My favourite places on earth are the wild waterways where the forest opens its arms and a silver curve of river folds the traveller into its embrace.
~ Rory MacLean
This is the second post on our recent canoe/camping trip in eastern North Carolina (see previous post here). We departed the Cypress Cathedral camping platform on Wednesday and headed downstream on Broad Creek to the Roanoke River. Ospreys, eagles, and the sometimes surprisingly close splashes of Longnose Gar were our travel companions until we reached the wide river and sought out the Bear Run camping platform for a lunch break (we knew no one had it registered so we didn’t mind stopping at the dock to stretch our legs).
-View of the Roanoke River from the Bear Run platform dock (click photos to enlarge)
We then headed across the river to a shortcut to the Cashie River known as the Thoroughfare. Emerging into the lower Cashie, I was surprised at how wide this black water river is at that point. With virtually no current, it is an easy paddle upstream. The Cashie is about 20 miles in length and is one of the few rivers in NC to be contained in a singe county (Bertie).
One of the best-known features of life along the Cashie is the inland ferry at Sans Souci. In operation since the 1800’s, this small ferry crosses the Cashie and connects some rural roads that save drivers an estimated 20 miles. It is operated by a cable that runs across the river. We spoke to the ferry captain and he said there had been 5 cars over that morning (which is about the norm apparently). When a car wants to cross from the other side, the driver must honk their horn and the ferry will cross to get them. It has been run by the state’s Dept. of Transportation since the 1930’s and is one of three cable ferries still in operation in the state.
-The Sans Souci Ferry
Upstream of Sans Souci, the river begins to narrow and the arms of the swamp reach out to embrace paddlers in its spring green and black waters. We reached our final camping platform, Lost Boat, and set up camp. It was another quiet evening with lots of bird sounds and a Raccoon eyeing us as it climbed a tree across the creek.
-Swamp Queen rustling up some dinner at Lost Boat (a dehydrated Asian-flavored noodle dish that she came up with on a previous outing and that continues to be a favorite)
The Cashie impressed us with the relative lack of signs of human activity and the large number of immense Bald Cypress trees on its banks.
-One of many huge cypress trees that dominate the shoreline of the beautiful Cashie River. I love the way converting to black and white highlights the distinctive shapes of these ancient trees
-After our recent trip paddling the Black River with its very old cypress trees, I wonder about the age of some of these giants along the Cashie
-Many of the trunks and branches of the cypress trees are festooned with Resurrection Ferns. This fern looks brown and shriveled in dry weather, and then “resurrects” into green foliage for a few days when it rains
-One of the many eagles we saw along our journey. This not-yet-mature Bald Eagle (it takes about 5 years to acquire the full white head and tail feathers) was uncharacteristically patient with us and allowed us to paddle past fairly close without flying.
-Another eagle with a fully white head and tail takes flight as we approach
-I was somewhat surprised that we saw more Osprey, including this impressive nest, on the Cashie portion of our trip
An immature eagle and an adult were chasing each other ahead of us at one point along the river. It turns out they were not far from an Osprey nest. An Osprey took offense and started to chase the eagles. The adult flew off but the juvenile continued to circle above the river, much to the displeasure of the Osprey. It repeatedly dive-bombed the eagle. It was fascinating to watch this interaction and the acrobatic abilities of both birds, especially the eagle, as it barrel-rolled to face the incoming threat. These photos were taken at quite a distance and heavily cropped.
-Both birds have talons out as the Osprey closes in on the eagle
-An impressive roll-over defensive move, but the eagle finally had enough and flew off
-Crossvine was in bloom all along the river
-Prothonotary Warblers were also abundant on the Cashie
-Azaleas (maybe Pinxter?) in bloom along the upper reaches of the Cashie
-The four Cashie River Treehouses in Windsor offer a unique overnight for people wanting to experience the beauty of the Cashie River
We managed to get out the day before the big storm blew through and enjoyed incredible weather on our only slightly shortened journey of 5 days on two magical rivers. We experienced quiet beauty, amazing wildlife (birds, birds, birds), majestic trees, blue skies, and wonderful camping platforms. I can’t say enough about this place. The Swamp Queen and I will be back for sure.
The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten.
~Sigurd F. Olson
The Swamp Queen (aka Melissa) did it again…planned a canoe/camping adventure to our favorite swamp destination, the Roanoke River. So, last week, we headed east to spend a planned 6 days paddling over 50 miles on the Roanoke and Cashie (pronounced cash-EYE) Rivers and staying at a number of the wonderful platforms managed by the Roanoke River Partners (RRP) organization. We planned to include two platforms that neither of us had camped on – Conine and Lost Boat (there’s no need to worry about that name, right?). The timing of our trip was perfect as April is our favorite month to paddle this swamp – the bright green colors of spring and the arrival of migratory birds are a huge plus (as is the general lack of mosquitoes this early in the season). And it coincided with my article in the April issue of Walter Magazine highlighting the natural wonders of paddling this area. Check it out for more information on this region.
Weather conditions changed during our trip so we made some alterations in our plans and took out a day early before the heavy rains hit. Below is a rough map of our paddle from Williamston to Windsor. With the changes in platform destinations (we called from the river and changed our reservations as you need to reserve platforms in advance), we ended up paddling a little over 46 miles in four and a half days and stayed on four platforms – Conine, Barred Owl Roost, Cypress Cathedral, and Lost Boat.
-A rough map showing our route from Williamston to Windsor (just off the map at the top) with the names of the platforms where we camped and showing the Thoroughfare connector between the Roanoke River (in red) and the Cashie (in blue)
A satellite view shows a huge swath of green along the river corridors between Wiliamston and Windsor. Mush of this land is protected by the Nature Conservancy, the Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge, and various hunt clubs. But some of our trip took us by through shorelines that are not protected and have been recently clear-cut, leaving only the required 30 foot buffer along the waterway. I just don’t think a 30 foot buffer is adequate to protect the integrity and beauty of these amazing habitats. Thank goodness various groups have managed to protect some large sections of the swamp forests.
