April 18, 2014, continued. Earlier in the morning I enjoyed watching from the low boardwalk a pair of pileated woodpeckers working over very dead logs and woody debris on the ground. Sometimes they would leave the logs and hop over to a nearby tree trunk and search for food within the cracks and crevices of the tree buttress, all the while never being more than a foot or two off the ground. I watched them for more than ten minutes, and they remained at ground level the entire time. The male was comical as he clambered over one big log hanging sideways and upside down, peering into cracks and crannies for food. It’s no wonder an old name for these birds is wood hen, for they appear as nothing if not black chickens with red-crested heads, hunting for food on the swamp floor. And it’s no surprise that I often flush this big woodpecker from the ground. It makes sense that something would exploit the huge number of logs, limbs, and other down-and-dead woody debris in Congaree. I’ve never seen another hardwood forest in North America that has this much wood in varying stages of decay on the ground. You would think that other woodpeckers would follow suit, but it’s rare to find other species this close to the ground (of course, flickers feed a lot on the ground, but they are after ants and not dead wood). It may be worth noting here that the pileated’s flexible feeding sites, extending from live trees with a rotten limb tall to standing snags to logs and limbs on the ground, may account for its survival and prosperity in modern times. Another large woodpecker, the famous ivory-bill, was rarely seen feeding at ground level, and is all but extinct.
The most notable changes in the swamp these past two weeks is the leaf out – a wall of greenery has descended like a veil that covers everything in obscurity. The starkness and clarity of the winter woods have been replaced by a dimness of green shadows and opaqueness that blots out the noonday sun. Until recently you could see a large tree trunk 200 feet or more away, but now it’s possible to walk within fifty feet of a champion sweetgum and never see it.
The green veil will only get thicker as spring progresses. Pawpaw leaves are only about half size now as are a good number of other hardwoods. And amazingly, the water hickories and persimmons, the very last of the hardwoods to leaf out, are still bare. The green ashes have just barely opened up, but a few stragglers have not even done that.
The cross vines are in full bloom. An upside to the February ice storm is that it carried the vines that came down with the fallen limbs, sometimes to ground level, allowing an up-close view of beautiful festoons of maroon-red, tubular cross vine flowers with yellow throats.
There is also a certain stillness and quietness about the swamp, and it takes a moment to realize why – the robins have finally left. The red-breasts started showing up in Columbia lawns more than six weeks ago, fattening up on earthworms and other invertebrate foods in preparation for a long flight back to their northern breeding grounds that may be as far as Canada and New England. “Our” robins, however, have already starting nesting in local towns and suburbs. A few always linger in the swamp until mid-April, and we won’t see them here again for almost seven months, until early November.
pileated woodpecker photo by John Grego