Good Finds for the Day

January 10, 2015.  The weather has warmed up slightly since the day before yesterday, but there is still a lot of ice in the swamp. This morning’s weather is clear and cool, the high at 10:00 being about 35º. I am walking down the Sims Trail, and soon notice a lot of bird activity coming from the edge of the trail. A hermit thrush flushes from the leaf-littered ground and perches on a small twig in the middle of the path, affording excellent views. There are several golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets foraging on the branches and twigs of the bare hardwoods. One of the golden-crowns is a male, as determined by the orange crown-patch that almost glows. Most of the golden-crowns I see at Congaree are females, having yellow crowns. This suggests to me that a differential migration of the sexes may be taking place, a phenomenon well-known in the bird world. Differential migration means that in winter females and immatures migrate farther south than adult males, which stay closer to the summer breeding grounds. Since adult males compete with one another for the best breeding territories, the ones that move the shortest distance south in winter will be able to arrive sooner on the breeding grounds in spring migration and get a jump on the best territories. There is a trade-off here, however, and that is the males that don’t move far enough south may not survive a harsh winter and not be around to spread their genes later.

I notice movement coming from a hanging sweetgum limb twelve feet off the ground, sporting clumps of dead leaves. At first it looks like a kinglet except it is bigger and moves slower. It is an orange-crowned warbler. This drabbest of warblers (Roger Tory Peterson once stated that the best field mark for this dingy olive-green bird was the fact that it had none; the faint sliver of orange on the crown is obscure and rarely seen this time of year) is foraging through the clumps of dead and dried sweetgum leaves. It pulls out an unsuspecting insect or spider twice during the short time I watch before it flies off. Its first victim is too small to identify, but the second is large, appearing to be a spider, and the warbler has trouble subduing it before swallowing it down.

Other birds in this loose winter foraging flock include white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, Carolina wrens, goldfinches, a female black-and-white warbler, and another good find, a single pine siskin. I rarely see siskins anymore. They used to be quite common in winter at my bird feeders in town but started disappearing some twenty-five years ago. Siskins are an “irruptive” species, meaning their winter movements and food habits are tied in with their preferred seed diet from conifer cones, alder, birch, and other trees and shrubs (in the swamp they like sweetgum seeds); the seed crops themselves fluctuate in abundance. In years of poor seed production, siskins move farther south in winter to find other foods. But that still doesn’t explain why they nearly disappeared from my Columbia feeders. The only explanation I can come up with is the popularity of backyard bird feeding, which has “short-stopped” siskins farther north. This could also account for the disappearance of another winter finch formerly seen at my feeders, the purple finch.

Fox sparrow by John Grego.

A little farther down the trail several hermit thrush-sized birds flush from a debris pile left over from last February’s ice storm. I usually see a good number of white-throated sparrows in such spots, but these birds are too big and too beautiful to be white-throats; they are fox sparrows – large, robust finches with beautiful, rusty-red streaks on their flanks and bellies. This is another good find as they are not a common winter bird in the floodplain.

There are many young red maples growing on the edge of Sims Trail. Some sprouted up from canopy openings caused by Hurricane Hugo twenty-five years ago; others seeded in even earlier from cleared lanes on either side of the Sims Trail that were planted in winter rye by the Cedar Creek Hunt Club. One maple is now in full bloom despite the frigid temperatures of the past few days. What tough flowers they must be!

As I walk past Weston Lake and the big slough leading out of it, now full of water, an acquaintance wonders why there are not more ducks in the swamp. So far we have seen none this morning. It’s a good question. I do remember last year for the Christmas Bird Count we saw lots of wood ducks feeding on fallen laurel oak acorns in the water-filled sloughs and flats along the western boundary road. The swamp has not been flooded much this winter to bring in extra water for the ducks, and there are few laurel oak acorns this year. But still we wonder what the duck picture at Congaree was like a hundred years ago. I told my friend that probably one of the main reasons we don’t see many ducks here in winter is that within the past twenty-five years there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of impoundments constructed and planted in corn and other duck foods on private lands on both sides of the Wateree and Congaree. A duck club adjoining the Congaree, for example, reported a staggering 15,000 wood ducks on one day last December.

A large canopy gap on the east leg of Oak Ridge Trail.

I cross Cedar Creek at bridge “I” then turn south onto the Oak Ridge Trail. Soon I’m in the middle of a very large natural opening, caused by several fallen giants – loblolly pines, sweetgums, and cherrybark oaks, all within the past eighteen months. About the only trees left in this large opening are scattered American holly trees, a few of which produced berries this year; the robins have zeroed in on them, going after the red drupes with gusto.

A little farther down the trail I watch a bird foraging low in some hollies. At first I think it’s a kinglet, but something doesn’t look quite right, and with my binoculars, I identify another good find for the day, a white-eyed vireo. This species is an uncommon winter visitor in the swamp.

It’s now early afternoon and I take a lunch and hot-tea break. It’s a beautiful, crisp winter day, no warmer than 45º, with little wind and a magnificent blue sky overhead. I see a few turkey vultures and black vultures sailing over on flapless wings. This would be a great day to be on the river.

A Frigid Morning

January 8, 2015.  I pick the coldest night of the young New Year to be in the swamp. I find out later that the thermometer registered 14º at 7:00 AM at the nearby weather station at McEntire Air National Guard Base. The mostly full moon in the southwestern sky is bright and lights up the floodplain when I arrive at 5:45 AM. So is Jupiter, hanging in the sky “close” to the moon.

The joints of the low boardwalk pop and crack under my feet. I’m dressed for the occasion and wearing the thickest wool socks in my possession, now more than forty years old, left over from my duck-hunting days. This wool is the real stuff, long predating the soft and non-scratchy merino wool of current usage. But I think having a little scratch to your wool in weather like this actually keeps your feet warmer.

There is a good bit of standing water in the muck swamp, and surprisingly, a lot of it is not frozen. The imperceptible slope here produces just enough movement and “current” to keep the water from freezing.

