Archive for March, 2011

Baldcypress swamp, Chicot State Park

Everywhere water: marshes, lakes, streams, ponds, rivers, bayous and rain. A downpour ushered us into the state of Louisiana, which is appropriately shaped like a boot and home to a plethora of choices for wetlands observation. We clickity-clacked over the 18-mile long bridge that conveys I-10 over this country’s largest river basin swamp, the Atchafalaya—a spectacular flooded landscape of cypress, willow and tupelo, but we were whisked along at the posted speed of 60 mph, encased in the noise and fumes of travel, all senses, but sight dulled to music, scents and smell of the swamp. We wanted to be able to explore, and to temporarily live by a swamp, so we looked for swampy state park with a campground.
Located in south central Louisiana, Chicot (shi-koh) State Park is a 6,400 acre park, 2,000 acres of which are Lake Chicot, created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the ‘30s by means of an earthen levee which damned the existing bayou. The park is a microcosm of Louisiana. With habitats varying from swampy bottomlands to steep hills, lacking only prairie and coastal swamp, it is an ideal location for the Louisiana State Arboretum because so much of the state’s varied flora and fauna occur naturally there.

Eastern cottontail

We walked paths that rolled up and down hills of quietly dripping woods, last year’s coppery leaves squishing underfoot, our view unimpeded deep into the forest of trunks, but a tinge of green hinting at the dense summer greenery soon to come. Boardwalks led us through and out over swamp beneath towering cypress and tupelo. The air was filled with birdsong as we watched an eastern cottontail calmly browsing beside our RV. Such tranquil scenes. But nature doesn’t indulge sentimentality.
A Carolina wren was industriously poking about at the base of a tree, tossing leaf litter over its shoulder. Then it stopped, braced its little body and began yanking, leaning back, stabbing forward, yanking again and—pop! It came up with a huge larva. The following should not be read while eating and may not be suitable for all audiences . . . The wren proceeded to stab and tug at the larva until it had peeled the hapless creature like a banana, flipped it about, gobbled up the peel and then swallowed the insides. With a final gulp, it hopped to the next tree and dug about until it came up with another, identical larva and, after preparing it in the same fashion, slurped it down.

In the shallows of the lake, a school of minnows circled and darted in graceful choreography between cypress knees. A larger fish swooped in with a splash and there was a scattering of minnows, less one.
Dead leaves lay like skin over the murky water. Closer inspection revealed a large, spotted fishing spider, crouched motionless on the edge of a leaf, body low, front legs extended, denting the water’s surface. We watched through binoculars. It did not move. A minnow came into view, investigating upward at the twigs and leaves, moving ever closer. We winced. Do we want to see this? Objectively, yes. It is interesting, and the spider has to make a living too. The minnow moved within range, apparently unaware of the hovering threat. The minnow moved on by. A reprieve or was the minnow too large? We turned away and saw a large alligator resting in a marshy patch not far from the muddy bank. Realizing that we, too, were potential prey, we skedaddled.

Protected vantage point for watching swamp activities

One of the many bridges over water and marsh in Louisiana:

Links for further, interesting reading about Louisiana’s swamps and waterways:

“The Cypress-Tupelo Swamp” by B. E. Fleury. Tulane University http://www.tulane.edu/~bfleury/envirobio/swamp.html

America’s Wetland  http://www.americaswetlandresources.com/index.html

Nutria, Eating Louisiana’s Coast  USGS National Wetlands Research Center http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/factshts/020-00.pdf

“The Control of Nature: Atchafalaya” (Fighting the Mississippi River) by John McPhee The New Yorker Feb. 1987 http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1987/02/23/1987_02_23_039_TNY_CARDS_000347146?currentPage=all

“As the army fights the Mississippi, who is winning?” by Clay Dillow Popular Science May 2011 http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-05/army-fights-mississippi-river-who-winning

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Prickly Pear, defeated

We left Florida in early March, ahead of the heat, humidity and increasing number of bugs, but we had lingered in our leaving, hopping west along the Panhandle, touching down in a few state parks and in towns for supplies.  The bright white sand beaches continued along the gulf, but there was otherwise little resemblance to the natural, wild coast we’d so enjoyed in St Joseph State Park.  We’d spent only a week immersed in the peace, beauty and relative isolation of that state park, yet the drive along the coastal highway seemed a bombardment of bustle, smell, sound, clutter and litter of civilization.  To our left, the expansive blue ocean glistened, framed above by soft blue sky, below by white sand or scrubby dune, and then the sight would be wiped out by stretches of towering hotels beneath whose shadows small shops elbowed each other, toes to the highway berm, anxiously jostling for the tourist trade.  Clearly popular vacation destinations, these towns, so we drove on.

