Camping in the East End, Conclusion

November 13, 2014.  At 4 AM it’s about 50 degrees, and the cricket chorus is still going, although noticeably reduced from last night when it was fifteen degrees warmer. Also reduced is the number of wolf spider

Tales of the Congaree by E.C.L. Adams is a classic of folklore literature.

eye reflections. A few insects are crawling about, as are some harvestmen, and even a hardy mosquito that has the gall to buzz my ears here in mid-November.

The woods at this hour of the morning are black and still and eerie. Without a fire to dim the darkness (the park doesn’t allow camping fires in the “backcountry”) and reduce your night vision, your eyes are operating at peak nocturnal efficiency. I stare at the giant, black trees that surround me on all sides, and a feeling of insignificance quickly gains hold. There is no horizon or opening anywhere. The shadows on the ground from an overhead half-moon, and a partial view of the stars mostly obscured by the dense canopy only add to the eeriness. I think there is a lot of truth that people are inherently afraid of the dark. It’s not hard to imagine in my current surroundings how so many ghost stories, superstitions, and horror tales originated from black, still woods such as these. In fact, many of the local residents of Lower Richland County a century ago were quite adamant in their views of the Congaree as a fearful place that swallowed up men whole. Dr. Edward C. L. Adams recorded these views in his colorful classic Tales of the Congaree.

The Congaree Swamp of these tales was where morning light led to the devil’s night; where owls on dead limbs talked with the dead and laughed like the dead; where the air was putrid with the smell of moccasin snakes; a place of varmints and bugs, stinging yellow flies and mosquitoes; where trees sweat like men; a land of poison, fever, ghosts, and evil spirits; a place of slick yellow mud and above all a place where death is king. This doesn’t sound like the Congaree I know and love but I can understand how such views and attitudes get started.  The mysterious woods that appeal to me are intimidating and downright foreboding for some. Much of this has to do, I think, with the dense, closed-in forest, the lack of a horizon or even a view of an overhead sky, all calling up ancient, long-dormant fears. And this atmosphere is magnified at night.

Outdoor writer Archibald Rutledge countered negative attitudes and superstitions about the darkness at his beloved Santee Delta country. He welcomed the night and wrote eloquently of the hold it had on him, comparing daylight to prose and nighttime to poetry. I think I understand what Dr. Rutledge was trying to say and I begin to appreciate and admire this special black setting I have the good fortune to be a part of.

By 6:15 the eastern sky is faintly, but noticeably, lighter than the rest, and by 7:00 the woods have taken on a completely different, decidedly more appealing appearance. Perhaps it’s the fall colors that lighten things up, or that you can see clearly again. The tall, skeletal sweetgum of the recent dark has now become once more a magnificent old growth specimen complete with attractive fall foliage.

November woods in the Congaree.

At 7:15 I hear a deer snort from the same place as last night, only it’s even louder with the early morning temperature inversion.  He sounds upset I’m still here. A Carolina wren is singing from a nearby thicket, and a lonely yellow-bellied sapsucker is giving its plaintive, single note call.

After a breakfast of instant oatmeal, I spend most of the morning searching for potential champion trees in the vicinity of Sam’s Lake and the park’s original old-growth boundary. I measure the circumference of a very tall sweetgum, ramrod straight, which I have had my eye on for more than thirty years. It is now over sixteen feet in circumference and could be a potential state champion to replace the former national champion that lost its canopy a few years ago. I also look for a large American elm I found years ago, hoping it might have grown into championship material, but instead I find it on the ground, quite dead and decayed.

A possible champion Congaree sweetgum, more than 16 feet in circumference.

There are several large sycamores in the area, the biggest being nearly sixteen feet in circumference. These beautiful trees get quite tall in the Congaree, approaching 150 feet, but this particular one lost a good bit of its crown to wind some years ago. I also find a handsome red mulberry specimen, tall and straight, with a circumference of four feet. Congaree mulberries are always understory trees, and can never compete with specimens like the state champion, planted in an avenue on high ground with a whopping circumference of twenty-one feet!

Fresh deer scrapes are everywhere in the woods this morning, especially around the drip line of American holly trees, which have the low hanging branches and cleared ground the bucks prefer. Some hollies have multiple scrapes around the same tree, and a few look almost like a deer merry go-round there is so much fresh dirt pawed up; it’s probably no coincidence that we are approaching the peak rut period in coastal South Carolina.

Camping in the East End

November 12, 2014.  It’s been a while since I’ve camped in the park, and with nice weather in the forecast, I’ve decided to take advantage of it and spend time in the old growth at the park’s east end, near the original 1976 boundary. It is one of the most isolated parts of the park. There are no roads or trails and about the only evidence of people is an occasional boater on the Congaree River.

Early morning on the Congaree River.

One thing that makes this area so isolated and seldom used by the public is the difficulty of access. The high ground to the north, all extensive forestland without a house anywhere, is either blocked by private land or large sloughs and creeks full of water. And, if you are able to walk in, it takes so long as to make a day trip almost prohibitive, especially during the short days of winter. It’s a long way downstream to the nearest boat landing at US 601, and the land on the south side of the river in Calhoun County is rural and sparsely populated. The most efficient and easiest way to get here is via a thirty-minute boat ride from the Highway 601 boat landing. And that’s what I’m doing this warm fall afternoon.

The boat drive up is always enjoyable and interesting. You see few people and go by a lot of history. The south bank of the river has some magnificent bluffs that tower 150-200 feet above the river. From the top of one of these bluffs the famous battle of Fort Motte was fought in May, 1781, during the Revolutionary War. You pass under a historic railroad, the first rail spur in South Carolina, built more than 170 years ago in 1842 from Branchville to Columbia. On this same rail line in 1863 General James Longstreet’s First Corp of the Army of Northern Virginia, 12,000 men in all, was sent west as reinforcements for the bloody battle of Chickamauga in northern Georgia. You pass by the Congaree Bluffs Heritage Preserve, a 200-acre property managed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. And there is another high bluff labeled on Robert Mills’ 1825 map of the Orangeburgh District (part of which later became Calhoun County) as “Lover’s Leap” (spelled “Lep” on his map).

