Okefenokee on My Mind
To paraphrase Willy Nelson who sung about Georgia, I had Okefenokee on my mind. When I was a kid, before I started birding, I loved reading the Sunday editions of Walter Kelly’s “Pogo.” Appreciation of the political nuances came later. Pogo lived on even after the 1973 death of the creator. The strip gave more notoriety to Okefenokee Swamp and Pettingill recommended it as a great place to see birds. Visiting the land of Pogo, I thought, would be another milestone of the trip, ranking up there with Yellowstone, coastal Maine, Hawk Mountain and Washington, D.C., the source of much of Pogo. I was anxious to bird the wild swamp. The closer I drove to Okefenokee, the more restless I became. It was like getting up in the morning with a full bladder. The first step out of bed is not so bad, but by the time, you are almost at the commode you wonder if you’ll get in position to let out a backed up Niagara Falls.
Charleston had been my gateway to the south. Okefenokee would be my gateway to the Deep South. Before getting there, I traveled south of Charleston to the very southern, gone with the wind Dixie Plantation, and the low country marshlands of Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.
Yesterday, Mr. Blitch and I returned to the Charleston Museum. He had told me that before visiting the Savannah region and Okefenokee Swamp, I should visit one more place in South Carolina. My Charleston guide phoned John Henry Dick, who agreed to meet me at his home, the Dixie Plantation a few miles south of Charleston. Rain dominated the day. The decision to make today a nonbirding day seemed a good one. Besides, I was anxious to see the live waterfowl collection and curious to meet such a famous bird artist. Sheets of water were pouring down the windshield as I followed the directions to the old plantation. The route, well off the beaten path, finally led down a long oak lined driveway. It was a southern version of the Washington Mall. Robert E. Lee or Clark Gable, or both, would have felt at home. On the other hand, I felt out-of-place until the friendly voice of the owner put me at ease.
The moment I stepped out of the car, two big but friendly brown boxers pounced on me, almost knocking me to the drenched ground, and licking my hands. A tall, husky man stepped out of a door and introduced himself. His thick heavy hand, as we shook, felt more like that of a laborer than of an artist. This was John Henry Dick whose superb work I had seen in books including A Gathering of Shorebirds and Griscom and Sprunt’s Warblers of America. Especially impressive was the art and even more, he had observed every species of North American warbler. The rain flowed and ebbed the rest of the day. We toured the duck pond where I saw mandarin, Shelduck, Pink-footed Goose and many more. Of course, these did not go on my trip list. Most interesting was a collection of all the subspecies of Canada Goose. We saw the usual herons and sparrows and listened for Great Horned Owls that had been plaguing the waterfowl.
Inside the house was amazing. In the middle of the main room a large Indian tiger skin, with stuffed head covered the floor. A zebra skin dressed a hallway. The study was separate from the main house. Two large watercolors, recently finished, of the Flightless Cormorant and Galapagos Albatross sat casually on a sofa. Inside a fireproof room were countless ink drawings covering a cabinet top and part of a wall. Many of them were to be in a forth-coming book on the south. A collection of old, out of print bird books lay in metal racks. Bird study skins from various parts of the world occupied the largest space. Several heavy volumes containing thousands of personal photographs of birds, mammals and places recorded quests for wildlife.
Although John Henry Dick was leaving for Texas tomorrow morning, he offered a meal and a spare room. That evening, we enjoyed a superb meal of hamburger, potato cakes and Jerusalem artichokes or sunroots. John explained that sunroots are a relative of the sunflower and there is taste similar to jicama. I was too embarrassed to ask about jicama. We talked more than we ate. John had the habit of commenting to himself about the taste of his food. He punctuated almost every mouthful with an audible “mmm, “or “mm-mm“ that I just as suddenly ignored. I learned my host liked Stravinsky, old bird books, and marched to the beat of his own drum. We talked to midnight.
