Ice Storm

February 15, 2014.  As I approach the park this morning, I start seeing indications of ice damage from a storm that passed through the southern Midlands on Wednesday, February 12. We barely had a limb down in Columbia, but only ten miles south the damage is widespread and heavy. The park has only recently re-opened after getting power restored and clearing fallen pines along the entrance road; the air is heavy with the rich scent of pine vapors from all of the broken limbs and needles. The one saving grace amidst all the destruction is a jet black fox squirrel that crosses the road not far in front of me, then lingers along the shoulder for a few seconds. This is surely one of the most beautiful animals anywhere!

The ice damage is even worse after I get out into the floodplain. The trails are littered with fallen limbs of every size, and even entire trees are down. Especially hard hit are maples, elms, sugarberries, American hollies and laurel oaks.  Hardest hit of all are two uncommon understory trees that carry their leaves all winter, sweet bay and red bay. The high boardwalk east of the Sims Trail has suffered heavy damage and is closed. The high boardwalk west of Sims Trail and the low boardwalk received some damage, but are mostly intact. It turns out to be the worst ice storm I’ve ever seen hit the park in its forty-year history.

With all of the downed limbs and trees now horizontal and at eye level, the storm does provide a unique vantage point for observing foraging ruby-crowned kinglets. I can now easily see bits of spider web gleaming in the morning sun on the ends of the bare branches, and soon observe a kinglet less than twelve feet away pluck a small brown spider from the end of a bare twig. It quickly finds another and another, then comes up with a larger, brown sider with a slender abdomen. So it seems that arboreal spiders are a primary winter source of protein for the delicate-appearing kinglets that allow them to survive, and even prosper, during a cold, Carolina winter.

Amid all the carnage I find some beauty with all the red maple blooms, and seeds, now at eye level from all of the fallen limbs and trees. February is red maple month at Congaree. The beautiful silvery-white trees are the first to start flowering, sometimes even in December. They have a long flowering period, beginning in the depths of winter and going through early spring.

Red maples are very confused about their sexuality. Some trees have nothing but female flowers while others are male only, a condition the botanists call dioeceous. And yet some trees are monoecious, having both male and female flowers on the same tree. It gets more interesting – some red maple flowers are perfect, or bisexual, having male and female parts on the same flower. And some trees have both bisexual and unisexual flowers, what the botanists call polygamous, on the same tree!

As I head back during the early afternoon, I hear an occasional gunshot crack of a falling limb, a delayed victim of the storm.

A Big Opening in the Forest

February 6, 2014.  This morning is clear with seasonal temperatures. A cardinal is singing its cheery song, reminding us that the days are getting longer and, for the most part, warmer. I see no holly berries on any of the trees I pass. A good number of holly leaves appear munched on and skeletonized by some unknown insect(s). I’m walking on the eastern segment of the Weston Lake Loop Trail, then cross the Cedar Creek bridge, and continue southward on the eastern leg of the Oak Ridge Trail. There is a small, natural clearing on the trail with enough sunlight to give three pine saplings a jumpstart on life. One is four feet tall; one is four and a half feet tall; and the tallest is five feet. The pine saplings are starting to get shaded out by ironwood and pawpaws, and will need to put on a quick growth spurt to beat out the competing hardwoods for sunlight. It will be interesting to see who wins (as of 2015, two of these young pines have died, leaving only one forlorn and ratty-looking survivor).

A little farther down from this pine-hardwood drama, there is a large blow down on the trail, created by a massive, fallen, six-foot-diameter cherrybark oak, a 140-foot-tall loblolly pine, and two three-foot diameter sweetgums. This is one of the largest natural clearings in the swamp I’ve seen since Hurricane Hugo. It appears big enough to allow sweetgums to get started, possibly even some pines, and will be a noteworthy site to monitor in the coming years [Note: the height of the fallen cherrybark oak was measured before it fell by researchers from the Native Tree Society and they came up with 160.2 feet, the tallest oak tree ever measured in North America!].

I turn a few logs and find life underneath – several small earthworms, a few grubs, one snail, and two pill bug-like critters. There is also life stirring under the loose pine bark of the downed pine, primarily numerous, small, pale yellow-white grubs. The logs and bark recall the hidden side of park life not usually seen by visitors but always there, just “beneath the surface.”

Winter Birds, Conclusion

Five years after my first winter bird survey, I operated a banding station, using mist nets for capturing birds, at the census/survey plot for a single season in the winter of 1991-92. Banding and census/survey work are two entirely different approaches for determining the number of species and their abundance on a particular site, and the two methods are not directly comparable. Mist netting is biased towards those species that spend more time at ground level or in the shrub layer or understory and rarely captures birds found at higher canopy levels. Netting is also biased against capturing the larger, sparsely distributed birds such as hawks, owls, and waterfowl. Finally, mist netting results in capturing only a limited sample of birds that actually occur at the site. Nevertheless, banding can provide some insights into the relative abundance and the number of species that occur on a given area. Banders sometimes conduct limited surveys in order to determine which birds may have been overlooked and unaccounted for during banding efforts.

