Swamp Sounds

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 in rain

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.

Red-shouldered hawk side view

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 on grape vine

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 owl on grape vine 1

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.

Swamp’s Sentinels

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

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek

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.

Huge cypress along Gardner Creek

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.

Bald cypress pair in black and white

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.

TRee cavities

And everywhere—
Holes.
Cavities.
Hollows.
Crevices.

Prothonotary Warbler singing at nest cavity 1

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!

Screech owl in wood duck box close up 1

 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?

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek 1

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?

Roanoke Ramblings

A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself.

~Laura Gilpin

I spent this past weekend in a magical place, a place I have been many times, but that still draws me back – the Roanoke River. The Roanoke is a major river that flows over 400 miles from its headwaters in the mountains of Virginia to where it meets Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. A wonderful non-profit group, the Roanoke River Partners, gave life to a series of camping platforms along the Roanoke that serve over 1200 campers annually (reservations required). Camping on these platforms is a truly unique experience and one that I have been lucky enough to do a number of times in several locations. This trip was to two platforms that I had never visited – The Bluff and Royal Fern.

Camping platform along the Roanoke River

Camping platform along the Roanoke – the Bluff (click photos to enlarge)

The first night was spent in one of the more terrestrial of the platforms – The Bluff. It is one of the few with a screened in area and a pit toilet (platforms in the swamp require that you bring your own latrine). It is, indeed, on a buff overlooking the river. That first afternoon, we saw some of the first hints of Spring in the swamp – Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Warblers searching for insects in the treetops, flower buds on Dwarf Pawpaw trees, and my first snakes of the season – a large Black Rat Snake, and a true denizen of the swamp, a Cottonmouth.

Cottonmouth

Cottonmouth showing why it is so named

We encountered the Cottonmouth while walking over to get a closer view of an Eastern Screech Owl in a cavity in one of the large American Beech trees that dotted the slopes along the river. Cottonmouths typically display a threat posture of raising their head and gaping their mouth, showing the white insides, a very effective means of letting you know that they are there, and to not bother them.

Cottonmouth 1gg

How a Cottonmouth poses for its picture

Since I did not have any of my telephoto lenses on this trip, a picture of the owl or warblers was out of the question, but the snake was more than cooperative for a few snapshots.

Roanoke River

Sunset along the Roanoke

It turned out to be a beautiful afternoon and a great place to relax and listen to the sounds of the river forest. Other wildlife sightings included a pair of Wood Ducks, undoubtedly nesting in one of the abundant tree cavities, another red phase Eastern Screech Owl the next morning (two were visible in separate tree cavities), a Wild Turkey, and several Pileated Woodpeckers drumming and investigating possible nest or roost sites.

The next day we made a special trip to Creswell to dine at one of my favorite local restaurants, the Main Street Eatery, for the last time. My friend, Sharon Maitland, reluctantly closed the doors to this jewel of a place this weekend. She and her staff have been an oasis of good food and warm smiles for me and my clients these past two years and will be sorely missed. I was happy to get the chance to dine there one last time and thank her for providing a touch of class for my winter outings to the nearby refuges.

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek 2

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek

After lunch, we put in at Conaby Creek ,just north of Plymouth, and began the short paddle out to the next platform. While most of the swamp was timbered decades ago, there are remnant Bald Cypress trees along the banks that give you a glimpse of what it must have been like two hundred years ago. The huge trunks reach skyward, many draped in Spanish Moss, some with giant branches covered in Resurrection Fern. Looking at them in black and white seems a fitting way to honor their presence as guardians of the swamp over the centuries.

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek

Bald Cypress trunks may appear as delicate brush strokes in the swamp scene…

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek 3

…reaching above the surrounding trees…

Buttress base

…or as massive anchors, holding the swamp in place.

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek 1

They seem to embrace the swamp and invite you in…

While the ancient trees speak to us in neutral tones, the swamp itself is coming alive with color.

