April 1, 2014. I roll out of the sleeping bag at 6:30 AM to a cool morning, about 45º, but the high humidity and dampness make it feel more like 40º. I can see my breath clearly in the headlamp beam. I’m sometimes a layer short, as this morning, when backpacking, since every ounce counts when you have to carry it on your back, and a coat or jacket is too heavy to bring. So I opt for several thin, light layers instead. I do use my sleeping bag for cover, and with a hot cup of joe, lean against my sweetgum back rest and wait for the swamp to wake up. The owl chorus picks up, as if in protest of the end of the night. At 6:50 the gobbler across the way in the cypress flat starts calling; another answers some distance to the south, followed faintly by a third. American crows are a big part of the background noise too. At 7:10 I hear two gunshots coming from the direction of the Kingville Hunt Club, more than a mile way. Today is the opening day of turkey season in Richland County. These park turkeys don’t realize how lucky they are.
At 7:30 the Kingville train comes through, a pattern that has been repeating itself for more than 170 years, when the first railroad spur in the state was built, passing through the Congaree Swamp on the line constructed in 1842 from Branchville to Columbia.
The weather warms quickly this morning, and I enjoy glimpses of camp bird life – titmice, cardinals, and chickadees. Ruby-crowned kinglets are foraging in the hollies and new hardwood growth, as are yellow-rumped warblers, some of which are fly-catching along the still waters of Ridge Gut. At 9:00 I see what looks like a ruby-crown foraging about fifteen feet off the ground in a holly full of clumps of dead leaves and vine tangles. It doesn’t move quite as fast as a kinglet, though, and a better look reveals an orange-crowned warbler. This species winters in the Congaree, not in any big numbers, but is probably overlooked as just another ruby-crowned kinglet. They are both similar in color and overall appearance and are found in the same habitats, but the orange-crown is a little larger and more sluggish in movement than the kinglet. Like a good number of birds, the orange-crown is stuck with a rather inappropriate common name, which probably came at the hands of an arm-chair ornithologist who never saw the live bird, since the orange crown itself is not usually visible. I’m always glad to identify this drab, nondescript bird since its distinguishing field mark is that it has none. I wish I knew more about its place in the Congaree, but it’s not an easy bird to study.
My main mission today is measuring and compiling data on tree regrowth and recovery in the old 1975 clearcut. It takes most of the day and I get back to camp at 4:30 in the afternoon. The temp feels close to 80º, and a few skeets are out, looking for a fresh blood meal. Based on the amount of water standing in the swamp, it promises to be a bad spring for the pesky little varmints.
Dusk comes and my gobbler across the way must have moved, as I don’t hear him this evening. The barred owls start calling and getting ready for the night shift. Just before turning in around 8:45, I start seeing lightning bugs, in good numbers, with many 40 to 50 feet up in the canopy. They look like stars up there.
photo: butterweed in bloom