My banding results revealed a total number of 77 birds representing 19 species. With one exception the most abundant banded birds were nearly the same as for the winter survey done five years earlier: American robin was the most abundant with 19 banded, followed by both ruby-crowned kinglet and yellow-rumped warbler, tied for second at 9 birds each. Robins alone represented nearly 25% of the total birds banded, and combined with the other two species resulted in 48% of the total number banded.

The one exception was the white-throated sparrow, which was 15th in abundance for the survey count done in 1986 but tied for second place with the kinglet and warbler with 9 banded in 1991-92. This difference was explained by Hurricane Hugo’s passage near the park in September, 1989, which knocked known dozens of trees on the site and created large canopy gaps. These light gaps quickly filled in with dense patches of switch cane as well as shrubs and thickets, all of which created favorable sparrow habitat.

Another difference between the banding and survey periods was the presence of red-headed woodpeckers in 1991-92 (three of which were banded), while none were observed in 1986. This was due to the lack of laurel oak acorns, their primary winter food, in 1986, while a good acorn crop was present in 1991.

Twelve years after conducting the first WBPS, I did another winter count at the same location in 1998-99. I found a total of 32 species and an average of 145 birds per visit (1,810 birds per square kilometer or 699 birds per square mile). Although four more species were found in 1998 than 1986, the density figures, while still impressively high, were slightly lower than from 1986. Much of this difference was accounted for by the reduced number of robins, less than half, as a result of a relatively poor crop of holly berries. The “Big Three” were again most abundant, although yellow-rumped warblers were just barely in first place, with an average of 22.3 birds per visit, closely followed by American robins, with 21.8 birds, and ruby-crowned kinglets in third place, with 18.4 birds per visit. Overall the three species accounted for 62% of the total individuals found on the plot, a number nearly identical with the 63% found twelve years earlier.

Red-headed woodpeckers were common in the winter of 1998 and actually ranked fifth in abundance with an average of 7.2 individuals per visit. And based on the Congaree Christmas Bird Count, 1998 turned out to have the highest number of red-headed woodpeckers ever recorded in the twenty-three year history of the count.

The number of white-throated sparrows had declined significantly at the site during the seven-year period since banding. They ranked 15th in abundance, the same rank as when the first survey count was done in 1986. This decline was explained by the fact that due to rapid canopy closure since Hurricane Hugo, the thickets and cane patches created by the hurricane had thinned out to the point that most were no longer suitable as sparrow habitat. This process of swift recovery from a significant natural disturbance (basically an eight-to-ten year period of recovery to pre-disturbance conditions) was also noted for breeding birds at the site.

Congaree’s large variety of breeding birds, many with colorful plumage and distinctive song, continues to garner most of our attention, but its winter birdlife is just as impressive. If you spend enough time there with binoculars in December, January, and February, you will understand why.

Essay: Winter Birds, Part 1

One very cold but sunny Christmas day back in the early 1980s, I visited the park for a few hours of birding and to hopefully work off a few holiday calories. After a period of walking, I stumbled across an impressive display of bird numbers, enough to make me forget the cold: hundreds of noisy robins feeding on red holly berries; yellow-rumped warblers devouring poison ivy berries; dozens of kinglets scouring bare limbs and dried clumps of leaves for any arthropods they could find; chickadees and titmice searching for seeds and nuts; white-throated sparrows flushing from thickets and cane patches, winter wrens skulking around large logs and upturned root  mounds, and woodpeckers excavating dead wood everywhere. Although the cold weather (I don’t think it got above freezing that day) contributed to the heavy bird activity, it is not all that uncommon to see abundant birdlife at Congaree in winter.

Unlike the nesting season, when birds are more evenly spread out in fixed territories, winter birds in Congaree and other eastern forests have a more clumped distribution, with what appears to be unoccupied space in-between. You may go for a long spell of walking in winter woods and never see the first bird, when all of a sudden the forest is full of them. Some of this sociability is due to a widely observed bird behavior known as the mixed-species foraging flock. In eastern forests these mixed winter flocks may consist of chickadees, titmice, downy woodpeckers, brown creepers, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, nuthatches and sometimes a warbler or two like the black-and-white or pine. Ornithologists believe these mixed flocks serve two main purposes, one being better predator defense through security in numbers, the other, improved foraging opportunities.

Biologists have considered the breeding period as the raison d’etre of any animal’s existence, and ornithologists have traditionally focused their studies on the breeding season when nesting is underway and bird song is at a maximum. But more and more, biologists have come to realize that winter is a crucial period for bird (as well as other wildlife) survival and population regulation. In 1948 the National Audubon Society initiated the first Winter Bird Population Study (WBPS) as a companion to their Breeding Bird Census (BBC) study initiated a decade earlier. Like the BBC in summer, the WBPS is designed to increase our understanding, at a nationwide level, of winter bird distribution and abundance in various habitats. And like many avian field studies, the WBPS relies heavily on knowledgeable amateur ornithologists who have the time to visit an area eight to ten times over a several-month period, a process that can involve more than forty or fifty hours of effort. Unlike the BBC, which is a true census, the WBPS is a survey count since winter birds are much more mobile and transitory than summer birds. As I spent more and more time investigating Congaree’s winter bird population, I decided to initiate a formal Winter Bird Population Study on the same twenty-acre plot where I had earlier conducted my Breeding Bird Census. My first survey was done in the winter of 1986-87, followed up by another twelve years later in 1998-99. I also operated a bird-banding station on the same plot during the winter of 1991-92.

