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Hilton Jr., B. 1992. Bogs & bays & ponds. In: Wetlands--magic lands. South Carolina Wildlife 39(1):58-77.

(Note: The draft below was submitted to South Carolina Wildlife magazine; the article that actually appeared in print may have been edited.)


Most trees along the abandoned logging trail hadn't been cut since the 1960's, and based on their heights and diameters, many of the biggest hardwoods had been standing for at least 50 years--an unusual sight in an area that had been timbered so heavily in the past. The late spring air was crisp and clean like only mountain air can be, so I quickly became grateful that this tract had not been developed. Other than the slight rustling of wind against fresh green leaves in the canopy, the only sound was a slight, almost inaudible hum of insects in pursuit of flower nectar.

Suddenly there was the unmistakable loud laughing of a Pileated Woodpecker, then another, and a third and fourth--probably a mated pair and two young that had recently fledged from a cavity in one of the pine snags along the way. The woodpecker clan teased me onward, calling repeatedly as its members leapfrogged past each other in short 15-yard flights down the trail. Eventually, when they disappeared from sight and hearing, I couldn't help but smile and wonder if I'd been the first human to encounter--or be encountered by--this woodpecker family.

As the trail narrowed and forked left, two bright, metallic-green Tiger Beetles whizzed past my ear and alighted for a moment on the soil in front of me. A Blue-headed Vireo sang overhead, trying to attract a female as he went about the more mundane business of gleaning insects to satisfy his daily energy needs. In the sunlight, highlighted by tiny droplets of morning dew, gossamer kite strings of spiders spanned the path--remnants of the nighttime travels of these amazing little creatures.

Soon I was aware of the sound of falling water, and although the trail was mostly level, I anticipated a change in topography that would produce a small waterfall. I wasn't really prepared, however, for the source of the sound. Just ahead through the trees, from the direction in which the cataract seemed to be, I could see blue skies--a clearcut, I thought, or a mountaintop meadow. Quite abruptly there WAS a clearing, but it was definitely NOT a meadow. Instead, there appeared an expanse of bare rock and open sky and an incredible view of distant ridges. I had found a mountain bog, and it was one of the most surprising moments in my years as a naturalist!

* * *

I had been more than a little suspicious when someone told me there were bogs in the mountain regions of South Carolina. I'd tromped around Oconee and Pickens and Greenville counties for years, and had yet to stumble across anything close to my definition of a "bog." I'd been to Cranberry Glades in West Virginia--a tree-less mountaintop bowl filled with soggy sphagnum moss and cranberry vines and some interesting insectivorous flora such as pitcher plants and sundews--and I just couldn't imagine such a place in South Carolina.

Our best examples of mountain bogs--also called "cataract bogs"--are in upper Greenville County on property under the protection of the state's Heritage Trust Program. From the map, it looked like getting to the bogs would be easy because they were on trails branching from a designated road, but I soon found that being well-marked didn't make a road easily navigable in a passenger vehicle.

Relative inaccessibility has allowed our few mountain bogs to survive--for the most part--despite the perils of farming, grazing, logging, and vandalism. Fortunately, my high-slung van passed over the mudholes and rocks on the access road, and eventually I came to trees marked by white diamond-shaped signs that indicated the Preserve #1. I decided to drive past this tract to the more distant Preserve #2 and parked near a metal gate that is the trailhead. This gate closes off an old logging road that I followed on foot for a few hundred yards, wondering how a mountain bog would really look.

* * *

This mountain bog at Preserve #2 was nothing like the cranberry bog I had anticipated. It was far from being flat, and occurred only because of a special balance of geologic and topographic conditions. First of all, there was a permanent stream, and it flowed over a steeply-sloped rock outcropping with a south-facing exposure. The small creek contained enough water to form the waterfall I had heard from a distance, but I imagine that during a rainy spell tons of water surge over this formation, polishing the rock face and creating a massive waterslide. The sheeting of water over the outcropping kept the edges of the rock wet without eroding the soil, but in this precarious location no tree or large shrub could maintain a roothold. The result was a narrow, permanently-wet, very sunny habitat that--aside from its slope--did indeed have all the attributes of the bog I had expected.

Here was Sphagnum Moss--a plant that retains several times its weight in water-plus sedges and one of the few colonies of Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea) in South Carolina. There were hay-scented ferns and moisture-loving wildflowers such as trilliums, Wild Geranium, Solomon's-seal, and Foamflower, but what was even more amazing was that these plants grew directly adjoining an expanse of bare rocks baked by the sun--perhaps the harshest habitat imaginable. In small cracks in the rock, bits of soil accumulated, and not 15 feet from the lush, water-soaked cataract bog was a colony of bone-dry Reindeer Lichen and Opuntia compressa--a native prickly pear cactus!

