Great things to see at Battle Creek
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.