Nighttime on the Boardwalk

May 13, 2014.  I’m here this evening for a night walk on the boardwalk under a full moon. It isn’t until almost two hours after the 7:20 PM moonrise that the shining white orb finally clears the trees, and comes into full view above Weston Lake. The last bit of twilight lingers over the lake until nearly 9:00, but the forest on either side is dark as pitch. A few barred owls call in the distance, but almost none are heard an hour later.

Surprisingly, no frogs are calling from the lake, and lightning bugs are scarce. The only noise to break the stillness is a few fish splashing on top of the water. With my headlight I see a small water snake swimming near the edge of the lake.

Mosquitoes are practically non-existent, and the mosquito meter at the visitor’s center is registering “2” (mild). The recent hot weather, wind, and lack of rain have dried the swamp out and reduced or eliminated shallow pools of prime mosquito-breeding habitat.

Walking back to the parking lot I spot movement along a shallow flat that was full of water only a few weeks ago. The movement stops and looks back at me with a strong eye shine of pale yellow. It’s an opossum, looking for all the world like a big gray rat. It soon forgets about me and resumes its nocturnal foraging.  It wanders aimlessly, guided by its nose to the ground with the long, rat-like tail held stiff and horizontal. Nearby I see more eye shine, this time a blazing neon blue belonging to a white-tailed deer. The deer is wary and moves off and out of view. Shortly I hear it giving several high-pitched snort-whistles, perhaps alerting other deer to my presence.

It is now 10:00 and the swamp is still and quiet. No lightning bugs are out, and the frogs and owls refuse to call. The ground floor, however, is sparkling with the reflections of many wolf spider eyes. The spiders appear to be noticeably larger than they were a month ago, so I assume the hunting has been good.

I pass by an old Hurricane Hugo “blowdown” that I refer to as the “vine jungle.” For whatever reason, this particular spot became infested with a dense assortment of some of the park’s thirty species of vines shortly after the hurricane. There are at least eight species present – catbriar, grape, poison ivy, Virginia creeper, crossvine, trumpet vine, supplejack, and Japanese honeysuckle. The blooms of the latter are filling the night air with sweet fragrance, and that, along with the moonlight and the forest ambience, is worthy of a poem, or at least a passage, in a southern gothic novel. Unfortunately the fragrance of Japanese honeysuckle does not make up for its aggressive, invasive behavior. In some parts of the Piedmont, for example, it is nearly impossible for young trees to establish themselves before being smothered by honeysuckle.

The sheer weight and density of all these various vines have made it a struggle for the young hardwood saplings to find sunlight. There are now, twenty-five years after Hugo, a few winners just starting to poke their heads up through the vine tangles – swamp chestnut oak, sweetgum, green ash, red maple, and others. Their deformed crowns and trunks will be permanent, thanks to the struggles with the vines, and some ecologist a hundred years from now, long after most of the vines have disappeared, will be wondering why.

I get back to the parking lot a little after 11 PM. The moon is now well up in the sky and the pinewoods around the visitor’s center are bathed in light and shadows.