-A Google Earth view of the rivers we paddled showing the vast expanse of bottomland forest
This post will cover some of the highlights of the Roanoke River portion of our trip. Next time, I’ll finish the trip up the Cashie to Windsor. I want to thank Travis, a teacher that Melissa knows through some of the museum workshops, for helping us shuttle our vehicle between our put in and take out points.
-We set off from Williamston with a fully loaded canoe
-Water levels were as low as we have seen them and when we arrived at the first camping platform, it was a big distance from the river to the newly renovated dock. The steep muddy bank made for a challenging unloading experience. After hearing of our experience, RRP plans to add a lower dock section.
-RRP is renovating many of the camping platforms. This is the refurbished Conine platform – it is really beautiful and one of the few with a screened structure. The walls on the right are the toilet enclosure (but you must bring your own private latrine for these outings – more on that later)
-The first day we were serenaded by countless warblers that had recently arrived from their wintering grounds. This Northern Parula stopped by at sunset for a buzzy song while we sat on the dock (image converted to black and white since it was in total shade)
-View across the Roanoke River from the Conine platform dock at sunset
With the low water there was relatively little current so we decided to paddle upstream on the river the next morning and then travel downstream on the waterway known as Devil’s Gut to our next campsite, Barred Owl Roost. We have paddled the lower section of the “Gut” many times over the years, but never the upper half, so this was a treat. It did not disappoint…
-Turning into the upstream portion of Devil’s Gut from the Roanoke River (note the clear-cut behind the small buffer on the right shoreline – this did not go too far down the “Gut”)
-One of our favorite camping platforms, Barred Owl Roost, is set in a gorgeous swamp.
-Bathroom with a view. This is our portable latrine – a 5-gallon bucket, a pool noodle cut for a seat (quite comfy I might add), and some toilet kit waste bags (each kit contains 1 waste bag; Poo Powder® gelling/deodorizing agent; a zip-close storage bag; toilet paper; and a hand wipe). We bring our own toilet paper and some cleaning wipes. We stash the sealed waste bags in a trash bag and dispose of it when we reach land (these kits are approved for landfill disposal)…now you know.
-There were a lot of Great Blue Herons fishing in the swamp waters and hanging out on our platform walkway
-A panoramic view from the Barred Owl Roost platform
The next morning we canoed to the juncture with the Roanoke River. Normally, we would have paddled downriver to Broad Creek and then upstream to our next site. But, with the low water and slow current, we decided to go upstream on the Roanoke for a few miles and hit the shortcut known simply as “The Cut”. We’ve paddled The Cut many times when doing a loop trip (requiring no shuttle) but always upstream (and that can be tough when the water is high). This was going to cut off a few miles of paddling and we had the plus of being in the more intimate setting of a narrow swamp waterway rather than the wide open river. That usually means more wildlife…
-Looking back upstream from our boat in the Roanoke to where it is joined by Devil’s Gut
-One of many Brown Water Snakes we saw perched up in tree limbs along the waterways
-A lunch stop along the river yields a twisted Supplejack Vine growing up into a Bald Cypress
-There was a lot of Beaver sign along The Cut and we even caught this large Beaver out cutting some saplings during the day (it quickly disappeared to the safety of the water as we passed). A few places had large scent mounds (piles of mud and debris along the shore that Beavers mark with scent to let others know this is their territory). One stretch had 17 scent mounds all in a row, the most we have ever seen in one location.
-We came across a female Wood Duck with about a dozen young. The low water made for a high bank and she was herding her ducklings downstream ahead of us. As we got near, she climbed the bank (only one duckling managed to go with her) and squawked and flopped around on the ground trying to distract us from her young. Meanwhile, the little ones were trying to get ahead of us along the shore. Melissa managed a great photo of a couple as we passed. We paddled away quickly and the ducklings turned back upstream to join their mom. (photo by Melissa Dowland)
-The duckies have more to worry about than a couple of people paddling by in a canoe. We saw this huge Snapping Turtle not far from the ducks.
The Cut joins Broad Creek a couple of miles upstream from where that aptly named creek flows into the Roanoke River. We headed upstream along Broad Creek to our next night’s destination, the idyllic Cypress Cathedral platform.
-Another favorite camping spot along the Roanoke – Cypress Cathedral, with a renovated walkway
-One of the most common birds we heard on our trip was the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. We heard them everywhere and found a pair building a hummingbird-style nest above the walkway at this platform
All along our journey, we saw and heard an amazing number and variety of birds. These bottomland forests have got to be one of the primary refuges for migrating songbirds (and NC resident birds as well) along the East Coast. But the one we always delight in seeing is the one Melissa calls “the friendliest warbler”, the Prothonotary. Along the way, and at a couple of the platforms, they shared their persistent peet, tsweet, tsweet, tsweet song and bright yellow plumage. Their name comes from this yellow color which resembles the bright yellow robes of papal clerks (prothonotaries) in the Roman Catholic church. In addition to being the “friendliest” (they readily hang out and forage near us) they also hold the distinction of being the only eastern wood-warbler that nests in tree cavities. And Cornell’s online compendium of all things birdy, Birds of the World, shares another little known fact. The Prothonotary Warbler played a partial role in the conviction of alleged spy Alger Hiss and the eventual political rise of Richard Nixon. An ex-communist, Whittaker Chambers, accused Hiss of espionage. Chambers claimed to know a lot about Hiss as they were friends, even though Hiss denied ever knowing Chambers. To verify his claims, Chambers said that Hiss was an avid bird-watcher and he had been very excited when they had seen a Prothonotary Warbler on an outing along the Potomac River. When asked about it later, Hiss admitted he had seen the warbler. Richard Nixon, then a freshman congressman, was a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating the Hiss allegations, and played a prominent role in proving that the two men knew each other and that Hiss had perjured himself. The lesson here is be careful who you tell your bird sightings to…but I feel I can trust you all.
Here are a few of the many Prothonotary portraits captured on our journey:
-Male Prothonotary letting the swamp know he is there and ready for spring
-Prothonotary investigating a tree cavity for a possible nest site
-Peeking out of the tree hole
The next post will cover the final two days of our trip from Cypress Cathedral through the Thoroughfare and up the Cashie River.
