Boardwalk Wildlife

May 21, 2015.  I get to the swamp early this morning before daybreak and walk through the visitor center breezeway and patio. At night the lights here attract a variety of beetles, moths, spiders, and other invertebrates, which in turn attract other critters, mainly frogs, which are interested in dining on the invertebrates. This morning I find various moths, several female wolf spiders carrying a large contingent of young on their backs (giving them an even more formidable appearance), four adult stoneflies, and two green treefrogs. As day begins to break, I hear my first red-bellied woodpecker at 6:15, followed shortly by cawing crows and the jungle-like call of the yellow-billed cuckoo. The pileated woodpeckers generally sleep in later, and I don’t hear my first one until 7:05. The muck swamp is completely dry – we haven’t had a decent rain in more than three weeks. But there are still mosquitoes out, holdovers from April floods. The mosquito meter is reading “2” (“mild”), but I would bump it up to “3” for “moderate.”

Wolf spider mothers carry their small offspring on their abdomen for protection. Courtesy John Grego.

The pileated nest cavity near the low boardwalk I found on May 3rd is empty.  I watch it for more than thirty minutes without any sign of adults or young. Hopefully this means the young have successfully fledged.

I make my way along the low boardwalk towards Weston Lake. Along the way I find a slim, three-foot black rat snake stretched out on top of the boardwalk kick rail and see a red-bellied watersnake in the water from the bridge at “Tupelo Alley” that feeds into Weston Lake.  From this same spot I see a barred owl, its back towards me, perched low in a holly tree on the edge of the slough. I can tell the owl is focused intently on something in the water. After a few minutes,  it flies down to a clump of cypress knees, catches a crayfish, and flies to a low dead limb two feet above the water. While perched with its right leg, the owl proceeds to dismember and swallow pieces of the crayfish which it holds in its left leg. After this quick meal it flies off to another hunting perch farther back in the slough.

I arrive at the Weston Lake overlook a little after 8:30. This is always a peaceful place to meditate and enjoy the beauty and serenity of the swamp, especially early in the morning or late in the afternoon. On the opposite shore of the lake a male water turkey (aka anhinga and snake bird) is perched in a tupelo with spread wings, drying in the sun. Some researchers think the function of spread-wing behavior, also found in cormorants, vultures, and a few other species, is as much about thermo-regulation as it is drying feathers.

The reptilian-like bird spends a good fifteen minutes sunning, at least while I am watching it, then with a racket of flapping feathers flies off down the lake, its profile so thin that it reminds me of a flying pencil. For some reason, though, it returns and lights in another tupelo closer to me. Despite its ungainly appearance (“neck bird” would be another appropriate name) the bird does have some handsome qualities with its glossy black plumage and black-and-white barred wings. It soon takes off, this time for good, and makes several lazy circles over the lake as it climbs higher and higher into the blue morning sky.

A male anhinga enjoys the view from an exposed perch.

From the high boardwalk near the visitor’s center I spot a crimson red movement almost at ground level, a red that belongs to the crest of a male pileated woodpecker. He’s going over a large log on the ground, peering and poking into various cracks and crannies. He soon hops onto a nearby smaller limb and goes through various contortions with his head and body while holding onto the top of the limb. He calls one time with a brief wik-wik-wik. I’m not sure what this means unless he’s just checking in with his mate somewhere, but it’s strange to hear this loud call coming from ground level. From the log the pileated clambers over to a large tupelo snag and proceeds to scale the tree, carefully inspecting along the way the numerous hiding places in the long-dead wood that likely harbor prime woodpecker food. Finally, after more than twenty-five minutes the pileated starts acting like a real woodpecker and flies off into the thick canopy of a tall tupelo tree.

I return to the park later in the evening, having heard that the synchronous lightning bugs are out, perhaps a bit early this year. I arrive at 8:30 PM and find the word has gotten out, based on the number of cars in the parking lot. The bio-luminescent beetles start blinking in unison about 8:45 while it’s still twilight. Most are located on high ground near the high boardwalk between the visitor’s center and the edge of the bluff where it drops off into the floodplain by the large beech tree. It’s quite a show and reminds me of Christmas lights, all blinking on and off in unison. The lightning bugs stay low to the ground and put out a steady pulse of light for a good forty-five minutes; it seems to peak about 9:15 and pretty well stops by 9:30.