South Carolina Swamps and Savannahs

Dwarf palmettos at Congaree National Park

We spent the last week-or-so in South Carolina and visited two distinctive and fantastic habitats: old growth floodplain forest (at Congaree National Park and Frances Beidler Sanctuary), and Longleaf Pine flatwoods/savannahs (at Santee Coastal Reserve and Francis Marion NF).

The boardwalk trail at Congaree

Cypress swamp with tannin-colored water

Congaree was our first stop: about 11,000 acres of barely disturbed forest in all its primeval glory. Truly giant bald cypress trees loomed high overhead, many with broken-antlered crowns from centuries of hurricanes. The cypress knees (above-ground/water root structures) were both aesthetically fantastic and, as we discovered, ecologically rich - a combination that is frequent in the old-growth forest and really deserves a word of its own.

An old Cypress knee

We watched prothonotary warblers harvesting moss from the rims of cypress knees to build nests with - nests frequently located in cavities dead swamp gum trees or in yet other cypress knees.

Prothonotary warbler harvesting moss

The knees and the many downed tree trunks of enormous girth served another function as well - upland habitat for plants unsuited to life partially submerged. Many "floating planters" were absolutely covered in plants ranging from ebony spleenwort to palmate-leaved violets to hornbeams.

It was pretty spectacular to see familiar plants in the exotic and semi-tropical context - tupelos with alligators basking nearby, for example.

Congaree had a full spectrum of habitats from upland to inundated. Here's a giant loblolly pine with stegosaurus-like bark:

Ancient Loblolly Pine

And here's the pawpaw growing right near it. Talk about a tree-lover's dream destination!

Pawpaw flowers!

Common tree species at Congaree and the Beidler sanctuary included Bald Cypress, Swamp Tupelo (Nyssa aquatica), Sweetgum, Hornbeam, and Red Maple.

Sweetgum leaves

Bald cypress leaves

At the Beidler Sanctuary, we watched several yellow-crowned night herons hunt the swamp for crustaceans. This one had a bloody and mangled left leg and looked like it had narrowly escaped from an alligator's jaws or those of some other swamp predator.

The Yellow-Crowned Night Heron is a solitary and patient hunter

Santee Coastal Reserve had an absolutely stupendous short boardwalk, jumping with prothonotary warblers, northern parulas, yellow-rumped warblers, anoles, and truly beautiful emergent plants like blue flag iris (which was in bloom). The boardwalk terminated in a "pond" overlook which was one of the best if not the best single birdwatching spot I've ever been at. Passing overhead, flying oceanward, were wood storks, osprey, anhingas, egrets and vultures in great number. Meanwhile, alligators alternately basked and prowled in the duckweed-coated waters.

View from the Santee Coastal Reserve boardwalk

View from the Santee Coastal Reserve boardwalk #2 - can you find the alligator?

The beautiful Toxicodendron radicans grew shrub-like on cypress knees - this was a real hazard while canoeing through the swamp!

Alligator tracks look almost like the bootprints of a bow-legged man.

We stayed in a cute cabin at Givhans Ferry State Park. Near our cabin was this native wildflower:

Atamasco Lily, or "Naked Lady"

Arrowwood with flower buds.

This arrowwood viburnum was by a roadside at Francis Marion, getting ready to bloom.

At Santee Coastal and Francis Marion, we also walked through Longleaf Pine forests, managed with fire to stay open as they were in the long millenia before habitat fragmentation and wildfire suppression (every time I see Smokey the bear and his cute critter friends admonishing against fires I wince, as many of them and their plant allies were fire-dependent).

Young longleaf pine with burnt needles and fresh growth, Santee Coastal Reserve

The young longleaf pines spend several years in the "grass" stage, with just a lush plushball of long needles over the ground. During this period they build their root systems and weather the frequent wildfires endemic to their sandy soils. After a half-decade or so, they begin their ascent towards the canopy...

Young and crispy pine tree

Longleaf pine cone

The enormous cones of the longleaf open in response to fires, in this case a controlled burn in an area of the reserve being managed for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker which is indigenous to longleaf pine savannahs.

The burnt-over longleaf pine flatwoods and savannahs are astonishingly rich in understory growth, with surprising species such as the carnivorous sundew (which we saw) and pitcher plants (which we didn't), as well as a host of other plants from sweetbay magnolia to cinnamon fern.

A little lizard (anole) on the outside wall of our cabin.