During the first survey I recorded a total of 28 bird species and found an average density of 166 birds per visit on the twenty-acre plot. The standard measure of comparison used for the WBPS is birds per square kilometer which in this case extrapolated to 2,062 birds (or 796 birds per square mile) per visit. This is one of the highest winter bird densities ever recorded in an Eastern forest. This very high density was related to several factors, chief among them being the large amount of “soft mast” available, notably the fruits of American holly, sugarberry, and poison ivy. The abundance of these fruits helped explain why three species were the dominant birds in the survey: American robin was by far the most abundant, accounting for a third of the total number (I sometimes think, with tongue in cheek, that every robin in Eastern North America spends the winter at Congaree), followed by the diminutive ruby-crowned kinglet (only half as abundant as the robin), and with the yellow-rumped warbler bringing up third place. These three species accounted for 63% of the total individuals found on the plot.

The fruits of holly and sugarberry are eagerly sought after by robins while the much smaller berries of poison ivy are attractive to kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, and nearly thirty other species of birds that overwinter in the Congaree.

Other species recorded also rely heavily on mast: hermit thrushes, cardinals, cedar waxwings, goldfinches, white-throated sparrows, titmice, chickadees, and woodpeckers. In addition to feeding on poison ivy berries, several woodpecker species also feed on “hard mast” in the form of acorns from five different oak species found on the plot.

In addition to mast, a variety of animal foods, chiefly in the form of insects, spiders, and other invertebrates, are available to Congaree’s winter birds. Although they have to work harder to find it in winter, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, Carolina wrens, winter wrens, brown creepers, Eastern phoebes, white-breasted nuthatches, and black-and-white warblers just to name a few, seem to be able to find enough animal protein to sustain themselves in the park, even on the coldest day. And on those days when animal protein is scarce, some of these species turn to berries and other plant material to supplement their diet.

Other factors that may help explain Congaree’s high winter bird numbers are abundant shelter and cover, especially in the form of hollow tree cavities and snags, some of the densest anywhere in the country, and the widespread availability of water for drinking (berry consumption makes birds thirsty).

Snow in the Swamp, Conclusion

January 29.  Today is a rare opportunity to see snow in the swamp. The white stuff came in last night for several hours with about two-and-a-half to three inches of accumulation. Roads are drivable by noon, and I arrive at the park at 1:00 PM. There are six cars in the parking lot, and I suspect at least half are photographers. I start off on the low boardwalk and soon run into a photographer shooting a very cooperative female pileated woodpecker three feet off the ground, working on a large hardwood snag. The forest is very still and quiet – absolutely no wind – and the sky is 100% overcast, ideal picture-taking weather. The pileated’s wood knocking reverberates loudly in the swamp right now with the stillness and no leaves. At this time of year it sometimes sounds like wood cutters at work when the big woodpeckers are working over dead wood with their powerful bills. And it highlights how common this bird is at Congaree when, on a two-mile walk on the boardwalk, you might hear or see up to ten or twelve.

The ruby-throated kinglets are out and about foraging in the hollies and small hardwoods. One is keying in on clumps of dead leaves in an ironwood. It’s interesting watching them move over a tree with their characteristic hover flights as they work the tips of the branches. The bird searching the dried leaves is having success – I can see it working its beak on some type of tiny insect or spider. It finds food three times over a brief minute or so of observation. For me, it’s a telling point that in the depths of a southern winter with snow on the ground, the Congaree is still full of insects and other arthropods and invertebrate food – in the trees and on the ground as the robins and hermit thrushes have demonstrated.

The Congaree forest in winter is stark and exposed, a far different one than in summer when it stays dark all day under the dense canopy. The forest now is naked and bare, letting the world in on its secrets. It’s neat to be able to see the bare trees with all their knot holes, cracks, crevices and other blemishes. This is the time of year when the bald-faced hornet’s football-shaped nests are exposed, and if you’re lucky, a polyphemus moth cocoon. It seems odd, then, that except for an occasional squirrel leaf nest, you rarely see any other nests in the bare tree canopy. Some may have fallen apart by now, but I suspect there are few to start with. The public expects to find birds’ nests in trees, and Joyce Kilmer did too in his famous tree poem: “…….A tree that may in summer wear a nest of robins in her hair……….”

Well, robins don’t nest in the swamp, but still, where are the bird nests?  Maybe it gets too windy in the forest canopy for a bird to nest, unless it’s close to the trunk, or maybe they are too accessible for squirrels, a well-known predator of bird eggs and young. I think actually that many Congaree birds are nesting within fifteen to twenty feet of the ground in cane, holly, vine tangles and understory trees. Of course there are those birds that eschew making a conventional nest and seek out tree hollows or carve out their own nesting cavity. Of the forty-six species of birds that nest in the Congaree floodplain, thirteen, or 28%, use cavities and hollow trees.

