July 30, 2014. This afternoon I’m back at Congaree East, this time the neck of land east of the Highway 601 causeway within the perimeter of Bates Old River known as “Little Buckhead.” Although small in size, only about 260 acres, Little Buckhead has some of the most interesting geology in the park. An aerial photograph quickly shows why. This small neck of land is covered with a series of old river channels lying in almost a perfect series of inverted U’s, stacked like chairs on top of one another. Like the annual growth rings of a tree, these old channels represent thousands of years of the Congaree River’s restless march across its floodplain. This process came to an abrupt halt during the big flood of 1852, when the Congaree took a short cut across this neck to form its present channel.
The series of ancient, abandoned river channels at Little Buckhead, with old riverbank levees between each, represents classic “ridge and swale” topography to the extreme. The ridges, or “scroll bars,” are ancient riverbanks while the swales are former river channels. At Little Buckhead the ridges are about five to eight feet above the swales and vary in width between twenty-five to more than two hundred feet. Some of the ridges have a mature forest of sweetgum, overcup oak, laurel oak, water hickory, bitternut hickory, and sugarberry. The ridges closest to Bates Old River appear slightly higher than those closer to 601 and have some nice cherrybark oak specimens, and one ten-foot-circumference beech without any carvings on it except for those of a long-dead yellow-bellied sapsucker. These ridges also have the best examples of native giant cane (Arundinaria gigantea), also known as river cane or bamboo, in the park. Most are eight to twelve feet high although a few are fifteen to eighteen feet with stem diameters of an inch. The bamboo thickets provide excellent nesting habitat for several bird species that like thick cover, the most famous being the Swainson’s warbler, but also hooded warblers and white-eyed vireos.
The swales, like the ridges, vary in width. Most hold water during the wet parts of the year, and the two closest to 601, Buttonbush Lake and Long Lake, hold water year-round except during extended droughts.
As I approach Buttonbush Lake from the north, I begin hearing squawks and croaks and see white movement through the foliage. A closer view reveals dozens and dozens of great egrets with a lesser number of white ibis, adults and immatures, great blue herons, and a few wood storks and anhingas, all taking advantage of the food bounty provided by the drying, shallow lake. It’s a stirring reminder of the abundance of swamp life but made almost surreal by the loud noises of logging trucks and vehicles on the highway only a few hundred feet away.
I continue walking south on the ridge between Buttonbush and Long Lakes, trying not to disturb the feeding herons and egrets. I cross a small low cut that connects the two lakes and see fresh drag marks where a gator recently came through. Unlike the main part of the park, Congaree East has a good number of gators, some of which attain large size.
I spot a strange looking duck on a log on the southern end of Long Lake. It turns out to be a drake wood duck, going through summer molt into his “eclipse” plumage. I can just make out the white chin strap and a slight touch of red around his eye that identifies his sex. During this time he loses his beautiful nuptial plumage and looks more like a drab hen without a crest. He is also flightless for about three weeks and of course very vulnerable, which is why he seeks solitude where there is lots of escape cover. By late summer he will once again be re-feathered to his normal, gaudy self.
I walk as far as the Bates Old River outlet where it crosses under the 601 causeway. Numerous hibiscus are blooming under a full sun in the marshy terrain. Most are pink but a few are white with red centers. Turning back, I walk along the edge of the old river. The ridges off to my left appear exactly like man-made dikes or dams. Some of them have large natural cuts at right angles that connect the two swales on either side of the ridge. I bushwhack a while through the thickets on one ridge. There are signs of an old jeep trail. Surprisingly I don’t see one of the most abundant understory trees in the Congaree, the pawpaw, growing on any of the ridges.
Towards the end of my walk I see the remains of a helium balloon on the ground. It’s not unusual to find one or two of these balloons on a swamp walkabout. The most unusual of these I found at Bates Fork not far from here in December 2007. I first saw it as something gleaming in the sunlight hanging on a bush five feet off the ground. When I got there, I saw a zip-lock bag attached to the balloon string with a note inside stating that it had been launched in September from Dandridge, Tennessee, near Knoxville, about 200 air miles away.