewhat akin to albinism, which is even rarer. Physical deficiencies, such as skeletal and internal organ problems, are sometimes associated with the piebald condition. This is certainly one of the more unusual wildlife sightings I have ever had.

As I get back to the take-out at South Cedar Creek Bridge, I find a large, black, dead pig floating in the creek and wedged against a log. It wasn’t there when I departed this morning and is no doubt one of many that didn’t survive the Great Flood.

A dead hog, a flooding casualty.

The Great Flood

October 8, 2015.  The South Carolina Midlands has suffered flooding of Biblical proportions, a catastrophe the likes of which has never been experienced in modern memory.  A rare combination of events created a “perfect storm” of record rainfall: a stalled coastal cold front, along with strategically placed low and high pressure fronts, resulted in a powerful “conveyer belt” of continuous moisture pumped in from offshore Hurricane Joaquin. The Columbia metropolitan airport recorded its greatest one-day rainfall ever on October 4th: 6.71 inches compared to the old record, established in 1959, of 5.79 inches. The deluge also broke the two-day rainfall total: 10.28 inches for October 3-4, compared to the previous two-day record of 7.69 inches, set in 1949. Even worse, rainfall event totals were significantly higher east of the airport: the Gills Creek area (a tributary of the Congaree River), where several lake dams broke, was apparently at ground zero and volunteer weather observers reported 21.49 inches, while Leesburg and Eastover in eastern Richland County reported more than 18 inches each. These latter figures represent more than 40% of the average annual rainfall totals for central South Carolina!  Figures were thrown about in the media as to the rarity of the storm: a hundred year, five hundred year, or even a thousand-year event!

The Congaree River crested late Sunday afternoon, October 4, at nearly 32 feet, a record not seen since the 1930s. By the time the water got down to the park, it reached nearly 20 feet. The gage at Cedar Creek became disabled at 13 feet, and I suspect water levels peaked at least three or four feet above that. When I first got down to the park (which was closed) on Tuesday morning, October 6, the foot bridge at South Cedar Creek landing was still completely submerged. Two nearby dams breached, one at Duffies Pond that drains into Cedar Creek, the other at Dry Branch Pond, which also feeds into the park at Weston Lake.

The bridge at South Cedar Creek landing four days after peak flooding.

I finally make it to the park for a kayak reconnaissance survey early Thursday afternoon, October 8, four days after the flood peaked. The water at the South Cedar Creek Landing foot bridge has fallen at least four feet, but I am still able to paddle the kayak across the bridge. I paddle the Kingsnake Trail, five feet under water, due south as far as Bridge K over Summer Duck Slough  where the trail makes a 90 degree turn due west. Along the way the only flood-related wildlife I see is a small red-bellied water snake basking on a small piece of driftwood. My goal is Cooner’s Cattle Mound, an antebellum earthen mound constructed by the slaves of Frederick Cooner to provide a high-ground sanctuary for livestock during big floods. I’m hoping I might find some stranded flood victims on top.

Paddling through a flooded forest like this is a rare, overwhelming experience. The closest high ground to my location is a mile due north along the bluff line at Cedar Creek and two miles to the south, the high bluffs along the south bank of the Congaree River. In between is a solid sheet of brown, muddy water flowing at a high rate of speed. The only navigation clue is provided by the tunnel effect from the trail. Once you leave this, everything is alike, and there is nothing but trees and fast-moving water. I’m not using a GPS and must navigate by what few landmarks there are.

The entire Congaree floodplain was under a massive sheet flow of brown water.

One landmark is a couple of old wildlife food plots (planted when the park was a hunt club) next to the trail, now grown up into forty-year-old stands of densely-spaced, slender sweetgums with a few loblolly pines mixed in. The other is a stand of large pines growing along the west bank of Summer Duck Slough. I turn southwest at this last landmark and pick up my last cue, a large loblolly pine growing just north of Cooner’s Mound. The mound finally looms into view, four feet above water, but I see nothing moving on top. I am surprised when I stop to get out and find the mound was completely under water a few days ago, something I have never seen in more than forty years. Based on the debris line, it appears that the mound was under about a foot of water.