By 6:30 the eastern sky has gotten noticeably lighter, but my feet continue to get colder. I get up from the bench I’ve been sitting on and move around. The boardwalk continues to make cracking noises under ever step. Right now I’m responsible for the only sounds in the swamp. By 7:00 things are still quiet; maybe everyone is sleeping in this morning – couldn’t say that I blame them. Finally, at 7:15 a barred owl breaks the silence, followed shortly by a gang of crows. Then a pair of white-breasted nuthatches start calling with their “yank-yank” notes from a nearby tupelo tree. It’s not until 7:30 (official sunrise) that I hear my first woodpeckers – a brief, plaintive call from a yellow-bellied sapsucker, the churring of a red-belly, and finally, the loud call of a pileated in the distance. I also see my first squirrel of the morning, perched on the side of the boardwalk and chewing on what looks like a water tupelo drupe. It doesn’t look cold at all.

Fruits of water tupelo provide food for hungry squirrels.

I walk to the Weston Lake overlook, hoping to see some waterfowl in the open, ice-free water, or perhaps a lingering heron or egret, but all is quiet.  By 9:00 a light, intermittent breeze has picked up, but the warming rays of the rising sun counterbalances the wind chill.

There are three pileated woodpeckers foraging in the pines and hardwoods near the overlook, which must be right in the middle of a pileated territory as I almost invariably see one or two of the big woodpeckers every time I come here. Nearby, at the base of a large laurel oak, two males only two feet off the ground are playing at what appears to be some kind of stand-off, going around and around the tree trunk, facing each other. By the time I start back to the parking lot, I’ve tallied a dozen pileateds on this morning’s one-mile stretch of boardwalk.

Pileated woodpecker.

The birds are of course hungry this frigid morning. The little kinglets look like round butter balls as they fluff up to ward off the cold. Woodpeckers, cardinals, and robins are feeding on sugarberries and what’s left of the poison ivy berry crop. I only see two yellow-rumped warblers this morning. Twenty-five years ago I would have seen at least five or ten times that number (looking back at two winter-bird-population surveys I made at the park in 1986 and 1998, I found yellow-rumps to be the third most abundant species, behind robins and ruby-crowned kinglets; for recent Christmas Bird Counts, they are not even in the top five).

 

Yellow-rumped warbler by John Grego.

Numerous sweetgum balls have fallen on the boardwalk from recent high winds, spilling the small, prolific winged seeds. They would make easy pickings for a hungry bird or squirrel. On my return trip I happen to look up at a large cavity in a sweetgum forty feet from the boardwalk and see movement. A close look with binoculars reveals it to be the ears and top of the head of a raccoon, but it must know I’m looking at it and quickly disappears from view.

I get back to the parking lot at 10:30 and am quite surprised to count fourteen cars. I’m impressed!

Drifting to Dawson’s

January 5, 2015.  I drive down late this evening for a moonlight paddle on Cedar Creek. By the time I get the kayak in the water it has turned dark. The creek gauge is reading 3.75 feet, and I decide to drift in the darkness to Dawson’s Lake. It takes thirty minutes. I feel like I’m barely moving until I look up and see the black limbs of the tree canopy drifting by, giving a sensation of real movement.

I’m surprised on this cool night in January to see eye reflections from wolf spiders on the tupelo trunks at the water’s edge. Most of the spiders are small, but there are some medium sized, and even a few large ones. I wonder what brings them out in this weather and what are they feeding on? Maybe each other?

The swamp remains dark since the full moon has not risen yet. It’s quiet, too, except for an occasional barred owl giving a brief, one-syllable whooo call. I see green deer-eye reflections up ahead in my headlight beam. There are two of them, trying to figure me out, but they get nervous at my approach and give a snort or two before moving back from the creek bank.

Dawson’s Lake.

I arrive at Dawson’s at 7:00. The moon has just cleared the horizon and is visible through the base of the trees, off my left shoulder. It will be a while before it clears the trees. My drifting progress has slowed to almost nothing. The lake is still and quiet except for an occasional ripple at the surface, probably from fish, and I see a few eye reflections from small wolf spiders on the water. Near the lake’s edge I flush a large, dark bird, probably a roosting turkey, and it flies off silently. I am disappointed not to hear any coyotes this evening. I figure with a full moon they will be sounding off, especially when the Kingville train goes by.

The moon is taking its time emerging from the trees, and temperatures are dropping quickly. I wait until 8:00 before turning back. On the return I flush a squealing wood duck from the creek’s edge. By now the moon has started to light up the woods, although it’s still got another hour before clearing the last of the tree canopy. The temperature feels twenty degrees cooler than when I started, and my hands are cold under my thin gloves. I will appreciate sleeping in a warm bed tonight.

Year’s End

December 31, 2014.  I have been laid low for nearly ten days with a respiratory bug. During my absence the swamp was partially flooded on December 27 from heavy rains, with the river rising to nearly fourteen feet and Cedar Creek topping out at seven feet, putting part of the low boardwalk under water. The creek is now back to five feet. The flooding in the muck swamp created large rafts of water tupelo fruits now strewn about on the ground floor. Also during my absence, the abundant crops of swamp tupelo fruits have been greatly diminished, devoured by hungry squirrels and birds. Many of the larger water tupelo fruits have also disappeared from the trees, but I suspect more fell to the ground than were eaten.

Red maple flowers.

I see a fair number of ripening maple flower buds in the muck swamp and a few red flowers have already opened. It seems almost ridiculous to see flowers in late December when winter has only just started.

By the low boardwalk some bright orange jelly fungi, growing on a fallen limb, have “sprouted” from the flooding and wet weather. This is the so-called “witches’ butter,” “golden jelly fungus,” or “yellow brain,” Tremella mesenterica. It’s shaped like a brain and has a jelly-like texture. The books say it is edible, but the texture is not very appealing.

Witches butter fungi.

