March 24, 2014. It’s a late Monday morning start, and I don’t get to the swamp until 10:30 AM. I missed the first official day of spring here, March 20, because the swamp has been flooded for much of the past week. This has been a wet month in the park, with twelve days of flooding where Cedar Creek has been a foot or more above its banks. Water levels, however, have been receding for a few days, and the gauge at Cedar Creek is 5.6 feet. The weather is beautifully coolish and clear with only a little wind from the northeast.
Even though spring is reluctant to get here this year, I am just barely on the high boardwalk when an old friend from five months ago announces his presence, the white-eyed vireo. It feels strange to hear this sound of spring in woods that are still mostly winter. I wonder where my friend spent the winter? On our coastal sea islands? Florida? The Caribbean (my choice)? A few hardy ones are usually seen on Congaree’s Christmas Bird Count. Wherever, I trust he enjoyed his winter vacation and am glad to have him back.
Farther down on the boardwalk are numerous pieces of elm twigs with the young seed heads attached. Then I notice one floating down in front of me. Looking up, I see a pair of gray squirrels in the top of an elm, cutting thin strips of twigs several inches long and feeding on mouthfuls of young, tender elms seeds. It is a wasteful process on the squirrel’s part as they soon drop their load of half-eaten seeds and start on another. There is, after all, no shortage of seeds on this tree. An examination of the fallen twigs reveals that only a few of the tender green seeds within the seed pod have been consumed. I guess after a long winter of eating acorns, tupelo seeds, and other hard mast, a change in diet is appreciated with some “spring greens.” In fact, squirrel authority Michael Steele calls spring a squirrel’s “salad days.”
The cypress catkins have expelled their pollen, turned brown and begun falling off the tree. A red maple here and there is leafed out way beyond most of its fellow maples.
I notice a chickadee flying across my view – it flies into a knothole about thirty feet up in a slender maple, and I know it’s working on a nest. For the next twenty minutes I watch the hard-working female make trip after trip (timed to be about every thirty to forty-five seconds), her little beak laden with green moss she is pulling off of the horizontal limb of a small cypress tree 100 feet away. Her mate is nearby, guarding his territory, and no doubt his partner, from any undue designs of other male chickadees.
A lot of yellow-rumped warblers are out and about, some “fly catching” in the warming, late morning air, others foraging on tree trunks and in short patches of cane, heavily browned by the repeated doses of silt from recent floods. It seems as if the yellow-rumps are gaudier here than in my suburban home, where I have dozens at a time feeding on peanut butter, homemade suet, and grape jelly. The gaudy birds would of course be adult males coming into their breeding plumage. Maybe the adult males prefer to spend the winter in the swamp and leave the suburbs to the younger birds?
Along the banks of Cedar Creek, flitting low among leafless hardwoods and shrubs, is another reminder of a new spring, the delicate blue-gray gnatcatcher. They will be building their nests on the horizontal limb of small hardwood branches in another week or so. Marvels of avian architecture, constructed of the finest, most delicate plant materials, and coated with bark lichens that makes the nest all but impossible to see, the gnatcatcher nest is so identical to the ruby-throated hummingbird’s, except for size, that it appears the two were taking lessons from the same master craftsman nest-building instructor.
White-eyed Vireo with nest by John Grego
Food for hungry squirrels: fresh elm seeds