John Henry Dick’s mother was the widow of John Jacob Astor, a victim of the ill-fated Titanic. That background may have helped finance his early career. His talent helped the rest. Besides his work with Peterson and others he illustrated Pettingill’s The Bird Watcher’s America,1 John won the competitive annual Duck Stamp Contest. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sponsored contest attracted numerous artists, many of whom visited the National Museum of Natural History during my own career. John Henry Dick died in 1995, leaving his collection of rare books and the Dixie Plantation to the College of Charleston.
The next two days were miserably cold and rainy. I busied myself by working on my notes and correspondence to birders. I bit my tongue, which made chewing an ordeal, and a sore throat I was nursing, made swallowing painful. Maybe my parents were right; maybe my diet was not the best for my health. I also heard that travel on the Florida Keys was restricted because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I began to wonder if my roadside camps would soon be restricted.
The skies cleared on the day I arrived at Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. The approximately 12,600-acre refuge straddles the South Carolina-Georgia boundary. At headquarters, on the South Carolina side of the meandering Savannah River, I met Mell Millinger, biologist for the refuge. We discussed the fact that camping in national wildlife refuges was usually prohibited, as it was at Savannah, but he had a place I could park my car and probably hear Barred Owls during the night.
After lunch, Mell and I took a trip on some of the dike roads of the refuge. Our route took us across acres of marsh, burnt fields full of starlings and hordes of blackbirds, a few Mourning Doves and Water [=American] Pipits. We did not realize until we stopped that the ground was teeming with thousands of pipits. The ground was covered. It pulsated. There was little room for foraging and barely room for tail wagging. The freshwater marsh was dotted with island oases of live oak, other hardwoods and pine. The islands were probably ancient sand dunes. Because I had found most of the waterfowl possible in the refuge, we concentrated on the wooded sections for gnatcatchers and owls. No luck.
We arrived at Mell’s house to the aroma of food. He and his wife insisted I join them. I could not refuse free food. About an hour before dark, I hurried off to the parking spot where I might find Barred Owls. I settled in, surround by trees on one of the old sand dunes. After about two hours of deep sleep, all hell seemed to break loose. Less than 20 feet away a strange and eerie sound disturbed the silence. About 40 feet away an answer sliced the humid air. I woke up, the hair of the back of my neck stood at attention and I listened. Two birds were calling back and forth, sometimes overlapping their barks and cries, until a sudden silence. A good imitation of what I heard on my Peterson LP back in Oregon broke the stillness. I eased out of bed, down to the driver’s seat and out the car door. With flashlight at the ready, I aimed the beam at one of the birds. The dark eyes and round face of a Barred Owl stared back. I eased quietly back in the car and into bed. The unsettled owls started calling again about 30 minutes later and continued until about an hour before sunrise.
The next two days were rather discouraging. The refuge checklist contained 10 species that would help my trip list, but most of the species on it had departed southward. I tried but none of 86 species seen for the two days was new, only number 87, the Barred Owl, was an addition. In the evening, I met Ivan Tompkins at Milligan’s dinner table. In addition to being an expert on Georgia’s birds, he was keen to go birding, and offered to take me along. Ever eager, I accepted.
The early morning hour was, for lack of a better word, nippy. I was warm inside from a hearty Millinger breakfast of bacon and eggs. I sped the few miles to the city of Savannah where I met Ivan Tompkins at his home. We drove east to Tybee Island, a large barrier island, which was replete with the usual beach houses, tourist cafés and other buildings crowding out most natural habitat. Ivan announced casually that this is the spot for Purple Sandpiper. We parked at a cold spot near a wooden jetty hunched in the wind. Icy salt spray soared high over our heads in vertical plumes each time the Atlantic came crashing into the worn jetty. The wind blew most of the spray away from us as we looked over about 50 Ruddy Turnstones. Ivan calmly pointed out a Purple Sandpiper, then two more, three, until we counted an even dozen. We birded most of Tybee Island, finding three more species of shorebirds, three species of gulls, and a Western Kingbird just to make me feel at home.