Also opened up from all of the rain and looking vigorous is resurrection fern, Polypodium polypodioides. Normally you need binoculars to see this interesting canopy fern, but all of the big, fern-covered limbs downed from the February ice storm have made it possible to observe it at close hand.

Resurrection fern growing on a downed limb.

 

 

 

By late morning I see more and more vultures taking advantage of clear skies and rising thermals. A flight of six turkey vultures is cutting loose circles and dips overhead, and a few black vultures are soaring nearby. I hear a loud swoosh of feathers high overhead and turn to see a pair of black vultures flying by, almost touching one another. Is this some kind of pre-courting behavior?

At mid-day bird activity has slowed down. I do flush some white-throated sparrows from a thicket by the Sims Trail and spot movement just beyond in a bare sapling six feet off the ground. It’s a blue-headed or solitary vireo, deliberately working over the trunk and limbs, searching for food. The lighting is ideal to show off the vireo’s attractive plumage – lots of bright yellow-olive showing on the flanks, set off by a gray, not blue, head, and those give-away white eye goggles. Getting such good looks makes you realize how colorful this bird really is, especially in these earth toned, bare-winter woods when so many other colorful birds have fled south for the winter.

Blue-headed vireo by John Grego.

Coming back to the parking lot on the high boardwalk, I see pools of iridescent rainbow colors – turquoise, purple, and yellow – lit up by the slanting sun on standing water in the muck swamp. This is a colorful swamp phenomenon that occurs every year in the winter months. I have heard several explanations for the cause, but the one that seems most plausible to me is the production of methane gas from decayed leaves and other organic matter that has settled on the bottom of shallow pools and flats.

Essay: Secrets of the Sweetgums

To the average person a sweetgum is one of those weedy trees with the pesky, prickly balls that cover a lawn when they start falling. And they are correct. Sweetgums are often weedy in nature, and proliferate in hedgerows, abandoned fields, and so-called “waste places.” And stepping on a sweetgum ball barefooted is no fun. It therefore comes as a surprise for many to see the Congaree and other bottomland forests throughout the South dominated by the weedy sweetgum. It is here in these fertile, moist, clayey soils that the lowly sweetgum reaches its full glory. And only in the Congaree does this tree attain sizes it was meant to have. In fact the Congaree, except for the sloughs and ponds, is a sweetgum-dominated forest where about one in every five overstory trees is a sweetgum.

Sweetgums have a magnificent growth form when they get large, rising out of the forest floor like gray columns, free of limbs for seventy-five feet. A twelve-foot-circumference sweetgum, nearly four feet in diameter, is hardly worth noticing in the Congaree. Many years ago I tried to record all of the park’s sweetgums that were twelve feet or greater in circumference but finally gave up – they were just too many of them.

The author poses with Congaree’s former national champion sweetgum.

It should probably come as no surprise that for several years the national champion sweetgum, meaning the biggest of its kind anywhere, was found in the Congaree. It measured nearly seventeen feet in circumference, almost six feet across, and was 150 feet tall. The size of this stupendous tree, experience has taught me, is about their maximum in a floodplain environment. They can’t get much bigger because their shallow root system cannot support their heavy weight in high winds, or they become more susceptible to insects and disease in old age, or die from a lightning strike from any of the numerous electrical storms that pass over the swamp in summer (the next time you’re in the visitor center, check out the excellent model of a downed sweetgum in front of the Blue Sky mural; the craftsmen that constructed this model put a gash from a lightning hit on the trees’ bole which killed it and which in turn resulted in the wind pushing it over).

This particular champion, located along the banks of lower Cedar Creek, managed to survive the ninety-mile-per-hour sustained winds of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, losing only one large canopy limb. But it finally lost its canopy and a fourth of its top to a windstorm some twenty years later. I would love to know the age of this swamp patriarch (it is still alive as of 2019 but looks quite forlorn without a top).

You can get so fixated on the large gums that it’s easy to overlook the fact that Congaree sweetgums, like loblolly pines, don’t regenerate under a dense canopy. In other words, there are few young sweetgum seedlings and saplings growing in the understory to replace the big ones when they eventually die. It gives one pause to look up at the sweetgum giants in winter and see a canopy full of sweetgum balls, all of which rain down thousands of seeds year after year, and except for feeding birds and squirrels, all to no avail. How, then, did they get here in such dominant numbers in the first place?

Hurricane Hugo was an eye opener in a lot of ways. This storm caused immense damage and untold amounts of human suffering when it struck the South Carolina coast on the night of September 21, 1989. Its scale was unprecedented in modern times and lulled us out of our false sense of security of the past thirty-five years, a period of hurricane quiescence (and accordingly a period of exponential coastal growth in the Carolinas).  The storm also taught us a lot about the complexities of forest regeneration and recovery at Congaree and other bottomland forests.

Many hardwood forests, including Congaree, regenerate themselves primarily through the effects of wind storms, which periodically knock over the large trees and create a “light-gap,” or hole in the canopy, which allows enough sunlight to reach the ground floor to stimulate growth for the younger trees and saplings. You can imagine the size of a canopy gap in the Congaree when a 140-foot tall tree falls, usually taking several smaller ones with it. These light gaps quickly fill up with pawpaw, laurel oak, red maple, green ash, sugarberry, American elm, and others, but strangely few, if any, sweetgums.

Hurricane Hugo provided us a rare opportunity to see how sweetgums have come to dominate the Congaree forest. The typical canopy gap, even those created from very large trees, does not seem to provide enough daylight for sweetgums to get started. Instead, it takes a larger canopy gap, created by several big canopy giants falling together.

Hugo was a Category 4, almost a 5, hurricane when it hit the coast with 135-mile-per-hour winds and a twenty-foot surge of water. The monster storm raced quickly inland, the eye passing about fifteen miles east of the park, and brought with it sustained winds of 90 mph, a figure that had rarely been seen this far inland.