The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten.
~Sigurd F. Olson
Two weeks ago, we had a chance to paddle the Black River with our friend, Jerry, and a great group of other folks he had gathered for a planning trip for one of his upcoming museum public programs. We jumped at the chance, having been in the past and knowing what a great swamp experience the Black River has to offer. We decided to spend the night before at Jones Lake State Park to get us closer to our launch site early the next morning.
I was a bit surprised, and frankly, disappointed, when we pulled into the campground at Jones Lake. They have cleared out the campground and areas surrounding each site of all underbrush and made large drive-ins to each site that will accommodate RVs. I don’t mind the new driveways, but the clearing of all the low vegetation just makes it a wide-open campground with no privacy screening, especially on the outer loop. Luckily, there were few campers and we isolated ourselves in the far corner. Maybe this is helpful for managing the periodic prescribed burns at the park, but I miss a little privacy at our site. But, to be fair, one great addition to the campground is a new bathhouse – much needed and appreciated.
After setting up camp, we hiked the 4-mile Bay Trail that circles Jones Lake. It is an interesting hike in that it passes through some beautiful Longleaf Pine forest and then puts you into a boggy habitat dominated by Atlantic White Cedar and Loblolly Bay.
– Longleaf Pine (just past the grass stage) along the Bay Trail at Jones Lake State Park (click photos to enlarge)
-Wild Turkey track along the sandy ridge portion of the Bay Trail. We also saw fox tracks and Fox Squirrel tracks, but none of the track-makers.
-The grooved trunk of Loblolly Bay (left) and the more finely patterned trunk of a nice Atlantic White Cedar (right) along the Bay Trail
-The tannin-colored waters of Jone Lake
The boggy portion of the Bay Trail is beautiful, with many large Atlantic White Cedars, though it looks like the forest has sustained a great deal of wind damage in recent years as evidenced by the mish-mash of downed trees all along the trail. Our wildlife highlights were seeing our first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher of the year and watching some Cedar Waxwings feed on berries.
-A nice flock of Cedar Waxwings greeted us along the shoreline
– Cedar Waxwing stretching for a Smilax berry (photo by Melissa Dowland)
The next morning we were off to Henry’s Landing on the Black River. After transporting some vehicles to our take-out point downriver, our group launched a flotilla of boats (mainly kayaks) onto the dark waters and headed downstream in what looked like a promising day of sunshine (as was predicted).
-Heading downriver from Henry’s Landing
Before long, the sun disappeared and gray skies and chilly temperatures dominated the day. But, no matter, we had good company and plenty of interesting sights along the way.
-A tree trunk hammered by Pileated Woodpeckers
My photos on the river were all taken with an iPhone and I converted the cypress trees and scenes to black and white as I think it pays tribute to the stately nature of this forest.
-Gnarly trunk of a Bald Cypress along the Black River
The first couple of miles are on the main channel of the river, but you eventually get to a point where you head into the swamp known as Three Sisters. This is the home of the true stars of the Black River, the ancient Bald Cypress trees.
-Another ancient cypress in the swamp
Studies have shown there are many trees in this swamp over one thousand years old. And a few years ago, Dr. David Stahle, a scientist studying tree rings and climate change, again visited the swamp looking for trees older than those he had cored back in the 1980’s. Back then, the oldest was believed to have lived over 1600 years. On his last trip, he was guided into the Three Sisters area, and saw trees he believed were much older. A core from one was analyzed back in his lab and dated that tree at 2,624 years old! That makes that cypress the fifth oldest known tree in the world.
-Astounding knees and trees as we paddle through the swamp
Paddling amongst these ancients is humbling…what have they seen? What storms have they survived? Jerry reminded us they they probably experienced huge flocks of Carolina Parakeets feeding on their cones before those beautiful birds went extinct. Perhaps Passenger Pigeons one darkened the skies over the trees when millions of them roamed the East before disappearing forever. And what of the stories of other humans that may have paddled these tea-colored waters in the past couple of thousand years?
I have paddled and walked in many swamps in my time, but the cypress swamp along the Black River is different and magical. And the abundance, size, and diversity of shapes of the cypress knees are unlike anything I have seen elsewhere.
-Jerry called scenes like this a “knee-scape’…an appropriate name I think
The knowledge that you are paddling through one of the oldest forests on Earth makes it even more special, and really makes me want to go back very soon (and hope I can find my way through the maze of knees and trees).
When I worked as a District Naturalist for the state park system oh-so-many years ago, one of my favorite parks was Merchants Millpond State Park in northeastern North Carolina. It is a true natural gem of our state and remains one of my favorite spots to spend some time in the solitude of a beautiful swamp. The millpond was created in 1811 by damming Bennetts Creek to construct a grist mill, sawmill, and other commercial enterprises that gave rise to the name Merchants Millpond. Today, the park encompasses over 3200 acres of cypress-tupelo swamp and beech-mixed hardwood uplands. Melissa has a workshop on the millpond in a few weeks, so she wanted to do a scouting trip and introduce some of her co-leaders to the place. She decided to take a day off for exploring before her staff arrived, so we packed up the truck and threw our kayaks on top for a mid-week adventure in this perfect springtime weather.
I contacted our friends, Floyd and Signa, that live just outside the park, to see if they wanted to paddle with us on Wednesday. They are some of the best naturalists I know and certainly know the millpond better than anyone (Floyd was a ranger there for many years). They offered to take us up Lassiter Swamp to “the big trees”, a scattered group of Bald Cypress trees that are hundreds of years old and tower above the rest of the swamp forest – heck yeah!
The 760-acre millpond is dominated by two tree species – Bald Cypress and Tupelo Gum. Stumps of ancient cypress cut in the 1800’s form islands of vegetation with Swamp Rose, Wax Myrtle and a host of other plant species. Spanish Moss is draped off most of the tree branches and Yellow Cow Lily (Spatterdock) is just starting to poke its leaves out of the water surface.
