New Hope from a Young Cypress

There is hope in seeing a young Okefenokee Cypress taking root and reaching toward the sky. The naturalists of old write of towering cypress – some as high as 120 feet – standing guard for centuries in the Okefenokee. But all that changed in the early 20th century. All were laid low.

Young Pond Cypress Tree, Taxodium ascendens, in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. Photographed in Mixons Hammock prairie swamp. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

The height, girth, straightness and quality of their wood is what no doubt brought the logging companies to the swamp seeking the cypresses. It began in 1909. The pristine Okefenokee began to bustle with activity and industry as skidders, sawmills and railroad tracks  invaded the Swamp.

C.T. Trowell writes, “Systematically, the Hebards extended their logging operations across the Okefenokee. Extending south from Hopkins to Cravens Island in 1912, they reached Pine Island and Mixons Hammock by 1915. Within a year they were cutting the timber between Mixons Hammock and Minnies Island and the railroad was extended across Jones Island to Billys Island. By 1918, the logging camp was established on Billys Island. About two years were required to log the timber around Billys Island. By 1921, the company was building the railroad to Floyds Island. Between 1922 and 1926, they logged the cypress around Floyds Island.”

Would the Okefenokee ever recover? 

Young Pond Cypress leaves and cones. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. May 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

Cypress trees grow very slowly. At a reported growth rate of only about a foot per year in their early stages, it could take 300 to 500 years for the Cypresses of the Okefenokee to once again tower over the habitat as they did prior to 1909. But with the establishment of the Okefenokee as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1937, the healing has begun.

Today, there are already some scenic waterways through the Okefenokee – tall cypresses mirrored in the tanin-darkened waters – that hint at these former days. And with the ongoing preservation and conservation of the Okefenokee Swamp as a National Wildlife Refuge, perhaps nature enthusiasts many generations from now will be able to once again see the majestic trees that were wiped out in just a single generation.

So, there is hope kindled in the heart upon looking at a young Cypress tree. A hope that things laid bare can one day live again and be renewed to their former glory.


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/51084474

An Old Champion

An excerpt from William Bartram’s Travels, published in 1791:

Large American Alligator in the; Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 11, 2015. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

“AN old champion, who is perhaps absolute sovereign of a little lake or lagoon (when fifty less than himself are obliged to content themselves with swelling and roaring in little coves round about) darts forth from the reedy coverts all at once, on the surface of the waters, in a right line; at first seemingly as rapid as lightning, but gradually more slowly until he arrives at the center of the lake, when he stops; he now swells himself by drawing in wind and water through his mouth, which causes a loud sonorous rattling in the throat for near a minute, but it is immediately forced out again through his mouth and nostrils, with a loud noise, brandishing his tail in the air, and the vapour ascending from his nostrils like smoke. At other times, when swolen to an extent ready to burst, his head and tail lifted up, he spins or twirls round on the surface of the water. He acts his part like an Indian chief when rehearsing his feats of war, and then retiring, the exhibition is continued by others who dare to step forth, and strive to excel each other, to gain the attention of the favourite female.”  Part II, Chapter V


William Bartram was a botantist, artist, and nature writer that explored the southeastern United States around the time of the American Revolution (1773-1776). He was a scientist, creationist and Christian that gave glory to the Author for all the wonderful works he observed and documented in his book, Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida.

iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/56027861

Okefenokee Primeval Prairies

An excerpt from Francis Harper’s 1913 paper “A Biological Reconnaissance of the Okefinokee Swamp”, published in The Auk, the official publication of the American Ornithological Society:

Sunset over an Okefenokee Swamp prairie; Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 10, 2015. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

“In the eastern United States few, if any, areas of equal extent afford such exceptional opportunities for the study of animal life in a primeval state as does Okefinokee Swamp.  The ‘prairies’ of the Okefinokee are by no means prairies in the ordinary sense of the term. One prairie may differ considerably from another, but all are essentially flooded marshes, or shallow lakes filled to a great extent with aquatic vegetation. In wet seasons one may pole his boat almost at will over these expanses; during dry summers, however, the muck is exposed, and little water is left except in the deeper parts, such as ‘gator holes.'”