It was a few weeks after Hugo that I was first able to get down to the park. In some areas it appeared as if a logging operation had been underway, and the normally closed, dense canopy was open everywhere with sunlight streaming in to the ground floor. A few years earlier, in 1980, I had initiated a Breeding Bird Census on a twenty-acre plot of representative old-growth in the park. Besides conducting a bird census, I did a vegetation inventory of the site. I remember the shock I felt when I first arrived at the plot several weeks after the storm. It was a shambles – trees, limbs, and splintered wood on the ground everywhere, and bright sunlight overhead as if it were January instead of early October. Over the next two days, I did a post-storm tree inventory on the plot and found that Hugo, in one night, had knocked over sixty-eight trees that were one foot in diameter or greater. Perhaps more significantly, the storm felled twelve large canopy trees three feet in diameter or greater. Before the storm I was losing on the plot about one large canopy tree three feet or greater per year to wind or other natural causes.

A rare sight before Hurricane Hugo – a clump of young sweetgum saplings.

The secret of the sweetgums revealed itself only a couple of years after Hugo when, for the first time, I started seeing sweetgum seedlings in the large canopy gaps created by the storm. This was an epiphany, and I started looking at the large gums no longer with a sense of unknowing, but with the knowledge that they were living evidence of past hurricanes and, in a few cases, tornadoes.  A history of hurricanes in South Carolina shows that a number of them have reached the Midlands with enough wind force to blow down lots of shallow-rooted hardwood trees growing in soft soil. These storms may be fifty or one-hundred-year events, but they happen with enough regularity to create a perpetual, sweetgum-dominated forest at Congaree.

Forest ecologist Robert Jones did a wonderful study some years ago on the champion trees of the park. He referred to the Congaree as an “early- to mid-successional” forest, which sounds like a contradiction in terms with the old-growth forest that it is. His use of the term was due, in part, to the dominance of sweetgums in the canopy, a tree normally considered a pioneer, early successional tree, and one of the first to invade old fields and clearings. Sweetgums at Congaree can be thought of as a hardwood version of the loblolly pine: they grow fast, straight, and tall, and attain large size relatively quickly, and in the process overshadow and out compete other hardwoods.

Under the normal sequence of bottomland forest succession, the sweetgums would eventually be replaced by late-successional hardwoods such as beech, sugarberry, elm, and others. However, this assumes there would be no disturbance to the stand, and we know now that the Congaree, like nearly all southern bottomland hardwood forests, is subject to periodic wind storms from strong hurricanes and which allows sweetgums to perpetuate themselves. I now like to think of the Congaree as a hurricane-maintained forest and the sweetgum as a hurricane tree.

Twenty-five years after Hugo, I still see signs of ongoing sweetgum regeneration in the park. They are one of the few hardwoods I’m familiar with that sprout from roots, and I see a good bit of such root sprouting in the park. These young root sprouts are often found growing under a partially-shaded canopy, places that you wouldn’t normally think would provide enough sunlight for a sweetgum. Even stranger are small patches of nothing but pure sweetgum saplings growing in swales with no parent tree nearby. In some cases these patches consist of more than a hundred saplings eight- to fifteen-feet tall growing within inches of one another. A possible origin is from a dense concentration of seeds washed in from a flood, under conditions favorable for viable seedling establishment.

Graham Norman points out young sweetgum trees that will one day become forest giants.

I sense now that the silent sweetgums are patiently biding their time, waiting for the next big storm or hurricane to blow through the Midlands. And with an average life span of about 250-300 years, the big gums will have more than enough opportunities to reproduce and continue to dominate the Congaree floodplain.

Christmas Bird Count

December 14, 2014.  This morning I’m participating in Congaree’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) along with Steve McInnis and his wife Susan. The CBC is sponsored by the National Audubon Society and is one of the oldest, continuing field surveys of its kind in the world, dating back to 1900 when eminent ornithologist Frank M. Chapman first proposed counting birds rather than hunting them. As of 2014 there were more than two thousand counts conducted across the Americas, going as far south as Colombia and far north as Alaska. The Congaree CBC was started in 1993 by the late Robin Carter. John Grego now serves as the count compiler and coordinator. Despite its name, few counts are actually conducted on Christmas Day but over a three-week period from December 14th to January 5th.

The area of the count, consisting of a fifteen-mile diameter circle, is divided into sectors or routes with teams or individuals assigned to each sector. The idea is to simply identify as many species as possible and count their numbers (in many cases the numbers are only estimates). Our route this morning includes the Western Boundary Road all the way to the Congaree River and including part of the River Trail. This has been my usual route since first participating in the count more than twenty years ago. We start at 7:30 and finish up by mid-afternoon. Typical for this time of year, unless the weather is really cold, bird activity drops off noticeably after 10:30 or 11 and may stay that way until late afternoon.

Red-headed woodpecker by John Grego.

We end up with a respectable total of 35 species, with the highlight of the day being a drove of 24 wild turkeys that crossed the road in front of us earlier in the morning. We also counted 16 red-headed woodpeckers, a far cry from last year’s 60 that Laura McCormick and I found on this same route (and as it turned out, in 2013 Congaree had the highest CBC count of red-headed woodpeckers east of the Mississippi River with 146 birds).

The red-headed woodpecker is one of my favorite birds, due in part to its striking combination of red, white, and black plumage (and they have a personality to match their plumage). In winter they should be called “acorn woodpecker” since at this time of year they have forsaken their summer diet of grubs and other insect foods and switched to a meal plan of acorns. The laurel oak acorn crop sought after by the woodpecker varies from year to year and the red-head in effect becomes a winter vagrant tied to acorn production. It searches the southern landscape for those oak forests with acorns of the right size – typically laurel oak, Nuttall’s oak, willow and water oak, cherrybark oak, pin oak, and others. Most of these species belong to the red oak group, reach greatest abundance in bottomland forests, and have acorns about half-an-inch long.

The Western Boundary Road (we use to call it the Upper Clubhouse Road since there was an old hunt clubhouse from the 1950s, now gone, at the end of it near Cooks Lake) has perhaps the densest concentration of laurel oaks in the park and I sometimes think of it as the “red-headed road.”

