Spring is Here!

March 28, 2015.  Well, as noted for the entry at the start of this month, spring wasted no time arriving in the swamp, taking a quick four weeks to do so. Greens are the dominant color scheme now, not somber earth tones. Beech trees have finished unfurling their leaves and are covered with drooping, ripe male catkins, some of which have already discharged their pollen load and fallen to the ground. Pawpaws are in full bloom, and some poison ivy vines have leafed out. Red buckeyes are also in flower, and the green hawthorns are coated in a snow of blooms. This wonderful understory tree reaches its peak glory in full sun such as found along the banks of the Congaree River where the white blooms are so thick as to dazzle the eye. It also demands a return trip in winter to view the orange-red haws, which are nearly as striking as the blooms.

Pawpaw blooms.

Piedmont azaleas (probably not the best name for a native azalea growing in the swamp) are putting out their beautiful pastel pink flowers, set off by those incredibly long, delicate stamens. You have to work a little to find this uncommon jewel in the floodplain, with a paddle down Cedar Creek being the best bet. There is also a big clump found right by the entrance road, close to the visitor’s center. Once it finishes blooming, this striking spring beauty slips back into green obscurity until next spring.

The red maple flowers of February have already turned to ripened seeds and are fluttering from the tree on spinning, helicopter wings. The maple must set a record for the fastest developing reproduction package in the swamp, especially since many other tree species are only now just beginning the pollen phase of their sexual journeys, and their seeds won’t be ripe for another six months or more.

Other sights and sounds of spring in the swamp include the ubiquitous buzzing of Northern parulas, peeping of spring peepers, jug-o-rums of bullfrogs, turkey gobbles, zebra swallowtails, falcate orangetip butterflies, crossvine blooms in the canopy, purple violets, dragonflies patrolling still waters, and whirly-gig beetles in their bump car, free-for-alls on the edges of Cedar Creek. If you’re lucky enough to be here late in the evening or in the pre-dawn darkness, the lightning bug shows are getting warmed up for May and June.

A female falcate orangetip butterfly. Only the males have orange wingtips. Courtesy of John Grego.

I sit for a while against a red maple backrest, strategically located on the Weston Lake Loop Trail at the junction of Cedar Creek and Boggy Gut. I think if I am patient enough, I may actually see spring moving in the swamp, maybe in the form of a ghostly apparition (it has to be female), veiled in green, bringing in more green with each touch of a long wand.

Spring violets growing out of a grape vine.

My reverie is interrupted by movement and the appearance of little brown heads, popping up below me in the waters of Cedar Creek. The furry heads belong to four river otters, soon joined by a fifth, all going downstream (again, could this be the same group I’ve been seeing along a six-mile stretch of Cedar Creek since December?) Four of them haul out on a log secured in the water on the opposite edge of the creek and start grooming themselves with their tongues, and sometimes each other. Otters are high energy and don’t sit still for long. They decide to move to a nearby smaller log not as secure as the bigger log they’re leaving. It’s a balancing act at first, but when the fifth otter tries to get on the increasingly unstable log, it rolls over and all five go in and under. Four have had enough and continue downstream, while a fifth comes back to the log with a small fish in its mouth.

The final affirmation of spring is a quick boat ride on the Congaree later in the afternoon. The boat landing at the 601 bridge is full of parked cars, and the river is dotted with fishing boats of various descriptions. Other fishermen are getting into the act too, but these are wearing osprey feathers and are fishing from the skies. One has had luck and perches in a sycamore tree on the riverbank, its silvery meal clutched tightly in sharp talons.