 

Okefenokee Oak Mistletoe

Oak Mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum, is a hemiparasitic plant native to the United States and Mexico that lives in the branches of trees. Mistletoe is used as a Christmas decoration. Photographed in the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. Mixon`s Hammock on Suwannee River. May 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

A large clump of thick green leaves sits high in otherwise bare tree. The thick glossy leaves growing are completely unlike the normal foliage furled out by that tree in the spring. This makes Mistletoe easy to spot, especially in the winter. Its parasitic nature – stealing water and nutrients from its host – is what earned phoradendron (literally, tree thief) its scientific name.

So what made a parasite become a Christmas decoration? Internet stories about, but the underlying theme is that mistletoe was hung in the house as an icon of good luck. The superstitious belief that it fosters love and friendship may have led to the tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe.

Oak Mistletoe, Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. May 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

Each December, my coworker’s children collected mistletoe, tied a red ribbon around small bundles, and sold them to friends, family, coworkers and at Christmas craft fairs to have a bit of Christmas pocket cash. Since the clumps of mistletoe are often high within the trees, I had to inquire where his teenage boys learned how to climb so high. I was then schooled on how southerners in Georgia collected mistletoe: shoot it out of the tree with a shotgun!

Merry Christmas!


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/45781868

Okefenokee Journal: Banded Watersnake

Southern Banded Watersnake, Nerodia fasciata, in Okefenokee Swamp Park National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. Stephen C Foster State Park. March 10, 2015. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com

An excerpt from my March 10, 2015 Okefenokee Nature Journal:

Tuesday, 4:16 PM – The most noticeable, or, I should say, most unavoidable sight on the Trembling Earth Nature Trail was the gnats — great clouds of gnats six feet in diameter, swarming at eye-level on the boardwalk. We pass through one cloud – swatting and waving our hands with eyes squinted and mouth shut tight – only to encounter another gnat cloud a few feet further down the boardwalk. Swatting did absolutely nothing; like trying to blow a path through thick fog with your mouth.

With my eyes squinted and facing down, I happen to notice a quick movement below the boardwalk and a stirring of the tannin-stained blackwater swamp. “A snake!” my daughter shouts. She is somehow always the first to spot the serpents on our wildness hikes. Sure enough, down in the sphagnum moss slithered a Southern Banded Watersnake, Nerodia fasciata. One cool reptile was now off our checklist. But where were the alligators?


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/29933071

Beautiful Billy’s Lake – Okefenokee NWR

A view of the eastern end of beautiful Billy’s Lake in the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 5, 2017. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

Excerpt from the 1926 History of the Okefenokee Swamp by AS McQueen and Hamp Mizell:

“When the Lees followed the Seminole Indians as the first white settlers on Billy’s Island it was as the God of nature made it. Both the Indians and the Lees left the magnificent trees which covered the island; both took so much of the wild game as was necessary for food and raiment; both fished in the beautiful lake adjoining the island, and the island remained about the same until men of the business world discovered that untold millions of dollars were tied up in the giant cypress and pine trees hid away in this great Swamp.”

Okefenokee Beauty and Charm

Virginia Chain Fern growing from a cypress knee. Photographed in The Narrows in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. May 2, 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

From the broad, sweeping bird’s-eye-view, down to the smallest detail of living organism, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is full of beauty and charm. Perhaps alligators and snakes are the first thing conjured in the mind upon hearing the word “swamp”, but peace, solitude and fascination come to my thoughts.

My first visits to the Okefenokee were to photograph alligators and wildlife. Later, birds became the focus of my interest. And more recently, after several swamp excursions, the minute details of fern and twig, insect and web, lichen and flower have captured my attention. Even when not paddling through the swamp in my canoe, I am at home perusing through book after book about the habitats and ecosystem of the swamp.