After exploring Preserve #2 for an hour or so, I backtracked to the van and drove again to Preserve #1. This site was much further off the road and involved a difficult climb several hundred yards up a steep, rocky logging trail that was not for young children or the weak-of-lung, leg, or heart. When the terrain finally leveled off at the mountain's crest, I heard the familiar sound of water cascading over rock and made my way through the woods toward its source. Once again, I burst onto a spectacular view of distant ridgetops.

This panorama was a truly inspirational sight. I was on the very edge of a smooth rock precipice with a large, nearly vertical waterslide immediately to my left. Perfectly framed in a notch in the horizon I could see downtown Greenville and Paris Mountain, and as I scanned the vista I was actually able to look DOWN on a soaring turkey vulture! Several hundred feet below, near my starting point for the ascent, was a large pond surrounded by dense vegetation; despite my height above its surface, I could still see two whopper Snapping Turtles floating lazily about, soaking up solar rays while waiting for some unwary, slow-moving prey to swim by. Closer in, a fallen Chestnut Oak that jutted dizzily into space was home to a nonchalant green Carolina Anole lizard who fanned his red throat flap in territorial display. As I sat down on a nearby ledge, I brushed against mint plants that added their fragrant aroma to my list of sensations.

A few yards to my left, where a thin layer of soil overlapped the waterslide, was another mountain bog. Here was my first sighting of Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia jonesii), a federally-endangered species that makes its living by enticing insects into funnel-shaped leaves. I'd photographed several pitcher plants in the South Carolina low country, but this variety was new and intriguing. Growing beside the Sarracenia were specimens of Sundew (Drosera spp.), another insectivorous plant that catches tiny ants and bugs with sticky hairs on its foliage. These sundews looked different than those I had seen elsewhere because their leaves were held vertically; this probably kept them from being fouled by flowing water that created their mountain home.

* * *

As I surveyed the area around the waterslide I again found Prickly Pear Cactus and even yuccas--two plants usually associated with the desert. Oddly, they were juxtaposed against a background of moisture-loving Royal Ferns and the rare Grass of Parnassis.

I could have sat by this wonderful cataract bog for hours, counting species of flora and fauna and watching shadows lengthen as the sun dropped lower in the sky. Unfortunately, I had scheduled an evening meeting, so after several more minutes of just looking and listening and sighing deeply I packed my field guides for the return trek. As I took one last glance across the landscape, I vowed to return soon with friends who would appreciate this special mountain bog as one of South Carolina's rarest wetlands.


Woods Bay State Park, the state's best example of an unusual wetland habitat called a "Carolina bay," actually contains two kinds of nature trails. One is a canoe trail that goes to the bay's interior and allows you to sneak up on little blue herons and water snakes sunning themselves on overhanging branches. I've never taken the canoe trail, but the other one--more accessible to landlubbers and used by the vast majority of visitors--is one of my favorite footpaths in South Carolina.

From its very beginning, the terrestrial trail gives the impression that you are in another world than the one from which you entered the bay--a world of half-light and hushed sounds and surprises at every turn. On past trips I'd encountered White-tailed Deer, Raccoons, Red-shouldered Hawks, and a Water Moccasin, so I constantly scanned sky and ground in the interest of natural history. I also didn't want to go home with snakebite as a souvenir.

Almost everything about the Woods Bay foot trail created a feeling of isolated solitude. Except near areas of open water, the sky was closed off by the leaves of Tupelo Gum, Water Oak, Red Maples, and--mostly along the edges--stands of semi-aquatic Bald Cypress trees. Beneath plentiful pines of were mats of needles that absorbed sound like a sponge and encouraged the trail walker to talk in hushed tones, if at all. Even the calls of Spring Peepers and Cricket Frogs seemed softer, as if croaking males could afford to be less frantic in attracting a mate in this slow-paced, almost primeval locale.

* * *

Woods Bay State Park touches parts of Clarendon, Florence, and Sumter counties in the Carolina Low Country. As one of the Carolina bays, it is truly a geological and ecological wonder, and--being 75 miles from the Atlantic Ocean--it's not the kind of bay associated with coastal ports. In fact, Carolina bays are called "bays" because of their Red Bay, Loblolly Bay, and Sweetbay trees and shrubs.