I get back to my vehicle at 4:00 PM; there are now seven vehicles in the parking lot, including one that belongs to a backpacker I ran into on the boardwalk yesterday as I was leaving. He was heading for the River Trail with plans to camp on the sandbar and enjoy the snow. It got down to the upper twenties last night, and tonight is supposed to be ten degrees colder. I didn’t realize then he would be staying two nights; I get cold thinking about it.

Snow in the Swamp, continued

January 28.  It’s 9:00 AM, and I’m running late this overcast morning. The temperature is around 40º, but with the wind, feels more like 30°. Snow is supposed to be on the way by early afternoon. I’m walking the boardwalk loop, about two and a half miles. The swamp is drying out from recent floods, and the cane and underbrush are dirty brown from a light dusting of silt. The low boardwalk has a fine coating of sediment as well.

Things are quiet; I did not even hear any crows. A pair of barred owls sounds off briefly at 10:30. I watch a winter wren foraging in some leaves on the ground. As others have remarked, this little fluff ball of a bird reminds you more of a mouse than a bird. Another name for it might be “log wren” since in the Congaree it is almost invariably found around logs and large downed limbs and tip-up mounds. It is a ridiculous notion to think of this little rotund bird, only four inches long and weighing no more than two nickels, winging its way southward to spend the winter; so much for aerodynamics. It looks like it could barely even fly over a large log, much less get airborne for a long road trip of several hundred miles or more.

The little wren finally hits pay dirt in the leaf litter when it snags some sort of large invertebrate, and spends the next few seconds attacking it with its tiny little beak. It finally breaks it into several pieces, but still keeps pecking away at some of the larger morsels.

A robin is also working the leaf litter. Unlike the dainty wren, the robin is attacking the leaves with gusto, pulling up several at a time, and flinging them aside with vengeance; you can clearly see accumulations of mud on the side of the beak. The robin gobbles down several of something, but I can’t tell what except some sort of invertebrate.

The robin is not the only thrush that likes to hunt for food in the leaf litter. I watch its distant cousin, the hermit thrush, searching under the leaf litter with a far more dainty approach than the robin’s attack mode. The thrush quickly finds a large, black worm-like critter, perhaps a crane fly larvae, and is pecking vigorously to subdue it. In order to get a better ID I scare the thrush with the hopes that it will abandon the victim in time for me to rush over, get a picture, then leave quickly and let the thrush come back to its meal. However, I guess it worked too hard to let go, and it flies off lugging the black worm in its beak. I am happy for the thrush as I’m sure a meal of this size will pack lots of calories and protein for body maintenance in cold weather.

At the Weston Lake overlook I see a very skittish female hooded merganser alight on the lake and swim nervously nearby, but my presence has her spooked. A drake merganser is swimming along the far shoreline. Finally the hen flies off a short distance and settles onto a more secluded part of the lake, followed shortly by her beau. The drake hooded merganser is no slouch when it comes to good looks and fancy courtship behavior, but is overshadowed by his glamorous distant cousin, the wood duck.  The merganser’s black-and-white plumage, erect crest, dark head, and yellow eyes all make for a striking appearance.

East atop Buckeye Ridge

East atop Buckeye Ridge

18 October 2018

Neal Polhemus

Congaree is a special place unlike any other natural space in South Carolina – where the ebb and flow of river and rain water dictate more than any other factor the extent to which one can interact with the towering giants of the old-growth floodplain forest. Some hikes have no purpose at all other than to just be in the forest – to listen, observe, smell and breathe. But on this occasion, I sought out a specific spot where several years ago John Cely found several old bricks that may correlate with a house site or an old cabin depicted on an 1861 plat. Though speculation may suggest the bricks originate from an old liquor still, the fact that the site is over a mile from the bluff, rather deep in the swamp, and near the old cabin, it could just as easily be the later. Nevertheless, I wanted to see if I could find it for myself and explore an area of the park I had not visited previously.

Exploring Congaree is a lot like Forest Gump’s famous proverb – ‘Life is a like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’ A week before, the river crested at 16.5 ft for two days, completely inundating the park but steadily receded to about five ft that morning. Though generally flat, certain areas of the floodplain drain and dry out quite differently than others.

As I crossed the Iron Bridge heading south, Cedar Creek was a bit high, seemingly in a race, its competitor unknown, to reach the Congaree. The water was moving swiftly at the Whiskey Pond bridges also. Making my way past Moccasin Pond and Summer Duck Slough, I headed east atop Buckeye Ridge. The ridge is distinct embankment, easily noticeable from the old road because along its northern edge is a beautiful small grove of Bald Cypress. The cinnamon-tinged bark of the cypress stands out from the darker hardwoods and, admittedly, its one of my favorites.

The ridge offered only a temporary respite from a waterlogged forest. I soon ventured into an area of the park that was clear-cut in the mid-1970s. The tract was pockmarked like the surface of Mars with puddles of various sizes and depth. Numerous false sloughs and streams that will disappear like ghosts in the coming days made this part of the trek more of a slog than a hike. The edge of Big Snake Slough was difficult to make, seemingly busting out from its natural bank. Shortly after crossing the old logging road that runs north-south, much to my surprise I found a thicket of Loblolly Pines – four sisters or brothers that had sprouted up after the mid-1970s cutting. All were the same age and size, not more than 5 ft. Perhaps over time, and if homo sapiens will leave well enough alone, they too will grow to be giants like those from which they sprouted.