Cooner’s cattle mound was devoid of any flooding refugees.

I’m also surprised to see not a single flood refugee on the mound – no turtle, snake, rabbit, rodent, or other critter. Where did they go? I pass lots of large logs, piled up debris, and other flotsam, thinking the piles must provide temporary sanctuary for stranded wildlife but find nothing. Later, on the way out, I do find a stranded coyote in some thick brush and log piles; and near Cedar Creek an adult pig is wading from one clump of debris to another, but that is all. I also find some tree trunks with millipedes taking refuge on them, just a few inches above the water line. The only wildlife mortality I find is a dead armadillo.

These millipedes were seeking shelter from a flooded forest.

This armadillo was the only flooding victim I found but I’m sure wildlife mortality was very high.

After leaving Cooner’s Mound, I continue north, following Kingsnake Trail past Tear Pond. When the “trail” reaches Cedar Creek, I turn downstream and back to the landing at South Cedar Creek. In four-and-a-half hours of paddling I see only one dead animal, the armadillo, and three live ones: the basking water snake, coyote, and pig.

The day ends on an up note when I hear, calling from the flooded forest, my first Congaree sapsucker of the fall, returning to its winter home after a six-months absence.

Warbles and Wolves

October 2, 2015.  This has been about the gloomiest fall I can remember. We’ve had nearly two weeks of mostly overcast weather, mixed with rain. This morning the sky is a hundred percent overcast with light sprinkles of wet stuff.

A gray squirrel infected with bot fly larvae.

From the high boardwalk I watch a squirrel feeding on swamp tupelo fruits on the ground. It has two bare areas on its left shoulder and right flank, each with a noticeable lump the size and shape of a small pecan. These lumps, called “wolves” or “warbles,” contain the larvae of the bot fly, Cutereba. The fly lays its eggs in areas where squirrels are likely to travel and at hatching the small larvae attach themselves to the squirrel and soon burrow underneath the skin. It remains there for three-to-four weeks, feeding on fluids (but not blood) from the squirrel’s body. At maturity it emerges and falls to the ground where it overwinters in the pupal stage, eventually emerging as an adult fly in the spring. The squirrel is rarely affected by its uninvited guest, even when having multiple infestations.  Bot fly warbles are prevalent during early fall, when squirrel season first opens, and many hunters discard warble-infected squirrels, thinking the meat is contaminated, which it is not.

A bot fly relative in the tropics includes humans among its hosts, and there is more than one case of a dedicated American entomologist or naturalist returning to the states with the larvae under his or her skin and carrying it to “term” in the name of science. Although the large lump appears painful, the scientists report that it is not, except when the larvae, which has small spines on it, decides to move within its human “cocoon.”

A fresh deer scrape.

I continue beyond the boardwalk and end up walking along the edge of Hammond Gut. I find my first deer scrapes of the year, freshly made. There are also lots of ripened, brown-green ash seeds scattered on the ground. The first flickers of the fall have moved into the swamp. They are the first of the winter woodpeckers to arrive in autumn, preceding the next-to-follow yellow-bellied sapsucker by about a week.

Northern flicker by John Grego.

Fungi

September 28, 2015.  I believe the word that best fits the mood of the swamp this morning is somber; some may even call it gloomy. The sky is 100% overcast, and the trees are dripping with moisture from all the rain we’ve had the past week – over six inches at my home in Columbia. The dense, tall tree trunks are darker than usual, and the lack of sunlight restricts visibility, giving the forest a closed in, almost oppressive feel. In damp weather the normally gray Spanish moss develops a green cast from the plant’s chlorophyll that shows through the gray scales that cover it in dry weather.

Parchment fungus.

The muck swamp has been recharged from all the rain, and pools of standing water are everywhere. The wet and damp have also brought on a mushroom explosion, particularly for the crust and jelly fungi that are numerous on downed limbs and logs. The most visible of these is the parchment fungus, Stereum complicatum, which in some cases completely covers downed twigs and small limbs with a crust of rusty orange. There is also a fair amount of bright orange “witches butter,” Tremella mesenterica, and “jelly ear,” Auricularia, both jelly fungi with the latter being edible (at least according to the books, but please don’t take my word for it).

