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Winter in the Swamp, Delta Journal, Times Picayune, 1-20-08 C-9.jpg

Delta Journal

by Bob Thomas

Most people envision alligators when they think of swamps. In fact, Louisiana’s coastal swamps are full of alligators. During the winter months, however, gators become dormant and either hide in a gator hole or simply lie on the bottom, occasionally tipping upward to take a fresh breath of air. It is not unheard of to see an alligator or two soaking up the rays on a warm, sunny, mid-winter day. But, for the most part, our swamps appear to be generally gator-less between November and early February, so let me tell you why I love the wetlands in winter.

Since leaves fall from the trees and marsh plants wilt, the winter swamp affords excellent views that are impossible during our summer months when the habitats are dense with green growth. This means that the wildlife that are present are easy to see.

Though one is likely to see at least some plant species blooming at virtually any time in semi-tropical Louisiana, the most conspicuous winter flowering herb is Yellow Top (Senecio glabellus), a two foot tall plant with a bright yellow crown of flowers. Such early growth and blooming affords Yellow Top a less competitive environment. Since this species matures during the swamp’s low water period of the year, the rising waters of early spring usually cover the plants, making them available to crawfish as they emerge from their holes. Thus, Yellow Top becomes one of the primary foods of our beloved crawfish.

Mid-winter also brings the flowering of several trees, with the most obvious being Swamp Red Maple (Acer drummondii). When these deep red flowers appear, they literally cover the limbs of the otherwise barren trees. After pollination, these flowers yield seed pods in the form of large bundles of bright red seeds, each connected to a thin blade. Botanists call this type of seed a samara, and its blade-like portion causes it to twirl like the blades on a helicopter as it falls to earth. This is one of Mother Nature’s many ways of dispersing seeds from the base of the tree that produces them.

Winter in Louisiana is for the birds, literally. The Mississippi River Delta is the southern destination for many migratory species that fly south and over winter in our bountiful wetlands. One is likely to see a Bald Eagle fly by, and it is very common to see Red-tailed and Red-Shouldered Hawks as well as the ubiquitous Barred Owl. Ducks, White Ibis and other waterfowl are commonly seen, and one should always be on the lookout for elusive rails and crakes. The wide variety of Louisiana’s coastal swamp habitats gives observers the opportunity to look for a myriad of sandpiper species and their relatives.

And what about visitors from the south and west? There are many. Local birders consistently report regional sightings of such feathered wonders as Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, Ash-throated and Western Flycatchers, Grooved-billed Anis, MacGillivray’s Warblers and White-winged Doves, and all of these may visit our swamps.

Mammals are also more easily observed, with the most common being the Nutria (Myocaster coypus), a large rodent with orange teeth and long whiskers. Be sure to listen for their mew call that they use for communication. Though normally nocturnal, one sometimes sees Raccoons (Procyon lotor) and )possum (Didelphis virginiana), and, on the rare occasion, beautiful Mink and River Otters.

On sunny day, one may see an alligator, as previously mentioned, as well as snakes and turtles basking on logs and bushes.

At night, our swamps and adjacent wetlands are the sites for the songs of three winter breeding species of frogs. One is the Chorus Frog (Pseudacris feriarum), whose mating call sounds like the series of clicks one can imitate by dragging ones thumb along a cheap plastic comb. The Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) makes a high pitched rising whistle note, and the Southern Leopard Frog (Rana sphenocephala) makes a weird sound that is reminiscent of rubbing two pieces of rubber together.

Oh, and don’t’ forget that one of the best reasons to visit Louisiana coastal swamps during the winter has nothing to do with nature, but everything to do with our well-being. Not only are they beautiful, serene, and teaming with wildlife, but they evoke a certain spirit in the human heart that makes life worthwhile.