Spring colors in the swamp

Spring colors in the swamp

When we arrived at the platform, I took a few moments to appreciate the colors and patterns of the awakening plants…

Ash leaf beginning to unfurl

Ash bud beginning to open accompanied by a Carpenter Ant seeking food

Maple leaves opening

Maple leaves opening

Tag Alder leaf backlit in the setting sun

Tag Alder leaf backlit in the setting sun

When we arrived at the platform, one thing became very apparent – the website had meant what it said…Black Bears are known to visit this platform/area often. Campers should be prepared for a potential bear encounter. All of the posts on the platform had been chewed by bears, and a couple of nearby Sweet Gum trees had the bark ripped off by bears seeking the sweet sap as I have so often seen in the woods of Pungo.

Royal Fern camping platform

Royal Fern camping platform

Now, readers of this blog know that I like bears, but the amount of bear sign here was a little disconcerting to be honest. But, we did what you do in bear country and put our food and toiletries in bags strung in the trees, and I had brought bear spray, just in case.

Canoe at camping platform

Serenity in the swamp

It turned out to be a spectacular afternoon and night in the swamp with no bear encounters. There is a Bald Eagle nest a couple of hundred yards away from the platform, and we saw and heard a couple flying above the towering Bald Cypress trees that surrounded us. As a brilliant moon rose, we were serenaded by a chorus of snoring Pickerel Frogs and all three of our common owls (Great Horned, Barred, and Eastern Screech). The next morning, a trio of Red-shouldered Hawks put on an impressive display of aerial acrobatics, while warblers (including my first Prothonotary of the season) moved through the cypress branches overhead.

I know many of you are probably stuck on the image of the Cottonmouth and the possibility of bears in the swamp and are thinking, no way… but I have not seen that many Cottonmouths and no bears on my years of paddling the Roanoke. And, trust me, there is nothing like camping on these platforms to really get away from your usual hectic lifestyle. I have camped out there many times and have always come away wanting to spend more time in these magical places. It is well worth the trip.

Paddling the Black River

Black River just downstream from Henry's Landing

Black River just downstream from Henry’s Landing

Last week, my friend, and former co-worker, Jerry Reynolds asked if I wanted to go along with he and another friend on a paddle along the Black River as he prepped for an upcoming program. I jumped at it since it has been years since I paddled the Black (I did go upriver last year in a power boat, but that is a very different experience).

The Black River originates in Sampson County and runs about 65+ miles before joining the Cape Fear. It is characterized by meanders, oxbows, artesian springs and mature swamp forests. The waters are clear but are stained a dark tea color due to tannins leached from decaying vegetation.  The water clarity allows you to see emerging aquatic vegetation and the sand bars as you drift along in the current. These make an interesting backdrop for the dark reflections of the forest and sky. Because of the good flow, the presence of so many artesian springs, and the relatively undisturbed nature of much of the waterway, the Black River is designated as Outstanding Resource Waters by the state.

_-2

The clear, dark waters allow glimpses of submerged vegetation and sand bars as you paddle.

The Black was not always the quiet stretch of dark water it is today. Commercial activity on the Black River began over two hundred years ago with the transport of timber, cotton, and livestock. In the mid-1800’s there were numerous steamboats moving products up and down the river (hard to imagine given the shallow nature of the river today). But the advent of railroads and roads caused the river traffic to all but disappear by the early 1900’s. The Black was then left to the owls, ducks and the occasional fishermen and hunter. After 100+ years of relatively little human disturbance, the Black River is now one of the finest examples of coastal swamp forest in the southeast. Many landowners and conservation groups have recognized this and miles of the river shoreline are now protected through the efforts of groups like the NC Nature Conservancy.

The Black River is wide in spots.

The Black River is wide in spots.

