January 29. Today is a rare opportunity to see snow in the swamp. The white stuff came in last night for several hours with about two-and-a-half to three inches of accumulation. Roads are drivable by noon, and I arrive at the park at 1:00 PM. There are six cars in the parking lot, and I suspect at least half are photographers. I start off on the low boardwalk and soon run into a photographer shooting a very cooperative female pileated woodpecker three feet off the ground, working on a large hardwood snag. The forest is very still and quiet – absolutely no wind – and the sky is 100% overcast, ideal picture-taking weather. The pileated’s wood knocking reverberates loudly in the swamp right now with the stillness and no leaves. At this time of year it sometimes sounds like wood cutters at work when the big woodpeckers are working over dead wood with their powerful bills. And it highlights how common this bird is at Congaree when, on a two-mile walk on the boardwalk, you might hear or see up to ten or twelve.
The ruby-throated kinglets are out and about foraging in the hollies and small hardwoods. One is keying in on clumps of dead leaves in an ironwood. It’s interesting watching them move over a tree with their characteristic hover flights as they work the tips of the branches. The bird searching the dried leaves is having success – I can see it working its beak on some type of tiny insect or spider. It finds food three times over a brief minute or so of observation. For me, it’s a telling point that in the depths of a southern winter with snow on the ground, the Congaree is still full of insects and other arthropods and invertebrate food – in the trees and on the ground as the robins and hermit thrushes have demonstrated.
The Congaree forest in winter is stark and exposed, a far different one than in summer when it stays dark all day under the dense canopy. The forest now is naked and bare, letting the world in on its secrets. It’s neat to be able to see the bare trees with all their knot holes, cracks, crevices and other blemishes. This is the time of year when the bald-faced hornet’s football-shaped nests are exposed, and if you’re lucky, a polyphemus moth cocoon. It seems odd, then, that except for an occasional squirrel leaf nest, you rarely see any other nests in the bare tree canopy. Some may have fallen apart by now, but I suspect there are few to start with. The public expects to find birds’ nests in trees, and Joyce Kilmer did too in his famous tree poem: “…….A tree that may in summer wear a nest of robins in her hair……….”
Well, robins don’t nest in the swamp, but still, where are the bird nests? Maybe it gets too windy in the forest canopy for a bird to nest, unless it’s close to the trunk, or maybe they are too accessible for squirrels, a well-known predator of bird eggs and young. I think actually that many Congaree birds are nesting within fifteen to twenty feet of the ground in cane, holly, vine tangles and understory trees. Of course there are those birds that eschew making a conventional nest and seek out tree hollows or carve out their own nesting cavity. Of the forty-six species of birds that nest in the Congaree floodplain, thirteen, or 28%, use cavities and hollow trees.
I get back to my vehicle at 4:00 PM; there are now seven vehicles in the parking lot, including one that belongs to a backpacker I ran into on the boardwalk yesterday as I was leaving. He was heading for the River Trail with plans to camp on the sandbar and enjoy the snow. It got down to the upper twenties last night, and tonight is supposed to be ten degrees colder. I didn’t realize then he would be staying two nights; I get cold thinking about it.