Witches butter.

The ladies-tresses orchids are apparently taking this year off to recuperate from last fall’s bountiful exhibition, as I see only a small number of them growing near the low boardwalk where I was seeing dozens of plants this time last year.

A gray squirrel, unconcerned at my presence, is feeding on the ripened nutlets of ironwood. Although not as desirable a food as acorns and hickory nuts, it is nevertheless considered an important squirrel food, perhaps because it is such a common understory tree that produces a regular crop every year. Except for cardinals, I don’t recall seeing other songbirds eating the seeds.

Jelly ear fungus.

In an uncommon reversal of events, all of the guts leading into Cedar Creek are flowing backwards (upstream) due to the inordinate amount of local rain we’ve received. The Cedar Creek gauge is reading five feet this morning while the river is barely reading three feet, at least ten feet below flood stage. To show how quickly things can change in nature, a crystal ball would reveal that in less than a week, unprecedented flood waters would be surging several feet over my head at the point where I’m now standing, a difference of seventeen feet of water!

Camping at Boggy Gut

September 15, 2015.  A pre-fall cool front came through central South Carolina this past weekend, bringing with it northeast winds, lower humidities, and cooler temperatures – in other words, perfect camping weather.  I only hike in a relatively short distance before setting up camp near the south side of Cedar Creek, close to the junction with Boggy Gut. My location is determined, as usual this time of year, by the limited amount of available water to filter. And once again, I’m using a hammock to sleep in.

Boggy Gut at low water.

After a lunch of tea and peanut-butter crackers, I spend the rest of the afternoon walking the area between Boggy Gut and Running Gut. Both are dry in places with only pockets of standing water. The old log ford I found a few years ago at the bottom of Running Gut a little south of its intersection with Cedar Creek is high and dry. It’s an intriguing and frustrating glimpse into a not-so-long-ago chapter in the history of the park (my paternal grandfather was seven years old when cypress logging began in earnest in the park) which has all but disappeared, leaving almost nothing behind except fragments like old cypress stumps and this ford.

An old log ford at the bottom of a dry Running Gut.

When I get back to camp after 5:00, it is already starting to darken at ground level. A barred owl flies in and perches for a while in the lower canopy of a water tupelo in Boggy Gut. Soon some of the neighborhood birds – led by chickadees and titmice, who always seem to be first at finding intruders, whether they be owls or rat snakes – discover it. The birds, including by now a summer tanager, a pair of redstarts, and a Northern parula, don’t actually harass the owl but flit around nearby, letting the owl know they know where it is.

In the waning daylight a few small flocks of grackles begin flying low over the canopy, a sure sign of fall to come. One flock pulls up and lights nearby high in the trees and begins their rusty gate hinge-squeaking calls. After a few minutes they depart in a loud swoosh of wings to join their comrades.

I climb in the hammock, lined with a sleeping bag, at 8:00. It’s supposed to get down in the upper 50s tonight and should be good sleeping weather. The only noises I hear are the chirping of crickets, an occasional barred owl, and something off in the distance that might be a coyote. There may be other noises out there as well. Boggy Gut was featured in one of Dr. Edward C.L. Adams’ stories in Tales of the Congaree about Old Man Rogan, a cruel slave master who enjoyed breaking up slave families, especially taking children from their mothers. Old Man Rogan also enjoyed fishing and relaxing at Boggy Gut and died there but his restless spirit, presumably as punishment for his evil ways, still haunts Boggy Gut. At night they say it’s not unusual to hear the rattle of slaves in chains, mothers calling for their children, and above all Old Man Rogan, walking along Boggy Gut, laughing at the misery he has inflicted on others.

Old Man Rogan haunts Boggy Gut in Tales of the Congaree.

