May 4, 2014. Today being the first Saturday of May, Friends of Congaree Swamp is hosting its Annual Dawn Chorus Bird Walk at the park. The dawn chorus refers to that time of day, and year, when bird-singing activity reaches its peak. In South Carolina, this generally corresponds to a week on either side of May 1, when the number and species of singers are maximized due to the influx of migrants passing through on their way to nesting grounds farther north. At this time of year a South Carolina woodland will have a mix of resident birds, many of which have already started nesting, as well as those “interlopers” just passing through. And the interlopers often sing as if warming up for the establishment of their own nesting territories in the coming days and weeks. The result is a bird “chorus” of resident and non-resident bird song, all mixed together, and which peaks during the early morning hours about an hour before and after sunrise (which today is 06:33).
This means you have to rise early to enjoy it, although a lazy man can stay in bed and simply open his bedroom window if he’s got any sort of a yard with birds in it. There is a famous story involving bird song and Roger Tory Peterson, who apparently had to work hard at rising early. On a group field trip to Cobb Island, Virginia, many years ago, Peterson stayed in bed while the rest of his party went out birding at dawn. In two hours the group came back with forty-two species while Peterson, never having left his bed, had forty, all heard from his open window and based on his skills at bird song identification.
This morning two dozen hardy souls have risen early to be at the park by 5:30. Our trip leader is long-time birder Donna Slyce [sadly this gentle, kind lady passed away of cancer in 2016], who had to get up at 3:30 for the drive down from her home in Fairfield County. Donna has ably filled the shoes of the late Robin Carter, who contributed so much to the ornithology of the Congaree National Park, and who started the Dawn Chorus Walk here in 2004. One of the last bird walks Robin led before he passed away was the 2008 Congaree Dawn Chorus.
As we wait in the darkness, my attention is momentarily distracted from birds towards the various “creepie-crawlies” found in the lighted visitor center breezeway. There are several types of spiders and moths and other insects, some of which have been attracted by the lights, while others have been attracted by those attracted by the lights. One of the most interesting creepies is the very impressive and intimidating larvae of the giant leopard moth Ecpantheria scribonia. It is a large, nearly two-inch, all-black “wooly bear” caterpillar. Nearby, on the water fountain, is the adult moth, a very different and much more attractive animal, white with black spots. The ecological drama played out here every night in this breezeway is no doubt worthy of a master’s thesis or two.
Although our outing is referred to as a “walk,” we actually spend more time standing still and listening than walking. As soon as it is light enough to see we head down the high boardwalk, stopping and listening along the way. It doesn’t take long to accumulate a list, starting with pine and yellow-throated warblers singing from the pine woods at the edge of the bluff, followed by Northern parulas, summer tanagers, Acadian flycatchers, red-eyed vireos, white-eyed vireos, yellow-throated vireos, hooded warblers, Northern cardinals, and Carolina chickadees in the floodplain. We go a little ways on the low boardwalk, well into the muck swamp, and pick up the “sweet-sweet-sweet” song of the prothonotary warbler. Like so many birds this morning, we only hear, and do not see, the golden-clad beauty.
The dawn chorus is aptly named and only lasts a relatively short time. By 7:30 the woods are noticeably quieter than they were an hour ago. The lure of coffee and hot breakfast, catered by Friends of Congaree, is a powerful stimulus, and we all make a detour back to the picnic shelter at the parking lot to get re-caffinated and re-fueled.