Big Tree Hunt

February 22, 2014.  It’s predicted to be another nice day in the swamp. At home it is 40º at 7:00 AM, with a high expected of 70º. There are lots of cars in the parking lot when I arrive at 9:00. Today I began a champion tree search in one of my assigned compartments, “Weston Lake Boot.” I’m starting in the area between the east and west sloughs that feed into, and drain, Weston Lake. It is an interesting mix of “ridge and swale topography.” The swales between the ridges are full of water, which I have to walk through to stay on my east-west transects. In some places the water comes up to my knees. For most of the year the swales are dry or have only a few inches of standing water in them. They illustrate how important topography is in this “flat” landscape. Only a foot or less can mean the difference between a swale with bald cypress, overcup oak and red maple, and a ridge of sweetgum, swamp chestnut oak, and American holly.

I measure some trees along the eastern leg of the Weston Lake Loop trail. One large loblolly pine comes in at 14.6 feet in circumference and 135 feet tall. A loblolly of this size would be special anywhere outside of the Congaree. I also measure a red maple near the trail at 10 feet in circumference and 103 feet tall, and a large cherrybark oak near the junction of Weston Lake Loop and Kingsnake Trail with a circumference of 17.1 feet and a height of 134 feet. Other notable trees I measure this morning include a sweetgum at 14.6 x 135 feet; a swamp chestnut oak at 14.1 x 120 feet; another chestnut oak at 16.8 x 132 feet; a former national co-champion overcup oak at 17.4 x 127 feet, and the largest tree of the day, a cherrybark oak at 19.0 x 121 feet. I am now using the latest gadget for measuring tree height, a laser range finder. It’s more accurate than a clinometer but unfortunately is difficult to use during the “leaf-on” season (which for Congaree is eight months) since a clear, unobstructed view of the base and top of the tree is needed to shoot the laser beam.

The robin population has thinned out considerably, and things have quieted down by late afternoon except for an occasional crow call, red-shouldered hawk cry, and even a barred owl hoot or two. It is not unusual to hear a few barred owls calling briefly in the late afternoon. Female owls are probably sitting on eggs by now, and the young should be leaving their nest cavity in late March or early April. They will be well fed this year as there is plenty of water in the swamp, which means lots crayfish, their favorite food.

Something else that will benefit from lots of late winter water is the frog and toad population (also owl food). Leopard frogs have been calling intermittently in the swales for most of the afternoon, and when I leave at 4:30, the chorus really starts to pick up. And what a sound they make – an amazing repertoire of grunts and snores!