Lost Species

September 2, 2015.  It’s been two weeks since my last visit to the park, interrupted by a backpacking trip to the high Sierras and giant sequoias of California.

On the ride down this morning I see the roadsides gleaming with white sprays of autumn clematis, Clematis terniflora. This non-native has been a favorite of gardeners for years, and, like many exotics, behaved rather innocently until it reached some sort of “critical mass” after which it escaped from confinement and took to the wild. So far I have not seen it in the park, but it may only be a matter of time before it rears its beautiful, but aggressive, head and joins the long and increasing list of park problem plants.

The first noticeable change since my last visit is the large number of dead leaves on the boardwalk, leaves that have surrendered to the summer’s drought and heat. There are also many more pieces of green pine cones, chewed up by squirrels, littering the boardwalk. After leaving the pines behind, farther down on the low boardwalk, I see where the squirrels have also been chewing on green cypress cones that have fallen to the ground. Most of the cones, however, have only been partially chewed, unlike the pine cones which the squirrels seem to relish a good deal more.

Chewed pine cone leavings on the boardwalk handrail, courtesy of a hungry gray squirrel.

The lobelias have begun blooming since I was last here, both red (cardinal flower) and blue. They are some of my favorite fall wildflowers; I just wish there were more of them.

Blue lobelias brighten up the Congaree ground floor in September.

I don’t stay long today and make a loop that takes me back via the Sims Trail. About halfway down the dirt path between the Sims Trail and the visitor’s center there is a cluster of seven beech trees that are raining down fragments of green beechnuts (a closer inspections reveals that only three of the seven trees are actually producing quantities of nuts) from feeding gray squirrels. The bushy tails are in the very tops of the canopies and hard to see because of the thick foliage. I count at least two in the top of one tree, and a third in the one next to it. I am not sure how territorial squirrels are in the midst of such bounty – there seems to be plenty enough to go around for all.

Beech mast (nuts) was a favorite food of the passenger pigeon, now extinct for a hundred years. The “wild pigeon,” as it was called, was once considered the most abundant bird in the world. In the early 1800s ornithologist Alexander Wilson estimated a huge flock that passed overhead in Kentucky for more than five hours to be more than two billion birds. He also calculated that a flock of this size would require seventeen million bushels of mast per day for food!

Most pigeons bred north of South Carolina in enormous colonies that often extended for miles. The Congaree and other southern bottomland forests were part of the pigeon’s winter range, a time of year when they formed large roosts often numbering in the millions. Pigeons had to be nomadic in order to find adequate food to sustain so many birds, and their winter wanderings followed the mast trail. One can only imagine the overwhelming noise and commotion as thousands and thousands of pigeons descended upon Congaree’s oak and beech trees during those fall and winter years of good mast production. The birds were so numerous as to literally strip every oak and beech in an area of its nuts and acorns. This meant a lean year for woodpeckers, squirrels, deer, turkeys, bears, and other wildlife dependent upon acorns and beechnuts for winter survival; in fact, free-range hog farmers dreaded seeing the big flocks of pigeons coming, as they knew the birds would wipe out the mast crop relied upon by the pigs (but in turn, farmers often fed their pigs large numbers of trapped, shot, and netted pigeons).

John Lawson, the English explorer who passed near the Congaree on his famous journey through the Carolinas, mentioned going on a pigeon shoot in the vicinity of what is now Monroe, North Carolina, northeast of Charlotte, in late January, 1701.  He wrote of pigeon flocks in the millions that “obstruct the Light of the day” during their passage, a remarkable observation echoed more than a hundred years later by Alexander Wilson, John James Audubon, and others.

The demise of the passenger pigeon was surely a significant environmental event at Congaree, as was the extinction of ivory-billed woodpeckers and Carolina parakeets (which also relished beechnuts), and along with the disappearance of top-level predators such as mountain lions, wolves, and bears, all in the 1800s, made that century one of extreme ecological upheaval for the park, perhaps more so than the preceding ten centuries combined. Concurrent with the extinction of species was the enormous load of sediments washed in from a nineteenth-century Piedmont cleared of its soil-holding vegetation. These dramatic events over such a short time have changed the park in ways we can only barely appreciate.

I’d like to think the park I see around me today looks like the park of 300 years ago, but I realize that beneath outward appearances, the twenty-first century park is no doubt different from the nineteenth century park. And it makes me wonder, too, when the last of the passenger pigeons gorged on beech nuts (or acorns) here? Or Carolina parakeets made their final exit from a roosting hole in a hollow Congaree cypress? Or when the forest resounded with the last, loud kent call of an ivory-billed woodpecker? Or how long the last panther or wolf track persisted in a muddy backwater slough?

I sometimes feel as if I’ve been robbed of a priceless natural inheritance, as if visiting one of the world’s great art museums and finding the masterpieces missing. And what masterpieces these superlative, vanished birds and mammals were: the second largest woodpecker in the world; the only parrot native to North America; the most abundant bird in the world; the only large native cat in the East.

The great naturalist William Beebe summed it up best when he stated:

the beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived though its first material expression to be destroyed, a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.

I snap out of my lamentations and focus my attention, and binoculars, back to the upper canopy of one of the beech trees. I squint my eyes, and try to imagine lime-green, mourning dove-size Carolina parakeets flitting and chattering in small groups, going after the sweet beechnut seeds. I know from experience in the Tropics just how easily small, green parrots blend in with green foliage, how they seem to just disappear.  I look again – and actually see movement, but it proves to be a gray squirrel – after all, this is the 21st century.