October 23, 2014. I had a change of scenery for the past week-and-a-half, trading the big trees and swamp life of Congaree for the wide open spaces and canyon lands of southern Utah. I saw some spectacular scenery, so different from the Congaree that I might as well have been on another planet. It reminds me once again that the U.S. of A. is the most beautiful country in the world.
There is a lot of woodpecker activity in the muck swamp this fine fall morning – flickers, red-bellies, downies, and sapsuckers, the latter having arrived during my twelve-day absence. I also get excellent looks at a single hairy woodpecker, a good find, and the least common of the swamp’s woodpeckers. I may go for weeks or months without seeing one in the swamp. It has a rather spotty distribution, and is uncommon throughout much of the South Atlantic Coastal Plain.
Even though late October, the swamp is still green, although some yellow foliage is peeking through here and there. The finest color is coming from poison ivy with pastels of pink, orange, light red, and yellow. And the leaves of swamp tupelo have been turning bright red since August. Interestingly these two plants, along with Virginia creeper, spicebush, wild grape, and others that turn color in early fall, are called “foliar fruit flags” by forest ecologists. They believe that early fall color change for these plants is a signal to help attract migrating birds to feed on, and disperse, their seeds, which might otherwise be overlooked in a forest full of greenery.
The canopies of the swamp tupelos and water tupelos are noticeably more bare than they were a couple of weeks ago, and on my return trip later this afternoon I see a good bit of sunlight and long shadows on the swamp floor, a floor that has not seen much light for the past six months.
Two tree species, green ash and American elm, are leafless, or nearly so, and look dead against an otherwise green and greenish-yellow canopy. Like the tupelos, green ash is one of the latest tree species to leaf out in spring, but one of the earliest in fall to lose its leaves.
The panicled aster, or lance-leafed aster, Symphyotrichum lanceolatum, with its 25-lettered scientific name and clumps of delicate white miniature “sunflowers,” has been putting on a nice wildflower show for the past few weeks. The flower center, consisting of the disc flowers, starts out yellow, later turning plum colored.
I turn a few logs and find a small, nondescript grayish-brown snake with a subdued pattern on its back. It goes by the wonderfully descriptive name of brown snake, Storeria dekayi, but I prefer the older name of DeKay’s snake. This is one of the few vertebrates I’m aware of whose scientific name honors not one but two men, David Humphreys Storer and James Ellsworth DeKay, both nineteenth-century American physicians and naturalists.
DeKay’s snake is an incredibly abundant species, being found in a wide variety of habitats. Probably every yard in my home territory of Forest Acres has a few of these small snakes hiding in flower beds and mulch piles. Earthworms and slugs are two of their favorite foods.