December 10, 2015. We have enjoyed more than two weeks of ideal, clear weather – lows at night in the mid-to-lower forties, daytime highs in the upper 60s. A warming trend is developing throughout the country, caused by the jet stream blocking cold, arctic air from flowing southward. Here it is two weeks before Christmas and we have not even had our first freeze! Expected highs this weekend are to be in the mid-to-upper seventies. I’ll take it.
This is the first time I’ve been able to walk the trails in more than ten days, due to persistent, near-continuous flooding. Flood waters have receded only since yesterday, leaving the trails as slick and muddy as they were on November 29th.
I see my first Congaree dark-eyed juncos of the fall flush from the sides of the low boardwalk. I wonder what these ground-feeding birds do when the swamp stays flooded for days at a time?
From the eastern leg of Weston Lake Loop, I do some off-trail exploring. The woods are finally looking like winter, as nearly all of the hardwoods have shed their leaves, except for the swamp chestnut oaks, overcup oaks, and cherrybark oaks that will hold on to some of theirs until after Christmas. As I walk by one of the many large sweetgums in this area, I feel faint specks of debris falling on me; some are lit up by the sunlight, and I see they are tiny fragments of sweetgum seeds. I immediately look up, and 125 feet away, in the very top of the canopy, are a dozen or so female red-winged blackbirds methodically picking over sweetgum balls to get at the seeds. This particular tree is full of the prickly balls, easily seen clinging to bare branches against a clear blue sky. Each ball has numerous seeds, enough to keep the hungry red-wings busy for some time. When I depart fifteen minutes later, they are still there.
I cross the Cedar Creek Bridge, walk a short distance down the Oak Ridge Trail, then head east for more off-trail reconnoitering. The ridges and high ground in this area are bare earth in places, as clean-swept as if a leaf blower had just been through. In other places piles of debris and wrack from the recent floods are heaped up in mounds.
Birds have been scarce for much of the morning, due, I suspect, to the unseasonably mild weather that requires fewer calories of them and less hunting for food.
On my return, I stop and examine a recently-cut sugarberry that had fallen across the trail. The tree is sixteen inches in diameter at four-and-a-half feet above ground, and the cut was made three feet higher. The growth rings are clearly visible, and I count a century’s worth. For the first fifty years of life, starting about 1915, the sugarberry put on twelve inches of radial growth; for the last fifty, only four inches of growth. This is often the case with forest trees. They put on big spurts of growth in their early years due to favorable conditions that got them started in the first place, primarily abundant sunlight from a newly-opened hole in the canopy. Eventually the open canopy closes and growth rates slow considerably.
Although trying to age a tree by size alone is not very reliable, I do wonder about the ages of Congaree’s forest giants, many times the size of this moderately-sized sugarberry. The state record sugarberry, for example, is located in the park and is fifty-two inches in diameter, more than three times the diameter of this cut sugarberry. Does this mean the champ is 300 years old? Probably not, but inquiring minds would love to know.