The next day we drove north to Ivan’s favorite birding location, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The island, about 30 miles, as the Fish Crow flies, from Savannah, is a foot-shaped land mass of about 42 square miles. Luckily, my guide knew just where to go. One of the first places was looking out to sea. I was still hoping to find gannets, and [=Northern Gannet] gannets we found. Far out to sea two large white birds soared high over the water, folded their black-primaried wings and dove into the dark ocean. Just after getting my breath, a loon surfaced between the gannets and us. Its upturned bill and white on its face and back were telling. In a hunchback flight, the snaky, droopy-necked Red-throated Loon disappeared to the south. Through the day, we found 14 species of shorebirds, Anhinga, an immature Red-headed Woodpecker and about 40 others during our visit to Hilton Head.
Willets were among the 14 species of shorebirds Ivan Tompkins and I saw at Hilton Head. In 1955 and 1965, he published two major papers on willets. Years later, I was on Wallops Island, Virginia, with Marshall Howe, assisting him for a couple of days in his study of Willets. Marshall, a curator of birds at Smithsonian, was familiar with Ivan Tompkins studies. As with most research, earlier investigations provide building blocks to frame new studies, and to either refute or support new findings. Observation removes itself from the realm of anecdote to a published finding. It is out there for all to ponder, take apart, refute or embrace.
Ivan’s papers, just as those by Howe and others, including yours truly, first must stand the rigors of peer review before publication. Editors farm out manuscripts to experts sharing the same topics of a manuscript. The reviewers or referees offer recommendations to the editor who then delivers comments and suggestions to the author. Depending on the workload of the referees and editors, and how many revisions might be required, might require considerable time, but not as long as passing a bill on Capitol Hill. This process of checks and balances helps keep science accurate, be it the report of an unusual sight record or the relationship of woodpecker genera. Is it possible to repeat the study (a tried and true scientific method)? State bird committees depend on irrefutable information, so they ask questions such as were there specimens, photographs, sound recordings, an accurate and believable description and what other persons recorded the Blue Grouse in the Dry Tortugas.
We all depend on the process, including authors of our field guides, those wonderful books that help make birding possible. Past and present field guide authors, from Peterson to Pough, Robbins, Kaufman, Sibley, contributors to the Geographic Guide, and others, have drawn heavily from the literature and voucher specimens that support information on distribution, migration, molt, systematics and more. Specimens, illustrated and described in field guides, provide information that allows birders to identify species, some subspecies, plumages and sexes. Specimens and other information provide the lister with Spotted and Eastern Towjees, not just the latter, an extra sage-grouse, an extra oriole, and a mess of crossbills that may add seven or eight more species to count. Pity the birder sorting out those cone pickers. The information gleaned from specimens and peer-reviewed literature eventually makes its way from scientific journals and field guides to popular articles and conservation based publications. The rancher or suburban bird feeder may more likely let a birder view a Lucifer Hummingbird because they read a magazine article on nature in a doctor’s office.
Knowledge brings appreciation, and it instills the need to conserve habitat for birds. Birders should always be aware of the importance of their observations; a single observation, added with many other single observations may be important. Publishing noteworthy sightings is important; otherwise, they are just stories that will be lost in the wind.
By my calculations, I was 10 days ahead of schedule; I planned to be in Florida on 1 December. Departing Savannah, I drove only 15 miles where I found a roadside park. Two other campers were there enjoying the short-sleeve temperature. I spent to next two nights at the park, catching up on notes, correspondence, pouring over my trip list and realizing I would not likely hit my goal of 500 before June 1963, and planning my next stop. I still had Okefenokee on my mind.
On the 18th, I drove southwest toward Waycross, the town just north of famed Okefenokee Swamp. With one eye kept out for a good place to look for birds, I checked out a couple likely places, and by late afternoon decided to find a roadside pull out to spend the night. The remaining daylight went to writing a letter to my parents and to Linda, and to catching up on reading. I had an Audubon Field Notes that covered the winter season, and was eager to peruse the Florida region. Before five minutes had passed, a Georgia state trooper rolled up beside my car. I was sitting behind the wheel reading. A portly uniformed man eased out of his car, walked over, and asked for driver’s license and car registration. He then demanded me to tell him what I was doing, where I was going and why. I attempted to explain that I was catching up on my reading about birds, that I was going to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge tomorrow, and that I hope to see more birds there.
