Find one, and you’ll find yourself closer to the heart of what a Carolina Bay can be: an island of wildness in a world largely tamed, a few acres of the primeval past passed over by progress.
~T. Edward Nickens
The North Carolina Botanical Garden has an exquisite collection of carnivorous plants, and they are always a favorite stop on my programs. This encouraged me to revisit these mysterious beauties in their natural habitats in southeastern North Carolina. We got a few tips from our friend, Jerry, on some of the best locations, and headed out last weekend in search of insect-eating plants. This is part one of that exploration – the part we explored by kayak.
Our home for the weekend was the campground at Jones Lake State Park, a beautiful park centered on one of the many Carolina Bays that dot the landscape in this part of the state.
These unique land forms attracted attention after the onset of aerial photography in the 1930’s, when thousands of ovals of varying size (there are an estimated 500,000), aligned in a northwest-southeast direction, could be seen dotting the Atlantic Coastal Plain from New Jersey to Georgia. The greatest concentration was in the Carolina’s. That fact, combined with their usual dominant vegetation of various bay trees, gave them their name. Few open water Carolina Bays remain, but even those that have been drained and developed, or have naturally filled with vegetation, are still visible as elliptical shapes in satellite images like the one above.
Many hypotheses have been proposed on the origin of Carolina Bays (including that they were formed by impacts of a meteor shower), but no single explanation is universally accepted. Many scientists now subscribe to the so-called oriented lake theory. It suggests that as the ocean retreated thousands of years ago, shallow pools of water remained throughout the Coastal Plain. Prevailing winds and resulting waves from the north elongated the ponds into their present elliptical shape. Whatever their origin, there is a large concentration of these bays in the Bladen Lakes area, and, fortunately, many are now preserved as state-managed lands.
Our first evening, we paddled our kayaks around the lake and enjoyed a spectacular sunset all to ourselves among the scattered cypress trees along the eastern shoreline.
The next morning we headed over to nearby Horseshoe Lake (aka Suggs Mill Pond). It is an aptly named shallow lake that is part of Suggs Mill Pond Game Lands, managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. Suggs Mill Pond is an old millpond formed by damming a large peat-filled bay.
It is spectacular this time of year as it contains thousands of yellow pitcher plants, Sarracenia flava. Their unusual flowers can be seen stretching across the wetlands along the lake edge.
The new growth leaves that will form the pitchers are also visible, with many already opening into the deadly traps that will consume an array of insect prey over the next growing season.
Sometimes the plants can serve as a place of “birth” instead of death. There were large numbers of dragonflies and damselflies on the wing and ample evidence of their amazing transformation from underwater predator to aerial acrobat scattered about on any upright surface sticking above the water – even on the flower of a pitcher plant.
One of the dominant plants in the lake was the beautiful white waterlily, Nymphaea odorata. The cleft leaves dot the surface with an array of colors, from green to red, and provide a place for all manner of creatures to sit upon the water.
The repeated gick-gick-gick calls of Southern cricket frogs could be heard everywhere we paddled, along with the occasional katunk-katunk-katunk of carpenter frogs.
Delicate damselflies glided along our path, pausing briefly in their pursuits of prey, or each other, to rest upon a lilypad. The lilypad forktail is aptly named, as it almost always rests on lilypads, and characteristically touches the tip of its abdomen to the leaf surface.
Adult males are brilliant blue with dark thoracic stripes. Adult females are lighter blue and immature females are a bright orange.
The elegant flowers of the white waterlilies always tempt me to lean just a bit too far over the side of my canoe or kayak in order to capture their pleasing low-angle reflection.
We spotted several species of birds on the lake, including a green heron, red-shouldered hawk, northern parula warblers, Eastern kingbirds, wood ducks, mallards, and several common grackles busy setting up nest sites. This striking fellow allowed me to drift close enough to his perch to catch his iridescent colors…
…and to see his “third eyelid”, the nictitating membrane.
In addition to the thousands of pitcher plants, another carnivorous plant species was incredibly abundant at this location – bladderwort, Utricularia sp.
These mostly aquatic plants (there is a terrestrial species that occurs in moist sandy soils) have delicate flowers perched on slender stalks above the water, but the bulk of their biomass is beneath the surface. Scattered among the feathery vegetative portions, they have minute bladder-shaped organs with trap doors that can suck in tiny invertebrates that come in contact with the trigger hairs. Some areas of the lake had so much of this plant that it was like paddling through pudding at times as the vegetation clung to your paddle with every stroke. But, Horseshoe Lake is, nevertheless, a truly magical place, especially by kayak or canoe. Part 2 of our quest for the carnivores of the plant kingdom in the next post.