The view atop a Congaree bluff, “Lover’s Leap.”

Of course there is usually river wildlife to see, depending on the time of year – waterfowl, wading birds, osprey, bald eagle, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawk, turkey and black vulture, anhinga, kingfisher, and double-crested cormorant, just to name a few. Today I spot an osprey, and on the way back home tomorrow, a bald eagle.

Getting a late start from home, there isn’t much time left for exploring after setting up camp, located near the river bank between Stump Gut and the mouth of Cedar Creek. Sadly, there is not much left of the two-mile stretch of lower Cedar Creek from Mazyck’s Cut to its mouth. Mazyck’s has essentially become the new mouth of Cedar Creek since there is so little flow and scouring energy now going into the lower creek. The mouth is almost invisible from the river, having shoaled in badly and grown over with willows. It’s hard to believe that forty years ago I could drive a fourteen-foot john boat at least a few bends up lower Cedar Creek.

An impassable lower Cedar Creek filled with logs and other obstructions.

Near camp I come to an old landmark in this part of the swamp, a cabin built in the 1960s on the east bank of Cedar Creek not far from its mouth by Johnny LeMoine, a former member of the Cedar Creek Hunt Club (the lease holders of Congaree before the park became public). I never met Mr. LeMoine but always admired his handiwork. It’s a beautiful little cabin, and still standing on pilings after all these years, but showing a lot of wear. The roof has fallen in on the back side, the rear wall has slipped to the ground, and the back of the cabin threatens to fall away from the front. LeMoine built his swamp villa board by board, bringing in all the material by small boat from the 601 boat landing, six miles downstream. I wish I could have shared a drink with him on the cabin front porch and listened to his Congaree hunting and fishing stories.

It gets dark early in the swamp now that we are off daylight savings time. I lean back on my log backrest and watch the swamp turn out for the night shift. Crickets are chirping away, and I see a good number of wolf spider eye-shines lighting up the ground floor, although not nearly as many as I saw in the summer. A few ants and other insects are crawling about on the leaf litter, but the real stars of the litter fauna are the granddaddy longlegs. These long-legged arachnids are not spiders, and are known as harvestmen in the scientific world. They are, of course, completely harmless, chiefly nocturnal, and eat a wide variety of foods, including aphids, mites, beetles, and other insects, decayed organic material, and even each other.  Several are crawling over my gear spread out on the ground and on my log backrest. Like lightning bugs, doodle bugs, June bugs, crickets, cicadas, and other creepie-crawlies, granddaddy longlegs used to be part of nearly every kid’s childhood. But as we quickly attain adulthood, granddaddy longlegs, like other interesting members of the animal kingdom that grew up with us, become forgotten without us knowing much about them, except for the myths and fables older kids and adults passed on to us.

Johnny LeMoine’s cabin.

Around 6:30, with only a tinge of daylight left in the fading sky, a deer not far away has scented me and lets out with a series of loud snorts, magnified with the beginning air inversion. He is clearly upset at the interloper who has moved into his territory. It takes him a while to calm down, but he finally moves off farther back in the forest.

Camping for me means going to bed early, and tonight is no exception. I roll into the sack at 8:00 and sleep pretty well, waking at 4 AM. During the night I hear a few barred owls, the Kingville train, and best of all, the yip-yip calls of coyotes.

Essay: The All-Aged Forest

On occasion I hear that some first-time visitors are disappointed after seeing the park. They’ve heard about the big trees, the champion trees, the so-called “redwoods of the east,” a term that came into use during the citizens campaign to save the swamp in the 1970s. They have come expecting to see solid stands of big trees, much like the redwoods, sequoias, and other old-growth coniferous forests of California and the Pacific Northwest. Comparing old coniferous forests with old-growth hardwood forests is like comparing, well, apple trees and orange trees. The two are entirely different. Stands of coniferous trees are typically of the same size and age and in fact are referred to as “even-aged forests.” They owe their condition to the fact that young conifers need lots of sunlight to get started and that this sunlight is often provided by some catastrophic event such as a wildfire that burns and destroys large areas at a time. Fire also burns the duff – built-up ground litter and decomposed leaves – that expose the soil and allow the conifer seeds to germinate and get started free of competing vegetation.

Congaree’s state champion American elm, nearly 23 feet in circumference, is surrounded by smaller trees of varying size.

Hardwoods forests offer a far different picture. Many are not conducive to fire – they are too wet, or don’t provide the type of fuel to carry a fire. For the most part they are created and maintained by episodic wind events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and severe wind storms that rather than destroy the entire forest like a wildfire, create a patchwork of tree destruction ranging from small openings of downed trees to larger areas with intermittent tree loss. In between is a continuum ranging from light to heavy damage. The end result is a forest of variable tree ages and sizes, an “all-aged forest.” It can be visualized as a pyramid, consisting of a few very large trees at the top, followed by many medium-sized ones in the middle, and even more smaller, younger trees at the base.

Forest ecologists sometimes refer to this type tree pyramid of size and number as the “reverse J-shaped diameter distribution.”  When plotted on a graph with the number of trees on the vertical axis and their diameters on the horizontal axis, the shape of the plotted line is like a reverse or backwards J. This again applies primarily to old hardwood forests since a plotted even-aged old coniferous forest would appear somewhat like a J in its correct position, or an upside-down pyramid.

