March 20, 2015, continued. On my way to the river I stop to admire the state-champion cherrybark oak. Coming in at 26.5 feet in circumference and 141 feet tall, it is a magnificent specimen, with a crown spread of 140 feet, as much as the tree’s height! And it also has enough “points” (based on circumference, height, and average crown spread) to qualify as a national co-champion.
At mid-afternoon I sit down at the base of a beech tree on the edge of Pearson Pond Gut for a lunch of nabs and hot tea. Most of the beeches in the swamp have dropped their brown bud scales, littering the ground under the trees, and are unfurling their leaves. I spot movement out of the corner of my eye, from the direction of a large sweetgum log on the opposite side of the gut, and lift my binoculars for a better look. The movement disappears for a second behind some trees and then quickly appears again in the form of a coyote walking slowly on top of the big log in my direction. It is only forty feet away before it scents me and suddenly stops as if someone has just jerked its imaginary leash. I remain frozen with my binoculars still on him. He looks right at me with pale yellow eyes and bobs his head slightly to improve depth perception, trying to figure out what I am. Not liking what he sees, he turns, walks casually back down the log, hops off, and disappears in the understory. This is my best look ever at a wild coyote. Even though I’ve seen several in the swamp before, and hear them calling at night on camping trips, this close encounter brings home to me what a remarkable sighting it really is.
Large wild canids have been missing from the Congaree since the last wolves (gray? red? I’m not sure) were shot and trapped out two hundred years ago. Now a different species of canid has arrived on the scene to fill at least part of that empty niche vacated by wolves. On its long colonization journey from the western plains, the “prairie wolf,” as Lewis and Clark described it, has changed from a creature of wide open spaces to one that can flourish in a heavily forested river swamp. Its DNA may have changed along the way too, as some biologists believe that southeastern coyotes interbred with remnant populations of Texas red wolves.
Coyotes have many detractors, and sportsmen and stockmen detest them because of their depredations on deer and livestock. But taking the long view, one cannot help but admire their resourcefulness and adaptability. Despite being one of the most persecuted animals in the Western Hemisphere, there are now more coyotes than ever.
Enquiring minds would love to know more about the coyote’s place in the Congaree. What are its food habits? How many are here? How does the population fluctuate, and what is its social structure? What is their home range? How do they handle floods (a big change from Midwestern prairies!). Perhaps one benefit they bring to the swamp would be as a predator of wild pigs, especially the smaller ones.
And while on the subject, two other large predators that have been missing from Congaree for a long time are black bears and mountain lions. We know that bears occasionally pop up in the nearby Wateree Swamp and that statewide, the population is expanding, especially in the coastal swamps of Horry and Georgetown Counties. But sightings remain elusive in the Congaree (I’m still hoping for my first). Based on their biology, I suspect it would be difficult for them to establish even a small population here since they have large home ranges and sometimes wander into habitat occupied by humans, and fast-moving vehicles, both deadly to their survival.
There has been no hard evidence of wild mountain lions in South Carolina in modern times, although a good number of unconfirmed sightings get reported every year (and remember, mountain lions are tawny, about the color of a white-tailed deer; there has never been a documented “black panther”). This large carnivore has a huge home range that could encompass half-a-dozen bear territories.
Anything is possible in the natural world, including a mountain lion showing up at Congaree, however briefly (where it should enjoy fine dining on the succulent swine herd). The tremendous changes we’ve seen in North American wildlife abundance and distribution for the past one hundred years, fueled by remarkable adaptabilities, make anything possible – like the presence of jaguars in southern Arizona and mountain lions in Congaree Swamp.