Big Buckhead

July 26, 2014. I’ve returned to Congaree East, this time the old Bates Ferry Road, formerly McCord’s Ferry Road, on the west side of Highway 601. This area is known locally as “Big Buckhead,” while “Little Buckhead” is within the confines of Bates Old River on the east side of 601. It is also referred to as “Riverstone,” the name given to it by the previous owners.

The old ferry road is an elevated causeway that follows, more or less, the original road that dates back to at least the 1740s, when Joseph Joyner first established a ferry across the lower Congaree River. John McCord took over operation from Joyner around 1766. By the Civil War it was known as Bates Ferry. In 1923 the ferry was replaced by a bridge, the first one over the Congaree south of Columbia. The bridge was in operation for twenty years until 1943, when it was replaced by a new one a little farther south and where the current very new bridge is located. The causeway I’m standing on was constructed as part of the 1923 bridge [and in 2015 was dedicated by the park as the Bates Ferry Trail].

The old causeway runs southwest straight to the river for 1.2 miles. It is closed to traffic and grown up in a hodge-podge of weeds, briars, vines, shrubs, and small trees, including kudzu, morning glory, ragweed, goldenrod, butterfly pea (Centrosema), Japanese stilt grass, heliotrope, pokeberry, dodder (Cuscuta), lespedeza, Verbesina, and bears-foot ((Polymnia). Bears-foot is a native composite with attractive yellow flowers, some of which are blooming. They grow aggressively on the shoulders of the causeway, and some are ten feet tall with stem diameters of an inch and a half.

All of this luxurious, productive weedy vegetation growing in full sun provides perhaps the best edge habitat in the park. It is excellent for butterflies, dragonflies, beetles, and other insects, as well as spiders. It is also good for birding, especially in fall and spring when a lot of migrants are passing through. I happened to have hit it right several years ago and counted over sixty indigo buntings along a short distance of the trail.

In addition to attracting exotic weeds, roadsides can be prime habitats and travel corridors for all types of exotic animal life; the main culprit on this old causeway is the fire ant, and I see any number of the hellish ant’s mounds in the center of the roadbed. Fortunately they do not find the floodplain itself to their liking.

As I walk southwest, I pass many young loblolly pines just beyond the causeway on the left. These pines are a carryover from when the property was owned and managed by a forest products company. They have managed to survive by being planted on a natural high ridge in the swamp that rarely floods, but they are an “off-site” species that don’t belong here. Hopefully the park will eventually do some restoration by removing these pines and replacing them with bottomland hardwoods.

A flatbed trailer recycled as a bridge over Bates Old River channel. Photo by Joe Kegley

 

About half way to the river I turn right on an old logging road and come to an unusual bridge over the Bates Old River Inlet. It’s an old flatbed trailer, with wheels intact and serving as a ready-made bridge in its second life, courtesy of some innovative hunt club members prior to park ownership. The heavy floods of 2013 have partially eroded the earthen embankments on either end of the trailer, and it now lies at a slight angle.

A little beyond the bridge is a slough to the right of the trail, and visible from it is a virgin cypress with an imposing circumference of twenty-nine feet, the largest circumference of any tree in the park. This would clearly be a state champion except for its lack of height, only ninety feet, due to the top being blown out by some long ago hurricane or wind storm. I call this tree the “General Greene” in honor of Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene, who led Patriot efforts to victory in the South. It was only about a mile from here, at the original McCord’s Ferry, that Greene first met the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, in May of 1781, shortly after Marion and Light-Horse Harry Lee had taken the British outpost at nearby Fort Motte.

The General Greene bald cypress

The slough containing the General Greene is full of old, cut cypress stumps from a hundred years ago, including two that could have been the General’s twins. They had to be impressive specimens when alive, and one could have been even bigger. The slough is also full of tall, skinny cypress knees which are supposed to be indicators of frequent, fluctuating water levels. One knee is about seven feet tall.

I see some movement in a nearby shallow, muddy pool holding the only water left in the slough. It is an immature white ibis, probing for crayfish. Within a short time the ibis has captured two small “mud bugs,” but then his luck runs out and he spends the next ten minutes in what looks like random probing without success. Finally he leaves the pool and goes hunting on dry land but moves out of my field of view.