In some years at Congaree the striking woodpeckers are nearly absent; in others, very abundant. As an example, in previous years along this same route I had one red-head in 2007, none in 2003, none in 2000, two in 1996, and none in 1993. However, 1994 and 1995 were two good back-to-back woodpecker years with 25 and 30, respectively, counted. My best red-headed count on this route prior to 2013 was in 2001 with 50, followed by 1998 with 35 birds. Since 2001, red-headed woodpecker counts at the park leveled off to low and moderate numbers until the winter of 2013, when numbers rose dramatically to 146.

When comparing bird numbers between years for such things as the CBC, it is necessary to convert the figures to a number based on a unit of effort, in this case birds per party-hour, since the number of observers changes from year to year and more observers will result in seeing more birds of the same species. Using birds per party-hour shows that 1998 was by far the best winter for red-headed woodpeckers in the twenty-two history of the Congaree CBC with 3.4 birds per party-hour, a nearly 42% increase over the next highest figure of 2.4 red-heads per party-hour in 2001.

Surprisingly, we see no wood ducks today. Last year the sloughs and flats were full of water, along with a bumper crop of laurel oak acorns relished by the ducks (and woodpeckers) and we counted 30 woodies. American robin numbers are down this year too, with only 13, and attributed to the poor crop of American holly berries (last year’s numbers were 45).

Seen any ducks? In some years parts of the western boundary road are under water.

We stop for lunch at our usual spot, the big sandbar on the river south of the junction of Western Boundary Road and the River Trail. It’s a nice change of scenery after spending hours walking through the forest, and a good location to spot a passing bald eagle, kingfisher, anhinga, cormorant, mallard, teal, or other river fowl.

Christmas bird counter Dave Schuetrum takes a lunch break at the sandbar.

Although the main purpose of the CBC is to get outdoors and have fun, the wealth of data generated over the past century and more has not escaped the notice of scientists who have mined the enormous data set (now online) for years to determine population trends, changes in distribution, and other indices of bird population health.

The Congaree CBC has compiled some impressive nationwide bird numbers. In 2013 it had the highest tally of pileated woodpeckers in the country with 105; it also had the highest count east of the Mississippi River for ruby-crowned kinglets with 508. In 2012 it was again the country’s leading location for pileated woodpeckers with 150; was in first place east of the Mississippi River for hermit thrushes with 126; and number two in the country for yellow-shafted flickers with a whopping 316. In 2011 it led the country for the number of yellow-bellied sapsuckers with 101 and was in second place for yellow-shafted flickers with 227. I’m convinced that Congaree National Park has the densest concentration of woodpeckers within the National Park system and certainly one of the densest anywhere in the country.

Kayak Camping

December 11, 2014.  Today I’ve put in my kayak at South Cedar Creek Landing for a two-night camp in the swamp. The weather couldn’t be better – at noon it’s in the upper 40s, with brilliant blue skies, low humidity, and a slight touch of breeze from the northwest. It’s the kind of ideal day for chopping wood, digging fence posts, and other types of hard, manual labor. The only down side is that it’s going to be cold tonight, with lows forecast to be in the upper 20s.

Cedar Creek is at ideal levels, 2.9 feet, and black as tar. I see only one bank fisherman at Dawson’s Lake; he’s been there for about an hour and caught one small bream, but hopefully the weather and surroundings make up for the lack of fish.

My destination is the south side of Cedar Creek, just east of Horsepen Gut. This area, referred to as the Indian Pond compartment, is one of my big tree search areas. It’s almost a three hour leisure paddle away. On the way down I flush about sixty wood ducks, some in pairs, others in small groups, with the largest consisting of a dozen birds.

I stop for lunch at the “canal,” an artificial cut made across the narrow neck of the “Big Bend” of Cedar Creek. The canal is shallow, but I make it halfway through before encountering an impassable log jam and have to do a short, easy portage.

River otter by John Grego.

At the lower end of Elder Lake I encounter four river otters. They make my day. One has hauled out on a small log with some sort of sunfish for a meal, but I can’t make out which kind. The otters make short underwater swims, then pop their heads up nervously, giving off snorts and hisses while checking me out. Soon, they disappear upstream and we part ways.

The beavers now have two dams on this part of Cedar Creek: one at a narrow bottleneck just below Elder Lake; the other, helped out by a fallen maple, a little north of Horsepen Gut. The water levels are high enough that I’m just able to get over them without portaging.

I arrive at my destination a little after 3 PM. The sun is already low in the sky, and after setting up camp, I don’t have any time left for exploring. With a nice log backrest, I observe my surroundings. At 4:55 I see a squirrel high in the canopy above me, having a last minute meal of the fruits (drupes) of a sugarberry tree. The squirrel feeds for forty minutes, until 5:35 (sunset is 5:17), then turns in for the night in a cavity near the top of a green ash a hundred feet away. Another squirrel, perhaps its partner, has already preceded him.

Supper tonight is freeze-dried spaghetti – very tasty and filling. It doesn’t take long for night to envelope the swamp. I hear turkeys squabbling briefly about roost sites over Cedar Creek. Just before turning in at seven I hear a loud crack, almost like a gunshot, coming from the direction of Cedar Creek. It takes me a second before I realize it’s the tail slap of a beaver, probably alerted to my presence. It lets loose with another loud slap, which travels some distance in the still, night air, followed up shortly by a third.

December 12, 2014.  I’m up well before dawn this chilly morning. It’s cold enough to turn the respiration moisture on the inside of my tent fly into thin sheets of ice, but I stayed quite toasty in my down bag. I can’t get the cap off of one of my water bottles to make coffee because it’s frozen shut. But the other cap pulls off, and I’m soon swallowing hot gulps of refreshing, black liquid. I estimate it’s about 28º. I’m wearing five layers of clothing: a cotton T-shirt, a cotton turtleneck, a fleece shirt, a fleece pullover, and a fleece jacket. I’m warm enough and think the inventor of fleece should be awarded a Nobel Prize.