We arrived yesterday morning at Henry’s Landing along Hwy 210 and unloaded gear and then transported one vehicle down to the take out point at Newby’s Landing, a distance of approximately 10 river miles. We launched into the tea-colored waters a little after 10 a.m. The river is fairly wide at this point and there was a slight current. Almost immediately, a beautiful cypress swamp surrounds you on both sides of the river, hinting at the grandeur to come. A short ways downriver we flushed a few Turkey Vultures and then passed under others with wings spread, soaking in the morning sun. To someone more suspicious than I, this might be a bad omen as we enter the swamp.

The sky was Carolina blue with a few puffy clouds and the banks were starting to reveal the palette of colors that trademark the arrival of spring in these forests – the lime green of emerging cypress and gum, the light orange-red of oaks, and the occasional splash of white flowers from a riverbank hawthorn (probably Parsley Hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii).  I heard a few calls from some swamp warblers fresh from their wintering grounds – the zeeeeee-up of Northern Parulas and the sew-sew-sew-sew-sew-sewEE of a Yellow-throated Warbler.  But spring has just arrived, and the only other warbler I saw was a Yellow-rumped.

Leaf out along the Black River.

Leaf out along the Black River comes in a palette of colors (click to enlarge).

The first reptile was a large Brown Water Snake. This was the first of many such snakes we encountered. Brown Water Snakes are large-bodied snakes easily identified by their pattern of dark brown blotches down the middle of their lighter brown back. These blotches generally alternate, but do not connect to, dark blotches along the sides of the snake. These are the snakes you often see sunning above the water on limbs or trunks of fallen trees, sometimes as high as 15 feet. If a paddler goes under one and startles it, the paddler might get startled by a snake dropping into his or her boat, something that has happened to me only once in all my years (but once is enoughJ). Unfortunately, watermen who think it is a venomous cottonmouth often kill this harmless snake.

Brown Water Snake

Brown Water Snake sunning on a limb over the river (click to enlarge).

About 5 miles downstream from Henry’s Landing it looks as though the river disappears. The main channel seems clogged by logs and vegetation as it bends to the left. The Jerry’s holler “follow us” and off through a maze of tiny channels they paddle, dodging cypress knees and tupelo gum saplings. This is the start of the famed Three Sisters area of the Black River. One story has it that in the days of commercial boating there were three distinct channels in the swamp area of the river, hence the name “The Three Sisters.”

Now, this area is best known as the home of the oldest documented trees in the eastern U.S.  As part of a dendrochronology study in the southeast, researchers from the University of Arkansas cored several large Bald Cypress trees in the area in 1985 (core sampling does not seriously harm these ancient cypress). One tree turned out to be over 1700 years old. The researchers estimate others may be over 2000 years old, but cannot be accurately aged since most are hollow, making them impossible to properly core. Soon after this discovery, the recognition of the national significance of this stand of trees gave rise to efforts to preserve the forests along the Black River.

The Jerry's paddle the Three Sisters Swamp.

The Jerry’s paddle the Three Sisters Swamp.

The current picks up a bit as the “river” breaks into a series of braids and weaves through dense vegetation. Jerry says the water level is good and we may be able to paddle the whole way instead of getting out and wading with your boat as he has often done. Seems to me this is an easy place to get lost, but they both say you just keep following the current and you’ll find your way out (although I notice they are both frequently checking their GPS units). I hear squawking off to my right and spot a Great Blue Heron standing on a nest with what must be very young chicks begging for food. Soon, large trunks of cypress and an army of cypress knees engulf me. Huge gray trunks hold flattened tops of cypress at a level that seems a bit too short for their size, as if they had hit an invisible ceiling. These are the ancient ones, the trees well over 1000 years old. I know I am in a special place. We all just sat in our boats, taking in the view that surrounded us.

Looking up the trunk of one of the ancient ones.

An ancient cypress.

After spending several minutes with the ancient ones, we pushed and paddled our way along with the current until we hit what resembled a small channel which gradually lead to a bigger channel and finally something that looked more like a river. As we continued downstream, several side channels joined us, making me wonder how anyone can find their way to Three Sisters if they paddled upstream.