The famous Singer Tract in Northeastern Louisiana was, at 80,000 acres, the largest remaining old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the South until it was logged just before and during World War II. Here, young graduate student James Tanner studied the last surviving population of ivory-billed woodpeckers. Part of Tanner’s research consisted of  measuring tree sizes of the various species, and his results are informative: 75% of the trees in his Singer Tract samples were a foot in diameter or less, while only slightly more than 1% of the trees were larger, i.e. three feet in diameter or greater. This is the same pattern that fits the Congaree. I’d say on average there is about one three-foot diameter or greater tree per acre, followed by a fair number of twenty-four to thirty-five inchers, and then by lots of trees less than two feet in diameter. The really big boys – four feet in diameter or greater – may be spread over several acres, but in some instances, as befits wind storms of varying intensities, there might be several very large ones (typically sweetgum) growing in a small area and with an approximation of the “redwoods look.”

It is unusual to find this many large trees, ranging from 2 to 4 feet in circumference, growing close together in Congaree’s all-aged forest.

Public perception of the size of large hardwoods also comes into play. At least in the temperate zone, hardwoods simply don’t have the capacity or life span to attain the sizes of redwoods and sequoias. For the latter, a twelve-foot-diameter tree is not that unusual, whereas a five-foot- diameter hardwood is. Even a three-foot-diameter hardwood is outside of the norm for most of the Eastern deciduous forest, which has been cut over numerous times the past three hundred years. For the Congaree, a four-foot-diameter sweetgum, a rare tree just about anywhere else, is so common that people routinely walk by them without a second look. And we shouldn’t forget that most Congaree hardwoods put most of their growth into height in order to reach the sun for photosynthesis. Because the forest is so dense with trees, they basically grow upward rather than outward, resulting in one of the tallest hardwood forests in the temperate world.

Although Congaree’s flat floodplain at first glance appears to be all the same and even monotonous, the terrain is really quite varied with a wide range of growth sites, all shaped by differing soils and hydrology. Some areas are more conducive for large-tree growth than others. Many of the flats and low places, for example, have clayey soils that could be so poorly drained as to be water-logged or somehow compacted to the point of being anaerobic. The tree roots may be oxygen-starved and are just able to maintain the life of the tree with minimal growth. On the other hand, many of the really large hardwoods are found growing on fertile, well-drained ridges and the high banks at the edges of sloughs and guts.

The banks of the Congaree River, and to some degree Cedar Creek, both experience frequent, high-energy flooding and are another area where large, super-canopy trees are scarce. Although river- and creek-bank soils are some of the most productive within the floodplain, shifting channels and undercut banks from regular, heavy flooding prevent most trees from getting too large before they fall over.

Finally, it needs to be remembered that nearly a third of Congaree’s original 15,000-acre old-growth was logged just prior to it becoming a national monument (now national park) in 1976 (current park acreage is about 27,000 acres, of which 11,000 acres is considered old-growth). A good deal of this cutting took place in the western and central portions of the park, both of which contained nice stands of many large, super-canopy trees.

In my old age, my attention has been drawn more and more from Congaree’s champion trees to the incredibly diverse and complex forest itself. The big trees have served as a type of portal to draw me deeper into the forests’ mysteries and secrets. People who focus only on the park’s large trees are losing sight of the big picture and literally can’t see the forest because of the trees.

Winter Woodpeckers

October 28, 2014.  We’ve experienced some beautiful fall weather this last part of October. A recent warming trend has bumped temperatures up so that it feels more like mid-September in the swamp this morning. As with last week, there is a good deal of woodpecker activity around the low boardwalk.  I observe three flickers consuming poison ivy berries while ignoring a nearby swamp tupelo laden with attractive, bluish-black drupes. Nearby, a fourth flicker is drumming very rapidly on the end of a large, dead cypress limb, producing a sound like that of an air impact wrench that mechanics use to mount tires.

Northern flicker by John Grego.

Shortly, I see another woodpecker species, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, also feeding on poison ivy berries. And not far away a pileated is working over a half-dead tupelo and several red-bellied woodpeckers are on the scene as well. From October through next April the swamp will be hosting three species of winter woodpeckers – sapsucker, flicker, and red-headed woodpecker – in addition to its four full-time resident species. All three swell the Congaree woodpecker population by perhaps fifty percent. How do the resident woodpeckers cope with this horde of winter arrivals? In nature, direct competition is a sure-fire way to create winners and losers, so I imagine over the millennia some sort of accommodation has been reached to minimize competition and conflict and allow all seven species to coexist together. The sapsucker, for example, has developed it unique niche by feeding on sap, while the red-headed woodpecker specializes in hoarding acorns. But I am not exactly sure how the flicker fits in with the other woodpeckers to reduce competition.

Red-headed woodpecker by John Grego.

A deciduous holly is attracting the company of several birds, including two lingering male black-throated blue warblers, two ruby-crowned kinglets, and one golden-crowned kinglet. Later the black-throated blues move off and are replaced by a very drab female, so different in plumage it could be another species. The holly has a lot of dead, shriveled and curled brown leaves which may be sheltering the insect food the birds are going after.

Farther down the trail another deciduous holly is providing fuel for more late migrants on their long journey to the tropics, a pair (or at least I assume they are connected) of Swainson’s thrushes feeding on the holly’s bright red berries. This species may be the holly of choice for frugivores (fruit and berry-eating animals) in the swamp this winter since American holly berries are scarce this year.

Pileated woodpecker.

By early afternoon, on my way back, a light breeze periodically stirs the canopy and sends the leaves tumbling down like rain.

A Change of Scenery

October 23, 2014.  I had a change of scenery for the past week-and-a-half, trading the big trees and swamp life of Congaree for the wide open spaces and canyon lands of southern Utah. I saw some spectacular scenery, so different from the Congaree that I might as well have been on another planet. It reminds me once again that the U.S. of A. is the most beautiful country in the world.

