February 27, 2015. I spend much of February taking care of Brother Robert’s farm while he is on a medical mission to the Sudan. It only reinforces how complicated it makes your life when you have lots of hungry mouths to feed. This month has been one of the coldest Februaries I can remember, even colder than last year’s. The average daily temperature has been 43 degrees, compared to a normal of 49.
The swamp has been flooded a good bit this month. In fact I’m wearing hip boots as I complete a loop along the low boardwalk to Sims Trail, then back to the visitor’s center via the high boardwalk. The Cedar Creek gauge is reading 7.5 feet, while the river is at 14.5. Parts of the low boardwalk are eight-to-twelve inches under water.
There is a noticeable amount of bird activity within a small area of the muck swamp, not far from where the low boardwalk begins. The first thing that strikes me is seeing a red-bellied woodpecker, a female, casually pecking on top of a small log. You don’t usually find this canopy dweller so close to the ground. The woodpecker makes a short flight to the swollen buttress of a tupelo and starts circling the trunk, no more than a foot above the flood waters, probing the bark with its beak. More unusual behavior! After repeating this several times, I begin to realize something out of the ordinary is going on, and it occurs to me that perhaps the rising waters of the flood have driven spiders and other invertebrate “litter fauna” to the nearest shelter, the tree trunks! Later that morning off the Sims Trail I see another female red-belly do exactly the same type of foraging, no more than a foot above water.
Back to the first red-belly at the muck swamp: a nearby hermit thrush is also taking advantage of the rising waters. It hunts along the water’s edge, occasionally darting out with its beak and picking up some small morsel, too small for me to see even though the thrush is within ten feet of the boardwalk. Its most unusual feeding behavior is when it flies out just over the top of the water, hovers, picks up some food item, and returns to a dry spot, all of this happening within the proverbial blink of an eye.
There are other birds in the area, perhaps attracted by the behaviors of the thrush and woodpecker but feeding in more conventional manners: chickadees on small hardwood limbs, and spending more time hanging upside down than right side up; ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets; a single tufted titmouse; a downy woodpecker; one yellow-rumped warbler; and a winter wren, probing for morsels in the green moss growing on tupelo trunks. Singing in the background is a Carolina wren, and coming from high up in the tupelos is the yank-yank-yank call of a pair of white-breasted nuthatches.
Also high up in the canopy is a gray squirrel, scampering along the branches from tree to tree, perhaps also looking for food. This particular squirrel is more chestnut-colored than gray. Later, on the way back to the parking lot, I see one of its colleagues right by the high boardwalk, feeding on swamp tupelo drupes hidden under the leaf litter. The squirrel pushes most of its head down into the thick layer of leaves and has no problem finding plenty of fruits to feed on. It is so close I can hear it munching on the hard tupelo seeds.
I continue walking down the low boardwalk and check out the red-shouldered hawk nest. The raptors have been adding new material to the nest, but I see nothing sitting on it. Two weeks ago I saw the pair copulating on a canopy limb of a nearby sweetgum.
The red maples have had a hard time putting out a new seed crop this cold February. Normally at this time of year the swamp would be full of bright red clusters of maple samaras, dangling in the breeze, but right now the young seeds have only just begun forming. Many maple flowers were killed by the hard freeze ten days ago, but they have such a staggered blooming period that new flowers have been able to replace the dead ones.
Many American elms have started flowering, and most of the “tardily deciduous” laurel oak leaves have fallen, except for the smaller understory oaks which still have a good bit of green foliage.
I find another tardily deciduous understory tree farther down the trail, after crossing Cedar Creek, between Wise Lake and Cedar Creek. The small tree, about thirty-five feet high and four inches in diameter, is conspicuous right now with long, dropping elliptical green leaves that stand out in an otherwise bare forest. The bark is distinctive too, having finely textured reddish checking. A close inspection of the lower limbs reveals small scattered thorns. It is a buckthorn, Sideroxylon (formerly Bumelia) lycioides, a member of the Sapodilla family. As its family name implies, the tree is primarily of Neotropical origin. Its most famous member produces the white gummy sap, chicle, which was developed by Mayans and Aztecs into the world’s first chewing gum.
My buckthorn (sometimes called silky buckthorn or buckthorn bully, should not to be confused with another buckthorn in a different family, Carolina buckthorn, Frangula caroliniana, which doesn’t even have thorns) looks exotic and almost out of place here in the Congaree. It is widely scattered throughout the state, found in a variety of habitats, but doesn’t seem to be common anywhere and would have to be considered rare in the Congaree. A review of the champion tree data base for South Carolina shows there is no champion listed for buckthorn, so I resolve to come back with my measuring tools and submit this one as a state champion (I do note that the current national champion, located in Virginia, is a whooping foot in diameter and nearly forty feet tall!).