As Good As It Gets

April 3, 2015.  A few lightning bugs are blinking in the dark when I arrive at the South Cedar Creek Landing this morning at 5:45 AM. Heading downstream in my kayak, I soon have small bats, perhaps Eastern pipistrelles (now called tri-colored bats), flying close to my head, attracted to the insects attracted to my headlamp. My light beam also picks up lots of pine pollen in the air, swirling like fine mists of rain.

I see in my beam a single bullfrog squatting on the bank and lots of wolf spiders on the tree trunks and at the water’s edge. By the time I drift to Dawson’s Lake, first light has crept in. I’m hoping to hear gobblers this morning but hear only one, down near the Canal. He first sounds off at 8:10, but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it, and he only calls briefly about every five minutes, all the time moving around. I hear nothing from him after 8:40, until fifteen minutes later when he calls a few times, farther away. By 9:05 he has apparently quit for the morning.

Even though I have many favorite times of the year in the swamp, I’m reminded every spring that early April is as good as it gets. The dark waters of Cedar Creek, jet black unless colored with mud from a rising Congaree River, are lined with soft, lime-green foliage, punctuated by some of my favorite blooming shrubs and trees – red buckeye, Piedmont azalea, a few black haw (Viburnum prunifolium), and most abundant and showy of all, green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis). The flowing form of this stream-bank tree with its airy foliage, thickly covered with clumps of bright, finely-textured white flowers, is almost hypnotic. I think of them as a swamp version of flowering dogwood, which of course doesn’t like the high water tables of floodplain soils.

Black haw in bloom.

Another sign of early spring on the creek is hen wood ducks with their broods.  I see a woodie with six ducklings only recently out of the nest just south of Dawson’s, and she puts on a splendid broken-wing act. We stay in eye contact for several minutes as we both head downstream. Then up ahead I see a barred owl perched on a low limb overhanging the creek. He perks up and eyes the ducks as they move into view; I’m sure he would not hesitate to pluck a duckling off the water, but the little fluff balls are  packed in so close to their mother that it’s hard for the owl to single one out. This is classic anti-predator avoidance behavior – safety in numbers bunched close together.

Farther downstream in the “Big Bend of Cedar Creek,” I see another hen with a brood. She is in the middle of her lame-wing act, thrashing on the water and making lots of noise, when from out of nowhere a drake wood duck flies in and lands near the escaping brood. The little ducklings are confused and swim to the drake for safety, but he wants nothing to do with family obligations and takes a short flight to land by the hen, who has been putting up a frantic wounded-wing act the whole time. I can’t help but anthropomorphize here and think about this in human terms –  the worthless male not only evades his familial responsibilities but in his clumsy attempt at sexual overtures, disrupts the female doing the real work to protect the family.

The water snakes are out in force this morning, and I estimate seeing at least fifteen when I stop paddling at midday. They are all browns except for one red-belly. Most allow close approach, but a few are wary and drop in the water when I get too close.                   

Elder Lake is beautiful this morning – jet black, tranquil, and covered in places with light yellow  rafts of fallen oak and sweetgum catkins and red maple seeds. There has been a recent dragonfly hatch here, and the smallish, brown dragons, two dozen or more, are flying low over the lake, their wings catching beams of sunlight. The lake is a good location for returning prothonotary warblers which I am hoping to see today, but none materialize, even though I paddle or drift  twelve miles by the end of the day.

I beach the kayak on the south side of Cedar Creek about a mile below Horsepen Gut and walk south as far as the Dead River Dike. There is a large sweetgum within the dike that I found years ago and is probably worth measuring again as a possible replacement for the former national champion sweetgum that recently lost its top and a portion of its trunk. It measures 16.3 feet in circumference and 131 feet tall. Like many large, old gums in the swamp, the original top has been broken or damaged over the years by windstorms and replaced by newer, and smaller, limbs; with its original upper-canopy limbs still in place this tree could have possibly been fifteen-or-twenty feet higher.

Spring violets growing in a tree crotch.

The sweetgum is probably well over two hundred years old and pre-dates the dike that surrounds it. Perhaps it was spared when the area was cleared for planting because it was on the edge of a low area that was too wet to cultivate.

On the way back to the boat I see a wood duck brood of seven in a small, shallow gut, about twice as large as the ducklings I saw earlier. The hen is with them, but presumably since I’m on land rather than water, she gets out of the water and proceeds to do her broken-wing act over land. It’s just as convincing as on water, and as she flops over logs and limbs, I slowly pursue to humor her.

Near my beached kayak is a small grove of red buckeye, easily detected because the red, tubular flowers are in full bloom. Several are impressive, the tallest measuring forty-eight feet with a circumference of sixteen inches – not too shabby for what is normally considered a bush! In fact, one of my botanical guides says red buckeye grows “to four meters (fifteen feet) high,” well short of these Congaree  buckeyes.

Congaree buckeyes in bloom.

It’s a three-hour paddle upstream (fortunately with not much current) back to the landing, and I arrive at 7:00 PM, thirteen hours after putting in this morning. I’m a little tired and will sleep well tonight, with sweet dreams about beautiful spring days on Cedar Creek.