Sunrise in the Swamp

November 29, 2014.  The 6:00 AM temperature is hovering around freezing this black morning, but I’m sufficiently bundled up to stay warm. The half-moon has set and the pre-dawn sky is bright with stars. I’m sitting on a low boardwalk bench in the muck swamp, waiting for the swamp to start stirring. At 6:45 I hear the wake-up call of a squirrel in the canopy, followed by a few “caws” from a crow. A hermit thrush gives a few chuck call notes at 6:50. No doubt the brown thrashers would have gone first, but there are no thickets, or thrashers, in the muck swamp. I also notice that Jupiter is still shining and visible high in the southern sky while the rest of the sky light has disappeared.

The muck swamp has plenty of new water, courtesy of recent, heavy rainfall. Cedar Creek rose two feet and the river nearly six feet over a twenty-four hour period. At 7:05, nearly coinciding with official sunrise, I hear the first pileated woodpecker call of the morning, soon followed by a chorus of other woodpeckers – red-bellies, flickers, and sapsuckers. A golden-crowned kinglet, a tuft of feathers that could fit in a soup spoon, is hunting for food in the bare branches of a hardwood. How this little sprite of feathers that weighs only two tenths of an ounce survives cold weather is a miracle.

By now a few squirrels are stirring in the canopy, and one fellow is feeding on the olive-sized drupes of water tupelo. The muck swamp squirrels don’t have as much access to acorns as their bottomland hardwood brethren do, especially this year when the few laurel oaks in the muck swamp have produced few acorns. The bottomland squirrels are also able this year to take advantage of a good crop of swamp chestnut oak acorns, the nearest of which are some distance from the muck swamp. Do the muck squirrels travel a ways to find acorns? I’m not sure, but I do know that the muck swamp supports a pretty fair squirrel population, all of which look well fed.

Three flickers are taking advantage of the abundant swamp tupelo fruits as is a pileated woodpecker, hanging upside down like a giant chickadee in the canopy of another nearby tupelo. A fourth flicker is giving a rapid “jack hammer” drumming from the tip of a dead cypress limb. Later in the morning I see a flicker on higher ground in the swamp, acting like a flicker should and probing in the dirt, presumably for ants.

A pine warbler has moved into the muck swamp, away from his regular haunts in the pine trees, and is feeding on poison ivy berries. This particular warbler has a lot of yellow on it, indicating an adult male.

About the only fall color remaining in the muck swamp is coming from the golden-yellow leaves of ironwood. I also notice the cypress catkins are now green and swollen with ripening male flowers that will be spreading pollen in the wind in the next few weeks ahead.

ripening bald cypress catkins (male flowers).

By 7:45, a little more than thirty minutes after sunrise, the initial wake-up calls and greetings of the early risers have ended, and the swamp becomes as quiet as it was before dawn. I have turned east on the low boardwalk towards Weston Lake and am walking through a grove of laurel oaks that is uncharacteristically silent; this time last year the oaks were alive with the constant chattering and churring of red-headed woodpeckers, quarreling over an abundant acorn crop that is missing this year. I wonder where those red-heads have gone this winter?

I spend a few minutes at the Weston Lake overlook, enjoying a cold turkey sandwich with a hot cup of joe. There is not much activity at the lake, except a few fish breaking water and a squawking great blue heron at the back of the lake. I continue east along the Weston Lake Loop Trail, and after crossing bridge “D” at Big Tupelo Gut, turn north and east to walk along the south side of Cane Pond. Fresh pig sign is everywhere, but I see no oinkers today. I do stumble across an old liquor still I don’t remember seeing before. There are nine old, very rusted-out 55-gallon drums, two of which are welded together. Other remnants are moss-covered pieces of brick, a six-ounce Coke bottle, and a fragment of what looks like a Nehi soda. Perhaps the soft drink bottles help date the still, which probably goes back to the fifties. The “revenuers” must have missed this one, as none of the drums have any ax or puncture marks in them.

Remains of an old liquor still near Cane Pond.

There is another old still nearby, on the north side of Cane Pond. This area of Cedar Creek was quite obviously a hotbed of stilling activity sixty and seventy years ago, as this makes the fifth still I’m aware of in the general vicinity. And based on the number of stills I’ve found along both sides of the Wateree and Congaree, I’d say the Congaree National Park and the COWASEE Basin were producing a fair amount of moonshine during the twentieth century. It kind of begs the question as to why we don’t have a local moonshine festival, celebrating one of the state’s earliest and most colorful cottage industries.