September 17, 2014. It’s cool this early morning on the low boardwalk. The moon overhead is a sliver of pale yellow. The muck swamp, guts, and sloughs have been recharged with flood waters from recent rains, the river rising five feet in less than twenty-four hours. As I cross over Cedar Creek bridge, heading out to the River Trail, I see below a cottonmouth moccasin swimming slowly downstream along the creek edge. It is definitely in a hunting mode, slowly working the edges, head in an alert pose. It swims across the creek to explore a debris pile on the other side of the creek, then disappears downstream, still searching for breakfast. I suspect the rising waters have gotten the snakes stirred up a bit. Cottonmouths prefer the sluggish, still waters of sloughs and flats, and usually leave the creeks and other waters with a current to the nonpoisonous watersnakes.
Farther down the trail I spot an ovenbird perched at eye level in a small sapling. Ovenbirds are not found in the floodplain except during spring and fall migration. The bird is very unwarbler- like in appearance, looking more like a thrush with its body shape, heavily-streaked breast, and large eyes. He shows his annoyance at my presence by erecting his orange crown feathers. I see three more of his comrades during the rest of the day.
The squirrels are active in the beech trees on “Beech Ridge” along the north side of Hammond Gut a little east of Bridge “F.” The beechnuts, still green and bitter to my taste, are raining down in pieces as the bushy tails greedily go after them. This section of trail has one of the finest stands of American beech in the swamp. They run about 120 feet high and eight-to-ten feet in circumference. With their smooth light gray bark, handsome growth form, and colorful fall foliage they are among our most attractive trees. Until it fell about ten years ago, one of the largest beeches here had the name “Perry” carved on it, along with the initials “D.E.W.” and the year “1926.” I sometimes wonder about the identities of Perry and D.E.W., what they were doing here, and what became of them.
Seventy-five feet off the trail I see a large fawn, with white spots still visible, checking me out. We have a staring contest before she blinks first and looks off to the side before finally moving back into the foliage. The fawn’s ears are enormous and much out of proportion to the rest of her head, but somehow the overall image still remains pleasing.
I cross the bridge at Hammond Gut and take the River Trail where it forks right at the junction with the Oak Ridge Trail. Farther down the trail I stop to look at some bird activity in thick foliage, then see movement on the trail out of the corner of my eye; as I turn to look, I see the bushy tail and rear end of a coyote scampering back down the path (it was coming my way until it saw me). This is only the second coyote I’ve seen in the swamp, but I sometimes hear them calling at night while camping.
I turn a few logs here and there and am surprised to find marbled salamanders – two large ones under one log and a single under another. I guess they are starting to leave their underground summer retreats in anticipation of their fall/winter breeding period.
Closer to the river I start seeing more avian migrants – a couple of veeries and a single wood thrush. Along a muddy section of trail I flush several northern waterthrushes hunting, I presume, for insect food. The spice bushes, confined almost entirely to the levee forest, are loaded with beautiful shiny red berries, and a prime food source for hungry migrating birds.
One of my favorite natural history books is a Field Guide to Eastern Forests, by John C. Kricher, a well-known biology professor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Kricher’s book cuts through the taxonomy and digs deeper into functions and relationships and how things work in the complex world of an eastern forest. Kricher notes that the fruits (drupes) of spicebush are highly desirable bird foods. The red color is like a flag to passing birds, saying in effect, “here I am, come eat me” (and it’s no accident that other desirable bird fruits are red including holly, dogwood, and magnolia.). It’s also no accident that spicebush drupes ripen to coincide with fall migration. It turns out that they are high in fats, providing ideal food for birds that require lots of fuel to sustain their long-distance migrations to the tropics. As might be expected in nature, this food relationship is not all one-sided; in exchange for providing sustenance, the spicebush fruit is carried off and dispersed via the digestive system of the bird.
Kricher also explains why some fruits stay on the tree for most of the winter and are largely ignored by birds until other foods have been exhausted. They are considered poor quality because of low fat content. Case in point is the brilliant red-orange fruits of hawthorn, which according to Kricher, have only one to two percent lipid content. Author Henry Davis noted that wild turkeys were quite fond of “turkey berry,” as he called the fruits of green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis)), but that may be because by late winter and early spring there was not much else available.
The trail has by now turned north and west, paralleling the river. I make my way over to the sandbar, still partly muddy and submerged from the rising waters of a day ago. A flight of red-eyed vireos is working their way through the foliage of silver maples growing in the transition zone between the levee forest and the sandbar. A larger bird is moving nearby and then comes into view. It’s a yellow-billed cuckoo with a hairy, whitish caterpillar dangling from its beak. Cuckoos are one of the few birds that specialize in eating hairy caterpillars; I watch this one shake the caterpillar several times, and after each shake, tufts of the hairs (setae) fall out and drift away in the light breeze. I assume the bird is doing this to make the caterpillar a little more palatable since the setae can be irritating to sensitive mouth tissues.
Not long after departing the sandbar and heading back, I hear calling from nearby cherrybark oaks my first red-headed woodpecker of the fall. I don’t know if this heralds a good crop of red-heads in the swamp later this fall, but if I were a betting man, I’d say not likely, since we had a bumper crop of woodpeckers last year (with the highest number east of the Mississippi River for the Christmas Bird Count at 146), and it’s rare to have two consecutive years of high red-headed woodpecker numbers (the winter of 2014-15 turns out to be indeed a poor winter for red-heads since there were so few laurel oak acorns).