September 16, 2015.  I sleep intermittently and finally get out of the hammock at 5:45, an hour before first light. I do not remember hearing during the night any cries of distress, the rattle of chains, or the laughter of Old Man Rogan.

The expected sunrise doesn’t materialize – I only see traces of rosy streaks briefly in the east, then nothing as a hundred-percent overcast moves in. The weather has changed on me during the night, and the blue skies and low humidity promised by the weatherman have disappeared.

I enjoy two cups of coffee while sitting against a nice back-rest tree on the edge of Boggy Gut. At 7:15 a turkey starts yelping across the gut, not that far away, followed shortly by the squawking of other turkeys. The yelping continues intermittently from the same general location for more than an hour. I hope for a look, thinking perhaps the turkeys will come down to the edge of the gut for a drink. As I focus on turkeys, I detect movement from the corner of my eye and look down in the gut, thirty feet away, to see four river otters that have just left the water and are crawling about a dry tangle of cypress knees, logs, and flood debris. The otters are as startled as I am and quickly rush back in the water – the gut here is so shallow that it doesn’t seem possible for all four to disappear underwater but they do, and I don’t see a trace of them again.

After an instant oatmeal breakfast, I walk south from camp and meander between Boggy Gut to the left and the Oak Ridge Trail on my right. Hampton Pond and other water bodies in this area are completely dry and have been for some time. As I walk through one dry pond, a little after 10:00, I see a coyote walking perpendicular to me 200 feet away near the edge of the pond. The coyote has its head down in a clump of sedges, its jaws working as if chewing on something, although I can’t tell what. I’m thoroughly pleased that this very wary animal doesn’t know it’s being watched. But I doubt if this will last long and as the coyote continues its slow walk, it stops suddenly and looks my way. I have my raised binoculars focused on it – the yellow eyes, raised ears, black-tipped tail, and those long legs, whitish at the feet. The coyote is perplexed. It slowly walks a few paces, stops, and looks to try and figure me out. After repeating this a few times, it gives up and takes off at a slow trot into the forest.

Many of Congaree’s ponds and sloughs dry up in the fall and are wonderful places to walk without getting your feet wet.

On the way back to camp later in the morning, I spot a snake skin on the ground. It is four feet long, still limp, and fresh. It’s completely intact, from the eyes and head to the tip of the tail and probably belonged to a rat snake.

A New Park Acquisition

September 10, 2015.  This morning I’m checking out a new park acquisition (as of August, 2015) on the west side of the causeway at US 601, historically known as Smith Fork Swamp. This 263-acre parcel is like a peninsula that juts out into the Congaree River which borders it on the south and west, while the outlet from Bates Old River borders it to the north. Many vehicles and logging trucks pass by this property every day while driving on 601.

It has an interesting legal history. A previous owner of the tract put a conservation easement on the property in 2005. Conservation easements are permanent, regardless of who owns the land, and are recorded with the deed. Therefore, when the park acquired the property this past July, it came with strings attached, in this case a conservation easement held by the Congaree Land Trust. But this should not be an issue since the land trust, a private 501(c) 3 membership organization, and the National Park Service both have land conservation and protection as their primary goal.

The property has no old growth although there are patches of maturing second-growth forest. Nearly half of it was clearcut back in the early 1990s; the rest of it probably high-graded earlier in the century. I therefore don’t really expect to find much in the way of championship material for record trees.

The property adjoins Bates Landing below the 601 bridge at the Congaree River. As typical with any public boat landing in South Carolina, a noticeable amount of trash makes its way from the landing into the edge of the forested property.

I walk at first along a well-worn path made by bank fisherman that runs along the riverbank for about 400 feet before petering out. There is a distinct levee forest here, made all the more pronounced by low sloughs just to the north and east of the natural levee. The sloughs are old river channels hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. They are quite dry, and I follow them west and north after leaving the fisherman’s path. The walking is easy here, there being no ground cover and few obstacles. Pigs have churned up the damp, brown, clay soil in places.