If you are fascinated by this natural world, you must make the Okefenokee Swamp a destination on your list of must-see parks. It is truly a place of beauty and charm!


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/46220644

Anhingas on a Chilly Okefenokee Morning

Okefenokee Journal: Monday, March 6, 2017. 9:20 AM.

Pair of roosting Anhingas on a chilly Okefenokee spring morning; Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 6, 2017.

Billy’s Lake is perfectly calm, still and quiet. The clear, dark, tannin-stained waters reflect the swamp landscape like a mirror of obsidian. Only an overcast sky and somewhat chilly breeze. It is amazing how chilly it can be on an Okefenokee early spring morning.

​We have the swamp to ourselves! No other paddlers on the water. And even better, no loud motor boats to toss our little vessel, spout gasoline fumes into the air, or to break the wonderful silence. Even the gators haven’t yet pulled themselves out of the water. A few roosting Anhingas were perched, tucking their bills into their feathers until the sun comes to warm up the day.

Floating Fields of Nymphea

Yellow Water Lily pad, Nuphar luteum, also called bonnet lily or spatterdock. Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, USA. Photographed May 2, 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

“​WE approached the savanna at the South end, by a narrow isthmus of level ground, open to the light of day, and clear of trees or bushes, and not greatly elevated above the common level, having on our right a spacious meadow, embellished with a little lake, one verge of which was not very distant from us; its shore is a moderately high, circular bank, partly encircling a cove of the pond, in the form of a half moon; the water is clear and deep, and at the distance of some hundred yards, was a large floating field (if I may so express myself) of the Nymphea, with their golden blossoms waving to and fro on their lofty stems. Beyond these fields of Nymphea were spacious plains, encompassed by dark groves, opening to extensive Pine forests, other plains still appearing beyond them.”
– Excerpt from William Bartram’s Travels; Part II, Chapter VI

William Bartram was a botantist, artist, and nature writer that explored the southeastern United States around the time of the American Revolution (1773-1776). He was a scientist, creationist and Christian that gave glory to the Author for all the wonderful works he observed and documented in his book, Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida. 


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/52009280

Okefenokee Pileated Woodpecker Designs

Pileated Woodpecker Okefenokee Swamp
Early morning silhouette of a Pileated Woodpecker hammering a branch. Dryocopus pileatus is a woodpecker native to North America. Birding in Stephen C Foster campground, Trembling Earth Nature Trail; Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, USA. May 4, 2020. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com. ©www.williamwisephoto.com.

“I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall.” Obviously, that’s an expression we use to describe a pointless pursuit that accomplishes nothing but pain. However, it is an action that a woodpecker does on purpose!

I marveled as I watched a Pileated Woodpecker hammering away in the Okefenokee Swamp… chunks of bark and wood flying everywhere. I could only imagine how much my brain would be addled if I were to try it myself. With all the concerns about concussions in high school and college athletes, it is clearly something humans weren’t made to do.

But that is not true of the woodpeckers. In Unlocking the Mysteries of Creation, Dennis Peterson writes, “The woodpecker is totally different from other birds. Every part of his body is especially fitted for drilling into wood.”

The woodpecker’s beak alone is designed for the job. It is harder than that of other birds, and the base of the bill is fitted with a shock-absorbing tissue not found in some other species. To go along with a beak designed for drilling, the woodpecker has a specialized tongue. Fashioned to fit into those freshly drilled holes, the woodpecker’s tongue is four times longer than the beak and wraps around the back of the bird’s skull! The tail, legs and claws are also specialized designs to help the woodpecker hold in place during his jack-hammer feeding sessions. And a keen sense of smell helps the woodpecker determine the precise drilling point to maximize the chance of excavating an insect.

All these wonderfully engineered traits are obviously to the woodpecker’s advantage and keep it from pointlessly beating his head against the wall!