May 3, 2015. Friends of Congaree Swamp is hosting its Annual Dawn Chorus Bird Walk, again led by the capable ears of Donna Slyce. As we huddle in the cool, pre-dawn 05:30 dark at the visitor’s center, we start hearing a few bird stirrings – a barred owl or two (although not an “official” member of the dawn chorus, barred owls do seem to call more frequently as daylight approaches), followed by a cardinal and then a brown thrasher. Sounds start picking up as the first hint of light opens the eastern sky – songs and calls of the pine warbler, yellow-throated warbler, Northern parula, blue gray gnatcatcher, great crested flycatcher, summer tanager. Soon others join in – white-eyed vireo, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, and Carolina wren.
When it’s light enough to see, we enter the floodplain via the high boardwalk. We quickly add more species to the list, nearly all heard and not seen – white-breasted nuthatch, red-eyed vireo, blue-headed vireo, yellow-throated vireo, hooded warbler, and Acadian flycatcher. By 7:00 the woodpeckers have gotten active – we hear mostly red-bellieds, but a pileated or two lets loose with its loud cry that carries greatly in the quiet morning air. In the distance a turkey gobbles, but we only hear it twice. And always serving as background noise are the persistent cawings of American crows.
By 7:30 the dawn chorus winds down almost as quickly as it starts, and it’s time to return to the picnic shelter at the parking lot and enjoy a hot breakfast catered by Friends of Congaree Swamp. The birds will continue singing throughout the morning, but with nowhere near the intensity and fervor of their dawn song. As expected in such a heavily wooded environment, 80% of the birds noted this morning were heard and not seen. For this environment at this time of year, a good birding ear is a necessity. For that reason and the difficulty of seeing birds in dense foliage, often high in the canopy, it’s sometimes frustrating for beginners to bird the Congaree.
[This was the last time Donna Slyce led the Congaree Dawn Chorus Walk. She passed away of cancer in 2016 at the young age of 54. Smart as a whip but ever humble, Donna graduated summa cum laude from Erskine College and worked in the computer field at Blue Cross. She was an accomplished field ornithologist who had the respect of her peers and colleagues. Donna, you left us way too soon and we miss you.]