Basically, Carolina bays are shallow, oval depressions ranging in length from a few hundred feet to five miles. Their long axes all align along a northwest/southeast direction, and most have a sand rim on the southeast edges. First described around 1750 by naturalist John Bartram, their main concentration is in South Carolina's coastal plain, but they also occur in southeastern North Carolina and northeastern Georgia. A few bays have even been found as far north as New Jersey and south to Florida.

Unlike mountain bogs, whose origins are pretty straightforward, what caused the Carolina bays is almost anybody's guess. In fact, I've always heard Carolina bays described as "true enigmas"--natural phenomena whose origins remain a mystery. The "meteorite theory" is perhaps most commonly cited and claims that bays are "scars resulting from an ancient outer space bombardment by a cataclysmic shower of meteorites, which formed the nucleus of a comet that had collided with the earth from the northwest." Another hypothesis is that bays were formed by large springs beneath the ocean when, long ago, it came inland as far as Columbia. In this model, springs beneath the ocean floor agitated the sediment and prevailing currents deposited the material elsewhere.

Still other conjecture involves giant tidal eddies spiralling in shallow lagoons and even enormous schools of fish (or schools of enormous fish?) sweeping out the depressions as spawning beds. In all three of these cases, the bays would have been left behind as the ocean receded to its current shoreline. Other speculators suggest that bays are old sink holes, footprints from melted icebergs, or the results of coastal peat fires. Personally, I like the meteorite theory best, but stay tuned; any day there may be yet another hypothesis on how Carolina bays were formed!

* * *

The Woods Bay nature trail starts at the parking area for the state park. First stop is a pond that may have been constructed around 1800 to power a gristmill that finally ceased operations by about 1930. On either end of the egg-shaped bay are sand flats filled with scrubby oaks, while the bay itself is a 1,500-acre wetland containing a savanna-like marsh to the east and a dense stand of gum trees and cypress to the north. This vegetation may be the same kind that grew here before settlers first impacted on Woods Bay, but there was at least one major disturbance in the 1920's when rails were laid into sections of the swamp so logging trains could haul out timber.

Along the trail, I noticed big pines that dominate the canopy were nearly all loblollies, a coastal plain species usually cut for lumber. Some had died from old age or disease, and their remains were charred by frequent wildfires that are an important part of low country ecology. When I saw these burned stumps, I wondered once again whether Smokey the Bear did a disservice in leading us to believe that all forest fires are "bad." Historically, many Carolina bays burned frequently, and such constant natural "pruning" helped maintain a diversity of plant and animal species. As a state park, Woods Bay probably won't burn again, so pines and hardwoods will continue to grow and make this site even more unusual as a forested, lake-filled bay.

In open water near the mill pond I saw an unmistakable sight: two bumps 12 inches apart sticking slightly out of the water. One bump was a pair of nostrils, and the other was two eyes on top of the head of a six-foot American alligator--probably the largest predator in Woods Bay. With appropriate wariness, numerous turtles and a Bullfrog--each an alligator's potential luncheon mate--sunned on nearby logs. One resourceful Green Treefrog had climbed out of harm's way and perched on a two-foot-high "knee" from a cypress tree.

The Woods Bay nature trail has a small boardwalk that leads into the swamp itself. In the water beneath it was yet another carnivorous plant unrelated to the pitcher plant or Sundew I saw in mountain bogs. This one was an aquatic moss-like growth known as Bladderwort. Yellowish lumps on the plant's stems are tiny chambers fitted with even tinier trapdoors. When an insect larva or microorganism triggers the trapdoor, a rush of water sucks the prey inside the chamber where its decomposing parts become a source of nitrogen for the bladderwort. Floating Duckweed was plentiful on this still, black water and no doubt helped nurture the Wood Ducks I accidentally flushed when I stubbed my toe on the boardwalk. Away the "woodies" went, calling out with what always sounds to me like the squealing of a flock of flying pigs. Also winging about in this part of the bay were hundreds of dragonflies of at least a dozen different kinds. Patrolling back and forth, these ancient insects were just as territorial as many birds, chasing others of the same species that dared to cross some invisible border. Especially in wetland locations like Woods Bay, dragonflies serve what I believe may be nature's highest calling by consuming mosquito after mosquito after mosquito.

* * *

Although the geological features of bays have been studied since the 1840's, little work has been done on their vegetation and habitat types until recently. In 1991, through the Nongame and Heritage Trust Section of the South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resources Department, Steve Bennett and John Nelson published an extensive survey of the nature and condition of this state's Carolina bays. They found that some are temporarily wet and more likely to contain grasses and sedges, while others are "pocosins"--densely vegetated boggy areas whose shrub growth makes human passage almost impossible. A very few of the bays--including Woods Bay--exist as true ponds or lakes because they are permanently spring-fed and have outlets for incoming water. It is pocosins and other bays with standing water that are being considered for protection as wetlands.

