We know that, when most people think of swamps, they envision alligators. In fact, our swamps are full of alligators. During the winter months, however, our gators become dormant and either enter a gator hole or simply lie on the bottom, occasionally tipping upward to take a fresh breath of air. For this reason, it is not unheard of to see a gator or two soaking up the rays on a mid-winter warm day. But, for the most part, we are 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 plant 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 you are likely to see something blooming at virtually any time in semi-tropical Louisiana, the most conspicuous flowering herb is Yellow Top (Senecio glabellus), a two foot tall plant with a bright yellow crown of flowers. Such early blooming gives Yellow Top less competition. Since this species blooms during the low water period of the year, the rising waters of early spring usually cover the plants and they thus become one of the primary foods of our beloved crawfish.
Mid-winter also brings the flowering of several trees, with the most obvious being our Swamp Red Maple (Acer drummondii). These deep red flowers literally cover the limbs of the otherwise barren trees. When pollinated, these flowers yield seed pods in the form of large bundles of seeds, each connected to a thin red 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. We are the southern destination for many species that fly south and over winter in our bountiful wetlands. Our visitors may see a Bald Eagle fly by, and it is very common to see Redtailed and Red Shouldered Hawks as well as the ubiquitous Barred Owl. Ducks and other waterfowl are commonly seen, and we are always on the lookout for elusive rails and crakes. The wide variety of habitats that we travel through gives our visitors the opportunity to look for a myriad of sandpiper species and their relatives.
Mammals are also possible, 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, we sometimes see raccoons (Procyon lotor) and opossum (Didelphis virginiana), and, on the rare occasion, beautiful mink.
If you're here on a warm, sunny day, you may see an alligator as previouslymentioned, as well as snakes and turtles basking on logs and bushes.
At night, our wetlands are the sites for the songs of three winter breeding species of frogs. One is the Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata), whose 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 utricularia) makes a weird sound that is reminiscent of rubbing two pieces of rubber together.
Oh, I forgot to mention what I consider one of the best reasons to visit Louisiana coastal wetlands during the winter. Not only are they beautiful, serene, and teaming with wildlife, but they evoke a certain spirit in the human heart. I just love the experience on a typical winter day, and I hope that you will visit us to share that fascination.