August 19, 2014. As I pass Duffies Pond on the way to the swamp early this morning, I see the makings of a beautiful sunrise in the eastern sky. Unfortunately, it is not possible to enjoy sunrises or sunsets in the swamp. Scenic vistas are lacking for the most part, except for a view of the Congaree River and some of the oxbow lakes. Most people prefer the mountains for dramatic scenery and overlooks or a walk on the beach to appreciate broad horizons and a view of the sky. Few people think of the swamp as a vacation destination. Despite efforts to educate the public about the values of wetlands, swamps still have an image problem.
So what is it about this place that has such a hold on me? It surely must have something to do with its extraordinary richness and abundant life. An acre of bottomland hardwood forest is much more biologically diverse, and complex, than just about any other forest of comparable size in the temperate world. Someone once said that to be in a southern swamp forest on an early spring morning must be what it felt like to be at the dawn of creation. Abundant life and a sense of mystery are what the swamp is all about — you would have to go to a tropical rain forest to get the same feeling.
The boardwalk is starting to form an accumulation of newly fallen leaves – sugarberry, sweetgum, elm, water tupelo, and others – a sure sign that summer is closing down and fall is around the corner – a relative term since fall takes a long time getting to the swamp, and October is still more green than red or yellow.
At 8:20 AM the canopy is in full sunlight, but it’s still dark here at ground level twelve stories below. I pass a very handsome water hickory specimen at the corner of the low boardwalk where one section goes south and the other east towards Weston Lake. A lot of unripened hickory nuts have fallen from it recently. You can smell the bitterness of the nut where squirrels have gnawed on a few but didn’t get very far. Folks in the Mississippi Delta call this tree the bitter pecan to distinguish it from the similar-appearing sweet pecan, which grows naturally there in floodplains.
At 8:22 the first cicada calls with a few tentative notes; by 8:45 all of the rest of his buddies have joined in for the full morning chorus.
Weston Lake is serene and peaceful this morning, as usual. A few water tupelo leaves are scattered across the black surface, moving slowly by the westerly wind like little toy boats. One turtle is sunning on a small log on the far shore. A lone kingfisher flies by, and later a single immature white ibis glides down the lake.
I walk back on a section of the high boardwalk, still closed for repairs. I miss the high boardwalk. It gets you up off the ground to see things from a different perspective, including birds at eye level like the field guides show them rather than the usual view from below (no doubt a book is in the works called A Field Guide to Bird Bellies). I think the park could use a canopy tower like they have in so many tropical rainforest preserves. There is a lot going on in forest canopies that we don’t realize or appreciate, and besides, it would allow a view of the sunrise and sunset.
Although the boardwalk is closed to people, that doesn’t apply to raccoons, who are leaving scat deposits behind. One fresh scat is full of grape seeds and a single pawpaw seed. Another is full of nothing but pawpaw seeds. All of the pawpaw fruits I’ve seen so far are not quite ripe, so maybe the coons are over anxious and jumping the gun a little.
An interesting grape vine is hanging low over the boardwalk. It has clusters of small, purple fruits more the size of poke berry than your typical, marble-size grape. These are the so-called frost grapes, Vitex vulpine. The grapes appear ripe and juicy, but have a bitter smell which provides a clue to their taste. The books say the taste doesn’t improve until frost turns the bitterness into sugar, but I can’t imagine an attractive fruit, even if bitter, lasting for another two and a half months until first frost before some bird or critter consumes it.
Many of the leaves on the frost grape vine are skeletonized and worn-looking, the products of a relentless herbivory war with the insect world. Other leaves along the boardwalk are showing wear and tear as well. Turn about is fair play in the natural world, though, and within a short distance I find three mantids, fierce insect predators, that are no doubt dining on leaf-munching insects. Other carnivores, these sporting feathers, are getting into the act too. A ratty-looking Northern parula female, likely in molt, is gleaning insects and caterpillars from foliage close to the boardwalk. Nearby, its plumage immaculate, is a male hooded warbler that appears more interested in me than in finding food. What a jewel this handsome guy is!
I leave the boardwalk and walk through the attractive little swamp tupelo pond (now very dry) the boardwalk cuts through. It’s surprising how many young sweetgum saplings are growing in this pond, right next to buttressed tupelo trees. There is little sunlight getting to the gums, and I don’t know how they will survive being inundated if there is a lot of flooding next spring.
I cut across to the Sims Trail, passing by a small natural ridge that has two beech trees growing on it. Several small beech limbs, near the tips, are
covered with a white, powdery “snow.” The snow is actually hundreds of beech blight aphids with the tongue-twisting scientific name of Grylloprociphilus imbricator. These aphids are well known for consuming the sap of American beech. The secretions from the aphids, known as honey dew, fall to the ground at the base of the tree, which in turn attracts a sooty mold that turns the secretions black. Honey dew is quite familiar to many drivers in the Midlands area, who confuse it with tree sap, when it coats car windshields and surfaces in late summer and early autumn as it falls from aphids in pine trees overhanging drive ways.
Beech blight aphids have an interesting defensive mechanism if threatened – they all arise at once and start waving the white waxy filaments on their abdomens. I am not sure if this is to startle or entertain a potential predator, but it has given rise to another name for the bug, “boogie-woogie aphid.”
On the way back to the visitor’s center I see where a large patch of jewelweed has developed in a small opening in the muck swamp by the high boardwalk. Only a few orange blooms are evident, but the main show will be a few weeks from now, corresponding with the fall hummingbird migration.