January 8, 2015. I pick the coldest night of the young New Year to be in the swamp. I find out later that the thermometer registered 14º at 7:00 AM at the nearby weather station at McEntire Air National Guard Base. The mostly full moon in the southwestern sky is bright and lights up the floodplain when I arrive at 5:45 AM. So is Jupiter, hanging in the sky “close” to the moon.
The joints of the low boardwalk pop and crack under my feet. I’m dressed for the occasion and wearing the thickest wool socks in my possession, now more than forty years old, left over from my duck-hunting days. This wool is the real stuff, long predating the soft and non-scratchy merino wool of current usage. But I think having a little scratch to your wool in weather like this actually keeps your feet warmer.
There is a good bit of standing water in the muck swamp, and surprisingly, a lot of it is not frozen. The imperceptible slope here produces just enough movement and “current” to keep the water from freezing.
By 6:30 the eastern sky has gotten noticeably lighter, but my feet continue to get colder. I get up from the bench I’ve been sitting on and move around. The boardwalk continues to make cracking noises under ever step. Right now I’m responsible for the only sounds in the swamp. By 7:00 things are still quiet; maybe everyone is sleeping in this morning – couldn’t say that I blame them. Finally, at 7:15 a barred owl breaks the silence, followed shortly by a gang of crows. Then a pair of white-breasted nuthatches start calling with their “yank-yank” notes from a nearby tupelo tree. It’s not until 7:30 (official sunrise) that I hear my first woodpeckers – a brief, plaintive call from a yellow-bellied sapsucker, the churring of a red-belly, and finally, the loud call of a pileated in the distance. I also see my first squirrel of the morning, perched on the side of the boardwalk and chewing on what looks like a water tupelo drupe. It doesn’t look cold at all.
I walk to the Weston Lake overlook, hoping to see some waterfowl in the open, ice-free water, or perhaps a lingering heron or egret, but all is quiet. By 9:00 a light, intermittent breeze has picked up, but the warming rays of the rising sun counterbalances the wind chill.
There are three pileated woodpeckers foraging in the pines and hardwoods near the overlook, which must be right in the middle of a pileated territory as I almost invariably see one or two of the big woodpeckers every time I come here. Nearby, at the base of a large laurel oak, two males only two feet off the ground are playing at what appears to be some kind of stand-off, going around and around the tree trunk, facing each other. By the time I start back to the parking lot, I’ve tallied a dozen pileateds on this morning’s one-mile stretch of boardwalk.
The birds are of course hungry this frigid morning. The little kinglets look like round butter balls as they fluff up to ward off the cold. Woodpeckers, cardinals, and robins are feeding on sugarberries and what’s left of the poison ivy berry crop. I only see two yellow-rumped warblers this morning. Twenty-five years ago I would have seen at least five or ten times that number (looking back at two winter-bird-population surveys I made at the park in 1986 and 1998, I found yellow-rumps to be the third most abundant species, behind robins and ruby-crowned kinglets; for recent Christmas Bird Counts, they are not even in the top five).
Numerous sweetgum balls have fallen on the boardwalk from recent high winds, spilling the small, prolific winged seeds. They would make easy pickings for a hungry bird or squirrel. On my return trip I happen to look up at a large cavity in a sweetgum forty feet from the boardwalk and see movement. A close look with binoculars reveals it to be the ears and top of the head of a raccoon, but it must know I’m looking at it and quickly disappears from view.
I get back to the parking lot at 10:30 and am quite surprised to count fourteen cars. I’m impressed!