Paddle to the far end and you enter an entirely different world – Lassiter Swamp. The channel narrows and winds through a maze of gnarled Tupelo Gum that have been transformed into gargoyle-like shapes by Mistletoe (a semi-parasitic plant that causes the gum trees to create odd growths as they forms “scar tissue” in reaction to the Mistletoe’s intrusion). So many trees have been disfigured by the Mistletoe that the entrance to the swamp is known as “the enchanted forest” by locals.
I have always loved Lassiter Swamp for its solitude and abundance of wildlife. And this trip provided both. As we paddled around one bend, Melissa said, There’s a Raccoon in that tree. I looked, but didn’t see it at first. It was curled up inside a giant gnarl on a gum tree. We were all impressed she spotted it.
After a few hours of paddling, we started seeing some of the really big Bald Cypress scattered about the upper end of Lassiter Swamp. One of the big ones I remembered climbing inside years ago (9 people could stand inside the hollow base of the giant) had fallen victim to Hurricane Isabelle and lay covered in moss along the creek bank. But the matriarch of the swamp is still standing. This cypress was aged by the team that designated those well-known cypress along the Black River as the oldest known trees in the Eastern United States (one has been dated to be at least 2,624 years old). This tree is much larger than those on the Black River due to the nutrient-rich waters of this swamp and is estimated to be at least 1000 years old. It is humbling to stand next to one of these giants.
As we paddled back to the launch area, Melissa spotted a large Alligator basking in the late day sun. Floyd told us about the first confirmed Alligator sighting on the millpond back in 1996. Rumors of gators in the park had been around a couple of years, but, in 1996, a fisherman told Floyd he had seen one. In fact, he had caught it while fishing and had it in his boat (he didn’t know what to do with it and had brought it to shore hoping a ranger could help). After unhooking the ~3-foot gator, keeping it in an unused dog pen with a kiddie pool, and contacting wildlife officials, the decision was made to release it back into the millpond. There are now a few Alligators that call the millpond home, including one larger than the ~7-footer we observed.
A highlight of the trip was one that did not occur on the millpond but on the uplands. Our friends shared the location of an Eastern Screech Owl roosting in a hollow tree, something I have been hoping to find for several years now (I have seen them, but only when I didn’t have a camera in hand). The owl did not disappoint. It is a gray phase (they can also be reddish in color) and has a perfect perch in the hollow of a tree. We checked the tree each time we drove in and out of the campground and it has a habit of disappearing down into the hollow and then reappearing so you never know when it will be visible. What a treat!
Another wonderful wildlife encounter was the Bald Eagle nest in a tall pine out on the millpond. The eagle is easily seen with binoculars and must be sitting on eggs still as she didn’t move much on either day we paddled.
On my last trip by the nest tree, the male eagle flew in and perched nearby, giving me the side eye from behind a tree trunk. I paddled on not wanting to disturb them.
Thursday was even warmer and turtles were everywhere on the millpond. Pickerel Frogs and the occasional Southern Leopard Frog were calling as I paddled solo up the pond to spend the day in the swamp (Melissa was with her co-workers planning the workshop). There is something magical about being in a swamp by yourself. The quiet, the sense of isolation, and yet a feeling of being wrapped in the arms of a living forest. You tend to become a part of the swamp and more in tune to your surroundings.
I passed the Raccoon tree and found it empty, but there were plenty of birds and signs of animals (otter scat, beaver lodges and cut trees, raccoon tracks in the mud) as I paddled. Finally, I saw a swirl in the water along one side of the creek and then some movement – otter! I stopped paddling and slowly drifted with camera in hand as the four River Otter realized there was something in their creek and swam out to get a better view. They bobbed up and down, snuffing and snorting as they tried to figure me out. I never got all four in the same field of view at once, but it was great spending a few minutes with these aquatic acrobats. They finally had enough of me and headed upstream.
Two gorgeous male Wood Ducks graced me with their presence as I sat on a beech slope adjacent to the creek eating my lunch. Of course, the camera was in the kayak and as soon as I slowly tried to reach for it, one of the ducks spotted me and the game was over, off they went. On the way out, I paddled along the edge of Lassiter Swamp seeing plenty of Beaver sign and scaring up flocks of Wood Ducks and Ring-necked Ducks, along with a bunch of noisy pairs of Canada Geese.
My last wildlife highlight of the day was an Anhinga, a symbol of swamps and black waters in the south. I now see them much more frequently than when I first started paddling the swamps of the Coastal Plain some 40 years ago, but it is always a treat.
Merchants Millpond remains one of my favorites places to spend time on the water. It has a rich history, amazing wildlife, beautiful scenery, great facilities and staff, and can provide you with a sense of being one with a wild place like few other places so close to home. And seeing our friends and knowing all they know and do for the park, it reminds me how much I truly appreciate people like Floyd and Signa that have given (and continue to give) so much to help conserve and make one special wild place available to plants, wildlife, and people. That is one of the things that makes North Carolina State Parks so special, the dedicated people that love and protect them.
The real jewel of my disease-ridden woodlot is the prothonotary warbler … The flash of his gold-and-blue plumage amid the dank decay of the June woods is in itself proof that dead trees are transmuted into living animals, and vice versa.
This final post on our recent swamp trip is about one of spring’s most enjoyable wildlife experiences, the return of the warblers. As my high frequency hearing has waned, I rely more and more on Melissa’s abilities to hear their songs and locate them. And on this trip, she was hearing them throughout our paddle. And she had her spotting skills in high gear as she came up finding what I thought were the trip highlights – a swimming Mink, two Barred Owls close enough to photograph, some cute Raccoons, the flying squirrel, and a few nesting birds. My challenge was to try to photograph them. And I find warblers to be a particularly challenging subject.
My usual warbler image, mostly of where one used to be – note tail feathers exiting top left of image (click photos to enlarge)
But this trip had waves of warblers moving through the swamp at times. On our second platform at Three Sisters, we had birds all around us our last morning, including a swarm of migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers. The rather drab colors we see on this species in winter have now been replaced by bold black and white and intensified yellows. A throng of butter-butts came though our camp that morning, but most were either obscured in the thick understory brush or high in the tree tops, foraging on insects.