I tried again, explaining that I had a list of birds, and that I was trying to see as many of them as possible.
“The hell you say.” Big sigh. “Okay.”
He drove off. “Hell,” I muttered to myself. I continued reading reports of winter sightings in Florida.
After it became too dark to read, it was time to eat. Eating in the dark is sometimes difficult, but that is just as well. When I reached the half way mark on a can of tasty beans, I was again interrupted. This time two men got out of a state police car. Gone back for reinforcements I thought. One officer, different from my first visitor, approached my side of the car, and the other uniformed cop went to the other side of the car. They dwarfed the little VW. I told them I had already been checked, but again, this time with the aid of a bright flashlight shining in my eyes, was again interrogated. It is amazing how these people think shinning a bright light in someone’s eyes is supposed to help anyone.
I explained what I was doing, why I was doing it, or at least the best I could, and where I was going.
“Hm. You have any cigarettes?”
By then my nerves were being calmed slightly by a cigarette that I gratefully inhaled. Stupid me, I said yes.
“Humph. How many?” Now the other cop started aiming his flashlight beam inside my car, sweeping back and forth across the still unread Audubon Field Notes, an ice chest and the big wooden box that held my books and papers. It took up about two-thirds of the back seat, and, with its door closed, looked suspicious. Everything looked suspicious to them, but so did they to me.
“Yeah. How many? Lemme see.” It was not a curious “lemme.” It was more of a demanding “lemme.”
I told them they were in the big wooden box. That really excited them. They had caught be red handed. Three-quarters of a VW back seat full of cigarettes. Even if it was full, I wondered what the big deal was. I only had the four cartoons that I had purchased in North Carolina. They were cheaper there than any place I had been. The four cartons totaled $9.40.
Both officers placed their hands on the handles of their holstered guns as I slowly opened the wooden box. Beads of sweat were forming under the wide brim of the serve and protect guy nearest me. The first objects to come in view were my field guides and other books. “Well, I’ll be,” muttered one of them. I’ll be what, I wondered. They wanted to see the state stamps on the individual cigarette packs. Fortunately each one was stamped properly. They seemed satisfied and drove off.
I went on about my business of eating my can of baked beans. Later, I had desert, then an after meal cigarette, and thirty minutes of listening to the radio. I was curious if there was any news about the Cuban Missile Crisis and if law enforcement had broken the dangerous ring of cigarette smugglers. I crawled into my berth, went to sleep, but was awaken by the same troopers. Once again, I explained myself but this time I didn’t talk about birding so much for fear they would definitely lock me up. Another man, who I could faintly see in the edges of the flashlights, stood silently while adjusting his necktie and buttoning and unbuttoning his suit jacket. Finally, I was told that the suited person had seen me sitting in my car, and reported to the police that he feared I had pulled off the road to die. I choked to hold back laughter and disgust at their lame story. Maybe my interrogation would have gone better if I had been willing to give up a few of my breakfast donuts.
Waycross beckoned. At last, I was reaching my goal, Okefenokee Swamp, a 700 square mile bowl-shaped depression straddling the boundary between the coastal plain of Georgia and Florida. Stephen Foster’s Suwannee River begins from the southwest corner of the swamp before emptying into the Gulf of Florida. Information I picked up at Waycross explained that the swamp was 25 miles across and 40 miles long. The Miccosukee Indians called the region Okeefologee, which meant funnel of water, although some sources state that Okefenokee is a European rendition of an Indian word meaning land of trembling earth. Funnel of water or trembling earth, the swamp was huge and powerfully thrilling. About 331,000 acres of the 400,000 acres swamp is protected by the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Ivan Tompkins told me before I left Savannah to look up Eugene Cypert, the refuge biologist in Waycross. He wasn’t in, but one of the staff told me to call Mrs. Cypert. She said to call Roy Moore, a retired refuge manager, who told me to call Mr. Cypert at 6 p.m., and to wait right there. Mr. Moore said he was planning to be in Waycross soon.
