February 15, 2014. As I approach the park this morning, I start seeing indications of ice damage from a storm that passed through the southern Midlands on Wednesday, February 12. We barely had a limb down in Columbia, but only ten miles south the damage is widespread and heavy. The park has only recently re-opened after getting power restored and clearing fallen pines along the entrance road; the air is heavy with the rich scent of pine vapors from all of the broken limbs and needles. The one saving grace amidst all the destruction is a jet black fox squirrel that crosses the road not far in front of me, then lingers along the shoulder for a few seconds. This is surely one of the most beautiful animals anywhere!
The ice damage is even worse after I get out into the floodplain. The trails are littered with fallen limbs of every size, and even entire trees are down. Especially hard hit are maples, elms, sugarberries, American hollies and laurel oaks. Hardest hit of all are two uncommon understory trees that carry their leaves all winter, sweet bay and red bay. The high boardwalk east of the Sims Trail has suffered heavy damage and is closed. The high boardwalk west of Sims Trail and the low boardwalk received some damage, but are mostly intact. It turns out to be the worst ice storm I’ve ever seen hit the park in its forty-year history.
With all of the downed limbs and trees now horizontal and at eye level, the storm does provide a unique vantage point for observing foraging ruby-crowned kinglets. I can now easily see bits of spider web gleaming in the morning sun on the ends of the bare branches, and soon observe a kinglet less than twelve feet away pluck a small brown spider from the end of a bare twig. It quickly finds another and another, then comes up with a larger, brown sider with a slender abdomen. So it seems that arboreal spiders are a primary winter source of protein for the delicate-appearing kinglets that allow them to survive, and even prosper, during a cold, Carolina winter.
Amid all the carnage I find some beauty with all the red maple blooms, and seeds, now at eye level from all of the fallen limbs and trees. February is red maple month at Congaree. The beautiful silvery-white trees are the first to start flowering, sometimes even in December. They have a long flowering period, beginning in the depths of winter and going through early spring.
Red maples are very confused about their sexuality. Some trees have nothing but female flowers while others are male only, a condition the botanists call dioeceous. And yet some trees are monoecious, having both male and female flowers on the same tree. It gets more interesting – some red maple flowers are perfect, or bisexual, having male and female parts on the same flower. And some trees have both bisexual and unisexual flowers, what the botanists call polygamous, on the same tree!
As I head back during the early afternoon, I hear an occasional gunshot crack of a falling limb, a delayed victim of the storm.