Yellow-rumped Warbler showing off its spring attire
Melissa heard and then found a Prairie Warbler just off our platform and I finally managed a few pictures in the dappled sunlight.
Prairie Warbler skulking through the brush
Northern Parula Warblers were everywhere in the swamp, but difficult to photograph on this trip
It turns out, the real photographic test was shooting warblers from a moving canoe. I had my 300 mm telephoto and 1.4x teleconverter on my older camera body with us. Needless to say, I was trying to be careful with the gear and, when paddling, often had it secured in a dry bag in front of me. When we saw something, I would have to open the bag, pull out the camera and then try to shoot from a wobbly canoe (usually in a current) while Melissa positioned us. For some shots, I carefully passed the gear up to her if we could not get the back of the canoe into position. Prothonotary Warblers were singing and displaying all along our route, but when she spotted one carrying nesting material, we pulled over and steadied the canoe on a log in the shallows. The bird did not disappoint.
This bird really liked the moss on one particular tree trunk and made several trips to gather a beak full while we watched.
Most trips back to the nest were quick, with a brief landing, and then darting directly into the cavity. On this one though, he (I think it is a he because it is very brightly colored) paused on top of the snag for just a moment.
After depositing the moss, he would come out, look around, and then fly off for more. This time, he stuck his head out far enough so that the sun highlighted his face.
On one exit, he noticed a little piece of moss just below the cavity
My favorite pose
Male prothonotaries arrive first on the breeding grounds and begin setting up territories which they defend. They will select a few choice nesting cavities (and the swamp is full of potential nest holes) and gather and stuff them with moss, hoping a female will approve. We wished him good luck, and moved on as this was a big paddle day for us.
The current was stong and the wind was at our back out on the river proper when Melissa saw what she at first thought was a Northern Parula exiting a clump of Spanish Moss dangling on a low branch over the river (their preferred nest site). We turned and started paddling back upstream when she saw the bird return – it was a Yellow-throated Warbler!
A Yellow-throated Warbler bringing material back to its nest site in a clump of Spanish Moss
This beautiful warbler is one of Melissa’s favorites, but frustratingly so, since they tend to be treetop dwellers and, though she hears them often (even at our woodland home in Chatham County), we rarely get a decent look at one. And here she finds one nesting, and down low. Cornell’s excellent online Birds of the World resource (for a subscription fee, but well worth it), states It nests and performs most of its daily activities high in the canopy of these forests. The exact location of nests is usually hard to determine.
Melissa did a great job keeping the canoe in place while the bird came and went with nesting materials
A good view of that brilliant yellow throat that gives this warbler its common name
Entering the entrance hole in the Spanish Moss with nesting material (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Peeking out of the nest entrance (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Our final look at an extraordinary bird
Research shows they usually nest out on horizontal branches high in the canopy in mature forests. In coastal areas with Spanish Moss, they prefer to nest in clumps hanging below branches (like Northern Parulas). But the nests of Yellow-throated Warblers tend to be an average of 30-45 feet above ground in coastal swamps. I’d say we were pretty lucky to find this one at about eye level from our canoe. As it turned out, we didn’t have a decent look at another of these beauties on our entire trip. So, thanks for a special moment in a very special place.
Simply wait, be quiet, still. The world will freely offer itself to you.
Yesterday’s post mentioned the excellent birding we experienced on our recent paddle trip on the Roanoke River. When we arrived at our second camping platform, Three Sisters, the late day light was gorgeous and the sky was filled with all sorts of birds. After setting up camp (and shooing away the vultures dining on the fish skeletons) we sat out on the small dock by the creek for over an hour watching the parade of birds go by. I decided to practice some birds in flight photography to see what I could capture. Here are a few of the results…
The distinctive cross-shape of Anhingas soaring overhead was a common sight on the blackwater tributaries of the Roanoke (click photos to enlarge)
An Anhinga flying low over the creek. We commented on how many of these unusual “snakebirds” we saw on this trip compared to our previous outings.
A female Wood Duck blasts past our dock in late afternoon light.
Almost all the ducks we saw were in pairs. This is the male Wood Duck escorting the one above.
The real challenge was tying to photograph Chimney Swifts in flight. As you can see, I never really got it right as they are just too darned fast and erratic. It is comforting to know that they are no doubt nesting in many of the giant hollow Bald Cypress trees scattered throughout the swamp.
A Great Blue Heron flying to roost.
We saw more Great Egrets on this trip than in the past. This one’s wing bones showed through its backlit feathers.
As the sun set, large flocks of White Ibis started flying in to the next creek and surrounding wetlands.
I had planned to do some more dock sitting the next morning, but after the water came up during the night, I ended up strolling the short walkway to the platform and trying to photograph the many birds that were active all around us.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are always a treat to see up close.
This male Summer Tanager sang for much of the morning from high atop a partially defoliated Water Tupelo.
A White-breasted Nuthatch knocked off some bark that fell on my head, alerting me to his presence right above me.
A male White-eyed Vireo was loudly singing in thick brush out near the creek. I kept stalking him, hoping for a clear shot.
He finally obliged and came out on an open twig for a few notes of pick up the beer check quick, before disappearing back into a thicket.
These images represent just a fraction of what we saw on this trip. Below is a checklist of species we observed/heard during our time in this magical swamp. Tomorrow, I’ll share some highlights of our warbler watching.