Last night when I returned home I read an article by Dr. David Stahle, one of the researchers who discovered the antiquity of these incredible trees. He helped me understand some of what I felt while in the swamp…

“In many areas along the Black it is possible to turn in a circle and see 10 to 20 bald cypress trees over 1,000 years old.  This density of millennium-old trees is rare in any forest worldwide.  Although a dozen or so species can live for more than 1,500 years, most of these old growth stands have very few individual trees in the oldest age class.  Not at the Black River.  There are literally hundreds of millennium-old trees at the Black River, which has the largest concentration of ancient bald cypress trees we have ever found after 30 years of searching in the southeastern United States, Mexico, and Guatemala. “ 

Nearing the end of our paddle.

Nearing the end of our paddle (click to enlarge).

Although the wildlife diversity on this day (17 species of birds, three species of herps, and several butterflies and freshly emerged dragonflies) was not what I had hoped, it was still an incredible paddling experience. The feeling of isolation and of the beauty of an unspoiled swamp populated by ancient trees is something that will draw me back to this magical place again.

Merchants Millpond

I enter the swamp as a sacred place

Henry David Thoreau

Merchants Millpond has always been one of my favorite state parks. When I was the East District Naturalist for the State Parks system oh-so-many years ago (1981-1986), I would go up to Merchants and canoe out after dark to the family camping area after giving a program in the trailer that was then the “visitor center”. The night sounds were always amazing as was the feeling of being in a different world as you paddled through the Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo trees laden with Spanish Moss. A lot has changed over the years and now the 3200+ acre park has a new visitor center, family and group campgrounds and two canoe launch areas as well as camping down Bennett’s Creek below the millpond. But much remains the same in this unique environment and because of that, it is still a magical place.

Merchants Millpond

Merchants Millpond State Park

The millpond was created in 1811 to provide power for grist mills for farmers in the region and it became a hub of enterprise in the area, hence the name, Merchants Millpond. A.B.Coleman purchased the 760-acre millpond and some surrounding property in the 1960’s and then donated it to the state and it became a state park in 1973. The conditions of the millpond over such a long time period have created a unique ecological environment. The pond’s dark, still waters create beautiful reflections, one of the outstanding memories from any visit.

Bald Cypress trunk

Bald Cypress trunk

Water Tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) and Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) living in wet conditions tend to have swollen trunks. Swelling may just be a reaction to permanent flooding, but it could also be an adaptation to keep the tree standing in soggy soil. A swollen base is wider and offers increased stability. You seldom see  either of these species toppled by wind. Branches and even the tops of the trunk may break off, but the whole tree remains upright. The difference between the two trunks is usually easily discerned – Bald Cypress trunks have buttresses or ridges at the base whereas tupelos lack the buttresses and are often relatively smooth.

Surrounding the swamp are rolling ridges containing stands off American Beech, American Holly, various other hardwoods and pines. The canoe campground was once a magnificent open beech forest but was heavily damaged years ago by a hurricane. Now, the remnant beech trees are surrounded by thick undergrowth of Loblolly Pine, Tulip Poplar, and Sweet Gum. But it is still a beautiful spot to camp and the play of light on the trees at sunrise ad sunset is awesome.

American Beech tree at Merchants Millpond

American Beech tree on surrounding uplands

The temperatures were anything but spring-like during my visit this past week, with lows in the 30’s and highs around 50, so many of the usual spring things were lacking, although there were a few slow snores from Pickerel Frogs each evening as well as a few Spring Peepers. One lonely Southern Leopard Frog added to the weak chorus, and only one snake was to be found – a Yellow Rat Snake curled on a log in the sun. Painted Turtles and Yellow-bellied Sliders started becoming more frequent log sitters as the days warmed and a Yellow-throated Warbler call means spring really should come soon. And to emphasize that fact I did see a bright splash of yellow flitting through the dark swamp on my last day (the warmest by far) – my first Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly of the season. Over the 3 days I observed (or heard) 37 species of birds, 8 species of mammals, and 6 species of herps.

