Sunday, May 10, 2015

Waccamaw and Local Wilds

March 12-16

This edition will incorporate several walks through the local small bits of nature and a more ambitious first visit to Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge along the Great Pee Dee River.
I didn't see a lot of turtles during my March 2015 stay in South Carolina.  I found this Slider Turtle (Trachemys scripta scripta) basking at the resort on the beach just to the south of the Sands Beach resort where I stayed. There is a small river between the two resorts, giving these turtles ample habitat opportunity. This is likely a large, old female, since the carapace length is close to the 11 inch maximum. Note the dark circles on the beige plastron (the underside of the shell).  These circles are unique to this species. According to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia, this turtle is "the most ubiquitous and conspicuous species of turtle in the southeast". Another subspecies, the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) has been commonly kept as a pet, resulting in local "escapee" populations.

Entering the wildlife refuge, you can see on the sign the reason for the refuge's existence. It is home to a disjunct population of the rare Swallowtail Kite. Will the Kites return from their South American wintering sites in time for me to see one? This reserve, along the Great Pee Dee River, incorporates a great example of the southern deciduous Carolinian forest. A great diversity of massive fast-growing trees greets you, including Live Oaks covered by Spanish Moss, which, you will recall from my Florida entries, is neither Spanish, nor is it a Moss. So much for common names.
Above, one of the prevalent impressive deciduous trees leafing out in March is the Sweet Gum Tree, Liquidambar styraciflua, which has leaves shaped in a shape reminiscent of maples. They grow up to 160 feet tall, with a 5 foot trunk diameter,  and are central to southern ecology and economy.  Extra bonus: crushed leaves are delightfully fragrant.
The Great Pee Dee River in flood due to melting snows back in the Appalachians. A good look at the amazing deciduous forest which occupies the plain right down to the banks of this wildlife rich river basin.
Any South Carolina child will recognize the "gumball" above. The dried fruit of the Sweet Gum tree, These dry and harden under the trees where they litter the ground, impaling anyone silly enough to traverse a path in bare feet. This feature permits sticking to, and riding furry travelers to new destinations where seeds may find barren ground. Many local flowering plants throughout North America use this strategy to propagate.

Above and below are trumpet flowers familiar to any South Carolinian. Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is South Carolina's state flower.  A harbinger of Spring, this vine is widespread.  it is also widely planted as a native garden plant, adding colour and fragrance to local gardens.  Insects and deer won't eat it. All parts of the plant are poisonous. Don 't eat any!

Early Spring in southeast North America bring splashes of red colour. You can see these brilliant reds thanks to several species of shrubs and trees. The one above is a southern Red Maple covered in red seeds. Although classified as the same species we have in the Ottawa Valley (Acer rubrum), the trees in the south have a very distinctive look with light park and very crimson flowers, seeds and leaves.
Above, some Sycamore fruit, left over from Autumn, has yet to fall.

Below, I found these Black and Yellow Mud Daubers (a very large and harmless wasp found through out Eastern North America, south of the boreal forest. The northern range limit is where I live in the Ottawa Valley) active on a bridge over a wetland in the Wildlife Refuge.  They appeared, to me, to be bigger than the 30 mms size given as average in the references. Most wasps ARE harmless to us. They are specialist, often solitary, predators of other insects and arthropods....and not aggressive to humans. Some prevalent social wasps, like Yellow Jackets and Hornets, cause people to be fearful of all wasps, which is unfortunate, as most of them are very ecologically beneficial.

Some migratory birds, like the familiar White-throated Sparrow, above,  move step-wise towards their nesting grounds. Here it is pictured feeding during its March stay in South Carolina. Perhaps I saw this same one during my May weekend at Presqu'ile Provincial Park along the Lake Ontario shore, where it stopped again on its way to a Boreal Forest nesting site. Virtually all of them nest in Canada. This is likely why its song is "O Canada Canada Canada".

Another Canadian stalwart is the Hepatica, (below) an ephemeral Spring flower at home appearing in late April. Here, it wasn't common, but I found some flowering in mid March.
Below is another flower that may be familiar to many Canadians, except for the fact that it is on a tall shrub found mostly in the Atlantic Coastal Plain: Highbush Blueberry, Vaccinium elliottii.  All of the commercial high bush blueberries are derived from this species. As it flowers in March, the fruits ripen well before our low bush varieties.

I moved on to another part of this large wildlife Jackson Bluff, just outside of Conway, SC.  I noticed a lot of young adults in this part of the Refuge. This impressed me a lot, as fewer and fewer young North Americans take to the wilderness. As I left, the reason emerged...I had missed, when I entered, the large residences of Coastal Carolina University right next to the Refuge entrance!

This part of the Refuge is  mostly upland forest, except for an exceptional Bald Cypress swamp.  A dominant wetland species from here to Florida is the River Cane. It reminds me of Bamboo, though it doesn't get quite as large. I photographed the interpretive signs along the trail to give to you directly the knowledge the interpreters have provided.

River Cane, above, and Bald Cypress "knees" below/
The boardwalk through the Bald Cypress swamp, below.

The typically widening base of a Bald Cyress tree, below.

Above, the sign provides information about Redbay, a delightful tree which was introduced to me in Florida. The fragrant leaves provide flavouring, similar to the bay leaves we use in soups and stews.

And here is a tree also found in our region, though it grows a great deal less tall back home....Red Cedar. As the sign above says, it is really a Juniper.

As the sign above tells us, the Longleaf Pine was an over harvested tree in the southeast, and Refuges are helping to recover part of this essential habitat.  I didn't find a Red-cockaded Woodpecked on this trip. I am hopeful to find one or more during a future visit. Below, is the trunk of a Longleaf. The rectangular shingles are distinctive and help to identify this tree.