Great things to see at Bat­tle Creek

Maryland Independent - - Sports - Jamie Drake jamiedrake­out­doors@out­look.com

It isn’t very dif­fi­cult to imag­ine what South­ern Mary­land was like when the first colonists landed at St. Cle­ment’s Is­land or light­house keep­ers ac­tu­ally lived in the Drum Point Light­house. But it’s hard to go back in time 10,000 years or more and imag­ine what the land­scape would have looked like when mam­moths were still roam­ing North Amer­ica. For­tu­nately, there’s a place in Calvert County that can trans­port us back to that time.

For many years com­mut­ing, I drove past the sign to Bat­tle Creek Cy­press Swamp at the turn off to Sixes Road and never gave it much thought. But that’s all changed now that I write this col­umn. What a bless­ing it is to have the per­fect rea­son to pick some­where to ex­plore and get the fam­ily out­side. And that’s ex- actly what we did last week­end.

When peo­ple think of cy­press swamps, the south­ern part of the United States prob­a­bly comes to mind. Al­though un­usual, there are cy­press swamps in Mary­land, Vir­ginia and Delaware. Be­cause cy­press wood was highly prized for its re­sis­tance to rot, many of the trees in th­ese swamps were nearly wiped out by log­ging op­er­a­tions. Luck­ily, The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy had the fore­sight to pur­chase the 100 acres in Calvert County in 1957 to pre­serve a lit­tle bit of this eco­log­i­cal le­gacy in South­ern Mary­land.

Be­fore we hiked the quar­ter-mile board­walk through the swamp, we headed to the na­ture cen­ter to find out about the park. In­side, my kids and I were thrilled to see some tur­tles, skinks (lizards) and toads up close. On one of the walls were a list of the an­i­mals that call cy­press swamps home, some of them en­dan­gered or ex­tinct. My daugh­ter im­me­di­ately no­ticed “ivory-billed wood­pecker” on that list.

She’s read­ing a book right now, “The Grail Bird,” by Tim Gal­lagher about the ivory-billed wood­pecker, a bird thought to be ex­tinct but maybe isn’t. In 2004, one was sighted in Arkansas, and al­though there’s been a flurry of bird­ers flock­ing to the Cache River Na­tional Wildlife Refuge to catch a glimpse of it again, no more con­clu­sive ev­i­dence of its ex­is­tence has been found since. It is the holy grail of birds.

Could the ivory-billed wood­pecker have lived in the cy­press swamps in Mary­land 200 years ago? I’d like to think it’s pos­si­ble. We ven­tured out on the board­walk and it was ap­par­ent why birds would want to live in this swamp. The water was mostly still, and the air quiet. Tall trees were ev­ery­where. Even in the mid­dle of Novem­ber, enough leaves re­mained on the trees to fil­ter out the sun­light so that it was a bit shady un­der the canopy.

Bald cy­press trees can live a long time, as many as 1,500 years, and grow as high as 150 feet tall. The rea­son they are “bald” is that de­spite be­ing a conifer, they are not ev­er­green. In­stead they are de­cid­u­ous,

los­ing their leaves in the fall just like hard­wood trees, hence they are “bald” in win­ter.

Bald cy­press trees also have knees, which are parts of their root sys­tem that burst up through the ground and water and form knobby knee-like stumps.

There’s a real mys­tery about the pur­pose of th­ese eerie-look­ing pro­tru­sions. Some sci­en­tists think the knees are in­tended to get enough oxy­gen for the tree if the dis­solved oxy­gen lev­els in the swamp water are too low. Other sci­en­tists posit the knees are more for struc­tural sup­port, like but­tresses that keep the trees more sta­ble in a marshy en­vi­ron­ment. Still oth­ers be­lieve the knees evolved as a kind of de­fense against the foot­steps of large an­cient her­bi­vores.

The cy­press swamp felt like a world from long ago, mys­te­ri­ous and un­known. Then, my daugh­ter spied a pileated

wood­pecker travers­ing up a tree. In that moment, yes, I could imag­ine that its cousin, the ivory-billed wood­pecker, could cer­tainly have found the trees and swamp here in Calvert County a hos­pitable en­vi­ron­ment.

For even though Mary­land is not in­cluded in the ivory-billed wood­pecker’s range, it’s en­tirely pos­si­ble some of the birds from North Carolina may have ex­tended their range north­ward into Vir­ginia or south­east Mary­land es­pe­cially if the habi­tat was this ideal.

Think­ing about other ex­tinct birds, the Carolina para­keet came to mind. This bird most cer­tainly lived in the bald cy­press swamps of Mary­land about 200 years ago. If you thought par­rots didn’t live in North Amer­ica, you haven’t heard of the Carolina para­keet. This small green par­rot looked like a conure and flocked in huge groups, as far north by some ac­counts as Wis­con­sin. A fa­vorite food of the Carolina para­keet was bald cy­press seeds. If only this swamp could talk and

tell us all its se­crets.

Up un­til our visit, I had never given much thought to cy­press trees ex­cept in the spring, when I need to de­cide what kind of mulch to buy.

But a lit­tle knowl­edge goes a long way. Bald cy­press stands are not a sus­tain­able source of mulch. When cy­press mulch gets dry, it re­pels water in­stead of let­ting it soak through. And it has a ten­dency to wash away in the rain.

A quick look at The Home De­pot’s web­site and there is a new kind of cy­press mulch that doesn’t float, but my ad­vice is pick a dif­fer­ent kind of mulch. Bald cy­press stands are a unique part of our eco­log­i­cal sys­tem and a refuge for many types of wildlife. Cut­ting them down for mulch seems like such an egre­gious waste of th­ese unique trees now that I know a lit­tle bit more about them.

And if you want to see some bald cy­press trees your­self, head to the Bat­tle Creek Cy­press Swamp your­self. No bat­tle was fought nearby, in­stead

the name comes from the town Bat­tle in Eng­land where the set­tlers hailed from.

There isn’t much dis­tance to hike to see ever ything at the park, and it’s a good desti­na­tion for bird watch­ing and ob­serv­ing wildlife. In just an hour, we walked the en­tire board­walk, then broke off from the loop to hike over to the ar­bore­tum and a lit­tle fur­ther past, a pond. Keep in mind the board­walk does not have any guardrails, so one of those back­pack car­ri­ers would come in handy if you have a small child in your fam­ily.

Park ac­cess is free. The park has spe­cific hours of op­er­a­tion dur­ing the week and on week­ends and short­ened hours from La­bor Day to Me­mo­rial Day. You can see the hours of op­er­a­tion and a link to a trail map at www. calvert­parks.org/bccss. html. And ask for a copy of the most re­cent news­let­ter at the front desk of the na­ture cen­ter.

Bat­tle Creek Cy­press Swamp along with many of the other parks in

Calvert County of­fer great pro­grams for preschool- ers, kids of all ages, fam­i­lies and adults.

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