There is a lot of woodpecker activity in the muck swamp this fine fall morning – flickers, red-bellies, downies, and sapsuckers, the latter having arrived during my twelve-day absence.  I also get excellent looks at a single hairy woodpecker, a good find, and the least common of the swamp’s woodpeckers. I may go for weeks or months without seeing one in the swamp. It has a rather spotty distribution, and is uncommon throughout much of the South Atlantic Coastal Plain.

Even though late October, the swamp is still green, although some yellow foliage is peeking through here and there. The finest color is coming from poison ivy with pastels of pink, orange, light red, and yellow. And the leaves of swamp tupelo have been turning bright red since August.  Interestingly these two plants, along with Virginia creeper, spicebush, wild grape, and others that turn color in early fall, are called “foliar fruit flags” by forest ecologists. They believe that early fall color change for these plants is a signal to help attract migrating birds to feed on, and disperse, their seeds, which might otherwise be overlooked in a forest full of greenery.

The canopies of the swamp tupelos and water tupelos are noticeably more bare than they were a couple of weeks ago, and on my return trip later this afternoon I see a good bit of sunlight and long shadows on the swamp floor, a floor that has not seen much light for the past  six months.

Two tree species, green ash and American elm, are leafless, or nearly so, and look dead against an otherwise green and greenish-yellow canopy. Like the tupelos, green ash is one of the latest tree species to leaf out in spring, but one of the earliest in fall to lose its leaves.

Panicled aster, Symphyotrichum lanceolatum.

The panicled aster, or lance-leafed aster, Symphyotrichum lanceolatum, with its 25-lettered scientific name and clumps of delicate white miniature “sunflowers,” has been putting on a nice wildflower show for the past few weeks. The flower center, consisting of the disc flowers, starts out yellow, later turning plum colored.

I turn a few logs and find a small, nondescript grayish-brown snake with a subdued pattern on its back. It goes by the wonderfully descriptive name of brown snake, Storeria dekayi, but I prefer the older name of DeKay’s snake. This is one of the few vertebrates I’m aware of whose scientific name honors not one but two men, David Humphreys Storer and James Ellsworth DeKay, both nineteenth-century American physicians and naturalists.

DeKay’s snake, aka brown snake.

DeKay’s snake is an incredibly abundant species, being found in a wide variety of habitats. Probably every yard in my home territory of Forest Acres has a few of these small snakes hiding in flower beds and mulch piles. Earthworms and slugs are two of their favorite foods.

Aquatic Critters

October 11, 2014.  Friends of Congaree Swamp is hosting an “aquatic critters appreciation hike” this morning. Department of Natural Resource fisheries biologist Jim Bulak and his assistants are providing a hands-on demonstration about the aquatic fauna of the park, a fauna that is mostly unseen and under-appreciated by the general public.

We are surveying two different water habitats, a flow-through, “lotic” system in the form of Cedar Creek, and a stagnant, “lentic” water body in the form of a back slough just on the other side of the bank from Cedar Creek. Jim is using an electro-shocker, a long-proven and efficient way to sample aquatic fauna by the use of an electrically-charged wand that delivers a mild jolt of electricity that stuns fish and other aquatic life, bringing them to the surface for capture and identification, after which they are released.

I am part of a crew sampling the stagnant back slough using dip nets, strainers and seines. Many of the sloughs are either dry or almost dry this time of year, but the rising waters we had on September 16 flooded many sloughs, including this one, and “re-charged” them with new inputs of aquatic life.

The bottom of the shallow slough consists of soft, gray mud as well as decomposing leaves, tupelo fruits, twigs and other detritus.  Once disturbed, the bottom ooze gives off that characteristic swamp smell of anaerobic decomposition.  After hauling a net full of mud and debris to the shore, we sort through it with our hands, which soon attain the smell that only a good hand-washing eliminates (it is not a bad smell but a pungent, earthy one that leaves an indelible mark on the olfactory senses). Our crew finds a few small crayfish and whirligig beetles. Later hauls produce water boatmen or back swimmers with large, oar-like appendages, diving beetles (at least two species), and a single, tiny minnow. All in all our sampling is rather sparse this morning, especially compared to June, when I was seeing lots of crayfish, minnows, and aquatic insects. But back then the sloughs had a good bit less water and its inhabitants were more concentrated.

Water boatman. Photo by John Grego

The electro-shockers on Cedar Creek are having better luck and have a cooler of water full of samples – mostly small fish but three specimens that really catch my eye – aquatic salamanders four-to-six inches long known as dwarf waterdogs, Necturus punctatus (and related to that other “canid” aquatic salamander, the mudpuppy). This interesting and relatively little known amphibian has a restricted range of only four southeastern states: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The heart of its range is the two Carolinas, where they are found in small coastal streams with abundant leaf litter, logs, stumps and other bottom debris. Like all salamanders, dwarf waterdogs are carnivorous, feeding on earthworms, snails, aquatic insects, crustaceans such as small crayfish, and even other salamanders. On the other hand a waterdog is no doubt a tasty meal for a largemouth bass, which probably accounts for the salamander’s preference for streams with lots of debris to serve as hiding places. It was first described to science in 1850 by Charleston physician, mathematician, and renaissance naturalist Lewis R. Gibbes from specimens obtained in rice field ditches on the South Santee River.

Another interesting specimen is an insect resembling the familiar “walking stick” of gardens and yards. A common name in fact is “water stick” or “needle bug,” but it usually goes by the name water scorpion. Our guy, a member of the true bug order Hemiptera, genus Ranatra, is black, very slender, and about three inches long. Although completely unrelated to true scorpions, the water scorpion is an aggressive aquatic predator that uses its long front legs to nab other aquatic insects and even tadpoles and small fish. They can also inflict a painful bite to a curious human handling them.

Water scorpion. Photo by John Grego.

