A Fall Walk

November 29, 2015.  Finally, after more than three weeks of flooding and high water, I’m able to actually put my feet on swamp soil. The muck swamp this fine November morning looks like a high tide that has just receded, which is basically what happened as the water dropped quickly from flood stage last night, leaving behind still-damp layers of leaves and silty mud glistening in the morning sun. The unprecedented fall flooding of 2015, which began with the historic flood of early October, has continued for most of the month of November. Cedar Creek was running at seven feet or higher for fifteen days from November 3rd to November 18th, and eight days from November 20th to November 28th. The river was twelve feet or greater for thirteen days from November 4th to November 17th, and seven days from November 20th to November 27th.

Flood debris at Weston Lake Loop Trail.

October and November are the prime acorn months, and unfortunately for the many animals that rely on them for sustenance, the swamp has been underwater and the acorns covered up for much of that period.

The first critter I see from the low boardwalk is a gray squirrel, nose to the ground, in a search mode for buried food. It soon finds a water tupelo drupe, which it quickly consumes, then continues searching. It finds another drupe under the wet leaf litter and chooses to consume this one from a nearby fallen branch rather than staying on the ground. The squirrel’s muzzle is muddy from digging in the muck. I suspect it’s hungry too, since it has not been possible to look for food on the ground for much of the past few weeks due to high water. Both water tupelo and swamp tupelo fruit crops have been meager this year, and I see very few of either still clinging to the bare limbs. There is another squirrel nearby, but it is feeding higher in the canopy on the large samaras of Carolina ash.

Evidence of a hungry squirrel feeding on a green sweetgum ball.

By now my attention has been drawn upwards into the canopy where I see a red-bellied woodpecker hanging upside down from the slender horizontal branch of a poison ivy vine,  feeding on poison ivy berries. A nearby flicker is dining on them as well, but not being as agile as the red-belly, he is content to remain on a more secure tree limb and reach out for the small, yellowish-white berries. Farther back in the trees, I see other birds partaking of poison ivy berries – a yellow-bellied sapsucker, ruby-crowned kinglet, yellow-rumped warbler, and two small-to medium-sized birds I can’t quite make it since they are backlit against the sky. I move a little and see that they are bluebirds. It surprises most people that bluebirds are occasionally found in the swamp in winter, but they do make periodic incursions from nearby fields and pastures to search for the swamp’s soft mast crop.

As I continue on the low boardwalk, I notice the evergreen switch cane all looks brown and dead from being submerged and coated with silt from a near-record two months of high water. The same thing goes for the normally bright green meadows of sedge, which are all brown and bent over.

But there is still a good bit of color in the swamp, mostly coming from sweetgums, maples, and ironwood. The best color is coming from the beeches, which are just about at peak. Green is dominant in the color scheme as well, coming primarily from the hollies and laurel oaks and a few late swamp chestnut oaks. Most of the leaves of the latter are a burnished orange-brown, but a few have turned a striking, crimson-red color.

Beech trees provide splendid fall color at Congaree.

The trails are muddy and slippery in places. Sometimes I feel like I’m almost walking on ice. I’m not the only one slipping as I see lots of hog prints in the trail, some of which have noticeable slide marks. Parts of the trail look like an animal super highway, and besides pig tracks, I see those of turkey, deer, coyote, squirrel, raccoon, and opossum.

Coyote and turkey tracks.

The trails are not in good shape. Many sections are littered with flood-strewn logs, limbs, and piles of leaves and other debris. It will take some doing to get them back to normal.

I get as far as the big blow-down on the eastern leg of the Oak Ridge Trail before turning back. I take note of the lone surviving pine sapling by the trail that has outlived (barely) its two now- dead compatriots. The surviving five-foot pine is scraggly and mostly brown with only a bit of green color showing on top. I don’t think it will make it, thanks to the record floodwaters of 2015 that have put its roots under water for days at a time.

Low boardwalk damage from heavy fall flooding of 2015.