My fingers and toes, however, are not far off from being cold. Normally I can do something about my fingers, but it’s hard to add another layer to your tootsies. My new Muck boots are rated from “sub-freezing to 85 degrees”. Not sure how far below freezing “sub-freezing” is, but, at least for the time being, the boots are doing their job.

I’m used to doing without a campfire and often don’t have one, even when allowed. But campfires do come in handy for social occasions and are a necessity in bitterly cold weather and when a body is wet. I miss them the most on a freezing morning like this one.

After breakfast, and three cups of coffee, I depart camp for a big tree hunt. My squirrels from last night are nowhere to be seen.

Indian Pond has been dry for some time now as are the little guts and sloughs leading out of it. I get as far as Hank’s Gut, then head westward. On the way I encounter a “sounder” of pigs, consisting of several sows, juvenile pigs and small piglets. Some of the piglets and juveniles are calico-colored with dark blotches on a white or tan background. I also find a recently deceased raccoon on the ground. It’s in good flesh, without a blemish, so I have no idea what caused its demise.

I get as far as Horsepen Gut, which is shallow and full of downed trees, logs, and limbs. I then cut back east to admire the large sweetgums to the south, southeast, and west of Indian Pond. In a forest of big sweetgums, this area has the best of the biggest. I find a sixteen-foot circumference gum, but it has lost the tallest part of its canopy, as have many in this area, to various windstorms and is only 110 feet high. Nearby is a fifteen-footer with a more intact crown which measures 125 feet high. Since most foliage has fallen, I’m able to get an unobstructed view of the base of the tree and its canopy and am able to use my laser range-finder to determine height. I continue northwest and find more big gums: a 14.2 footer with a broken top; a 14.1 footer with a mostly new top measuring 115 feet tall; a 13.4 footer, 128 feet tall; a 13.5 footer, but unable to determine the height because of obstructions. The tallest sweetgum I measure today is 133 feet high (and 13 feet in circumference).

Horsepen Gut, full of downed trees and logs.

Although I’ve seen these monster gums many times over the years, I never tire of admiring them. To cap the day off, I find a cluster of large sweetgums, six within fifty feet that all add up to nearly seventy feet of circumference.

As I head back to camp, a small group of hen turkeys takes to the tree tops, but it’s too early for roosting. I suspect something spooked them, maybe me. The grand birds look rather foolish and ungainly perched in trees. After a few minutes, they fly off in ones and twos, still looking rather cumbersome in flight, but not as awkward as perched in a tree.

I arrive back at camp a little before four and settle in with a cup of hot tea. The weather has warmed up to the upper 50s, and a lone cricket is chirping in the sunshine. At 5:15 my squirrel from yesterday is back in the same sugarberry tree, feeding on drupes as before. Its companion is nearby, closer to the green ash den tree. The sugarberry-eating squirrel stays out five minutes later than yesterday, turning in at 5:40 PM, again preceded by about five minutes by its partner.

Large Congaree sweetgums, holding up the sky.

By six it’s dark in the swamp, and as I prepare to “cook” freeze-dried beef stroganoff (I’m definitely eating well on this trip), I hear loud, blood-curdling howls coming from a coyote not all that far away.  It’s just one animal, but I hear more howling and yipping in the distance. Almost as quickly as it starts, it ends, and the swamp goes quiet again. I don’t hear anymore coyotes until long after going to bed. It’s interesting that I have seen only four or five coyotes, all singles, in the swamp in the past ten years, yet it’s not uncommon to hear them at night in the park.

I wish I knew more about their biology. Coyotes evolved in western prairies and semi-wooded landscapes and have been spreading eastward, a process linked to the clearing of eastern forests, for more than a hundred years. So how does the “prairie wolf,” as early naturalists and hunters called them, fit in with the dense swamp forests of the Congaree? What impact has the swamp coyote population had on the gray fox (I can’t remember ever seeing a gray fox in the Congaree, but surely they are here). Has there been any significant coyote predation on young pigs to reduce their population growth?

Biologists have recently been talking about a “new” animal in the northeast and eastern Canada, the “coy-wolf,” a larger-than-usual coyote with wolf genes. The theory is that as coyotes spread eastward through southern Canada, they began inter-breeding with the small, remnant population of surviving wolves in Ontario and northern Minnesota. Normally, coyotes and wolves are bitter enemies, and wolves kill coyotes every chance they get. But, some biologists speculate, there were so few wolves remaining that they started mating with coyotes instead of killing them. Interbreeding has apparently been underway since at least the late 1800s when observers first started noticing a darker, larger coyote sometimes called the “northeastern coyote” or “brush wolf.” Recent genetic testing has determined that about a fourth of northeastern coyotes sampled are carrying wolf genes.

Whatever it is, it has made itself at home in the northeastern U.S. and is moving south. Our South Carolina coyotes have been here since the 1970s, being first reported in counties along the Upper Savannah River Valley. Apparently brought into the state by houndsmen, some of these captive coyotes later escaped. Concurrently, however, a wave of coyotes was spreading eastward on their own into South Carolina without any assistance from humans. In a remarkable feat of colonization, coyotes became well-established in every county in South Carolina over a thirty-year period. The extraordinary adaptability of coyotes, perhaps helped along with a little wolf DNA mixed in, has now allowed them to occupy just about every habitat niche in North America.

The northeastern coyote might not be the only one carrying wolf genes. Our South Carolina coyotes during their long eastward march may have picked up DNA from a remnant population of red wolves in east Texas and western Louisiana.