Bennett and Nelson, through aerial surveys and field visits, determined there are far fewer Carolina bays than were estimated by earlier workers, and found that the bays' vegetative regimes were much more complex than anyone thought. They estimated that of 4,000 South Carolina bays, two-thirds cover two acres or larger, but half of all bays had 20% or more of their ellipse damaged by roads, ditches, pine plantations, residential and commercial development, logging, row crops, and other factors. Less than 220 bays in the Palmetto State are intact, and some of these are in immediate danger of being disturbed. Although Woods Bay is almost unique with its natural lake, many other bays have their own unusual attributes as wetlands and are worth saving.

It seemed almost magic that my brief three-hour visit to Woods Bay so nicely demonstrated how complex and wonderful a wetland can be. With almost every step along the way I saw at least one example of a relationship between habitat and organism, between predator and prey. These relationships, of course, occur in every ecosystem and have been acted out for millennia, but in only a few places are the relationships so plentiful and diverse and obvious as in our Carolina bays.


Just at dusk, with pine trees on the horizon silhouetted against the fading glow of a typical South Carolina sunset, six-year-old Garry and I walked the nature trails that surround Hilton Pond near York. It was early June, and things were pretty quiet; mosquitoes that provided a constant background hum in spring had already perished from unseasonable heat, and cicadas and katydids that would carry on for most of the summer had not yet started their incessant stridulations. Except for a few crickets and the sound of our footsteps along the grassy path, the evening was very quiet.


Garry yelped and jumped straight up at this loud, unexpected sound from the pond's edge not ten feet away.


The sound repeated, and only then did my son catch his breath and giggle at being startled by the deep, resonant call of the Bullfrog.

"Whew," Garry said, with an obvious sigh of relief. "That frog sure was close when it barked."

Our "barking" Bullfrogs have been around for tens of thousands of years, of course, but I wouldn't doubt that their numbers have increased lately with the proliferation of small ponds in South Carolina.

* * *

Hilton Pond, by comparison to Lake Murray or the Santee-Cooper system, is an insignificant little water impoundment in central York County. It's less than a dozen feet deep and covers barely an acre and a half--a surface that temporarily decreased by at least a third in the drought years of the 1980's. As part of our 11-acre nature reserve, I've gotten to know it intimately since we occupied the adjoining old farm house in 1982, and over the years it has given me great appreciation for the importance of the common, often-overlooked farm pond.

Although we didn't construct it, we named Hilton Pond after our family when we bought the place. The dam that forms it was built in 1960 by Ed Faulkner, a previous owner. I can almost imagine the situation that could have led to its construction--perhaps the following conversation between the local soil conservation agent and the Faulkners:

"This gully is pretty deep, Mr. and Mrs. Faulkner, and your soil is eroding away rapidly. It looks to me like you have two choices if you want to save this part of your farm. You can build a dam and make a pond, or you can plant Kudzu!"

I don't know if such a conversation occurred, but--based on what I've heard from farmers around the state--it easily could have. I'm just grateful that in 1960 the Faulkners didn't plant Kudzu but opted instead to build a small pond to water their livestock and retard erosion.

* * *

In the 1930's, farm owners across America began recognizing the need to undo damage their predecessors had inflicted on the land for almost two hundred years. For example, farmers had intensively cultivated South Carolina's rich soils, growing corn and cotton year after year with little regard for erosion control. Especially in the Piedmont, where hillsides denuded of trees did little to stop the destructive forces of heavy rains, what historically had been up to eight feet of topsoil was reduced to bare red clay that often washed into streams and bottomlands. Today, thanks in part to the efforts of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, there may be as many as 50,000 artificial ponds across South Carolina that hold up to 200,000 acres of fresh water. These ponds, through their sheer numbers, provide tremendous erosion control that protects our streams and rivers, serve as reservoirs for livestock and wildlife, and provide recreation opportunities from bass fishing to skinny-dipping.

* * *

"Dad, I think there's a pack of wild dogs running down by the pond."

This time the comment came from my older son, Billy. I was irritated by the thought, since free-running dogs are the bane of nature lovers. It was late afternoon and mid-October, so I grabbed my coat and started out the back door but only took about three steps. What had sounded from inside like barking dogs was actually a flock of three dozen Canada Geese settling down on Hilton Pond, honking like crazy on this temporary stop along their migratory route south. The flock stayed for three days, filling up on Duckweed and pond grass that had flourished all summer, and then they were off for a more southerly locale, perhaps Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge or some big impoundment on the Georgia coast.

