April 4, 2014. I’m on a leisure stroll on the low boardwalk this morning. Almost as soon as I get on the boardwalk, I see a broad-winged hawk soaring overhead, its wide, white tail bands a good field mark. These little raptors are moving northward for the spring after spending the winter in South America. The first week in April is when I usually see them passing through the Midlands. Historically a common breeder in hardwood forests of the mountains and Upper Piedmont, the broad-wing now ranges southward to the Sandhills and Inner Coastal Plain, and it would not surprise me if they nest in the Congaree. If so, it will be interesting to see how they get along with the larger red-shouldered hawk.
A little farther down on the low boardwalk a red-shouldered hawk is zipping through the canopy with something in its beak, and I’m certain it is going to a nest. I am able to follow it and see it land next to another red-shoulder, presumably a female. The nest is nearby in the crotch of a tall cypress, only one hundred feet east of the low boardwalk. How these noisy raptors have managed to elude me these past two months with as much time as I’ve spent on the low boardwalk is difficult to comprehend. It turns out the Park Service is aware of this nest, which was active last year as well.
My main goal this morning is to look for newly-arrived prothonotary warblers, but they must be running late this year as I see none – and no hooded warblers either. However, three species of vireos are singing this morning – red-eyed, white-eyed, and yellow-throated. The most common songster today is the ubiquitous Northern parula; a scattering of yellow-throated warblers also joins the morning chorus. But by far the most common warbler in the swamp this morning is the ever-present yellow-rump.
Farther ahead, another broad-winged hawk is calling its two-note whistle. I soon find it, perched high on a horizontal cypress limb. It has a dead green anole that it picks up in its beak as if wanting to feed a mate, but then drops the lizard on the limb and starts calling again. Finally it flies off, without the lizard, which I think is very unusual.
At the Weston Lake overlook, an unmistakable outline of a serpent swimming across the Lake – it appears to be a red-bellied watersnake – provides my first “no-shoulders” of the Congaree this spring. Later in the morning I also see a slender, eighteen-inch black rat snake wrapped around some slender branches eight feet off the ground. I call them “black” from habit more than anything, but the coloration of this guy, as with most of his kind in the Congaree, is more gray or greenish-black. The larger specimens can get up to six feet long, and usually have four distinct, dark lines running down the back. These swamp rat snakes of the Midlands are what’s known as intergrades between the beautiful, glossy, jet-black rat snakes of the Piedmont and mountains and the bright, yellow rat snake (aka the “four-lined chicken snake”) of the outer coast and sea islands.
More life at the overlook consists of cooters sunning on a log on the far side of the lake; a paper wasp or two flying around the boardwalk; and a bumble bee enjoying the morning warmth.
red-shouldered hawk photo by John Grego