It’s been a boom season so far for yard creatures. Or maybe we’re just around more to notice. Whatever the case, the May and June showers have brought a whole lot of damp to every surface, including one’s skin. (also known as ‘air you can wear.’) The resulting lush vegetation has become a thrilling and perilous buffet, where you need to watch your back in case you might be the next meal. Suburban yard accoutrements (deck chairs, hoses, umbrellas, drying-out coolers, garden pots, firepits. etc.) are just more moisture-collecting surface area and refuge for anything that climbs.
In particular, though, we’ve noticed a rainbow of rat snakes. Corn snake on the deck, yellows along the fence-line in the shrubs and climbing the big pine. juvenile on the wall (check out the hunting photo – that frog did not move until the strike!) These are all members of the genus Elaphe (or Pantherophis, depending on your source, for example… 1,2,3, 4), and the species-level detail seems to be even more of a debate.
The eastern box turtle community has been more visible as well – babies everywhere, and plenty of adults on the move. We moved this little one from the roadside to an adjacent wet ditch. The carapace patterns are especially striking and recognizable after a shower.
“Draining the swamp” has become the latest go-to metaphor for describing the removal of public servants who abuse their power and position in government roles. You hear it used more in the conservative media, who seem to favor simple, visually-evocative messaging (see:”Lock her up!”) but people across the political spectrum have been guilty of falling back on this messy expression as well.
The phrase stinks, but not like the fragrant eau de decomposition you can smell on a warm day in the swamp. If you love wetlands, you probably get as riled as I do when hearing or reading it. Of course we all understand the sentiment. It ISdisgusting and creepy to consider breaches of public trust that come from greedy public servants (fun oxymoron), accumulating via favoritism, using their protected status to scheme for the benefit of themselves and their supporters. Ugh.
‘Disgusting’ and ‘creepy’, among many other negative adjectives, are also used frequently to describe places people fear – like swamps. To the reductionist (or conservative) ear, ‘swamp’ conjures images of murky water full of aggressive alligators, trees festooned with venomous snakes and thorny vines, air thick with biting insects – in other words, a hard-to-escape place filled with malevolent beings that attract other malevolent beings. If you just drain that murky water, that habitat for those creepy beings will dry up, poof, go away. And then you can ‘develop’ the new land for a profit. (see: Florida.)
The etymology of ‘swamp’ is thought to come from “swombho-“, a PIE (‘proto-Indo-European’) term meaning roughly ‘spongy; mushroom,’ adopted over time, particularly in the US, to describe wet, spongy ground with ‘impenetrable’ vegetation. (1) “Spongy” doesn’t sound so bad, but “impenetrable” surely does – suggesting that you could become entangled by plants and slowly drown and/or get eaten. Nowadays, ‘swamp’ is generally defined as “an area of low-lying, uncultivated ground where water collects; a bog or marsh” (Oxford English Living Dictionary) and more officially as “any wetland dominated by woody plants.” (US EPA Wetland Classification. Don’t worry, there are lots of subcategories of ‘swamp,’ too.)
Over the years, swamps have had plenty of starring roles in movies and tv shows. As set pieces go, you can’t get much more evocative than this film poster for ‘Curse of the Swamp Creature.‘ For more recent depictions, you can binge shows like Swamp People, (thanks, History Channel!), and Swamp Loggers, (thanks, Discovery Channel!) which was filmed not far from here.*
Clearly I have a problem with this phrase – for two reasons. One: ‘Swamp’ has been appropriated as a BAD WORD. But swamps are actually lovely, important places, with a diverse and abundant population that did not arise via corruption. From a purely human practical perspective, swamps provide flood and water quality protection. They are full of trees and (or!) shrubs that make appealing and necessary stop-overs for numerous migratory birds. And variable with location, they’re also habitat for a variety of species that have fascinating adaptations to water-logged living, from carnivorous bladderworts with insect-trapping floats, to spotted salamanders, which have an unusual symbiotic relationship with green algae. If you know where to look, swamps can show you some stunning orchids. Swamps are GOOD places. Why would you want to drain them?