Smart Squirrels

December 6, 2014.  I’m set up well before dawn, leaning against a tree trunk on the south bank of Cedar Creek, having walked in from the parking lot at the South Cedar Creek canoe launch. Just before official sunrise at 7:11 AM, the woodpeckers wake up and begin drumming. Most of the sounds are coming from pileateds and carry long distances by virtue of the time of day, little obstructing tree foliage, and the powerful beak of this large woodpecker striking dead and half-dead resonant wood. The drumming and wood knocking are forms of communication and perhaps winter territorial marking. Initially, the woodpeckers do little in the way of calling or voice communication at this time of morning. Later, the woods echo with a different type of woodpecker noise, that of powerful beaks knocking out chunks of wood in search of insect food.

I was hoping to see an otter or two in the creek but have no luck. There are several small groups of wood ducks flying up the creek, uttering their high-pitched squeals. They are close enough that I can hear the air swooshing by their wings.

Tannin-stained black waters of Cedar Creek.

Cedar Creek is as beautifully black as I’ve ever seen it and ideal for kayaking, the gauge reading 3.5 feet. By now a light fog has settled in over the upper tree canopy. It adds mood to the ink-black creek. Eventually the sun breaks through, and the silk threads of hundreds of spiders gleam in the piercing, yellow rays. I find an orb weaver with its web. By 10 AM it has warmed up from a slight southwesterly breeze, and I even feel a puff of warm air on the side of my face, almost as if someone were blowing on my cheek.

Bird activity has slowed down to nothing, so I resort to squirrel watching. One fellow, not far away on the thick, leaf-covered ground, is busy with activity. I’m surprised to see it actually dig up a fresh swamp chestnut oak acorn, rather than bury it. The industrious squirrel nibbles on it a little, then carries it away and re-buries it. It repeats this performance four times in twenty minutes, only instead of reburying the whole acorn as it did the first time, the squirrel cracks the acorn in half longitudinally and buries each half separately, but not before gnawing on them a little, and in one case, appearing to smell the nut half. What is going on here? Why would a squirrel rebury its cache (assuming this is his cache; I’m thinking each squirrel has its own caching territory, but maybe there’s some overlap, or pilfering of a neighbor’s cache)? Some of the answers may lie with the type of acorn that’s being buried. Acorns of the white oak group start to germinate shortly after falling to the ground, while those in the red oak group have a delayed germination response that doesn’t kick in until the spring. Cutting a white oak acorn in half before burying it would likely prevent germination and insure that it remains a food source for the squirrel. Are squirrels that smart? How did they figure this out? Seems we are always underestimating the cleverness and resourcefulness of our animal friends.

Sunrise in the Swamp

November 29, 2014.  The 6:00 AM temperature is hovering around freezing this black morning, but I’m sufficiently bundled up to stay warm. The half-moon has set and the pre-dawn sky is bright with stars. I’m sitting on a low boardwalk bench in the muck swamp, waiting for the swamp to start stirring. At 6:45 I hear the wake-up call of a squirrel in the canopy, followed by a few “caws” from a crow. A hermit thrush gives a few chuck call notes at 6:50. No doubt the brown thrashers would have gone first, but there are no thickets, or thrashers, in the muck swamp. I also notice that Jupiter is still shining and visible high in the southern sky while the rest of the sky light has disappeared.

The muck swamp has plenty of new water, courtesy of recent, heavy rainfall. Cedar Creek rose two feet and the river nearly six feet over a twenty-four hour period. At 7:05, nearly coinciding with official sunrise, I hear the first pileated woodpecker call of the morning, soon followed by a chorus of other woodpeckers – red-bellies, flickers, and sapsuckers. A golden-crowned kinglet, a tuft of feathers that could fit in a soup spoon, is hunting for food in the bare branches of a hardwood. How this little sprite of feathers that weighs only two tenths of an ounce survives cold weather is a miracle.

By now a few squirrels are stirring in the canopy, and one fellow is feeding on the olive-sized drupes of water tupelo. The muck swamp squirrels don’t have as much access to acorns as their bottomland hardwood brethren do, especially this year when the few laurel oaks in the muck swamp have produced few acorns. The bottomland squirrels are also able this year to take advantage of a good crop of swamp chestnut oak acorns, the nearest of which are some distance from the muck swamp. Do the muck squirrels travel a ways to find acorns? I’m not sure, but I do know that the muck swamp supports a pretty fair squirrel population, all of which look well fed.

Three flickers are taking advantage of the abundant swamp tupelo fruits as is a pileated woodpecker, hanging upside down like a giant chickadee in the canopy of another nearby tupelo. A fourth flicker is giving a rapid “jack hammer” drumming from the tip of a dead cypress limb. Later in the morning I see a flicker on higher ground in the swamp, acting like a flicker should and probing in the dirt, presumably for ants.

A pine warbler has moved into the muck swamp, away from his regular haunts in the pine trees, and is feeding on poison ivy berries. This particular warbler has a lot of yellow on it, indicating an adult male.

About the only fall color remaining in the muck swamp is coming from the golden-yellow leaves of ironwood. I also notice the cypress catkins are now green and swollen with ripening male flowers that will be spreading pollen in the wind in the next few weeks ahead.

ripening bald cypress catkins (male flowers).

By 7:45, a little more than thirty minutes after sunrise, the initial wake-up calls and greetings of the early risers have ended, and the swamp becomes as quiet as it was before dawn. I have turned east on the low boardwalk towards Weston Lake and am walking through a grove of laurel oaks that is uncharacteristically silent; this time last year the oaks were alive with the constant chattering and churring of red-headed woodpeckers, quarreling over an abundant acorn crop that is missing this year. I wonder where those red-heads have gone this winter?

I spend a few minutes at the Weston Lake overlook, enjoying a cold turkey sandwich with a hot cup of joe. There is not much activity at the lake, except a few fish breaking water and a squawking great blue heron at the back of the lake. I continue east along the Weston Lake Loop Trail, and after crossing bridge “D” at Big Tupelo Gut, turn north and east to walk along the south side of Cane Pond. Fresh pig sign is everywhere, but I see no oinkers today. I do stumble across an old liquor still I don’t remember seeing before. There are nine old, very rusted-out 55-gallon drums, two of which are welded together. Other remnants are moss-covered pieces of brick, a six-ounce Coke bottle, and a fragment of what looks like a Nehi soda. Perhaps the soft drink bottles help date the still, which probably goes back to the fifties. The “revenuers” must have missed this one, as none of the drums have any ax or puncture marks in them.

