January 28. It’s 9:00 AM, and I’m running late this overcast morning. The temperature is around 40º, but with the wind, feels more like 30°. Snow is supposed to be on the way by early afternoon. I’m walking the boardwalk loop, about two and a half miles. The swamp is drying out from recent floods, and the cane and underbrush are dirty brown from a light dusting of silt. The low boardwalk has a fine coating of sediment as well.
Things are quiet; I did not even hear any crows. A pair of barred owls sounds off briefly at 10:30. I watch a winter wren foraging in some leaves on the ground. As others have remarked, this little fluff ball of a bird reminds you more of a mouse than a bird. Another name for it might be “log wren” since in the Congaree it is almost invariably found around logs and large downed limbs and tip-up mounds. It is a ridiculous notion to think of this little rotund bird, only four inches long and weighing no more than two nickels, winging its way southward to spend the winter; so much for aerodynamics. It looks like it could barely even fly over a large log, much less get airborne for a long road trip of several hundred miles or more.
The little wren finally hits pay dirt in the leaf litter when it snags some sort of large invertebrate, and spends the next few seconds attacking it with its tiny little beak. It finally breaks it into several pieces, but still keeps pecking away at some of the larger morsels.
A robin is also working the leaf litter. Unlike the dainty wren, the robin is attacking the leaves with gusto, pulling up several at a time, and flinging them aside with vengeance; you can clearly see accumulations of mud on the side of the beak. The robin gobbles down several of something, but I can’t tell what except some sort of invertebrate.
The robin is not the only thrush that likes to hunt for food in the leaf litter. I watch its distant cousin, the hermit thrush, searching under the leaf litter with a far more dainty approach than the robin’s attack mode. The thrush quickly finds a large, black worm-like critter, perhaps a crane fly larvae, and is pecking vigorously to subdue it. In order to get a better ID I scare the thrush with the hopes that it will abandon the victim in time for me to rush over, get a picture, then leave quickly and let the thrush come back to its meal. However, I guess it worked too hard to let go, and it flies off lugging the black worm in its beak. I am happy for the thrush as I’m sure a meal of this size will pack lots of calories and protein for body maintenance in cold weather.
At the Weston Lake overlook I see a very skittish female hooded merganser alight on the lake and swim nervously nearby, but my presence has her spooked. A drake merganser is swimming along the far shoreline. Finally the hen flies off a short distance and settles onto a more secluded part of the lake, followed shortly by her beau. The drake hooded merganser is no slouch when it comes to good looks and fancy courtship behavior, but is overshadowed by his glamorous distant cousin, the wood duck. The merganser’s black-and-white plumage, erect crest, dark head, and yellow eyes all make for a striking appearance.