Two. Destroying something good is….uh,…NOT GOOD. D’oh. Historically, swamps were drained to gain fertile land for agriculture and settlement, and also to attempt to reduce mosquito populations in well-intentioned efforts to reduce disease. Then there’s the lore that “Washington D.C. was built on a swamp” – likely the literal (littoral) origins of our phrase. (There’s some geographic and semantic dispute about that – see here, and here.) More recently, some are starting to recognize that all of this muck-moving can have dreadful consequences. (see again: Florida.) Flooding, loss of storm buffers, decreases in water quality, collapse of bird and insect populations, etc.. Draining a swamp destroys webs of life that can never be replaced. It is definitely NOT the same thing as clearing the corridors of power of …okay, I almost said ‘leeches.’ Whoops. Let’s go with ‘dens of thieves,’ or maybe ‘power-hungry career politicians who clearly never go outside.’
In my humble opinion, it’s time to retire ‘drain the swamp,’ particularly as it is applied to purging a corrupt government. There are other ways to express our disgust in words. In this day and age, it has become way too easy to drain actual swamps.
Coral honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens is finishing its first round of bloom, and the Painted Buntings and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have arrived. One recent rainy afternoon, we watched this individual alternately sample the flowers, then retreat to the Wax myrtle, Morella cerifera, to fluff and dry off.
Although we’ve been hearing them for a couple of weeks now, today the Painted buntings appeared at the back yard feeder, within 10 minutes of putting out some millet. The feeder has been empty for at least a month. Hmmm.
Late February and early March have been notable so far for obnoxious winds. If you don’t live in SE NC, imagine soupy clouds of pine pollen and being pelted unpredictably by sweetgum balls.
On a recent wander through a local park, this Eastern Towhee was singing at the top of his lungs before getting blasted from behind by a sudden shocking breeze. Several guides note that this species is more often spotted closer to the ground, but we’ve seen what we think is this same bird over the last couple of years in the same spot, high up on the same tree, in the same park, singing the same song…a living trail marker. He’s the only one we see, but others are audible.
A little farther into the park, notable for its remaining longleaf pine/wiregrass/turkey oak community and interesting topography, this mallard pair was enjoying a high water day in one of the lime sinks. (which is often totally dry…) It’s a pretty neat spot – a little higher along the rim of the sandy depression, there are several Litsea aestivalis, Pondspice – a rare plant in NC, and federally listed as a species of special concern. Happy almost-spring…
Bald eagles might’ve discovered the neighborhood, to the consternation of crows who are accustomed to harassing the local hawks. Bald eagles are not uncommon in SE NC, especially along the coast, but seeing them a bit further inland apparently scoping the suburbs has to be a sign of something. Friends living closer to tidal creeks and spoil islands have been seeing more of them as well, so maybe there is some kind of population boom, and/or there is less available territory. Our neighborhood, about one square mile in area, still has some very large old pines and green open space, areas that are typically used by red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks, and osprey, during warmer months. It’ll be interesting to see if they decide to hang around. Check out this work by NC State scientists studying bald eagle movements.
…here’s a place to insert a clever comment about the 2018 Super Bowl winners. Or you can check out some Superb Owls, if you’d rather.
And probably a lot more, since I only took one opportunity on a November afternoon to wander and observe. Wish I had taken a few more, since this place was one of very few islands of residual ‘nature’ remaining in the north New Hanover county asphalt-n-subdivision sea. As of last month, it’s been cleared and graded, as predicted. Sigh.
You can’t (re)make this kind of plant community from scratch. And ‘tree protection’ ordinances don’t protect the less charismatic (clearly not IMHO) understory.
The banner and left photos are (WERE) pine barren gentian, Gentiana autumnalis, a member of fire-dependent longleaf and pond pine communities. Not sold at the garden center of the adjacent Lowe’s Home Imrpovement.
native american legends say when birds flew into the heavens to collect their songs, those who flew highest would find the best songs. you thought you wouldn’t be able to fly high enough, so you hitched a ride hidden in an eagle’s ruff, unbeknownst to the eagle, who began to tire and fall just before reaching the highest and best song. you slept on the eagle’s ascent, and tumbled out just in time to fetch the most beautiful song. you were so happy and proud! but when you returned to resentment of birds on the ground, you were soon ashamed of your deceitful ways.
Ever wonder what lives and grows along the margins of those orthogonal ponds? I do. (yup, easily amused…)The Thanksgiving challenge this year was to identify some of the stuff on the slim portions of unmown retention pond banks in a very wet planned community in SW Florida.