Near the sloping bank of the cypress flats, an edge not easily delineated, I came across a large American Elm, standing off by itself, rather lonely like one I had visited west of Running Lake. Surrounded by a moat of brown water and deep mud, evidence of the park’s wild hog population, the buttressed trunk was quite impressive. Soon I approached the area where the old bricks were found. Unfortunately, the switch cane was dense and tall, a formidable foe for anyone adventurous enough to go off-trial. Inspecting a large area of the forest floor for the bricks was an impossibility.

The extent of the post flood conditions, and slowly receding waters, was readily apparent at the confluence of Otter and Ridge Gut. Further back at the cypress flats and Otter Gut I could’ve made it across to the eastern side and headed south, but elected to continue on. I also considered the fact that Hairy Head Slough was likely busting its banks also.

Identified as Steep Gut on an 1850 plat, Ridge Gut was very swollen, appearing in places to be a resurrection of the former river channel it once was thousands of years ago. The one spot I tried to ford across was within a few steps of entering the water thigh deep; not even near the middle of the gut. Since I didn’t have my life jacket tucked in my backpack, I thought it was prudent to retreat.

Crescent Lake appeared only surmountable with the help of Noah’s ark! The small triangle-shaped pond north of the lake had blossomed into a lake of its own. Off in the distance near the middle of Crescent Lake was a large beaver lodge. Having been long extinct from the swamp since the nineteenth century, beavers returned in the 1990s. Since the park had recently flooded, I didn’t observe any fresh wood chips or green cuttings but a few smaller fallen trees were noted along the bank.

Much to my surprise, soon after passing the northside pond the heavens began to rumble. The chance of rain was less than thirty percent for the afternoon. So much for forecasts. It was approaching midday so I threw my tarp against a nearby Sweetgum and retrieved my lunch. A symphonic shower of precipitation commenced in the canopy, tranquil and refreshing for a weary soul. Twenty minutes or so later and the pattering of rain against the surface of the lake subsided. The forest grew quiet, so I was off again.

The cane was quite thick and tall in places on the log road heading west but I made my way through taller earlier in the summer. In a matter of minutes, the sky grumbled again, louder and much deeper than before. Thunder echoed and right on que, the clouds opened up. The roar of the falling rain sprinted towards me from the south, growing louder and louder. I searched hurriedly for a Holly tree; its low-hanging branches ideal for hitching a tarp. Unfortunately, I settled for a less than ideal spot that turned into a muddy red stream quicker than expected. The rain persisted for over an hour. Any thoughts of making it across Running Gut faded quickly. Plus, a swollen Ridge Gut was more than enough to dampen my spirits of making it to the river. The tarp kept me relatively dry until the torrent subsided.

Trekking off-trial is incredibly rewarding but it does have its drawbacks. Obviously, there is no trail – the path becomes where I place my feet against the earth. Tree branches and other obstacles along one’s impromptu ever-changing trail must be navigated. One drawback is that even after a light sprinkle the understory is as saturated as the forest floor. Everything you touch is wet and quickly soaks into your clothes. A light brush against a Holly branch, brings down a deluge of rain caught in the canopy. Navigating the dense canebrake was like walking through a cheap automated car wash. Not a dry thread of cloth clung to my skin. I decided to embrace the forest, head back north and try to dry out. It was amusing to see the occasional footprints I left in the mud on Kingsnake heading south were now small puddles as I headed towards the bluff in the late afternoon.

The woodpeckers put on a marvelous show both sight and sound after the rain. Heard and observed three species, a few Bard Owls, Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks. Also startled a juvenile buck, six-pointer. He was asleep, camouflaged in the thick brush and seemed to be in no hurry to rush off. In fact, he stopped, turned back and starred for a minute with a look on his face that seemed to say – Oh it’s just you, thanks for disturbing my nap! Off he went after a doe in the distance.

Snow in the Swamp

January 4, 2014

I roll into the parking lot at 7:00 AM. There has been a hard freeze this morning, down to around 24º, and I’m hoping for some sun to warm things up, but it’s 100% overcast. Fortunately there is no wind. I walk down the low boardwalk as far as I can go until the high waters of the past ten days have it covered up. The Cedar Creek gauge is reading 6.75 feet. I think the gauge, which went out of commission for a while, then got re-activated, is probably reading at least a foot too low. I turn around and walk back to the high boardwalk and head east. There are lots of hollies in this area, and a fair number still have good crops of berries, but surprisingly few robins are about this morning. Usually with sub-freezing temperatures the red breasts would be in a feeding frenzy.

I watch a squirrel caching acorns that it sifts up out of the thick leaf layer. I like the little flourish they do at the end after burying food – using their front paws to cover and pat leaves over the cache.