Most of the specimens in the cooler of water are centrarchids, members of the sunfish family that include bluegill bream, crappie, and largemouth bass. There are several small bluegills, a red breast, pumpkinseed, and one flier, a small sunfish able to tolerate low oxygen conditions which allows it to survive in swampy backwaters and other sluggish aquatic habitats. There is also a madtom, a small, inconspicuous catfish found in a variety of aquatic habitats throughout the Carolinas and Virginia.

Swampfish. Photo by John Grego.

I have to leave early and find out later the group made some nice finds when they surveyed a small stream winding through the muck swamp on the north side of Cedar Creek. Samples here included a few redfin pickerel, a tessellated darter, several banded pygmy sunfish, and a single swampfish, Chologaster cornuta. The latter is a small, less-than-three-inch member of the cavefish family. Of the six species in this interesting family, four have no eyes, although the swampfish has tiny but functioning eyes. It also has an interesting developmental pattern whereby the anus migrates forward to the underside of its head.

The banded pygmy sunfish, Elassoma zonatum, is a diminutive (less-than-two-inches long), attractive centrarchid found in coastal blackwater streams and swamps. Although fairly common, this species is not known to most fishermen or the general public because of its size, inconspicuousness, and secretive habits.

Banded pygmy sunfish. Photo by John Grego.

From 1999 through 2002, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, working in conjunction with the National Park Service, conducted a four-year survey of the park’s fish community. This time period also happened to correspond with a severe drought in which the park rarely flooded. Over 10,000 fish, representing fifty-six species from thirty-three locations within the park, were collected and identified using electrofishing. Twenty-four of these species were new to the park. The survey also found three distinct fish-community habitat types within the park:  backwater sloughs, guts, and other stagnant waters; deeper, flowing streams and channels; and floodplain waters adjacent to the northern bluffs.

I like to think of hardwood floodplains and their adjoining rivers as “fish factories” that produce prolific amounts of fish biomass. The abundance of aquatic habitats and rich resources serve as feeding, spawning, and nursery grounds for a large number of commercially- and recreationally-valuable species. The famous spawning runs of herring and shad end at bottomland sloughs and lakes where the eggs are laid in shallow water, sink, and adhere to various substrates on the bottom. Fish production in bottomlands has been estimated to vary from two hundred to more than one thousand pounds per acre.

Two weeks after our water sampling, The State newspaper released an article about water pollution in the park, based on samples taken in 2013 by the United States Geological Survey, working in conjunction with the Park Service. The samples, taken from both Cedar Creek and the Congaree River, showed higher levels of fecal coliform bacteria, probably from leaking septic tanks and failing wastewater treatment plants, as well as pesticide and herbicide run-off from farming activities. But what really caught the eye of many was the presence of prescription drugs in the water samples, including diabetes medication, mood stabilizers, and synthetic estrogen associated with birth-control pills. The latter is well-known for a phenomenon known as fish feminization and has become a growing concern across the country. Synthetic estrogens, along with certain industrial chemicals and herbicides released into our waterways, have been shown in some cases to be endocrine disruptors and to affect male fish by giving them female characteristics such as having eggs in their testes and producing female egg-yolk proteins. This in turn can led to reduced fertility by lowering sperm production and eventually lead to a decline in fish populations.

Endocrine disruptors have also affected other aquatic life, including frogs. Studies have documented male tadpoles turning into female frogs; frogs with reduced testosterone levels, impaired testes development, extra testes, and sometimes male frogs even having ovaries.

The irony in all this is that Cedar Creek was designated in 2007 as South Carolina’s only Outstanding National Resource Water, but by early 2014 it was listed as “impaired” by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control due to high fecal coliform bacteria counts.

Water pollution within Congaree National Park illustrates how nearly all parks and wild areas are like “islands,” essentially surrounded and affected by outside land uses. But unlike most, the Congaree is also an open ecosystem, and its “flow-through” floodplain makes it especially vulnerable to external events many miles upstream. As Frank Henning, former Director of Congaree’s Old-Growth Bottomland Hardwood Forest Research and Education Center, notes, water pollution is not a “problem that can be fixed within the park.”

Tupelo Leaves

October 9, 2014. Birdlife is slow this morning, but I do get good looks at a handsome male black-throated blue warbler foraging nearby in an ironwood. I wish all warblers were as deliberate and orderly in their movements as this species. He provides ample views as he methodically inspects leaves for caterpillars. I see him devour two in as many minutes before he moves out of view into thicker foliage. In contrast, a nearby magnolia warbler is acting very warbler-like with its frenetic, nervous movements. This bird doesn’t stay still long enough to get a good view, and you have to content yourself with glimpses.

A nice clump of fireweed (Erichtites hieracifolia) has poked up in a large canopy gap created by the February ice storm on the Sims Trail. This tall, omnipresent weed is abundant in the spring-burned woods along the drive to the visitor’s center, where it is easy to understand the origin of its common name.

In an open glade near the trail I see a new winter arrival to the park, an Eastern phoebe. I’m not sure where the lively little flycatcher spent the summer nesting season – perhaps not far enough away to even call him a migrant since their southerly-expanding breeding range now extends as far south as the Fall Line Sandhills just up the road. They are a common bird here in winter and even on the coldest days seem to find a few flying insects to feed on. Insect prey must be prevalent around shallow pools of water and the edges of waterways, as this seems to be preferred phoebe foraging winter habitat. When bugs are scarce, I sometimes see them feeding on poison ivy berries.

At 10:45, a cicada breaks the silence with a loud but brief “farewell to summer” call, then goes quiet.

A water tupelo leaf with multiple-teeth margins.

