May 21, 2014. It’s 8:20 PM at the high boardwalk this evening, three minutes before official sunset. The sky through the dense canopy is pale yellow but soon turns a light rose hue in the receding sunlight. A few “banjo frogs” – actually green frogs, Rana clamitans – are uttering their distinctive, one-syllable call in the muck swamp, a call that sounds just like someone plucking a banjo. Water levels have dropped sharply from four days ago and most of the muck swamp is dry again, although still quite muddy in places. The leopard frogs have quit calling.
I continue on beyond the low boardwalk, on the Weston Lake Loop Trail, a four-mile trail that parallels Cedar Creek for much of its length. It is 9:00 by now and quite dark in the swamp, but I’m wearing a headlight with a flashlight for backup. The trail, which is clearly visible during daylight, is not so much at night, except for the reflective markers that were put up years ago by forward-thinking rangers.
In the path I spot numerous small, greenish-white, urn-shaped flowers that belong to a persimmon tree. I hear a few falling now, hitting the leaves below like large drops of rain. I measured this large tree back in February, and it is nearly six feet in circumference and 107 feet tall.
My headlight, with only three triple A batteries, puts out a nice beam, thanks to modern technology, and it really picks up the eye shine of various critters some distance off the trail. I soon spot a pair of yellowish-white eyes looking my way; it’s something on a log, probably a raccoon, and quickly turns away and disappears.
I arrive at the old hunt club clearing by Cedar Creek and stand for a while in the blackness on the Cedar Creek bridge. The few owls that called briefly at twilight have shut up. The swamp is still and quiet, eerily so. Not a leaf is stirring. The night air is starting to cool a little. There are no mosquitoes, but my headlamp does attract a few moths and beetles.
Farther down the trail I see more eye shine, these belonging to a white-tailed deer. It nervously looks around, the yellow-whitish eyes disappearing each time it turns away from my beam. These eyes don’t have the blue reflection of the deer that I saw on May 17. Then right in the middle of the trail, close, I see two sets of eyes, belonging to raccoons. They quickly amble over towards the creek.
The ground floor of the swamp is covered with the eye shine of wolf spiders, and I see some nice large ones on the trunks of large hardwoods.
I spend a few minutes on the Cedar Creek bridge between Weston Lake Loop and Kingsnake-Oak Ridge Trails. Things are quiet here, too, except for the occasional splash of a fish. I see no lightning bugs.
I continue walking the Weston Lake Loop Trail. On the east leg that parallels Weston Lake Slough I spot a small sprig of Indian pink, Spigelia marilandica, one of my favorite wild flowers. I have a clump in my shade garden at home. Once established it needs no care, and is very reliable, putting out its distinctive red and yellow blooms for several weeks, year after year. It takes a special wildflower to survive recurring bottomland flooding, something only a handful of species can tolerate. Wildflower enthusiasts used to the rich bounty of spring blooms in the mountains will be disappointed with the scarcity of them at Congaree.
I see more eye shine off the trail, belonging mostly to raccoons, I presume, although there may be a possum or two mixed in. I hear briefly the high-pitched, lisping begging call of a young barred owl that has only been out of the nest now for about six weeks.
I finally get back to the high boardwalk at Weston Lake around midnight. While crossing the bridge at Tupelo Alley I see on a bridge support post the most impressive of all South Carolina eight-legged arachnids, the fishing spider, Dolomedes. It is frozen in my headlight only inches away, and the size of this magnificent creature almost takes your breath away. The body alone is nearly two inches long, and the legs have a four-inch spread. It makes the large wolf spiders I’ve seen tonight appear puny by comparison.
I remember years ago, while wading in Four Holes Swamp (what is now Audubon’s Francis Beidler Forest), seeing a crayfish “walking” vertically up the trunk of a tupelo tree. Since crayfish are not supposed to do this, I moved in for a closer inspection and discovered that it was a fishing spider hauling a dead crayfish up the tree, probably to a nearby cavity. I don’t think even such a formidable predator as Dolomedes could dispatch a crayfish, so I assume it was already dead when the spider found it. But the fact that a spider could move something as heavy as a crayfish straight up a tree trunk is impressive enough.
Now, almost at the end of my walk, I sit for a few minutes on a bench on the low boardwalk. With the headlamp cut off, the swamp is as dark as a cave. James Weldon Johnson had it right with his line in The Creation about darkness: “Blacker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp.” The darkness gets even darker in this cypress swamp when, from behind me, in the middle of the muck swamp, comes a series of shrieks and caterwauling that raises the hair on my neck. I think it must belong to one or more raccoons engaged in some sort of territorial or sexual dispute. The raccoons really like this area – I see their muddy footprints on the low boardwalk all the time. The hunting here should be good, and the old tupelos are full of cavities for nesting and denning that would make any raccoon proud. And I see on the way back to the parking lot several sets of eyes shining back at me from up in the tupelo trees that no doubt belong to raccoons.
The last pair of eyes I see for the night are thirty feet off the boardwalk and low to the ground. They look odd and, unlike coon eyes, are not moving. I then see a pair of large ears that go with the eyes and make out the form of a white-tailed deer fawn including the white spots. Like all well-behaved fawns, it remains motionless while trying to figure out what I am.