York isn't exactly in the middle of a major migratory flyway, but lots of birds stop off at Hilton Pond each spring and fall, some to eat aquatic plants, some to bathe and drink, and some to scout the area for potential nesting or wintering sites. Since 1982, we've seen 162 species of birds on the 11-acre tract that includes Hilton Pond, and I'm certain that many of them--especially the Pied-billed Grebes, Lesser Yellowlegs, seven species of waterfowl, and five kinds of egrets and herons--wouldn't have wandered onto the property if the impoundment hadn't attracted them. Wading birds, in particular, take sustenance from the fish they're able to catch, and I imagine they get a few tadpoles, salamanders, and crayfish as they slowly work their way around the shallow pond edge.

Insects are also attracted to farm ponds and the lush plant growth that often dots their margins; insects in turn are lures for each songbird pair that needs a grasshopper or two per hour for every chick in the nest. In spring, the oak and American Sycamore trees around Hilton Pond are filled with migrating warblers re-stocking their fat reserves for the trip to northern breeding grounds, and each summer numerous pairs of Northern Cardinals, Eastern Towhees, and Yellow-breasted Chats replace the migrants as principal insect gleaners around the pond.

Just counting the non-avian vertebrate animals, Hilton Pond helps support the needs of at least eight species of frogs and toads, one salamader, five kinds of turtles, six different lizards, eight snake species, 24 kinds of mammals, and at least a half dozen types of fish. There are probably more resident species from each of these groups, but those are the ones I've been lucky enough to see and identify over the past ten years. I can't begin to count the invertebrates--such as insects, worms, mollusks, and other equally important but less obvious organisms--but with such an assortment of wildlife in this tiny pond in a suburban (and "non-natural") area, it's easy to see why farm ponds may be one of the most important types of wetlands in South Carolina.

* * *

Hilton Pond, as valuable as it is to wildlife and erosion control, is also a recreational spot for family, friends, and neighbors. It's a great place for nature study and photography, but its shaded banks also provide a place to sit and read and relax. I don't fish, but Ron Trent--a neighbor whose property adjoins Hilton Pond--is out in his johnboat several hours each week trying to outwit (or outlast) the local populations of gamefish that seem to have balanced out through the past three decades. Ron and his wife, Pat, have reeled in some amazingly big bass and crappie, some of which they clean and cook on the spot but many of which they simply throw back because their freezer is full or they want to leave the big breeders to repopulate the pond next season.

And now that we've cleared an area of submerged stumps, limbs, and the old tires, refrigerators, and 55-gallon drums that somehow make their way into old farm impoundments, Hilton Pond is a pretty good swimming hole. It's a lot cheaper than a country club membership, and when the boys and I get hot and itchy from doing yard work in midsummer, it's easy to grab a towel and just walk into the pond to cool off. To be honest, wife Susan doesn't like the rich, black bottom muck oozing up between her toes, but she does go for a float in the inner tube every now and again--just the sort of idyllic, leisuretime activity that South Carolinians have cherished for generations.


If you look up "wetlands" in most dictionaries, you get a cursory definition that emphasizes swamps and rivers and salt marshes, and probably with good reason: These locales, for most people, are the most familiar wetlands and are the ones so important in supplying drinking water or providing transportation or serving as nurseries for myriad creatures in aquatic food chains. Virtually all South Carolinians are aware of their beaches and adjoining tidal lands and mud flats, and most are familiar with rivers or streams that flow through our towns and cities. It's only logical that these places are what most citizens think about when they hear the word "wetlands."

Mountain bogs, Carolina bays, and farm ponds are specific examples of isolated wetlands that occur away from rivers or the ocean. Their origins and organisms are diverse and interesting, and they must be considered when we try to define "wetlands" as thoroughly and accurately as we should. Mountain bogs and undamaged Carolina bays are exceedingly rare in the state and must be protected from further exploitation. Small ponds, on the other hand, are so common that we often overlook them, but they are valuable as havens for wildlife and outdoor recreation.

In the big scheme of things, every type of wetland is important, and mountain bogs, Carolina bays, and farm ponds are all worth studying as we try to understand water's role in the environmental balance of our wonderful--and mostly wet--Planet Earth.

Bill Hilton Jr. is a science education consultant, writer, naturalist, and Macintosh computer enthusiast who lives in York, South Carolina.

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