Soon I spot two young boars walking my way until they stop almost at the foot of the boardwalk, completely oblivious of my presence. Here they spend the next fifteen minutes chomping down on laurel oak acorns. You can easily hear the pigs crunching the hard mast with their teeth; occasionally they issue a soft grunt that sounds like contentment. I am reminded of that old saying, “even a blind hog gets an acorn every once in a while.” Makes you wonder how many acorns hundreds of pigs with two good eyes must consume in this swamp every day. What were the hunters thinking when they released all these pigs for sport years ago? Surely they must have known that these vacuum cleaners on hooves were going to be taking acorns away from the deer, turkey, and other native wildlife that use this high-fat, nutritious food to get them through the winter?

The very high reproductive potential of feral swine is soon brought home to me when farther back in the swamp I see three sows with a combined litter of twenty-four small piglets! The piglets are mostly light brown with black streakings on the side although a few are jet black like the sows. I see little piglets every month of the year in the Congaree. On good range a wild sow can produce a litter at six months of age and have two litters a year (sometimes even three). Assuming a sow can live five years in the wild and during that time produce two litters a year with six young per litter, and assume that 25% of her offspring will survive to adulthood, then at the end of her five year lifespan, the pig population from that one sow will have increased to 539 animals. The real kicker with feral swine is that throughout their extensive, and rapidly expanding range which now includes forty-one states as far north as Upstate New York and west to California and Oregon, they have few natural enemies since most large, pig-eating predators are either greatly reduced or gone.

Seeing this many piglets is discouraging after the past ten days of flooding since it is one of the few checks on the high population growth of feral swine. No doubt adult pigs can get out of the way of high water, but heavy flooding should drown a lot of young ones. Perhaps one positive benefit of the newly-arrived coyote population will be as a predator of young pigs.

Bird activity has started picking up near the boardwalk around 10:00 – kinglets searching in dead leaves, chickadees foraging on bare limbs, and woodpeckers rapping out chunks of dead wood. It is difficult this time of year, when sound carries much farther through the leafless forest, to get away from the loud rapping of hungry pileated woodpeckers. Hands down the strangest bird I see this morning is a mockingbird, about as out of place in a wooded swamp as a woodpecker in a marsh. It is drinking from a water puddle and presumably thirsty from feeding on holly berries.

Closer to Weston Lake I see several hawthorn trees growing next to the boardwalk. They are easy to overlook in the growing season. Right now however, their beautiful red-orange fruits make them standouts in the bare winter forest. A hermit thrush is trying to take advantage of the berry bounty, but a robin quickly moves in and the thrush moves on.

 

January 8. I arrive at the Visitor’s Center parking lot at 7:15 AM. I don’t expect to see anyone this early and this cold (20ºF). It’s supposed to warm up today to 40º or so. By midday the Midlands will have experienced nearly forty consecutive hours of below-freezing temperatures. That is unusual in the Deep South, and no doubt hard on a lot of plants.

I sit on a bench on the low boardwalk. Shortly pieces of cypress cones starting dropping on the boardwalk at my feet. I look up and there in the bare canopy of a tall cypress, now lit up by the sun’s rising rays, are two tufted titmice pecking away on cypress cones.

Some red maple twigs are showing red with flower buds soon ready to open. Hard to believe now that with winter barely here we are starting to see signs of spring already.

Near the overlook at Weston’s Lake I watch a male pileated woodpecker banging away near the top of a forty-five foot red maple with a broken top. The big woodpecker is not concerned at my presence and works on the feeding hole for about thirty minutes, keeping his body stationary and moving his head only. Every minute or so he stops pecking and moves his head closer into the hole; I assume he is using his incredibly long tongue to scoop up whatever he is going after, probably black carpenter ants.

While the woodpecker is working over the tree, a squirrel pokes his head up out of the top, looks around, then climbs down the tree, head first of course, but on the other side of the woodpecker. Both ignore each other. I suspect there is a good bit of competition between the two, especially for nesting and roosting cavities. I had a female pileated show up in my yard several years ago, a noteworthy event since I’m almost in the middle of town. She proceeded to excavate a roosting hole in a large dead pine in my neighbor’s back yard. After nearly a week of intermittent work, the cavity was complete, and she started roosting in it. I was excited about this great opportunity to study the roosting behavior of pileated woodpeckers from the comforts of my backyard. Unfortunately, after hearing a racket coming from the tree one day, I found the pileated trying to get into her cavity, which had been usurped by a gray squirrel. The woodpecker would advance and try to enter; then the squirrel would rush out, and she would back off. After a few times of doing this, to no avail, she gave up and flew away to the west. The squirrel however, enjoyed its purloined cavity only briefly as the tree fell a few days later from a strong west wind.

January 15. I arrive at the park at 4:00 this afternoon. Compared to the recent cold weather it’s quite balmy today, with a southerly wind bringing in warm breezes. The swamp is flooded, again, with Cedar Creek reading 10.5 feet. The low boardwalk, even the benches, are under a sheet flow of water. Around the high boardwalk only the big pines have their trunks out of water. There is a good bit of robin feeding activity in the numerous holly trees around the high boardwalk. I suspect at the present rate of consumption, however, that most of the attractive red fruit will be gone by early February.