Birds: Great Blue Heron; Great Egret; White Ibis; Spotted Sandpiper; Double-crested Cormorant; Anhinga; Wood Duck; Mallard; Canada Goose; Turkey Vulture; Black Vulture; Red-shouldered Hawk; Bald Eagle; Osprey; Barred Owl; Belted Kingfisher; Great Crested Flycatcher; Blue Jay; American Crow; Fish Crow; Common Grackle; Red-winged Blackbird; Red-bellied Woodpecker; Downy Woodpecker; Hairy Woodpecker; Pileated Woodpecker; Chimney Swift; Barn Swallow; Eastern Towhee; Northern Cardinal; Mourning Dove; Gray Catbird; Swamp Sparrow; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; Carolina Wren; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher; White-eyed Vireo; Red-eyed Vireo; Yellow-throated Vireo; Eastern Bluebird; White-breasted Nuthatch; Summer Tanager; Yellow-billed Cuckoo;Northern Parula Warbler; Black-and-white Warbler; Prairie Warbler; Prothonotary Warbler; Yellow-throated Warbler; Common Yellowthroat; Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yes, though you may think me perverse, if it were proposed to me to dwell in the neighborhood of the most beautiful garden that ever human art contrived, or else of a Dismal Swamp, I should certainly decide for the swamp.
~Henry David Thoreau
I will admit to feeling a little guilty about this, but we recently returned from a two-night camping and paddling trip on the Roanoke River. For the month of April, we had previous plans for two trips to the swamp with friends, and Melissa had one for work. Though we are very fortunate to live in a beautiful wooded setting, we are missing our spring swamp time. So, after discussing if we could manage a trip without putting ourselves (or anyone else) at risk, we decided to go. We both agreed that there is no better place to self-isolate than the camping platforms on the Roanoke. We departed Monday afternoon, following a storm front that left us with a bit of rain and wind for the start of our journey. Our plan was to put in at Gardner Creek between Williamston and Jamesville on Monday afternoon and paddle to the Barred Owl Roost platform the first night. We arrived at the launch site about 4 p.m. with just a slight drizzle. As we paddled away from the highway, the sounds soon became those of the swamp…a peaceful quiet interrupted only by the wind in the trees, a squawk of a Great Blue Heron, or Wood Ducks exploding off the water.
Our first major wildlife spotting was a pair of Raccoons up in a skinny tree along Gardner Creek (click photos to enlarge)
Melissa soon spotted two Raccoons halfway up a skinny tree surrounded by water. One was trying to ignore us by hugging a branch while the other managed to stay partially hidden alongside a clump of Spanish Moss.
The sun finally broke through the dark clouds and lit up the trees along Devil’s Gut
Our three-hour paddle seemed to go quickly and we soon were at our home for the night – Barred Owl Roost. This platform is always surrounded by black water, so you really feel isolated and a part of the swamp. And true to its name, we heard Barred Owls cranking up their Who cooks for you calls soon after we arrived. There were also a lot of other birds in, and flying above, the trees – Prothonotary and Northern Parula Warblers, Common Grackles, Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets, and lots of Wood Ducks.
One of our favorite camping platforms – Barred Owl Roost
Prothonotary Warblers seemed to be everywhere in the swamp
Sunrise looking up through our tent – a Prothonotary Warbler greeted us by delivering his dawn song from the top of the tent
Many of the Water Tupelo trees have been stripped again this spring by the huge population of Forest Tent Caterpillars. In some sections of the swamp, the majority of the trees are bare and look dead at first glance. And leaf debris from the feeding caterpillars literally covers the water surface in some areas.
A Forest Tent Caterpillar doing what it does best – chewing on the leaves of a Water Tupelo
The next morning, we headed down the Gut and out into the river proper for a long day of paddling. Melissa even did an online program with a school class that would have been participating in the Museum’s Shad in the Classroom program this spring as we drifted downriver, giving the students a unique look at where the American Shad live for part of their life cycle. Along the way we saw lots of eagles, herons, and many songbirds (more on those in a future post).
Juvenile Bald Eagle taking flight as we drifted by on the river
The wind was at our back and the current was strong so we made good time until we got to Broad Creek, where we headed upstream for a few miles to our next platform. This section proved to be a tough paddle with not only the current against us but the wind as well. The slow pace allowed us good views of a variety of wildlife from White-eyed Vireos (Melissa spotted one in the early stages of building its nest) to a lot of snakes hanging out in tree branches.
One of many congregations of Brown Water Snakes in shrub and tree branches along the water’s edge. There were nine snakes in this one tree!
This is not the welcoming committee we were hoping for at our next camping platform
After a tiring paddle, we finally pulled up to our next camping platform, Three Sisters. But all was not as we would have wanted. Someone had caught and cleaned several large fish, including a monster catfish, on the dock at the platform, leaving the skeletons along the shore, This bounty had attracted several vultures (both Turkey and Black) who didn’t care for us interrupting their fish dinner. We used our paddles to push the carcasses into deeper water, hoping the smell would go way (along with the birds).
The view from our dock
The wind helped dissipate the aroma and we were able to finish our day relaxing on the dock at our campsite, watching the comings and goings of an amazing variety of birds.
The vegetation surrounding our campsites was diverse and beautiful…here are the bright red berries of Coral Greenbrier (Smilax walteri) and flower buds on Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)
While we sat enjoying the late day light, Melissa heard something back in the forest that concerned her…a growing whining noise (no, not me), reminiscent of a cloud of mosquitoes we had once experienced. We gathered our gear and headed for the tent, expecting to be swarmed, but nothing happened. We discovered the sound source later that evening as our tent light attracted literally thousands of the tiniest mayflies (non-biting) I have ever seen.
During the night, the water level rose about 6 inches, flooding our dock
The next morning, the birds put on an amazing show for us (again, more pics in the next post) and we finally dragged ourselves away and headed out for another long paddle day.
Barred owl scanning the shallows for a meal
The route Melissa chose included a 2+ mile paddle upstream on what is known as the “Cut” (Cut Cypress Creek). This is a narrow creek that connects Broad Creek to the Roanoke River upstream of Devil’s Gut and allows us to do a circuit route without paddling against the much stronger current on the river. The Cut has an intimate feel and is a great place to see wildlife because it is only about 20 feet wide in most places. Though we had heard many owls, we had not been close enough for a photograph so at one point I asked Melissa to find us a close owl in sunlight. Literally 30 seconds later, she spots one down low (in the shade, but still…). She was proving her naturalist skills throughout the trip, spotting amazing critters everywhere and hearing tons of songbirds. One of the coolest finds was a Mink swimming across Broad Creek. It disappeared into the swamp forest before I could get my camera out of the dry bag, but it is always a good day when you see a Mink.