The ponds in these photos are a few years old, and have had time to accumulate a variety of both native and exotic invasive species in the areas where management practices allow for plants to duke it out on their own. Most of the diked high banks are mown down to seasonal high water, with a few exceptions in hard-to-access areas. Along the water itself, a few pockets of vegetation have proliferated, which are pretty popular with a variety of bird species.
In this neighborhood in late November, palm warblers seem to be the most visible songbirds of the moment, especially when they are plucking insects off of the ubiquitous pool cages! These winter visitors spend the breeding season ‘in bogs and fens in the northern United States and Canada.’ Common gallinules (previously known as the common moorhen) were also hard to miss, both visually and aurally. Small groups of adults and juveniles could be seen tip-toeing along the spatterdock at nearly all times of day. These marsh birds are also winter visitors, although their breeding grounds are more southerly than the palm warblers.
It wouldn’t be southern Florida without a bunch of brightly-blooming plants in late November. Nearly all of the upper edges of the dikes contained the exotic Caesar’s weed, Urena lobata, which bears a superficial resemblance to the spring-flowering native saltmarsh mallow, Kosteletzskya pentacarpos, we see in FL as well as SE NC. More expected fall bloomers included various species of native goldenrod, Solidago sp. and asters, Aster/Symphyotrichum spp..
White peacock butterflies took advantage of the carpet of exotic largeflower pusley, Richardia grandiflora, blooming on dike bank tops. This annual, also called Mexican clover, was everywhere, with clusters of delicate white blooms attracting equally delicate clusters of white peacocks. Quite a show. Slightly lower and wetter areas contained the fantastically-named exotic, Cupid’s shaving brush, Emilia fosbergii.
Common spreading dayflower, Commelina diffusa, a fleshy-leaved exotic scrambler, was mixed in to nearly all of the pond and shrub margins. Angle-stem primrose willow, Ludwigia leptocarpa, was both blooming and drying out along the pond edges. Its stiff woody stems were popular hiding places for the palm warblers. The Ludwigias are well-represented in SW Florida with both exotic and native species, but this particular native was a bit easier to identify since it has very long floral tubes and a number of the flowers have 6 petals.
In slightly shadier margins, you could find clumps of the native southern river sage, Salvia misella (syn. S. riparia), and scrambling bits of bitter melon, Momordica charantica, (also called balsam apple, or pear) a member of the cucumber family that has escaped cultivation. This plant has a long history in herbal medicine – in fact, one of its many other names is leprosy gourd. The fruit in the photo will eventually turn bright orange and split open, revealing bright red seeds.
Rosary pea, or crab’s eye, Abrus precatorius, is another climbing import sporting red seeds and serious toxicity. The entire plant is poisonous, particularly the pretty seeds that were historically used for weighing, and are still used for jewelry. This species is on the Florida Noxious Weed List. A walk around suburban SW FL wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Brazilian pepper, Schinus terebinthifolia. another red-berried invasive exotic that belongs to Anacardiaceae, taxonomic home of poison ivy, oak, and sumac. This tree is aggressive colonizer of disturbed areas (most of Florida, these days!) and forms a thick canopy that shades out other species.
Some of the pond areas have what appear to be conservation buffers that contain some species that might’ve been original to the area. One particularly ‘weedy-looking’ area contained West Indian meadowbeauty, Rhexia cubensis, and Wild coffee, Psychotria nervosa, a native woody shrub species that superficially resembles coral ardisia when squinting. (Coral ardisia has crenate leaf margins, among other distinctions.)
A couple of native aquatic species were still blooming – fragrant water lily, Nymphaea odorata, as well as larger masses of spatterdock, or cow lily, Nuphar advena.
Some of the pond banks revealed remnants of shellfish meals – not sure who was eating these paper pondshell mussels (i think), and if they were harvested from the adjacent ponds, or just eaten here. Other activity was more evident – damselflies appeared to be reproducing in some kind of synchronicity. If you stared at the pond edge vegetation long enough, dozens of these mating damsels (possibly Ischnura / Forktail sp.) were visible.
…the sound of a chainsaw. Or maybe hedge-trimmer, mixed with chainsaw and leaf-blower. Here in good ole’ SE NC, you can’t go outdoors in October without a soundtrack of revving yard equipment. Squared-off hedges and precision edges are the goal. Never mind the cloud of exhaust enlivened by aerosolized pollen and animal turds. Fun times!
Here’s a clip we recorded of neighborhood sounds this morning, from our patio…
suburban biodiversity in southeastern north carolina