Before I could blink, Roy Moore was rushing through the headquarters’ front door. We discussed the birding possibilities in the refuge. He seemed disappointed that previous commitments would keep him too busy to help me bird the swamp. Roy was a wealth of information, and even though retired, he clearly had Okefenokee on his mind. He guided me to a roadside picnic area where I could spend the night.
At 6 p.m. sharp, I called Eugene Cypert. He told me to meet him at refuge headquarters early tomorrow morning. Following hasty introductions, we drove south to Fargo, then up a road paralleling the Suwannee River to, appropriately, Stephen C. Foster State Park. No other roads penetrate Okefenokee. This is a place for boats, and we were soon skimming the black water in a small craft powered by a tiny outboard and a long push-pole in case of an emergency. That the top of the gunwale was only about eight inches above the water surely meant being swamped in the swamp. Alligator feeding time was not today, and our gentle wake barely disturbed the dead-calm surface. Not a drop of Okefenokee water came on board as we sliced deeper and deeper to the heart of Pogo land.
Our cruise had a mission. We were not just going on a casual tour; we were going to count everything we saw. The official census began at Billy’s Lake near the boat dock. The “lake” was a narrow channel of open water surrounded by towering cypress and a thick understory of deciduous brush. Our goal was to count the big birds, the ibises, herons, ducks and hawks. Little time was allowed for small birds, but I was still looking for gnatcatchers and Yellow-throated Warblers.
Strange panoramas changed constantly. The dark water formed a glass surface that reflected every detail. It was as if we were plying through the swamp on a horizontal mirror. We could look up or down and enjoy the same view. Even birds flitting in the moss-draped cypresses reflected in the flat glassy water, as did every brilliant hue of the black gums and blue sky. Cypress knees spiraled above us in the shade of their own trunks, and alligators slowly sank below the peaceful surface as our boat approached. Shadowy pools, little islands of peat 15 feet thick, cypress and other trees, and more of the same stretched for miles in all directions. We motored north through Minnie Lake.
The alligators were also surveyed for number and length. Determining length was accomplished by measuring, at a distance of course, the distance from their nostrils to their eyes. For every inch between those features, attractive only to another alligator, is supposed to equal a foot of actual length. Judging from the nose to eyeball equation, several were longer than I was. I kept my hands in the boat.
The survey included every Anhinga splash, every egret flying, and every kingfisher rattle. Surprised Black-crowned Night-herons, Great and Little Blue herons, Sandhill Cranes rattling their rolling “kerooo” just out of sight, and flushed Wood Ducks were all tallied. A chorus of Carolina Wrens filled the air as we continued our journey of pastoral beauty and delightful awe.
We entered Floyd’s Prairie about five miles from the boat dock. The 60,000 acres of prairies are wet marshy areas once ravaged by drought-induced fires that not only destroyed most the trees but also smoldered into the thick peat below. A large white bird, with black flight feathers and large oversized bill flew from one lone tree to another. The bird, a Wood Ibis [=Wood Stork], locally called flinthead, is actually a stork. We found more flintheads, all of which, like the alligators, allowed us to approach closely.
Before turning back, we stopped to check a refuge cabin that was built on a hammock at the edge of Big Water. We glided into shore. Because I was at the bow, I jumped out to secure the boat. The Indian gods must have laughed. The land of trembling earth taught me a lesson as I began sinking fast. From the corner of my eye, I saw something move. Was this a time to apply to nose to eyeball equation? The soft wet peat sucked at my legs. I grabbed at a slippery cypress knee, and then pulled one leg at a time to the surface. I didn’t lose my boots, and I didn’t lose my life.
With humility and mucky wetness, but with an eye for birds, we returned to the dock. Back on firm land, Eugene and a state park official discussed refuge boundaries. While I waited, six raccoon suddenly appeared. It was time for their appointed feeding by one of the park employees. Deer also showed up for snacks, and skunks roamed the parking area looking for crumbs. All but one skunk was black and white stripped; the odd one was brown and white. I kept a respectable distance from the skunks, although my rotten peat smell might have seemed competitive.