Adult Bald Eagle on the river
Once we hit the river, we could relax and let the current help carry us. A few miles passed quickly and the we headed back upstream along Devil’s Gut. Once again, our pace slowed, and we saw more wildlife as we paddled along the edges of the swamp.
Osprey taking flight as we paddle underneath
Basking turtles were a common sight
Melissa spotted another Raccoon feeling its way along the edge of the swamp. We drifted over for a closer look and spent the next 15 minutes watching it search for food. It barely even looked at us the entire time and was focused on digging and sniffing in the shallows.
A Raccoon snacks on a tasty treat found on a log
It seemed to make a point of walking along every log it encountered and on one, it found something to snack on. We could see what looked like a red rope that it grabbed and was loudly crunching. Close looks at the images once we returned show what looks like an amphiuma (an aquatic salamander common in these swamps) that something else may have caught and partially consumed.
The Raccoon traversed every log in its path and this one brought it close to our canoe
As we neared the end of our paddle, I once again asked Melissa to find me another owl to photograph. This time it look a little longer (maybe a minute) and she spotted one sitting inside the edge of the swamp in a cypress tree.
A more cooperative Barred Owl allows me to capture a quick portrait
Just before we reached our launch site, she saw something down low on a tree trunk on one of the few spots of dry land we saw on the entire trip. It was a flying squirrel clinging to the tree, out in broad daylight. We watched it for several minutes and it moved a little, but mainly just clung to the tree. Not sure what was happening, but it added another species to our impressive list of wildlife along the river.
A mystery as to why this Southern Flying Squirrel was out in daylight (photo by Melissa Dowland)
We paddled over 30 miles and had been totally isolated on the river for two and a half days, seeing only some fishermen at very safe distances. It was the perfect way to self-isolate and get some much needed outdoor recreation. We give thanks to those with the foresight to preserve this magical place and to create the paddle trail that allows such great access. More on the trip in the next two posts.
Each mile on a river will take you further from home than a hundred miles on a road.
It has been a hectic spring at work so we decided to take a break last week and do something we both love to do – paddle in a swamp. We both blocked off 3 days some months ago to allow for a couple of nights camping on platforms on the Roanoke River, one of our favorite get-away spots. Turns out the weather had other plans, and, with the forecast for our second day calling for cold rain and wind, we almost canceled the whole trip. But my swamp queen convinced me that one night in the swamp is better than nothing, so off we went Monday morning to paddle Gardner Creek and camp on the Barred Owl Roost platform. As I have mentioned before, the platforms are part of an amazing (and underutilized) resource for outdoor enthusiasts along the Roanoke River. Information and reservations are available through the Roanoke River Partners web site.
Melissa in her element – a canoe in a swamp (click photos to enlarge)
We put in where Gardner Creek crosses under Hwy 64. Melissa arranged with a local teacher she had met on workshops for a quick shuttle (during the teachers’ lunch break). Melissa drove our car to to the take-out point at the boat ramp in Jamesville, and the teacher brought her back to our starting point (a 5-minute drive instead of a 5-hour paddle).
Spring is just beginning to show in the swamp
Gardner Creek is one of our favorite paddles, a narrow, winding blackwater stream. One side was clear cut several years ago, but there is a slight buffer. The other side is a beautiful huge cypress-tupelo gum swamp. April is a great time to paddle as things are just starting to green up, and the wildlife is more active.
Bald cypress needles starting to emerge gave the swamp just a hint of green
Splashes of color from red maples
Red maple seeds are firetruck red
Scattered along our route were bright splashes of red from the strikingly colored red maple seeds. By the time I am writing this, there will be white patches from hawthorns and shadbush blooms, yellow streaks from the newly arrived prothonotary warblers, and the greens from leaf out will start to fill in the gaps. But we were there on the cusp of color in the swamp.
Barred owls were numerous along our paddle
Our main companions along the way were the birds, both year round residents and new arrivals. At the launch site, we heard our first barred owls, a sound that would escort us along out route the next 24 hours. I had left my usual camera and lenses behind and just had my waterproof point-and-shoot for this trip, a decision I soon regretted with the great close-up views of some owls within the first few miles of our paddle. Several anhinga, osprey, red-shouldered hawks, a yellow-crowned night heron, and a plethora of pileateds made for pleasant birding both days (see bird list at end of post).
Fragile forktail damselfly
A huge beaver lodge along Devil’s Gut
Other wildlife included some basking turtles, a gorgeous damselfly, and a muskrat.
Our highlight was what was under the water’s surface
But our highlight for the trip was what was just beneath the surface of the water…the fish, thousands of them. With the water level’s dropping, fish were coming out of the flooded swamps and feeding along the edges, often right at the surface. We talked to a few fishermen who were catching white perch and “bream”. We also saw a few huge fish jump clear of the black water, probably some carp and maybe bass. But the dominant fish, by far, were the river herring. It is spawning time on the Roanoke, and schools of herring were concentrated in the creeks, one of which was where our platform was located. They were breaking the surface as we paddled, becoming more common the farther up the creek we went. Finally, at our platform, we could see into the shallow water and watched in awe as hundreds of fish swam by in small swirling schools of silver-gray. With the onset of darkness, the activity intensified (do they spawn mainly at night, or was it feeding activity?) and the splashing was noticeable all around us.
A gnarled cypress trunk greets us as we near the platform
Home sweet home, Barred Owl Roost camping platform
View from the platform
We slept without the usual rain fly to see the stars twinkling through the treetops. Occasional barred owl choruses echoed through the swamp throughout the night. The temperatures dropped, and, by morning, cloud cover came in with the approaching storm. It was time to pack up and head for Jamesville.
The tragedy of discarded fishing line
The day before, we came across a particularly poignant tragedy. After enjoying close views of a couple of barred owls on the way in, we were heartbroken to find a dead owl that had somehow become entangled in some discarded fishing line. It looked as though a lure was tossed and wrapped around a tree branch. I imagine the fisherman yanked and broke the line, but left it dangling from the branch. The barred owl had it tightly wound around the tip of its wing, perhaps flying into the line or maybe the lure that swayed in the wind. We cut the owl loose, gathered the remaining line, and found ourselves trying to collect any discarded line we found along the rest of our route (and there was way too much of it tangled in tree branches). It is certainly one of those things that takes a toll on wildlife and just doesn’t disappear from the landscape if left behind.
