Okefenokee's birds undeterred by fires

I went last week to one of my most favorite wild places on Earth, the Okefenokee Swamp in southwest Georgia, to help fellow birders do a one day Christmas Bird Count.

As we scattered about in small teams to tally all the birds we could see or hear in and around the famed wetland, we were a little apprehensive over what we might find -- or not find. The so-called Honey Prairie wild fire scorched more than 315,000 acres of the swamp during the spring and summer, leaving behind huge swaths of charred and blackened landscape.

In large part, the massive fire, one of the largest in the Southeast’s history, was due to a searing drought that made -- and is still making -- the Okefenokee much drier than usual. Biologists are still trying to determine the impact on wildlife.

The 438,000-acre Okefenokee, however, is no stranger to drought and fire. They are part of the swamp’s natural cycle. Biologists contend that occasional fires are the Okefenokee’s salvation because they clear out shrubby growth and other vegetation that eventually would turn the hauntingly beautiful swamp into dry land. Over many millennia, the Okefenokee's flora and fauna have adapted to the occasional changes.

For instance, the paintroot, a wildflower that produces woolly white blooms in summer and dense seed heads in fall, is one of several plant species that have sprung up in profusion in burned-over areas of the Okefenokee.

"It grows like crazy after a fire,” noted our leader, Sheila Willis, a naturalist from Waycross.

The paintroot, she said, is a very favorite food of sandhill cranes, scores of which winter in the Okefenokee’s Chesser Prairie and other open areas. "Paintroot is like chocolate candy to them,” Willis said.

But what amazed me most was the numerous woodpeckers we encountered. Our team counted at least six red-headed woodpeckers, more than I’ve seen in one place in years. Elsewhere, their numbers are declining.

Pileated woodpeckers -- spectacular birds -- also seemed to be everywhere. Willis said a likely reason for so many woodpeckers is that the fires left untold numbers of dead trees standing in the swamp “and the woodpeckers are just tickled.”

Other cavity-nesting creatures also are probably happy. Many of them -- chickadees, titmice, bluebirds, prothonotary warblers, flying squirrels, screech owls, little brown bats, wood ducks -- often rely on old woodpecker holes for nesting and roosting.

Altogether, we tallied 80 species during our count.

“Not a bad day, considering what the swamp has been through,” Willis said.

In the sky: The moon will be full on Monday, the "Wolf Moon," as some Indian tribes called it for the wolf packs that howled hungrily outside Indian villages during midwinter. The Cherokee peoples simply called it "The Cold Moon," said David Dundee, astronomer with Tellus Science Museum. Mercury is low in the east just before dawn. Venus is low in the west just after dark. Mars and Saturn rise out of the east around midnight. Mars will appear near the moon Friday night. Jupiter is high in the east at dusk.