Returning via the low boardwalk, I notice a change in the canopies of the water tupelos. A number of leaves have already shriveled and turned brownish-gray while still on the tree. This time of year, they have an interesting mix of mottled, blotched coloring. Some are still mostly yellow (they are about the first tree in the swamp to turn color, a month or more before others), others a mix of green and yellow. The yellow color (known as xanthophylls) becomes visible in autumn leaves when photosynthesis shuts down, eliminating the green chlorophyll pigment. Many of the leaves have speckles of circular brown or gray blotches of dead leaf tissue, and for a good number, the entire leaf margin is brown.

Tupelo leaf with only a single tooth on the leaf margin.

I pick up a fallen water tupelo leaf and examine it closely. In the swamp, only the red mulberry leaf is bigger. It is attached to the twig by a long petiole (stalk) two-and-a-half inches in length. The leaf blade itself can measure up to nine inches long and four inches wide. Why would a tree have such large leaves? Some tree species have so-called “shade leaves,” larger-than-normal leaves found near the bottom of the tree, where there is not as much sunlight as in the canopy. Shade leaves are larger presumably because they have to increase their photosynthetic output to offset reduced sunlight. But most tupelo leaves occur in the canopy where they get plenty of sun. Perhaps the water tupelo’s cousin, swamp tupelo, Nyssa biflora, can shed some light on the question of large leaves, since it has much smaller ones. Swamp tupelo grows in boggy or muck soils whereas water tupelo grows in water, sometimes deep water, and for long periods of time. This has to be a stressful environment for a tree, so perhaps a large leaf is needed for this particular species to maintain an adequate photosynthetic output.

Tupelo leaf with smooth leaf margins.

Then there are those little pointed tips on the margins of the water tupelo leaf. Some leaves have only one; others two or three, while still others have a half dozen or more. And to further complicate things, some leaf margins have no tips at all. Since biologists believe that form has a function in nature, we wonder what purpose these little points could have.

I realize that I’m looking at perhaps the most marvelous of nature’s many exquisite creations, a photosynthetic factory that makes life on earth possible. Hardwood leaves are overwhelmingly the dominant visual object at Congaree for much of the year and give the park one of its most distinctive features.  While we all admire and enjoy the beauty of leaves, especially in the fall, our admiration quickly turns to something else when they begin falling and collecting in our yards and gutters. But even after they die and fall to the ground, leaves continue to play a vital role in forest ecosystems.

By late November and early December the ground floor at Congaree will be thick with leaves and stay that way until winter floods carry them off elsewhere or deposit them on the bottoms of  sloughs and waterways. If the flooding is frequent and heavy enough, the ground floor in places will be as clean and bare by spring as if an army of leaf blowers had been at work.

A bare Congaree ground floor with no leaves, courtesy of heavy flooding.

I close out the morning with a good find of salamanders from log-rolling – two southern duskies, one three-lined, and four marbled. And I also enjoy the petite blooms of ladies tresses orchids, Spiranthes, blooming near the low boardwalk. The small, urn-like white flowers really stand out amidst the leaf litter and dark soils of the “muck swamp.”   

Dead River

October 3, 2014.  I depart at daybreak on a walk from the South Cedar Creek Landing to Old Dead River. The flickers are starting to move into the swamp for the winter, and I hear a few calling along the Kingsnake Trail. Their numbers will continue to build up over the fall. By the time of the Christmas Bird Count in later December, Congaree will rank at or near the top in the nation for yellow-shafted flicker numbers: in 2013, it was in fourth place with 201; in 2012, second place with 316; and in 2006, in first place with 366. It is noteworthy to see a bird like the flicker shift from one habitat type during the nesting season – upland, open country with scattered trees and short grass – to an entirely different one in winter, in this case, heavily forested floodplain. Robins do the same thing, preferring lawns, parks, orchards, golf courses, and other “short grass” environments during the breeding period before moving into the swamp for their winter quarters. In the process the robin goes from a diet heavy in earthworms, insects, and other protein to one consisting mostly of berries and fruits.

I continue south towards the river beyond where Kingsnake makes a sharp turn to the west. This is an old, grown-up logging road but is still passable. Thickets of switch cane have taken over in places but are easy to walk through or around. Just before Running Gut, another old road splits off to the east. It’s easy to miss if you don’t know where to look. This road was constructed around 1974, when they were logging this part of the swamp. It crossed Dead River Gut, bridged with a culvert and earthen fill, (which has since been removed), near the east side of Dead River, and ended on Butler or Tabor Island, part of which was selectively logged.

Deer scrape.

I find my first deer scrape of the fall in the middle of the old road bed, a fresh one that looks like it was made last night. Scrapes are bare spots on the ground, carved out by bucks with their hooves, and herald the fall rut. They are signposts where various bucks and does communicate through olfactory senses. Scrapes are typically made under a small overhanging limb which the buck chews on and deposits his saliva scent; he also attacks the limb with his horns and forehead and in the process leaves scent from his forehead gland. Bucks also urinate in the scrapes, depositing more scent.

I walk along the north and west side of Dead River, a shallow oxbow lake that would have been the main channel of the Congaree River 250 years ago. There are many trees and bushes along the bank and it is difficult to get a decent view of the lake. Other than hearing the squeal of a wood duck taking off and seeing a few turtles basking on logs, the lake appears empty.

There is a natural “levee” forest on this side of Dead River of beautiful, tall sweetgums growing on very flat terrain with an understory of pawpaws. It’s an even-aged forest since the gums are all about the same size and growing fairly close together. Most are running about 32-34 inches in diameter, with a range of approximately 24-40 inches. It indicates to me that this area was some sort of clearing, field, or pasturage, probably prior to the Civil War. That would place the ages of these gums at about 150 years, assuming the clearing was abandoned and reverted to forest either during or shortly after the War.

An even-aged sweetgum forest on the north side of Dead River.

