Thursday, December 2, 2010

Southward Bound!

As a short reprive from Cape May, I thought I would put in a post about our Thanksgiving excursion to relatives down in South Carolina. For me, this was quite an experience; the journey down was just under 600 miles - a journey that would be impossible in the UK without falling off the end of the island and getting the car very wet!! We started on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, where small numbers of Snow Buntings were moving north up the Delaware Bay as we crossed and a nice flock of 30 Buffleheads - with all but two being adult males - greeted us on the far side. Travelling down the full length of the Delmarva Peninsula, we passed through Delaware and Maryland and reached the amazing Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, an amazing engineering feat across the nation's biggest river estuary. As we crossed, Brown Pelicans were mixing it with Northern Gannets and diving for fish just 30 feet or so off the side of the road! Southward from here, we passed the Great Dismal Swamp (what a great name!) then gradually made our way across North Carolina and into South Carolina. Quite a drive!!

Here's a few pictures from the drive down:

Yes, Denali came too! Here he is getting his first sighting of the Cape May Ferry Terminal

Considering it was the day before Thanksgiving, it was surprising how quiet the crossing was - we didn't see a single other person on the whole crossing!

Looking back at Cape May Point from the Delaware Bay. The two obvious 'towers' are the water tower at the Magnasite Plant (left) and Cape May Lighthouse (right).

Mid-channel, we were joined by an American Goldfinch (here sitting on one of the deck chairs) that rode the ferry to Lewes with us. A female House Sparrow came all the way over from Cape May, finding plenty to do behind the bar!

Denali got confused by seeing a sign for Norfolk....

Seems like some companies on the Delmarva have just the right name for the job!....

Another highlight for Denali, the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is an amazing feat of engineering. Each side took four years to build, the eastern half built from 1960-1964 and the western half built from 1995-1999. The crossing from shore to shore is 17.6 miles with the bulk being long, tressled sections; in addition, there are two tunnel sections which allow for shipping channels.

While we were down south, I skipped out of a shopping excursion and went to visit the magnificent forests of Congaree Swamp. I could wax all poetical about this amazing place, which I first visited three years ago, for hours but instead, I suggest you visit the official website for the area at, where you will find out just how fabulous a place it is. This forest was so inaccessible in the past, that it never got logged out and currently, six species of tree (Deciduous Holly, Laurel Oak, Loblolly Pine, Swamp Tupelo, Sweetgum and Water Hickory) are listed from here as the tallest specimens in the USA for their respective species. Many areas have a canopy height of around 120 feet, while a number of individual trees reach over 160 feet! The bulk of the area is swamp and wet woodland along the Congaree River and most of the lakes in the park are old river meanders that have become ox-bows. I walked some 10 miles of trails while I was there, so here's some picture highlights.

Near the entrance to Congaree Swamp, I came across this Southern Red Oak, covered in great veils of Spanish Moss - a real sign of the south. Spanish Moss is a strange plant that is actually in the same family as the Pineapple!

It seemes appropriate that this Spanish Moss was in a churchyard, as the great curtains of hanging vegetation certainly create a cathedral-like atmosphere. This strange plant is not a parasite on the tree, it gets all of its nutrients and water from the air and has no roots.

The first part of Congaree is visited via a raised boardwalk which, in some places, is some eight feet above the ground - and the water does rise that high at times!

Having reached lower ground and left the high boardwalk, its the swampy areas that really catch the eye, for here there are enormous Swamp Tupelos with fabulous buttressed trunks and stately Bald Cypresses with fluted bases to their trunks.

This duo of Swamp Tupelos stood either side of an old river meander. Both were more than six feet across at the base.

A sunny day after most of the leaves have fallen is always a good time for photos of reflections - as here in Cedar Creek.

Tree reflections in Wise Lake.

More reflections in Cedar Creek, this time showing the fluted trunk bases of Bald Cypresses.

The Bald Cypresses of Congaree produce some extensive stands of 'knees', the famous extensions of the roots found in this species which are believed to help provide oxygen to the roots. Strange as it may seem, plants need oxygen at the roots, even though they grow below ground. Usually the soil is open enough for them to obtain this, but in swampy ground this is not always the case so strategies to cope with this have to be developed. Some of the cypress knees at Congaree are over six feet tall.

What really makes the difference for wildlife between a managed and a natural woodland, is the amount of decaying wood found in the latter. This Bald Cypress stump may have died 100 years or more ago but it still provides food for a wealth of other organisms.

This strange pool of water in an otherwise dry-looking area caught my eye. I was amazed to find that it was actually the remains of a long dead Bald Cypress, the hollow rim of the old trunk forming a wooden suround to the pool. Fabulous to see a woodland that is left long enough for such pools to develop, which must be ideal places for salamanders as well as many other animals.

One obvious beneficiary of decaying wood are the woodpeckers. Congaree is alive with them and I saw five species on my visit. Best of all are the mighty Pileated Woodpeckers (this is a male), of which I saw at least ten. This is North America's equivalent of Europe's Black Woodpecker - but with a wonderfully mad hair cut!

Signs of another species of woodpecker - Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers famously drill these horizontal rows of holes in tree trunks, from which they tap the rising sap of the tree. These holes are on an American Holly.

Leaf litter left on the ground and not 'tidied' away provides a great home for all sorts of creatures and produces humus for plants to grow in. Here, the leaves of Sweetgum, Swamp Chestnut Oak, Shumard's Oak and American Beech can be seen.

The longer trails are nicely low-key and blend in with the surroundings. Here a rustic wooden bridge crosses a small creek.

Variety is the spice of life and an amazing range of trees make Congaree a wonderfully varied place to visit. Here, the stark white trunk of an American Plane (strangely and erroneously called a Sycamore in North America!) stands out against a deep blue sky.

Now and then, a gap in the canopy - usually created by a falling tree - allows a forest giant to be seen in all its glory. I roughed out the height of this Loblolly Pine as being over 140 feet with the first branches appearing at some 80 feet from the ground - an amazing piece of wood!!

Like Spanish Moss, the appearance of wild palms in the countryside is a sure sign of being down south. The Dwarf Palmetto forms some quite sizeable colonies in parts of Congaree Swamp.