The forest community in these sloughs is composed primarily of slender second-growth cypress with pronounced buttresses, along with water tupelo and swamp cottonwood, most of which I assume have grown up since the virgin cypress was taken out a hundred years ago or more. I hope to stumble across a few large cypress that were left behind because they were hollow or had other defects that made them unmerchantable, but I only find two of any size that probably pre-dated the last century.

This cypress knee, 9.5 feet high, is the tallest I’ve ever seen in the Congaree.

The cypress knees in these old channels are tall and thick-based, measuring more than six feet in circumference at the base and six to seven feet high; one knee is nearly ten feet high, the tallest I’ve ever seen in the Congaree. Tall knees and heavily buttressed trunks are indicative of deep, fluctuating water levels.

I do find an enormous cypress stump, broken off at ground level, that is thirty-four feet in circumference. The interesting thing about this stump is the fact that the inside of it is well below current ground level by three-to-four feet. This suggests to me that extensive sedimentation from Piedmont erosion of the 19th and 20th centuries deposited at least three-to-four feet of sediment in this old channel outside of the stump, although the actual amount might be more since the sediment has been building up inside the hollow stump as well. Therefore our ancient stump’s circumference might in reality be closer to its true circumference at breast height since the  original base may be buried under four feet of sediment or more.

I continue to follow the sloughs which have now turned to the north, and soon reach the edge of the clearcut line from the early 1990s. It’s all young forest now, with scattered, grown-up food plots and wildlife openings left over from the property’s active hunt club days. Some of the openings are thick with thoroughwort, a native composite in the genus Eupatorium, a tall slender plant topped with corymbs of small, fine, white flowers. This genus includes such famous medicinal plants as snakeroot, false hoarhound, and boneset, the latter used as a stimulant, laxative, and for the treatment of aches and fevers, dyspepsia (indigestion), catarrh, and various other bodily ailments and pains. The faintly fragrant flowers are attractive to a wide variety of insects including bees, wasps, and beetles.

Thoroughwort is an attractive fall bloomer in parts of the Congaree floodplain.

At mid-morning I take a sit-down break on a large log at the intersection of two old logging roads. Shortly I see movement from the corner of my eye, and when I turn for a better look, a raccoon coming from behind me quickly takes off for a nearby slender sweetgum. We both startle each other. In almost no time the coon scales fifty feet of the trunk and disappears into the leafy canopy; I’m impressed with its effortless and nimble climbing skills.

On the way back, around noon, I stop to investigate some bird activity in the understory of a dry slough. Four to six Northern parulas are flitting about in cypress, box elder, red maple, swamp cottonwood, and overcup oak foliage ten-to-twenty feet off the ground. Mixed in with the parulas are a pair of chickadees and two Acadian flycatchers. The birds are mostly foraging, but some of the parulas are obviously in some sort of territorial dispute since they frequently engage in flights of attack and retreat.

Just before arriving back at the boat landing’s parking lot I spot my first ladies-tresses orchids of the fall, only recently in bloom and nearly hidden on the ground floor among the crossvine, poison ivy, and catbriar.

Ladies-tresses orchid is another fall floodplain bloomer.

Lost Species

September 2, 2015.  It’s been two weeks since my last visit to the park, interrupted by a backpacking trip to the high Sierras and giant sequoias of California.

On the ride down this morning I see the roadsides gleaming with white sprays of autumn clematis, Clematis terniflora. This non-native has been a favorite of gardeners for years, and, like many exotics, behaved rather innocently until it reached some sort of “critical mass” after which it escaped from confinement and took to the wild. So far I have not seen it in the park, but it may only be a matter of time before it rears its beautiful, but aggressive, head and joins the long and increasing list of park problem plants.

The first noticeable change since my last visit is the large number of dead leaves on the boardwalk, leaves that have surrendered to the summer’s drought and heat. There are also many more pieces of green pine cones, chewed up by squirrels, littering the boardwalk. After leaving the pines behind, farther down on the low boardwalk, I see where the squirrels have also been chewing on green cypress cones that have fallen to the ground. Most of the cones, however, have only been partially chewed, unlike the pine cones which the squirrels seem to relish a good deal more.

