Wild world of the Aucilla

By William Gifford

Three days prior to the 1996 May/June field season, Gene Rowe, Jack Simpson and I met at Nutall Rise to prepare all the equipment required to run the project. Although this is a lot of work, it does afford one the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the area in relative peace and quiet. Once those dredge motors, generators and boats start running, the serenity of the Aucilla River is gone for the vast majority of the day.

In the late afternoon of these quiet times you can observe the spectacular displays provided by the local wildlife. Two birds that I had searched for unsuccessfully as an avid birdwatcher for over twenty years are the Peregrine Falcon and the Mississippi Kite. During this time of year, both birds are in transition. The Peregrine is preparing for its journey north for its breeding season, and the Mississippi Kite is returning from its winter vacation in Central and Southern America. The open field next to the Ladson house affords a unique opportunity to observe both of these species as they relentlessly scoured the treetops in search of an easy meal.

The Peregrine hunts from a considerable height above the trees. Once they zero in on a small bird they plummet from the sky in a dazzling display at speeds up to 260 mph. The Mississippi Kite hunts in another manner. It skims the treetops looking for unwary insects, birds, rodents and reptiles. They are beautiful to watch in action, but make you glad to be higher up on the food chain.

As the archaeological field season came into full swing we moved out to work on the river, and were unable to watch these terrors of the sky. But the change in habitats offered new and interesting sights.

The first site we worked was Sloth Hole on the west run of the Aucilla River. This section of the river is a transitional area where the habitat begins to change from southern bottomland hardwoods swamp to marsh as the river meanders along to the Gulf of Mexico.

One of my duties as a divemaster on this project brings me to work closely with Joe Latvis on the maintenance of the gear and to guard it at night on the river. Although this requires much extra time traveling the river to take care of all our other duties back at Nutall Rise, it does allow us some of these quiet moments that become so rare as the season progresses.

Awakening aboard the project's 20-foot pontoon barge to the early morning stillness of Sloth Hole brought me in contact with another elusive bird that I had pursued for many years, the Prothonotary Warbler. Their melodic song and golden orange color brightened my every morning at this site. They nest in tree cavities and busily pursue insects and caterpillars to feed their young. Green caterpillars seemed to be a great favorite, and they captured them by the hundreds. While watching them one morning, I saw a warbler go for a black one. It rapidly spit it out and used the branch it was on to wipe the apparently vile taste from its beak. An obvious lesson, I never observed this behavior again.

In the little bay on the west side of Ward Island where we docked the boats that we worked off of were a wide variety of the plants that characterize this area. A fallen Carolina Ash became a nursery for three other types of trees that used the rotting trunk as compost to get a foothold on life. Farther along the shoreline, as the land became wetter, was a small group of wildflowers known as Lizard's tail. This showy little plant has a drooping spike covered with hundreds of tiny white flowers. In association was a grouping of Pickereweed with a backdrop of hundreds of Spider Lilies. Behind the boats was a small stand of Red Maples on the shoreline giving way to large groups of River Cane. The shores of the river were at one time dominated by Tupelos and Bald Cypress, but after the heavy foresting this area has seen, there are few prime examples today.

During a foray into the interior of Ward Island, (the division of the west and the east run of the Aucilla) Mike Nolan encountered a rare inhabitant of the swamp, a Blue Striped Ribbon Snake. Found only from east Wakulla county to the Withlacoochee River, it was a welcome change from the Water Moccasins that seem to dominate the swamp.

One of the phenomena encountered by everyone that dives Sloth Hole is what we have affectionately dubbed "black snow." Once you hit the bottom, a cloud of this organic particulate rises and snows on you for the rest of your dive. While hampering your visibility (what doesn't), it is an important component of the detrital food chain. Eight to ten tons of leaves per acre fall here every year. A tremendous number of organisms feed on this energy rich mass. Crustaceans, insect larvae, and worms feed and die here and add even more food for the thousands of organisms that follow. The feces that are released into the water are known as fine particulate organic matter. Combined with dissolved organic matter from the leaves they are the basis of the food chain that provides life to the myriad of organisms for this ecological system.

Traveling from the site to the main camp at Nutall Rise every afternoon we were treated to the sights of Kingfishers and Pileated Woodpeckers going about their daily routines with little regard to our invasion of their homes.

Two wildflowers of note were the Swamp Rose and the False Dragonhead. Both are abundant along the shoreline and added contrast to the vibrant greens of the swamp. The Swamp Rose grows in large clumps of thorny vines that cascade into the water with multitudes of pale pink flowers. The False Dragonhead has spikelike racemes with pink to rose purple flowers on three foot high stalks.

Upon finishing at Sloth Hole we moved back to Nutall Rise and transferred operations to Little River. I moved back into my tent next to the Flamingo Lounge. The lounge is a screened in room that Steve Glover and I erected to provide an area that gave a little respite from the constant chaos of the main cabin. With our plastic flamingos and yard sheep, it was like home and offered solace to weary divemasters at the end of the day. Little did we know that it would provoke a relentless stream of practical jokes inflicted upon us by a small but determined group of student terrorists.

Needless to say that when John Davidson came into the cabin as I was cooking dinner one evening to tell me of a large insect outside, I was reluctant to go see it. I had visions of Andy Hemmings swinging out of a tree disguised as a large biting fly to inflict a nasty bite on my neck.

Only after ascertaining the whereabouts of Andy, John and their cohort Mark Muniz did I dare venture outside to look for the insect.

Much to my delight I found a two inch long fly with a four inch wingspan and mandibles that reminded me of a mastodon's tusks. I immediately captured it for closer examination and identification.

With the aid of Andy's insect guide we were able to determine that we had found an Eastern Dobsonfly.

The Eastern Dobsonfly breeds along rivers and streams east of the Rocky Mountains, laying a hundred to a thousand eggs at a time on alders, willows or other woody vegetation. After dropping into the water as larvae, they spend two to three growing seasons feeding on the bottom of the river. They emerge as pupal cells to live through the winter among rocks or logs and emerge as adults in the summer.

Fortunately this was a male, as the female with shorter mandibles is capable of inflicting a serious bite.

The Little River section of the Aucilla is on the Ladson property and is a purer bottomland swamp than the lower sections. As it was later in the summer we were visited daily by Swallow Tailed Kites that nest in the adjacent areas.

One of the most graceful of raptors, their acrobatic flying skills always leave me with a sense of awe.

Due to editorial constraints, I cannot list all the plants in this section of river that I might like, but one bush demands a little attention. The Buttonbush, a salt resistant shrub that grows throughout the state, has rounded flowerheads covered with numerous tiny white flowers. This bush is particularly significant, in that a twig from one of these bushes was used to carbon date our oldest evidence of human occupation to date.

In the fall we returned for another exciting season of excavation on the river. On the first day of setting up on the Sloth Hole site I looked up to see a flight of over three hundred Wood Storks headed south along the coastline.

Shortly afterwards I wished I had been going with them. The unpredictable and sometimes fickle weather of Florida dealt us another blow in the guise of Tropical Storm Josephine. Having already been on the periphery of two hurricanes in my short time as a member of this project, I was not prepared for the ferocity of the inundation we received.

When we were finally able to get back in the water at Little River Rapids the conditions were severe and only through the hard work and determination of this excellent group of people could we bring to conclusion another successful year of excavation.

Thanks to the continuing support of the Ladson family and our Site Manager Jack Simpson we will be allowed to return to what some may think of as an insect and snake infested swamp but I find to be one of the most special places on this planet.