Luckily, I was able to find a place for a shower, and changed clothes before driving southeast of Waycross the next day. I found a suitable place for the night north of a little town called Mattox, over 10 miles east-southeast of Big Water but much drier and more solid. My notes were up to date, it was getting dark, and I was hungry. However, a patrol car pulled up. It was the county sheriff, who said he was just checking, and suggested I drive into Folkston to tell the “boys” at the office that he sent me in “to fix me up for a place to stay.” Maybe it was a gesture of kindness. Maybe it was a gesture that meant sleeping where I didn’t want to sleep. Since it was only a suggestion, I decided to stay put.
The next morning, Thanksgiving Day, I was out of breakfast donuts. Instead, I ate sweet rolls to the sound of traffic zooming by and a faint herald of Carolina Wrens. I was half way through my oh so continental breakfast when a dark green Ford came to a screeching stop. Someone jumped out. It was Eugene, who said he had seen my car, and stopped to invite me to accompany him on a short excursion into Okefenokee Swamp. I was delighted, and glad I hadn’t taken the suggestion of last night’s lawman.
We launched from Camp Cornelia, traveling west by boat in the Suwannee Canal, south to Chesser Prairie and east of Seagrove Lake, about a 12 mile round trip. The mission was to band Wood Ducks and open the traps since no one could check them during the remainder of the day. The wind blew through our clothes and buffeted the water. Our boat had a deeper hull than the one yesterday. I was relieved. There were only five traps to tend and each one was empty. I was disappointed but grateful for the two-hour cruise into the swamp. For the second time, I thanked and said goodbye to Eugene Cypert.
Savannah National Wildlife Refuge grew from over 12,000 acres to 28,000 acres. Several thousand acres were purchased from Union Camp Corporation, the same company that had donated land that became part of Great Dismal Swamp refuge. The same forces, once the Union Bag and Paper Corporation, later called Union Camp, and as of 2004, acquired by International Paper, have been instrumental in donating and selling land to Okefenokee, although usually retaining timber rights to such transactions. Great Dismal, Savannah and Okefenokee, other than being world-class swamps, have two things in common. Draining and logging. Plans to drain Okefenokee began in the late 1800s. Logging the cypress began in 1900. Over 431 million board feet of timber were removed from Okefenokee by 1927, when logging operations stopped. Ten years later, a large part of the swamp was protected as the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge now encompasses approximately 396,000 acres, a large part, which, in 1974, was, designated a National Wilderness Area.
Great Dismal and Okefenokee swamps look different partly because of our consumption of paper. Worldwide, about 300 million tons of paper is produced. One source stated that from 1992 to 1997, paper consumption rose from 44 pounds per person to 739 pounds per person. I find that hard to believe but I sure don’t want to use a lot of paper explaining that I don’t believe I used that much paper in 1997. That would mean everyone now is using even more paper, and, in fact, we are. Even e-commerce consumes it by the ton. Most of the paper we consume, about 90%, is from virgin tree fibers. Although the fibers can be recycled about a dozen times before becoming too short for paper production, and, although the quality of recycled paper is comparable to paper from virgin fibers, less than 10% of the paper we use is recycled. Once used, we flush it, shred it, and fill 40% of landfills with unread catalogues, newspapers, old bird books, you name it. Some of it goes up in smoke, and I am not going to contribute to paper use about what that does. Paper is supposed to be biodegradable but that depends on exposure to environmental elements. Paper, if scattered loosely might biodegrade in two to five months, but much longer if compacted.
The remainder of 22 November was the end of my time in Okefenokee Swamp and the beginning of my birding in Florida. I drove south from Folkston, leaving behind the sheriff’s “hospitality,” the guidance from Roy Moore and Eugene Cypert, and the mysterious beauty of tea-colored waters, cypress knees, alligators and birds. I would never read Pogo the same way again. I was lucky that I had Okefenokee on my mind.
1 Pettingill, O.S. 1965. The Bird Watcher’s America. New York Mcgraw Hill