Chewed pine cone leavings on the boardwalk handrail, courtesy of a hungry gray squirrel.

The lobelias have begun blooming since I was last here, both red (cardinal flower) and blue. They are some of my favorite fall wildflowers; I just wish there were more of them.

Blue lobelias brighten up the Congaree ground floor in September.

I don’t stay long today and make a loop that takes me back via the Sims Trail. About halfway down the dirt path between the Sims Trail and the visitor’s center there is a cluster of seven beech trees that are raining down fragments of green beechnuts (a closer inspections reveals that only three of the seven trees are actually producing quantities of nuts) from feeding gray squirrels. The bushy tails are in the very tops of the canopies and hard to see because of the thick foliage. I count at least two in the top of one tree, and a third in the one next to it. I am not sure how territorial squirrels are in the midst of such bounty – there seems to be plenty enough to go around for all.

Beech mast (nuts) was a favorite food of the passenger pigeon, now extinct for a hundred years. The “wild pigeon,” as it was called, was once considered the most abundant bird in the world. In the early 1800s ornithologist Alexander Wilson estimated a huge flock that passed overhead in Kentucky for more than five hours to be more than two billion birds. He also calculated that a flock of this size would require seventeen million bushels of mast per day for food!

Most pigeons bred north of South Carolina in enormous colonies that often extended for miles. The Congaree and other southern bottomland forests were part of the pigeon’s winter range, a time of year when they formed large roosts often numbering in the millions. Pigeons had to be nomadic in order to find adequate food to sustain so many birds, and their winter wanderings followed the mast trail. One can only imagine the overwhelming noise and commotion as thousands and thousands of pigeons descended upon Congaree’s oak and beech trees during those fall and winter years of good mast production. The birds were so numerous as to literally strip every oak and beech in an area of its nuts and acorns. This meant a lean year for woodpeckers, squirrels, deer, turkeys, bears, and other wildlife dependent upon acorns and beechnuts for winter survival; in fact, free-range hog farmers dreaded seeing the big flocks of pigeons coming, as they knew the birds would wipe out the mast crop relied upon by the pigs (but in turn, farmers often fed their pigs large numbers of trapped, shot, and netted pigeons).

John Lawson, the English explorer who passed near the Congaree on his famous journey through the Carolinas, mentioned going on a pigeon shoot in the vicinity of what is now Monroe, North Carolina, northeast of Charlotte, in late January, 1701.  He wrote of pigeon flocks in the millions that “obstruct the Light of the day” during their passage, a remarkable observation echoed more than a hundred years later by Alexander Wilson, John James Audubon, and others.

The demise of the passenger pigeon was surely a significant environmental event at Congaree, as was the extinction of ivory-billed woodpeckers and Carolina parakeets (which also relished beechnuts), and along with the disappearance of top-level predators such as mountain lions, wolves, and bears, all in the 1800s, made that century one of extreme ecological upheaval for the park, perhaps more so than the preceding ten centuries combined. Concurrent with the extinction of species was the enormous load of sediments washed in from a nineteenth-century Piedmont cleared of its soil-holding vegetation. These dramatic events over such a short time have changed the park in ways we can only barely appreciate.

I’d like to think the park I see around me today looks like the park of 300 years ago, but I realize that beneath outward appearances, the twenty-first century park is no doubt different from the nineteenth century park. And it makes me wonder, too, when the last of the passenger pigeons gorged on beech nuts (or acorns) here? Or Carolina parakeets made their final exit from a roosting hole in a hollow Congaree cypress? Or when the forest resounded with the last, loud kent call of an ivory-billed woodpecker? Or how long the last panther or wolf track persisted in a muddy backwater slough?

I sometimes feel as if I’ve been robbed of a priceless natural inheritance, as if visiting one of the world’s great art museums and finding the masterpieces missing. And what masterpieces these superlative, vanished birds and mammals were: the second largest woodpecker in the world; the only parrot native to North America; the most abundant bird in the world; the only large native cat in the East.

The great naturalist William Beebe summed it up best when he stated:

the beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived though its first material expression to be destroyed, a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.