I return to the causeway and continue to the river. At the river’s edge is where Bates Ferry and later Bates Bridge were located. There is a high sandy knoll here I call Bates Bluff. Across the way, at the large sandbar on the south side of the river known as the “Riviera,” a dozen party-goers are getting the week-end off to a good start. Several boaters pass by, heading upstream. The river is running at seven feet, high for this time of year, and a good bit of the Riviera is underwater.

This part of the Congaree channel is fairly new as river channels go, being created by the great flood of 1852, which gouged out the present channel by taking a “short cut” across this neck of the Big Bend of the Congaree. Fast moving water with a lot of force behind it likes to move in a straight line, and that’s what the river did in 1852. The distance involved in the cut off is a little more than a half mile while the length of the entire bend, now a large oxbow lake, Bates Old River, is four miles. This is a significant short cut.

 

There is an old wooden bridge here crossing the old river channel that feeds into Bates Old River. It was used thirty years ago for logging the swamp west to the original park boundary, four miles away. The bridge now is showing considerable wear and tear. Nearly all of the decking has been washed away but the supports still look sound. The top of the bridge is covered with limbs and debris from the February ice storm. I decide to get to the other side by returning to the flatbed bridge.

Like Bates Fork to the east, this part of Congaree East is all second-growth forest and easy walking because there are relatively few logs, limbs, vines, and woody debris on the ground unlike in the old-growth park. I see a box turtle in front of me, a male but not as colorful as the one I found last week. I turn over a few logs and find nothing except one leopard frog and a slender, dark worm-like body with a head covered by debris. When I pull it out, I realize it’s an eastern worm snake, Carphophis amoenus. It doesn’t like being handled and squirms vigorously in my hand. This small snake, not much bigger than a good-size earthworm, has a pink belly and a ridiculously small head which it tries to bury between my fingers. One of their main foods is earthworms, but I am not sure if they are named for their food habits or because they look like a worm. There is probably not a yard in the Columbia suburbs that doesn’t have a few worm snakes in well-mulched flower beds.

Eastern worm snake

My original intent to walk as far as the railroad tracks has been thwarted since I can’t cross Indian Hill Gut which is full of water from a rising river. So I pull up against a tree trunk and see what the swamp can offer from a sitting position. It’s early afternoon now, and the swamp is still and quiet, without a leaf stirring. Even the cicadas have shut up for a while. Despite the 90º temperature and high humidity, it’s actually quite pleasant sitting under the green, dense “umbrella” canopy. There are no biting bugs about, and the only distraction is a few flies buzzing around. I hear an occasional calling yellow-billed cuckoo, cardinal, Carolina wren, and gray treefrog. Every once in a while civilization creeps in with the sound of a boat motor from the river or a particularly loud tractor-trailer on 601 a half-mile away.

An immature red-shouldered hawk flies in and perches four feet off the ground about a hundred feet in front of me. It looks down as if hunting for something on the ground, but I think my presence disturbs it, and it flies off and disappears into the canopy. A short while later the quiet is broken by the loud, repetitive, and obnoxious call of this raptor, surely the noisiest of its tribe.

Monarch butterfly

I could almost take a nap leaning against the nice buttressed trunk of a laurel oak, but the occasional black ant that crawls inside my shirt won’t allow it. On the way back to the car I stop dead in my tracks as a magnificent monarch butterfly flits close by. It somehow manages to find one of the few bottomland flowers in bloom, a single lone swamp milkweed. There are few butterflies as beautiful as this species – a combination of orange and black with many small splotches of creamy white. As the monarch is enjoying its nectar, a tiny pearl crescent butterfly, about a tenth of the size, flies in and scares it off. The monarch retreats to a nearby plant stem while the pearl crescent enjoys the milkweed nectar. When it flies off, the monarch returns and perhaps to discourage any more aggressive butterflies, wraps the slender flower stalk of the milkweed with its front legs and pulls the flowers down close to its body.