Remains of an old liquor still near Cane Pond.

There is another old still nearby, on the north side of Cane Pond. This area of Cedar Creek was quite obviously a hotbed of stilling activity sixty and seventy years ago, as this makes the fifth still I’m aware of in the general vicinity. And based on the number of stills I’ve found along both sides of the Wateree and Congaree, I’d say the Congaree National Park and the COWASEE Basin were producing a fair amount of moonshine during the twentieth century. It kind of begs the question as to why we don’t have a local moonshine festival, celebrating one of the state’s earliest and most colorful cottage industries.

Cold Camping

November 21, 2014. It’s a beautiful fall day this early afternoon, and I’m off on a short backpack overnight camp. The muck swamp is now nearly completely denuded of its foliage, except for the bald cypress which still has some persistent needles not quite ready to fall. Almost overnight the bottomland hardwood community has taken on a new look. The hard freeze we had this past Wednesday morning killed a lot of deciduous leaves, many still green and attached to the tree, and they have now all fallen to the ground. I fail to see a single pawpaw with a leaf left on it. Some sweetgum leaves are still on the tree but are browned and shriveled. Swamp chestnut oak leaves did weather the cold pretty nicely as did American beech, many of which still have green leaves.

My choice of campsites, especially this time of year when the swamp is dry, is dictated by water. It is a supreme irony that water can be limiting in a swamp (but remember the Congaree is not a true swamp, but a bottomland hardwood forest, and is supposed to be dry in the fall). Right now water choices are slim and consist of the river itself, Cedar Creek, and oxbow lakes such as Weston Lake and Wise Lake. Some of the guts and sloughs do have standing, but quite stagnant, water, and I use them as a source of filtered drinking water only as a last resort.

I find a nice campsite near the mouth of Tennessee Gut, and about three hundred feet west of Cedar Creek, my water source (park regulations require that campsites be at least 100 feet away from a water body). This part of the park receives little public visitation, and it has a splendid old growth forest of sweetgums, ash, overcup oak, laurel oak, and other hardwoods. Years ago I found a monster Shumard oak of national-champion proportions, twenty-two feet in circumference, in this area (it later snapped off during a high wind before it was officially confirmed). The nearest one of any size I know of in the park now is the current state champion, fifteen feet in circumference, and located on the Oak Ridge Trail.

River otter – always a lucky find at Congaree.

A possible national champion Shumard oak – until snapped off by high winds.

By late afternoon I’ve picked a nice log backrest near the bank of Cedar Creek to serve as a wildlife observation post. Maybe I’ll get lucky and see an otter. The sun is sinking rapidly and so is the temperature. The only sunlight left, a glowing yellow almost as if coming from a flashlight, is high above me in the tops of the tall canopy trees. In that light I watch a pair of cardinals feeding on sugarberry fruits. By 5:00 (official sunset is 5:17) what little light left in the tall canopy has turned from yellow to flaming orange, and by 5:15 there is no sunlight remaining anywhere in the forest. An hour later it has become black night down here on the ground floor. Only a few hardy crickets are still calling in the coolness, and I spot just a few spider eyes and no granddaddy longlegs. I hit the sack at 6:45 with the temperature somewhere in the mid-40s. It’s going to be cold in the morning. I don’t miss a fire too much this night, but certainly will in the morning when the temps will be in the mid-30s.

November 22, 2014.  It’s as cold as a witch’s breast in a brass brassiere this morning at 5:30. The high swamp humidity just cuts through you. I did stay toasty in my new down bag which is rated for 15º. Sleeping bag temperature ratings seem to be highly subjective, and perhaps more geared to young people than us oldsters with “thin blood.” My regular synthetic bag is rated for 20º but seems to be closer to 25 or 30º the older I get. Down bags are lighter, and to me warmer, than synthetic bags. Their “down” side is that they are more expensive, lose their insulation when wet, and are more expensive to maintain. I think the new down bags, however, have improved a good bit on the second point.

With the canopy noticeably more open from all of the recently fallen leaves, I get a much better view of a magnificent night sky than I did last week while camping out. It also helps that the half moon then has become almost a full moon now.  The big dipper is glowing, and one planet overhead, Jupiter I think, is almost as bright as a sliver of moon.

I have just enough layers to ward off the cold, but not sure for how long. It’s clear to me that the person(s) who made the ruling about no camp fires in Congaree’s backcountry has never spent a night here in cold weather.

At 6:20 I hear my first bird of the morning, a brown thrasher, calling from a nearby thicket. From my experience it’s not the cardinal that goes to bed last and wakes up first but rather the thrasher, who gives away his nocturnal abode with a series of loud, short churring calls. He is joined a few minutes later by a Carolina wren, whose winter song is always appreciated on a cold morning. Soon loud whacks of woodpeckers striking hollow or rotten wood reverberates throughout the forest, a noise made even louder by the morning temperature inversion.

Around 7:00 I see the first sunlight beginning to light up the tall canopy. It takes a long time, however, for that warming sun to get down here at ground level. As usual the temperature seems colder for the first hour or two after sunrise than before dawn. I am now “one layer short” of keeping warm so have to move around to keep the blood pumping. It doesn’t seem possible that only yesterday afternoon I saw butterflies (cloudless sulfurs I think) and spider webs lighting up in the afternoon sun.

Bird activity has started picking up, led by hungry robins feeding in the canopy on sugarberries and swamp tupelo fruits. The berries make them thirsty and soon the edges of Cedar Creek are lined with drinking red breasts.

American holly berries – food for hungry robins.

After breakfast I spend the rest of the day exploring the north side of Tennessee Gut. I find a real oddity near the bank of Cedar Creek – a fruiting persimmon, the only one in the swamp I can ever recall to actually produce fruit.