August Dog Days

August 3, 2014. The summer of 2014 is starting to wind down. The days are getting shorter, but we can probably expect another six weeks of warm, if not hot, weather. The warming trend we’ve experienced the last twenty-five years seems to have pushed the months ahead – September weather is now more like August, and October, when things used to start cooling down, is now more like September.

The swamp is dripping this morning from the badly-needed soaking rains of yesterday and the day before. Lots of mushrooms and other fungi have popped up appreciatively from the damp weather.

I’m watching an immature barred owl (it’s a little after 9:00 AM) perched about eight feet off the ground fifty feet from the high boardwalk. He still has a trace of white natal down on his head and neck, giving him almost a white-headed appearance. He appears to be hunting, but doesn’t seem to have his heart in it. He’s not very wary and allows visitors a good look as they walk by on the boardwalk. Finally, he flies off to another low perch farther back in the trees. It’s not that unusual to see active barred owls in the swamp during overcast days, and sometimes even under clear blue skies.

There are hundreds of green swamp tupelo fruits scattered across the boardwalk that recent wind storms have knocked down. Some have gnaw marks from squirrels. The “tree rats” have also started chewing on green pine cones, pieces of which litter the boardwalk in places.

Resurrection fern on log

The resurrection ferns have become “resurrected” from the recent dampness. The numerous downed limbs and pieces of limbs strewn across the floodplain from the February ice storm are covered with them, and allow a close inspection of these interesting ferns.

I walk down Sims Trail – the high boardwalk is still in disrepair from the ice storm. In a sunlit clearing on the trail I see a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers foraging low for insects, spiders and any other protein they can find. Nearby, also hunting for food, is an immature white-eyed vireo. The dark eye of first year white-eyed vireos used to give me fits when I started birding as a young lad (so long ago it was called bird watching). Back then the field guides did not show white-eyed vireos with dark eyes, and I couldn’t figure out what they were.

I turn east and then south on the Weston Lake Loop Trail, cross the Cedar Creek bridge, then continue south on Oak Ridge Trail. Cedar Creek is muddy, having risen nearly three feet since yesterday. Most of this flow is coming from the river via Boggy Gut, a half mile upstream.

I go as far as the big blow down on Oak Ridge Trail next to Running Gut. A park crew has been through recently, cutting and removing downed limbs and logs from the trail. This blow down involved a lot of hard work due to the large sizes of the fallen trees, and the fact that the crew was working with hand saws instead of chainsaws (due to it being designated wilderness) makes it even more impressive.

It’s still 100% overcast at mid-day with a hint of rain in the air. The gray treefrogs are happy and call lustily to attract mates. There are clumps of attractive ferns along the trail here, most of which are southern lady ferns with the wonderful scientific name of  Athyrium filix-femina, meaning “doorless woman fern” in Latin.

I turn back and walk a section of the Kingsnake Trail. The trail crew has been busy here as well. I stop and examine the cut trunk of what used to be my favorite shagbark hickory, Carya ovata. The annual growth rings are spaced close together, even in this fertile, rich soil, and illustrate the slow-growing nature of hickories. I come up with a ring count of roughly 175 years for the three feet-diameter tree. It was healthy looking before it fell and maybe had another hundred years of life left in it, but unfortunately was undermined by soft soil.

Not far from this tree, on the edge of the trail, is another interesting species which I think is a white ash. The ten-and-a-half-foot circumference trunk is different from most of the green ashes in the swamp, being paler and having raised, crossed furrows similar to a hickory. The growth form and leaf shape also look different from most green ashes. White ash, unlike the bottomland-preferring green ash, is more typically found in upland sites, but a few have managed to hold on and survive on higher ridges within the floodplain.

I go as far as the small foot bridge over the gut that goes to Tear Pond, then cut south and walk back along the north bank of Big Pine Gut. Along the way I turn a few logs, without any success until finding a small slender dark snake with a yellow necklace and yellow belly with a row of black spots down the middle. The yellow necklace does not quite meet at the back of the head, identifying it as a southern ringneck snake. The snake squirms a lot as I handle it, at the same time emitting a powerful, disagreeable musk that I smell on my hand for the rest of the day.  Big Pine Gut gets its name from a sixteen-foot circumference loblolly pine that Jim Elder found here in the 1970s. The tree was unfortunately only recently dead, but the bark was still tight. This is the largest pine I’m aware of in the Congaree. Based on Jim’s directions, I finally found this tree a few years later, much deader and with the bark starting to slough off.                                                                                       

Underside of a ringneck

. Ringneck snake

I see, and hear, a fair number of cardinals today. The males are always striking with their red plumage against the green foliage. Unlike the molting city cardinals in my yard, which are very ratty looking right now, especially around the head, with some almost completely bald, the swamp cardinals must molt gradually and retain their good looks throughout the summer. I am not sure why this is the case. Maybe it has something to do with the city birds being exposed to  more sunlight, which may lead to more feather wear, but who knows.

I pass by lots of pawpaw trees and a see a few unripened fruits on the ground here and there. I take a bite out of one and it’s not too bad, but still on the green side. In another three weeks they should be prime eating.

A dog day cicada

At 4:30 the sun finally breaks through the overcast. It has been nice weather for swamp walking, a little on the humid side, but with a high only in the low 80s. Near the low boardwalk on the way back I get blasted by the ear-piercing buzz of a cicada, at ear’s level on a small ironwood tree by the trail. It’s not that common to see one this low, so I stop and take a few photos while it slowly climbs up the tree. This guy sometimes goes by the name “dog day cicada.”