We beat the approaching rain and got loaded up and headed home, sorry to be leaving but happy for our time in this great watery woodland. One slight disappointment was that our platform showed some signs of age, effects of high water this winter, and some abuse/negligence by previous campers (luckily, not a typical thing we see out here). Melissa mused that in a future life she would love to take on the job of maintaining the platforms and leading interpretive trips in the swamp. Who knows, there may be many more swamp trips in our future (and that will be okay by me).
Wood duck, Anhinga, Great blue heron, Yellow-crowned night heron, Barred owl, Osprey, Bald eagle, Red-shouldered hawk, Red-tailed hawk, Turkey vulture, Black vulture, Wild turkey, Belted kingfisher, Fish crow, Pileated woodpecker, Red-bellied woodpecker, Downy woodpecker, White-breasted nuthatch, Carolina chickadee, Tufted titmouse, Northern cardinal, Blue-gray gnatcatcher, Northern parula, Yellow-throated warbler, Common grackle, Red-winged blackbird, Eastern wood-peewee, Tree swallow
Natural, ambient sounds give us a picture over time and define place…every landscape has a rhythm to it.
~Dr. Bryan C. Pijanowski
There is, indeed, a rhythm to paddling in a swamp, and the sounds help define it. Putting our canoes in at Gardner Creek a couple of weeks ago, we could hear the sounds of traffic on Hwy 64, the tones of people talking, the harshness of barking dogs and a lawn mower – all human sounds, or perhaps I should call them noises. But as we paddled, those noises started to fade and we soon had a rhythm of the place in our ears – water dripping from our paddles, the twitters of a mixed-species feeding flock moving through the trees, or the kerplunk of a turtle dropping off a log. We even heard the truncated calls of a few Southern leopard frogs, since the air was a bit warmer than the calendar date indicated. But, the true sounds of the swamp on this trip came in feathered form, one during the day, and one day and night (although certainly more forcefully after darkness enveloped our campsites on the platforms). Listen to the two audio segments below (recorded on my phone) and see if you recognize the makers of this music of the swamp (answers are below, play at full volume and don’t cheat)…
The first sound is one heard on several occasions as we paddled the waterways in this region, usually heard several times before we would catch a glimpse of the source, if at all.
This call-maker is one I will always associate with this place, and almost any swamp I have visited. These hunters call day or night, and have an amazing repertoire of vocalizations. This is a variation of their best known call.
Now, here are the sound-makers…
Red-shouldered hawk (click photos to enlarge)
A characteristic daytime call of the swamp is the harsh, Kee-aah, Kee-aah, made by the red-shouldered hawk, Buteo lineatus. The call is accented on the first syllable with a drawn-out second syllable having a downward inflection. It is considered a territorial call in the breeding season, and is also an alarm call. We generally heard it when one of these common swamp hawks took flight as we paddled nearby.
You can see the rusty red patches on the shoulder of this adult bird
Red-shouldered hawks are smaller than red-tailed hawks and tend to favor forested tracts, especially along streams and rivers. They are sit-and-wait hunters, whose diet includes many reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and invertebrates such as earthworms.
Barred owl surveying for prey from a large wild grape vine perch
The barred owl, Strix varia, is the monarch of the swamp. Their best known call is often described as sounding like “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all”. The call presented here is a variation and is described as an Ascending Hoot. The audio has the back and forth calls of two owls on our first night in the swamp (at the aptly named Barred Owl Roost camping platform). One is right above our campsite, the other maybe 100 feet away in the darkness of the swamp.
Barred owls hunt, and call, day and night
This back and forth calling likely is between a mated pair. We also heard some of their other calls that night, including the Single Hoot (a throaty descending hoot), and the cacophony of sounds that is often described as a Raucous Hoot and Caterwauling. The latter calls can vary from a high-pitched scream to monkey-like sounds, and can carry on for a minute or two. Unfortunately, the owls engaging in the raucous calls that night were too far away to be picked up by the mic on my iPhone.
The soundscape of a wild place is something we often overlook, but it is one of the things that can really make an outdoor experience memorable. I am grateful for these swamps and the opportunities for the unique camping provided by the Roanoke River Partners. And I am thankful for the sounds that seem to stay with you after any time spent in these special habitats. Be sure to listen for the iconic sounds of your favorite places on your next outings.
Here’s another of Melissa’s poems that she read at the recent Poetry with Wings event at the NC Botanical Garden (paired with some of my images from our trips on the Roanoke River) …
Swamp’s Sentinels by Melissa Dowland
In the blackwater swamp The creeks are lined With cypress-sentinels Left whole by the loggers— Because they were too hard to reach? Or perhaps, intentionally left, with great foresight to remind us of what once was? The swollen bases are buttressed and surrounded by their subjects— Knees, barely poking above the dark surface.
These trees have seen decades, centuries— Wild times, when they were left alone They’ve seen the river become a highway They’ve seen bulldozers pavers fishermen and me, in my canoe.
They are not tall— Their crowns flattened by the wind of innumerable hurricanes. Their sprawling branches covered in resurrection fern— they who need no resurrection to live for centuries.
And everywhere— Holes. Cavities. Hollows. Crevices.
Some so large I could crawl inside Some just right for a chickadee, or a prothonotary warbler who brings such song to these solemn swamps!
What lurks inside these hollow Monarchs of the Swamp? Were I to knock, what might I see? The dark fur of the bear who could smell me from a mile away? The sharp face of the screech owl, ready to pull back and hide in a second? The secreted nest of the prothonotary, cloaking her bright yellow in the cavity’s darkness?
Or are these holes Simply the eyes of the trees? Windows into their ancient souls? Tired eyes that have gazed down the years, Longing to be left at peace for yet another hundred years?