This gum stand fits at least one definition of Eastern old-growth forest, which is that the trees are 120-150 years of age or greater. But it is not old, old-growth. There is a noticeable lack of large logs and limbs on the ground, and no tip-up mounds created from the massive root systems of fallen giants. Ironically, it is also the lack of smaller and medium-size trees, so characteristic of an all-aged, old-growth hardwood forest with its abundance of different-sized trees.

One of the most significant attributes of Congaree’s old-growth forest for me is that we can observe the various tree species achieve their maximum growth potential before dying of disease or falling over from wind throw. I’m confident, for example, that a Congaree sweetgum cannot grow much beyond a circumference of eighteen feet before it gets so heavy that its shallow root system can no longer support it, or insect damage and decay kill the tree. Likewise for persimmons, whose maximum growth in the swamp seems to be about eight feet in circumference; for sugarberries, twelve-to-thirteen feet in circumference; swamp chestnut oaks, twenty feet or so in circumference; and cherrybark oaks, twenty-four-to-twenty-six feet in circumference, to name a few. For those species that often have swollen trunk bases (buttresses), such as American elm, overcup oak, laurel oak, bald cypress, water tupelo, and swamp tupelo, freakish individuals with oversized buttresses can distort the pattern. For these species, height may be a better measure of maximum potential growth.

First Day of Fall

September 23, 2014.  It’s appropriate weather for the first day of fall in the swamp – cool, overcast, and a light-to-moderate northeast wind. I don’t think it made it to 70º the entire day. I’m looking for fall bird migrants this morning on the Kingsnake Trail south of Cedar Creek Bridge. It doesn’t take long before I spot movement in a canopy opening filled with young saplings (mostly pawpaws) and grape vines. The movement comes from several American redstarts flitting in and out of the foliage, constantly spreading their tail feathers with the yellow “windows.” For me this is probably the most characteristic fall migrant in central South Carolina. They are found anywhere this time of year that supports a few hardwoods, including backyards. I’d say about 75% of the redstarts I see are either young birds or adult females (the so-called “yellowstarts”). The adult males with their black-and-orange plumage are one of our most beautiful birds.

There are other migrants using this opening as well – gray catbird, northern waterthrush, black- and-white warbler, and veery. A redstart and Northern parula have a brief confrontation; as expected, the smaller parula looses. It gets me to thinking about the competitive interactions between the local birds here at Congaree and the fall newcomers. Of course by now a certain percentage of the local birds have moved elsewhere farther south and have become interlopers themselves. It highlights the fascinating and not well understood role of habitat use for migrating land birds.

My attention finally turns to a nearby squirrel climbing the trunk of a big sweetgum with a large, green, ball-shaped object in its mouth. The squirrel is mildly annoyed at my presence but finally settles down on a limb not far away and proceeds to devour its morsel, which turns out to be the green, cap-less acorn of a swamp chestnut oak. It is fascinating to watch the squirrel twirl and turn the acorn in its human-like front paws, like corn on the cob, nervously gnawing away the tough outer shell of the acorn, which falls to the ground in pieces. After completely removing the shell, the squirrel departs with his treasure, and I lose him in the foliage.

Virgin water tupelos, many of which are hollow, provide ideal maternity and roosting sites for Congaree bats.

I bump into the bat biologists coming down Kingsnake Trail with telemetry gear. They have had the good luck to find a large, hollow water tupelo with a Southeastern myotis maternity colony in it (they could actually hear the high-pitched squeaks of the bats from outside the tupelo before they examined the hollow inside) and have outfitted a captured male and female bat with miniature radio transmitters. Tracking the movements of this bat of special concern will provide valuable information on home range size and habitat use.

I wander off trail for a while; it’s now completely overcast at noon and very dark here on the ground floor. Up ahead a large canopy gap allows what little available light there is to reach the ground. The gap is filled with mostly young pawpaws but also a few slender, forty foot chinaberry trees – not a good sign. But even worse is that at least two dozen small chinaberry seedlings are popping up in the light around the bigger trees. I’m a lot more worried, though, about the abundant Chinese privet I have been walking by for the past thirty minutes back on the trail.

The bright red fruits of green dragon stand out on the Congaree ground floor.

Just beyond the canopy gap something red and low to the ground stands out like a beacon. It is not the glowing red of a cardinal flower, but the tightly-clustered red-orange berries of the green dragon, Arisaema dracontium, a close relative of the familiar jack-in-the-pulpit. I suppose the attractive fruits are meant to be dispersed via the gullet of some passing bird or mammal. However, one of my wildflower books notes that green dragon, like jack-in-the-pulpit, contains tiny needlelike crystals of calcium oxalate that if ingested, become embedded in soft tissues causing “intense irritation and a burning sensation.”  Now that hurts to think about it.

On the way back home I stop off at the high boardwalk to check on the patch of jewelweed I last saw more than a month ago. It was too early then for blooms and hummingbirds, but now the unusual orange flowers are out in full force. I wait for twenty minutes to watch for hummer activity but see nothing. Although many hummingbirds have already headed south for the winter,  they are still good numbers remaining, so I am surprised not to see any at one of their favorite fall nectar plants.

Congaree, with an abundance of down and dead wood, offers ideal conditions for mushrooms such as these large polypores to flourish.

Not too far from the jewelweed I see a gray squirrel foraging on the ground in the damp leaves and debris next to the boardwalk. It is feeding on the fallen seeds (drupes) of swamp tupelo. The squirrel is rather fastidious about which seed it consumes and passes by the green, recently-fallen ones, and even the darker ones that look ripe. Instead it prefers to scratch, and sniff (pass the smell test?), just under the leaf litter to perhaps find seasoned or cured seeds. Occasionally it stops briefly to clean its muzzle of dirt and moisture with a vigorous wipe with its front paws. The swiftness with which the squirrel dispatches the tupelo seed is fascinating to watch. The mouth and paws work in nervous concert together, and pieces of the seed fly off like wood chips from a dull buzz saw.