Robins and holly berries go together in the Congaree. If not for the numerous berries of Ilex opaca, the big thrushes would have a hard time in the winter after the earthworms have burrowed out of reach and when most other fruits and berries have disappeared.

Another bird seen in a holly tree, but not eating the fruit, is the ruby-crowned kinglet. This friendly little tuft of olive-green feathers doesn’t seem to mind human company, and will allow a close approach. I see it occasionally feeding on poison ivy berries, but its main winter diet seems to be insects and other small invertebrates. You don’t think of insects being active in winter, but in some ways I think of winter in the Deep South as a dormant spring. After a warm spell in January, it’s not unusual for a mosquito or two to make their presence known.

Getting back to the kinglet, I see it gobble up what appears to be a small caterpillar and later a small spider. Kinglets specialize as foliage gleaners – searching the undersides of hollies for hidden insects; they also like to forage in little clumps of dried, dead leaves still hanging on to the trees; one of their signature foraging behaviors is hovering at the end of a leafy branch or dried leaf clump and probing with their tiny beak while on the wing.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Farther along the high boardwalk I see an immature white ibis walking on a large log in the flooded forest. I suspect he and his buddies that I saw a couple of weeks ago are looking for other places to hunt since this much water puts a lot of their food out of reach.

I stay around until well after dark to observe the almost full moon rising. It is always thrilling to see this golden globe rising above the swamp forest and shedding its silver beams through the trees. Above and a little to the left is bright Jupiter. Things in the swamp are quiet. Earlier at dusk I heard a barred owl off in the distance and a brown thrasher, almost the last bird to go to bed, along with the cardinal, give its good night churry call.

On the way back on the high boardwalk I hear one of the most bizarre outdoor sounds I’ve ever heard. It is loud, close, hard to describe, and a little hair-raising. I have never heard anything like it in all my years in the outdoors; at first I am not even sure what class of animal made it. The critter did not repeat itself, and I rack my brain on the drive back home to come up with something. Finally, the only thing that could possibly fit is the Northern saw-whet owl, a diminutive owl even smaller than the very abundant screech owl. Fortunately there are examples of lots of different bird calls on the internet, and I find one at Cornell’s site called “autumn vocalizations” that sounds fairly close.

The little saw-whet breeds to the north of us and overwinters in the Upper South, where it is secretive and little observed. If that’s what it is, it would be the first record for the park.

 

January 17. It is quiet and cold, about 34º, in the swamp this morning at 6:30 AM. The black night has given way to a purple eastern sky, soon to be lit up with the rising sun. The full moon is low in the western sky. The swamp is still flooded, Cedar Creek being 8.8 feet, but water levels have dropped about two feet since day before yesterday.

At 6:50 I hear a pair of wood ducks squealing as they take off from the flooded forest; at 7:00 the crows start calling and showing themselves. Three of them perch in the top of a tall dead pine, preening, perhaps in anticipation of the sun’s soon-to-be warming light.

At 7:10 I hear a Carolina wren calling, shortly followed by a pair of barred owls – one is giving that famous maniacal call that makes you want to run the first time you hear it (and sometimes after you have heard it many times). Another barred owl sounds off farther back in the swamp at 7:20.

By 7:25 the swamp is starting to stir, with Carolina wrens, robins, red-bellied woodpeckers, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers calling. The sapsucker call for me has a plaintive, almost melancholy, sound that takes me back many years to all-day duck hunts at Sparkleberry. In those early afternoon hours, when hardly anything at all was stirring except for a steady, light breeze that had the bare treetops in motion, and a few thin clouds moving across the blue sky, you had the swamp all to yourself, and the only sound present was the lonely, wistful call of a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Shortly after 7:30 a soft wind stirs the 130-foot pine canopy; down here on the boardwalk, it is still calm. Pileated woodpeckers and tufted titmice have now joined in the “dawn chorus.” At 7:45 the tall pines, along with some of the shorter tupelos, turn a burnished orange from the sun’s angular rays streaming over the horizon. The noisy robins are feasting on holly berries in front of my boardwalk bench. Occasionally I hear some of the falling berries hit the boardwalk.

Several dozen of the hungry birds are moving in and out of the dark green foliage. It looks like every robin for him- or herself in a disorganized feeding effort. Shortly, a few cedar waxwings join in, but the robins don’t seem to mind the extra company. What they do mind is when one of their cousins, a hermit thrush, wants to get in on the action. It is promptly driven off by the much bigger robin.

Most of the canopy is now lit up with the warming sun, which also highlights a pair of white-breasted nuthatches, a Carolina chickadee, and a ruby-crowned kinglet high above. Are they trying to warm up, find food, or both? After about fifteen minutes the robins suddenly move on from their holly berry breakfast. There are still a fair number of berries left.

I continue on down the high boardwalk towards Weston Lake. I see a good number of ruby-crowned kinglets “leaf gleaning” for invertebrate food in the holly trees, many of which grow right by the boardwalk, and the kinglets are quite tolerant of human presence, even at very close quarters.

American holly is one of the most abundant understory trees at Congaree (although I would hardly call a ninety-five foot holly with an eight foot circumference, a former Congaree national champion, an “understory” tree). They grow in two different habitats: the ones around the high and low boardwalks are doing well in the “muck swamp,” with its high water tables and saturated soils, while others are found on ridges, alongside the oaks and sweetgums, in the bottomland hardwood community.

