Winter White

Posted on January 01, 2012

During the coldest part of our year, the salt marsh may appear to be dormant, but looks are deceiving.

Though relatively frigid water temperatures in the shallow and narrow creeks have driven most fish, crabs and shrimp into the ocean or into cozy burrows in the pluff mud, there remains a subtle, yet dynamic, transformation occurring right before our eyes.

Even in winter, there are great things to observe in the salt marsh. Much is happening in the mud and in the grasses.

Above ground, the gray-brown cordgrass is fragile and brittle. Winter winds break apart the dried stalks and early nesters, like the eagle, scavenge for this most excellent nest feathering material. That which is not carried or blown away, settles onto the mud flat creating a rich and nutrient-filled peat.

Scavenging insects graze moist heaps of deteriorating grasses, attracting bug-eating birds like the Yellow-Rumped Warbler. Though we don’t often think about it, all those birds feeding across the salt marsh serve to fertilize the earth, as well.

Look closely, this time of year, at the surface of the mud. Notice the first fresh blades of bright green grass emerging from the muddy surface — a direct result of all the processes taking place in the winter marsh. The cycle of deterioration and rebirth in the salt marsh continues, a sure sign spring is just around the corner.

But, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

Some of the most interesting birds visit the salt marsh this time of year. One of my favorites has made another unusual appearance, on an oystershell bank across the Calibogue Sound, near Daufuskie Island.

Common to the Gulf Coast, more often than not I see great flocks soaring high up in the sky, so high that I need my binoculars to clearly see and identify them. Their migration takes them from the Gulf to Canada. But once again, a group has arrived on this barren point to linger for a week or two, perhaps a month. A rare treat indeed.

Related to our resident Brown Pelican, the White Pelican is an amazing sight.

Considerably larger than the Brown, White Pelicans are exactly that… white. While they share the common traits of large-pouched bills, webbed feet and full protruding chest, most distinguishable is the unique feeding behavior of the White Pelican.

Unlike the diving Browns, the Whites swim upon the surface and then, in an instant and in unison, the entire group dives below the surface. Count to five and all resurface — like synchronized swimmers — to continue on their way.

Get Outside!

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By Capt. Patte Ranney, SC Master Naturalist, Outside Hilton Head