April 26, 2014. The swamp has been flooded since April 19th, with Cedar Creek rising to 9.5 feet. I don’t recall ever seeing so much water in the swamp this late in spring, except for the great spring flood of 2003. I’m on a pre-dawn float trip down Cedar Creek, which has recovered to normal water levels. The early morning air is cool and invigorating. A few barred owls are calling, along with some leopard frogs. The turkeys of twenty days ago are nowhere to be heard, nor do I hear any all morning.
Past Dawson’s Lake I hear a strange noise ahead of the kayak, then flush a hen hooded merganser. She is highly agitated and lights back on the water, continuing to give loud, grunting “krrrrrrr” calls. Then I see the brood she is trying to protect, eight ducklings that haven’t been out of the nest cavity for long. They are darker than wood duck ducklings. She continues calling, and they make their way around me and swim back to mother merganser.
When South Carolina Bird Life was first published in 1949, the hooded merganser or “hairy head,” was considered a very rare nester in South Carolina, there being only two documented records up to then. Interestingly, the first goes all the way back to 1838, when the Reverend John Bachman, Audubon’s good friend and collaborator, found them nesting at Major Samuel Porcher’s Mexico Plantation on the lower Santee River. Bird distribution and abundance have changed a lot in the state since 1949, and today the hooded merganser is considered to be a regular, if “localized” breeder in South Carolina.
On the right bank of Cedar Creek a small tree overhanging the water has some newly-formed fruit at the end of the branches. I somehow had missed it blooming a few weeks earlier. The shape of the fruit is characteristic of the Viburnum or wild raisin family, and after looking at the leaves and consulting a field guide, I determine it to be Viburnum prunifolium, aka “blackhaw” or cherry-leaved viburnum, an uncommon shrub or small tree at Congaree.
There is another flowering tree growing along the banks of Cedar Creek, one with an unusual and diagnostic leaf shape, parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii. This is one of the few native haws easy to identify, based solely on its delicate, finely textured leaf pattern. Unlike the more common green hawthorn, parsley haw has honest-to-goodness real thorns, some more than an inch long.
Hooded Merganser pair photo courtesy W.C. Alexander at walexanderphoto.com