Beaver lodge

Beaver lodge

My favorite area is still Lassiter Swamp, the so-called “enchanted forest” that lies at the head of the millpond. Paddling through the gnarled Water Tupelo and towering cypress trees, especially in winter or early spring, is like entering a fairyland populated with ghosts and goblins. Many of the strange shapes on the tupelo branches are caused by the trees’ reaction to mistletoe – a semi-parasitic plant that is common in the swamp. I’m not sure what causes some of the huge, grotesque trunk growths but mistletoe may have a role in those as well. As you enter the swamp the trees close in and wildlife seems to materialize from behind or in every tree. Three River Otter snorted and checked me out before disappearing into a beaver lodge. Beaver sign is everywhere in Lassiter Swamp and three large lodges greet you near the entrance.

Nutria retreat

Nutria retreat

I got a surprise when paddling toward a tupelo with a hollow just above waterline. There was grass hanging out of the hollow and as I approached, first one, and then two large Nutria barreled out of the hollow. When I was right next to the entrance, a third came leaping out causing a slight increase in my heart rate. I guess it was a day bed or retreat of some sort. Nutria were not present in the park when I worked there 30 years ago, but are now common, although the fact that alligators now live in the park (they were not present 30 years ago either) may help control numbers of this introduced mammal.

 

A highlight of Lassiter Swamp are the scattered virgin cypress trees in the upper end, many estimated to be over 1000 years old. I remember climbing inside the base of one that could hold about 8 people. All that remains of that giant is a broken section of hollow trunk, probably the result of hurricane damage.

Broken old cypress trunk

Broken old cypress trunk

Far up in the swamp I spot a pile of white feathers – Great Egret feathers. A swamp mystery – what had happened?, where was the body? I looked at the beautiful feathers for clues. No obvious rips or tears as if a mammalian predator had plucked the feathers, but no clear beak marks either, although there was a dent or two on some of the sturdy feather shafts. My guess is that a Great Horned Owl, the flying tiger of the swamp, had taken the egret as a meal. Ironically, I found another pile of egret feathers a few miles downstream on Bennett’s Creek so perhaps this swamp is a dangerous place if you are a large white bird.

Great Egret kill site

Great Egret kill site

Egret plume

Egret plume

The last night was spent on the Bennett’s Creek canoe trail, which flows below the dam at Merchants Millpond. It is a beautiful secluded paddle with the only signs of humans near the two camping areas (unfortunately) about 4 miles below the millpond. I noticed some shredded bark on a couple of huge cypress trees on the way down the creek and speculated that perhaps a bear had been climbing the trunks. One was broken out at the top about 70 feet above the creek and looked like just the sort of place a bear would hole up. On the return trip, I heard loud scratching sounds coming from deep inside the hollow trunk, undoubtedly from a bear climbing inside after hearing my approach. I want to go back and sit and wait for that bear!

Merchants Millpond at sunrise

Merchants Millpond at sunrise

Merchants Millpond is truly a great destination. Etched in my memory are many sights and sounds from the trip – the drumming of Pileated Woodpeckers at sunrise and the golden light glinting on the underside of one of these majestic birds as it flies overhead; cries of Red-shouldered Hawks circling high above the treetops; the incredibly loud splashing as White-tailed Deer leap through the swamp when they spot a canoe; Barred Owls asking “who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all?”; the reflections, everywhere the reflections; the subtle colors and textures of the trees that drift by as you paddle; and in many places, the feeling that you are the only person here, a quiet, serene feeling that is hard to get in many places. So, I will be back and I hope to develop this as a trip I offer to others in the near future. Everyone needs to experience a swamp…

Lassiter Swamp reflections

Lassiter Swamp reflections