December 31, 2014. I have been laid low for nearly ten days with a respiratory bug. During my absence the swamp was partially flooded on December 27 from heavy rains, with the river rising to nearly fourteen feet and Cedar Creek topping out at seven feet, putting part of the low boardwalk under water. The creek is now back to five feet. The flooding in the muck swamp created large rafts of water tupelo fruits now strewn about on the ground floor. Also during my absence, the abundant crops of swamp tupelo fruits have been greatly diminished, devoured by hungry squirrels and birds. Many of the larger water tupelo fruits have also disappeared from the trees, but I suspect more fell to the ground than were eaten.
I see a fair number of ripening maple flower buds in the muck swamp and a few red flowers have already opened. It seems almost ridiculous to see flowers in late December when winter has only just started.
By the low boardwalk some bright orange jelly fungi, growing on a fallen limb, have “sprouted” from the flooding and wet weather. This is the so-called “witches’ butter,” “golden jelly fungus,” or “yellow brain,” Tremella mesenterica. It’s shaped like a brain and has a jelly-like texture. The books say it is edible, but the texture is not very appealing.
Also opened up from all of the rain and looking vigorous is resurrection fern, Polypodium polypodioides. Normally you need binoculars to see this interesting canopy fern, but all of the big, fern-covered limbs downed from the February ice storm have made it possible to observe it at close hand.
By late morning I see more and more vultures taking advantage of clear skies and rising thermals. A flight of six turkey vultures is cutting loose circles and dips overhead, and a few black vultures are soaring nearby. I hear a loud swoosh of feathers high overhead and turn to see a pair of black vultures flying by, almost touching one another. Is this some kind of pre-courting behavior?
At mid-day bird activity has slowed down. I do flush some white-throated sparrows from a thicket by the Sims Trail and spot movement just beyond in a bare sapling six feet off the ground. It’s a blue-headed or solitary vireo, deliberately working over the trunk and limbs, searching for food. The lighting is ideal to show off the vireo’s attractive plumage – lots of bright yellow-olive showing on the flanks, set off by a gray, not blue, head, and those give-away white eye goggles. Getting such good looks makes you realize how colorful this bird really is, especially in these earth toned, bare-winter woods when so many other colorful birds have fled south for the winter.
Coming back to the parking lot on the high boardwalk, I see pools of iridescent rainbow colors – turquoise, purple, and yellow – lit up by the slanting sun on standing water in the muck swamp. This is a colorful swamp phenomenon that occurs every year in the winter months. I have heard several explanations for the cause, but the one that seems most plausible to me is the production of methane gas from decayed leaves and other organic matter that has settled on the bottom of shallow pools and flats.