I snap out of my lamentations and focus my attention, and binoculars, back to the upper canopy of one of the beech trees. I squint my eyes, and try to imagine lime-green, mourning dove-size Carolina parakeets flitting and chattering in small groups, going after the sweet beechnut seeds. I know from experience in the Tropics just how easily small, green parrots blend in with green foliage, how they seem to just disappear.  I look again – and actually see movement, but it proves to be a gray squirrel – after all, this is the 21st century.

Gators at Little Buckhead

August 19, 2015.  I hear through the ornithological grapevine that a large number of wading birds, including wood storks and even a roseate spoonbill, are foraging in the drying sloughs on the east side of the US 601 causeway. When I get there this Wednesday morning, however, I find not a single bird. I decide to check out the swales that parallel the highway at “Little Buckhead” (that section of neck within Bates Old River on the east side of 601). I arrive first at Long Lake and find it nearly dry and devoid of wading birds except for a pair of green herons, which hardly qualify. The next lake over is Buttonbush which, like Long Lake, is mostly dry except for a few, shallow, isolated pools of water covered with green film. I see a single great blue heron and three fully-grown juvenile wood ducks loafing in the shallow water. The ducks appear to be all males, based on a faint trace of white “chinstrap.”

Buttonbush Lake in December.

On the ridge between the two lakes I flush a doe and a small fawn that runs after her. The 2015 deer season started four days ago. Does, however, get a free pass until October 1. Nearby, a black sow with three young piglets runs off at my approach and a group of three shoats tags along with them. Scattered on the ground in the swales are pieces of green cypress cones the squirrels have been chewing on.

The next swale over from Buttonbush Lake contains a small, pea-green water hole, and I spot a slight movement along its edge – in the form of a seven-foot alligator, half on land and half in water. Then I see a brood of gator hatchlings around her, nineteen in all, measuring fourteen to sixteen inches in length. The adult gator sees me and moves into the middle of the hole and disappears to the bottom while her charges stay put at water’s edge. I move slightly to get a better look and the hatchlings scurry noisily for cover into deeper water. They soon return, however, to the edge of the pool and some crawl out to bask on land. I’m no doubt the first human being the little gators, probably no more than two months old, have ever seen.

Buttonbush seed balls.

By now a great egret with a large sunfish in its mouth has showed up along the edge of the water hole. It finally chokes the big fish down and starts looking for additional victims.  The egret moves into the shallows a few inches deep. No doubt it has noted the little gators less than fifty feet away, any one of which would make a substantial meal. The egret, however, has no idea that momma gator is lurking on the bottom of the pool between it and the hatchlings. When they’re after food, big gators can move explosively out of water to secure their hapless victims. And mother gators are very protective of their young. I’m sitting at the base of a tree, motionless, waiting to see if a wildlife drama will unfold. After thirty minutes the egret, which has hardly moved the whole time, makes a short flight to another nearby water hole.   I wait another twenty minutes, in vain, to see if the big gator re-surfaces. The little hatchlings, looking like large lizards, are still basking at the pool’s edge when I leave.

Alligators and swamps are synonymous in the public’s mind. First-time visitors are often disappointed when told their chances of seeing one in Congaree is slim. Gators prefer more marshy habitats with open water rather than Congaree’s heavily forested wetlands. Occasionally, to the delight of visitors, one will show up in Weston or Wise Lake, and spend a few weeks or part of the summer feeding on gars, carp, frogs, and turtles.

The status of the gator at Congaree starting changing when the park began acquiring parcels in the east end along the Wateree River, Bates Old River, and just to the west of the 601 causeway. These tracts have the more open-water habitats preferred by gators. The big saurians are still shy and reclusive in the east end, but they can be found, especially by someone with a canoe or kayak. There are big ones here too, more than twelve feet long (and weighing more than 500 pounds) or more.

Like many wildlife species, gators are a good deal more abundant now than fifty years ago when seeing one this far inland was a treat. Unlike some species, gators didn’t suffer so much from habitat loss as from direct persecution by poachers and shooters.