Brian and Annie, St Andrews State Park

St. Andrews State Park was our first stop.  Out on a point, with the gulf to one side, Grand Lagoon to the other, and Panama City looming from across St Andrews Bay, this was a busy park.  We rolled in, got the last available site that night and settled in amidst the thumping of music, laughter and yelling of other campers cooking dinner and telling fish tales.  We enjoyed the following day spent exploring the marshes and pine flatwoods, leaving the beaches, piers and waterways to the majority of the park’s human visitors.  These coastal state parks are little pockets of semi-natural environment tucked in amongst such a network of waterways, roads and development so that they seem like zoos, or museum dioramas — encapsulated examples of how life once was.  Wallowing gators were a common sight and we would come upon egrets, dozens at a time, many in showy breeding plumage, preening and nodding.  The place was film set pretty with palm trees and blue-green water, but long lines for the showers are not something we look for in an RV park, so we only stayed a couple of nights.

St Andrews State Park

Close to Pensacola, closer still to a busy naval air station, Big Lagoon State Park was nonetheless a much more relaxing and interesting place to visit and, at that time of the year at least, we had trails mostly to ourselves.  After stocking up on food in Pensacola at the Everman Co-op we stayed mostly within the state park’s boundaries during our week and a half stay.  Our’s was a grassy, back-in RV site stopping just short of a freshwater marsh.  Tall scrub to either side, generous space between sites and no one behind or directly across, created a private and quiet retreat, perfect for observing the wildlife that visited, unaware or uncaring of our presence within the RV.  The large rear window gave us a fine, close-up view of the marsh where we watched all sorts of birds feeding on seeds and insects.  One afternoon, a cracking of twigs and rustling of leaves drew ever closer.  Our dog, Annie, listened, head tilted while seated tall, frozen.  The noise grew louder, closer and the three of us crowded into the open doorway, two of us hoping we weren’t about to get a visit from a skunk.  Shrubs and grasses began quivering at the edge of our clearing and there it was, snuffling across the grass, an armadillo.  Sighs of relief from us, astonished expression on Annie’s face.  She’d never seen one.

A pine cone is an acceptable substitute for a tennis ball

We followed trails from sandy beach, to boardwalks over tidal salt marshes, through pine flats and beside freshwater marshes.  One stretch of trail ran several feet higher than the marsh to either side and we came to a spot where the path was muddied and etched with the dragging of a heavy body — an alligator crossing.  We picked up our pace.

A sandy trail beneath Slash Pines took us out to a pond where we watched Water Moccasins in a courting ritual.  A stroll in the pink light of evening took us out to the Big Lagoon where egrets were perched high in trees, their beautiful breeding plummage streaming out from their bodies in the breeze.  Ospreys swooped and dove in display near a nest-building in progress.

Boardwalk in Big Lagoon

Boardwalk over marsh, Big Lagoon State Park

Jets often roared overhead, heading to and from nearby NAS Forrest Sherman Field, home base of the US Navy’s Blue Angels and a training base for Navy, Coast Guard and Marine pilots.  Nights were quiet except for the night we heard scrabbling at the back of our RV.  A raccoon, reminding us that we’d forgotten to close the gate on the rear cargo area.

Purple pin marks Big Lagoon State Park

One more stop before leaving the state: a day trip to Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park where kilns once processed tar from southern Yellow Pines for maritime and other uses.  No sign of industry now as we walked a paved trail and boardwalk that took us through quiet pine woods, wet prairie where last season’s pitcher plants were harmless husks, above marsh and then out over the bayou.  We had the place to ourselves the entire time.  We ate a picnic lunch, watching birds, the fish and crabs in the bayou, the wind in the reeds and grasses.

Tarkiln Bayou

Beside the bayou

Spending part of winter in Florida is something we’d like to do again some year, but now we headed for Highway 10 and Alabama, sorry to be leaving, yet excited to be on to something new . . .

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