Although the hollies seem to be the primary target for the leaf-gleaning kinglets, there is other foliage available for them in winter. Numerous laurel oaks still support abundant green leaves, and I also see kinglets foraging in switch cane, sometimes only a few inches off the ground. Cane should be an ideal pantry for a small bird searching for an insect meal because nearly all of the stems have dead leaves and floodwater debris lodged in them, a likely shelter for spiders, insects, and other bird food. One kinglet I see working over the cane confirms my hunch, as I watch it snap its tiny bill quickly in succession on a dainty morsel too small to see.

Another kinglet species found in these winter woods is the golden-crown. They are outnumbered by the ruby-crown at least five to one in the Congaree. They spend more time foraging in bare hardwoods than their larger, leaf-gleaning cousins. The golden-crown reminds me of a chickadee, being similar in size, but even smaller, and they like to hang upside down like chickadees do. The ruby-crown, on the other hand, reminds me more of a smallish warbler in its foraging behavior.

There is not much going on at the Weston Lake overlook. I hear and see a pair of pileated woodpeckers pecking away for a meal on the other side of the lake. An Eastern phoebe is working the lake edges for flying insects that have started stirring in the warming sun.

Around 9 AM the wind starts to pick up and bird activity slacks off. Heading back to the parking lot, I see a group of four black lactating sows with a bevy of young pigs, some of which are enjoying a breakfast of warm milk.

January 24. It is cold, 20º, at 8:30 AM. Water levels in the swamp have finally dropped to “normal,” and much of the floodplain is dry again. I’m on the low boardwalk, which has been submerged or partially submerged, for much of the past month. Bird activity is starting to pick up a little, despite the frigid temps. It seems incongruous to hear the cheery call of a Carolina wren sounding through the dead-of-winter woods, and it almost makes me forget the cold.

I watch a female black-and-white warbler foraging on a tree trunk, searching for insects and other invertebrate food it finds ensconced in crevices and cracks. Back in Audubon’s day it was known as the black-and-white creeper, a name more fitting to me than warbler. The black and white, unlike most of its kin, winters regularly in the Carolinas, although not in any large number. It seems as if I see more females and young birds this time of year than males, which have more black streaking on the head.

Another nearby warbler is also doing some creeping of its own along a hardwood trunk, a pine warbler. It’s a well-named bird, being closely associated with that tree, but sometimes in the swamp you see them in hardwoods some distance from the nearest pine.

I spy a few cedar waxwings and robins feeding on the last of the sugarberry crop high in the trees. And nearby, the green catkins of bald cypress are swelling with chlorophyll. At close inspection, the buds on the catkins almost look like clumps of tiny grapes.

In many places the forest floor, due to the scouring action of the recent flooding, looks as clean and bare as if a leaf blower had come through. And scattered throughout are debris piles of “wrack” – leaves, sticks and pieces of wood – deposited by the flood and piled up against logs and downed limbs. These wrack piles are attractive to rooting pigs that go after the assortment of flood-collected acorns, tupelo fruits, earthworms, and other such foods.

By now it has warmed up to 25º and the ruby-crowned kinglets are out in force, leaf gleaning in the hollies and cane. Another cane-gleaner is the yellow-rumped warbler. A few goldfinches have come down from the tree tops to find water along the edges of the sloughs and guts, still frozen over for the most part, but the little finches are able to find enough holes in the ice to relieve their thirst.

Introduction

I have spent more than 40 years exploring the wonders of Congaree National Park. Much of my early exploration was devoted to learning the “lay of the land,” a difficult task in a trackless forest with few landmarks. Later exploration became somewhat more focused – searching for and measuring big trees, studying the park’s flora and fauna, especially its bird populations, looking for historical and cultural sites, deciphering the often bewildering array of guts, sloughs, ponds and other waterways that dot the park. Some exploration was recreationally-oriented – kayaking, camping, fishing, and hiking. Regardless of the “mission” trying to comprehend and understand what I was seeing, and hearing, was always uppermost in my mind.

Much of my time spent in Congaree could best be described as “wandering” and “just looking,” with no particular mission in mind except to see what was there. For most park visits, a good deal of ground was covered and progress was measured in miles and not feet. I eventually reached a point where I decided that such a complex ecosystem as the Congaree called for a much closer look with a slower pace than what I was accustomed to. So in 2014 and 2015 I switched gears and began focusing on a more methodical view of the park, one that involved taking second and third looks at the ground I was used to walking over and where progress was measured in the length of time sitting and observing as much as the number of paces taken. I soon became convinced that more could be learned about Congaree sitting at the base of a big oak tree for an hour than walking through it for half a day. And no doubt a great book on the ecology of Congaree National Park is waiting to be written by someone who never leaves the boardwalk.

This blog is based in part on the natural history diary I kept of those frequent visits in 2014 and 2015 but it also includes contributions from others who are passionate about the park. Interspersed within the blog are essays on specific natural history topics. We hope you will like it.

John Cely, late December, 2018

coming soon