Almost Fall

September 17, 2014.  It’s cool this early morning on the low boardwalk. The moon overhead is a sliver of pale yellow. The muck swamp, guts, and sloughs have been recharged with flood waters from recent rains, the river rising five feet in less than twenty-four hours. As I cross over Cedar Creek bridge, heading out to the River Trail, I see below a cottonmouth moccasin swimming slowly downstream along the creek edge. It is definitely in a hunting mode, slowly working the edges, head in an alert pose. It swims across the creek to explore a debris pile on the other side of the creek, then disappears downstream, still searching for breakfast. I suspect the rising waters have gotten the snakes stirred up a bit. Cottonmouths prefer the sluggish, still waters of sloughs and flats, and usually leave the creeks and other waters with a current to the nonpoisonous watersnakes.

Farther down the trail I spot an ovenbird perched at eye level in a small sapling. Ovenbirds are not found in the floodplain except during spring and fall migration.  The bird is very unwarbler- like in appearance, looking more like a thrush with its body shape, heavily-streaked breast, and large eyes. He shows his annoyance at my presence by erecting his orange crown feathers. I see three more of his comrades during the rest of the day.

The squirrels are active in the beech trees on “Beech Ridge” along the north side of Hammond Gut a little east of Bridge “F.” The beechnuts, still green and bitter to my taste, are raining down in pieces as the bushy tails greedily go after them. This section of trail has one of the finest stands of American beech in the swamp. They run about 120 feet high and eight-to-ten feet in circumference. With their smooth light gray bark, handsome growth form, and colorful fall foliage they are among our most attractive trees. Until it fell about ten years ago, one of the largest beeches here had the name “Perry” carved on it, along with the initials “D.E.W.” and the year “1926.” I sometimes wonder about the identities of Perry and D.E.W., what they were doing here, and what became of them.

Hard to read but these beech carvings in 2004 read D.E.W. 1926 and PERRY.

Seventy-five feet off the trail I see a large fawn, with white spots still visible, checking me out. We have a staring contest before she blinks first and looks off to the side before finally moving back into the foliage. The fawn’s ears are enormous and much out of proportion to the rest of her head, but somehow the overall image still remains pleasing.

I cross the bridge at Hammond Gut and take the River Trail where it forks right at the junction with the Oak Ridge Trail. Farther down the trail  I stop to look at some bird activity in thick foliage, then see movement on the trail out of the corner of my eye; as I turn to look, I see the bushy tail and rear end of a coyote scampering back down the path (it was coming my way until it saw me). This is only the second coyote I’ve seen in the swamp, but I sometimes hear them calling at night while camping.

I turn a few logs here and there and am surprised to find marbled salamanders – two large ones under one log and a single under another. I guess they are starting to leave their underground summer retreats in anticipation of their fall/winter breeding period.

Marbled salamander by John Grego.

Closer to the river I start seeing more avian migrants – a couple of veeries and a single wood thrush. Along a muddy section of trail I flush several northern waterthrushes hunting, I presume, for insect food. The spice bushes, confined almost entirely to the levee forest, are loaded with beautiful shiny red berries, and a prime food source for hungry migrating birds.

The bright red fruits of spicebush are a food magnet for migrating songbirds.

One of my favorite natural history books is a Field Guide to Eastern Forests, by John C. Kricher, a well-known biology professor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Kricher’s book cuts through the taxonomy and digs deeper into functions and relationships and how things work in the complex world of an eastern forest. Kricher notes that the fruits (drupes) of spicebush are highly desirable bird foods. The red color is like a flag to passing birds, saying in effect, “here I am, come eat me” (and it’s no accident that other desirable bird fruits are red including holly, dogwood, and magnolia.). It’s also no accident that spicebush drupes ripen to coincide with fall migration. It turns out that they are high in fats, providing ideal food for birds that require lots of fuel to sustain their long-distance migrations to the tropics. As might be expected in nature, this food relationship is not all one-sided; in exchange for providing sustenance, the spicebush fruit is carried off and dispersed via the digestive system of the bird.

Attractive red-orange fruits in winter of green hawthorn.

Kricher also explains why some fruits stay on the tree for most of the winter and are largely ignored by birds until other foods have been exhausted. They are considered poor quality because of low fat content. Case in point is the brilliant red-orange fruits of hawthorn, which according to Kricher, have only one to two percent lipid content. Author Henry Davis noted that wild turkeys were quite fond of “turkey berry,” as he called the fruits of green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis)), but that may be because by late winter and early spring there was not much else available.

The trail has by now turned north and west, paralleling the river. I make my way over to the sandbar, still partly muddy and submerged from the rising waters of a day ago. A flight of red-eyed vireos is working their way through the foliage of silver maples growing in the transition zone between the levee forest and the sandbar.  A larger bird is moving nearby and then comes into view. It’s a yellow-billed cuckoo with a hairy, whitish caterpillar dangling from its beak. Cuckoos are one of the few birds that specialize in eating hairy caterpillars; I watch this one shake the caterpillar several times, and after each shake, tufts of the hairs (setae) fall out and drift away in the light breeze. I assume the bird is doing this to make the caterpillar a little more palatable since the setae can be irritating to sensitive mouth tissues.

Not long after departing the sandbar and heading back, I hear calling from nearby cherrybark oaks my first red-headed woodpecker of the fall. I don’t know if this heralds a good crop of red-heads in the swamp later this fall, but if I were a betting man, I’d say not likely, since we had a bumper crop of woodpeckers last year (with the highest number east of the Mississippi River for the Christmas Bird Count at 146), and it’s rare to have two consecutive years of high red-headed woodpecker numbers (the winter of 2014-15 turns out to be indeed a poor winter for red-heads since there were so few laurel oak acorns).