May/June 2015Quest For The Golden CannasText and photos by Pete Laurie

Bear Island WMA is known as a haven for waterfowl and other birds, but in this case, it's the search for an interesting piece of flora that prompts an early summer visit.

As I topped Brickyard Bridge with the sun just rising over the Ashepoo River last June, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' Bear Island Wildlife Management Area stretched out before me, 12,000 acres of mixed upland and wetland habitats — ideal territory for birdwatching. On this trip, however, I had a very specific goal in mind that did not involve birds. I was headed for an isolated freshwater slough on the western side of the property where golden cannas bloom in June.

Considered somewhat rare in South Carolina — though native — golden cannas grow in marshy spots and wet ditches, usually in small patches. Ten years ago, I'd stumbled onto a large stand of these showy flowers near the Ashepoo River at a spot known as "Off Island." Finding them in bloom again seemed like a good excuse to experience this huge natural area in summer.

About a half mile before the WMA's main entrance, I made a right turn off Bennetts Point Road at the spot where several large live oaks mark the corner of Bear Island's first impoundment on the west side, Mid Pond. Just off the road, a small wooden sign identifies this high spot as Nancy Hill. I drove past the staff residence on the right through a red gate (this gate is sometimes locked), and continued another hundred yards or so to the primitive camping area used during Bear Island's scheduled deer hunts to two similar gates, both locked as usual.

From here I would have to walk. Visitors to Bear Island can drive only the main road on the east side, but are free to walk any of the property's miles of dikes during daylight hours in the months that the property is open for general public visitation. [Note: Generally, Bear Island is closed for special lottery-drawn hunts from late October through early February. Please check the DNR website www.dnr.sc.gov for exact dates before scheduling a visit.]

I had calculated the distance to the cannas at about two and a half miles from the campground, and I had come prepared with long pants, long-sleeved shirt and plenty of bug spray. Ignoring the gate on the right, I ducked under the gate straight ahead and walked quickly through a short stretch of second growth pine with the Mid Pond impoundment visible on my left. The road soon opened up to a dike with impoundments on both sides. With the low sun at my back for much of this walk, I would have good light for identifying birds and for photography.

With the waterfowl of winter and the shorebirds of spring now just a memory, a different array of summer birds went about the serious business of nesting. Chief among these, red-winged blackbirds called from both sides, the males active and vocal while the drab females foraged among the groundsel trees and invasive Chinese tallow trees lining the dikes. Four or five great egrets fished the open water, deep enough to reach their bellies. The team at Bear Island keeps most of the property's impoundments deep at this time of year to encourage the growth of widgeon grass and dwarf spike rush, favorite foods of wintering waterfowl.

A great blue heron glided in to join the egrets, as a laughing gull circled overhead, looking for anything it might scavenge, and an anhinga watched from a weathered snag. All these water birds probably had distant nests somewhere in one of the ACE Basin's many wading bird rookeries, but had come here to feed. A pair of moorhens, their nesting obviously completed, swam out of the grass with four downy black chicks in tow.

After about 250 yards, I crossed a ricefield trunk used to pass water under the dike from one impoundment to the other, then turned left onto another dike where a sign pointed to Bluff Island. This dike skirts the edge of Settlement Island, one of nineteen named high spots scattered among Bear Island's 5,600 acres of wetlands. From the understory beneath the loblolly and occasional short-leaf pine, an unseen common yellowthroat called, "witchy, witchy, witchy." Two deer burst from cover and galloped along the dike to where it curves around the end of Bluff Island and terminates at another dike parallel to the river. Bear Island's wide dikes, kept mowed throughout the summer, make for easy walking without the need to watch your every step.

On the right, a ricefield trunk designed to operate just like the ones that would have been used here by planters in the 1700s allows the transfer of water to and from the river into the adjacent impoundment. From near the trunk's muzzle, an immature black-crowned night heron, gray and chunky, flew up with a startled squawk. On the left, another trunk brings water into a canal at the edge of Bluff Island. Turning left, I crossed this trunk and followed the road through some open pines along the river's edge. The repeated calls of an Acadian flycatcher blended with the chatter of brown-headed nuthatches and the plaintive whistle of a distant wood peewee. A Caspian tern flew resolutely up the Ashepoo, flowing wide and languid toward St. Helena Sound.

I soon left the shade of the pines and stepped once more onto an open dike that stretched straight and wide to the south. Here, fill dirt dredged some twenty years ago from the river's edge to top the dike remained too salty to support any vegetation. Another trunk (Bear Island has about seventy-five trunks) brought in water to the impoundment on the left, and just beyond, I could see the tree line of Off Island, where last I had seen the golden cannas.

A male painted bunting flew among the tallow trees and small palmettos between the dike and the river, while another male sang from farther down the dike. Just twenty yards ahead, a rice rat raced across the bare surface of the dike and dove into the thick edge. Excellent swimmers, rice rats thrive in this habitat, varying their diet of grasses and seeds in the summer with the occasional eggs and young of the marsh wrens busily singing from the tall grass of the impoundment. I covered about 250 yards of this dike quickly, the sun and the temperature now both a little higher. With this dike still stretching far ahead along the Ashepoo, I turned onto a shorter dike to the left, where a very vocal green heron popped out of the grass and into a solitary live oak growing on the dike's edge.

This short dike led me quickly to Off Island, where the road bends to the right through the pines. From here I could see the large white blooms of swamp rose mallow, towering above the isolated slough. I took a second road to the left and in minutes had at last arrived, after a brisk walk of about an hour and fifteen minutes.

A sea of golden cannas greeted me, their creamy yellow blooms on long flower stalks that rose from the light green foliage. Up close, I noted the asymmetrical three-petal shape of the flowers and the many unopened buds suggesting an extended period of bloom. The large, upright leaves felt cool to the touch and somewhat leathery. Packed tightly together, the cannas formed a pure stand that extended for perhaps a quarter-acre, the mallows dotting the edges. The ground, which had no doubt held water earlier in the year, now had dried completely. These unusual flowers may exist elsewhere on Bear Island, but I have never seen them and have only seldom seen golden cannas anywhere in South Carolina, and then in only small patches.

Other than the "whirr, whirr" of a red-headed woodpecker calling from atop a dead pine snag and the rapid drumming of a smaller downy woodpecker from across the slough, only a light breeze through the pines interrupted the morning stillness.

While I could have taken a somewhat longer, alternate route back to my vehicle, I decided to simply retrace my steps. Along the way I watched an osprey hovering above an impoundment and disturbed a six-foot alligator sunning on a grassy bank.

Bear Island, one of the top birdwatching spots in the state, hosts many more birds of a greater variety during the winter, but on this summer morning, in just a few hours, I saw or heard more than thirty species. By starting out just after dawn I avoided the heat and humidity of mid-day, and tolerated the yellow flies and mosquitoes as part of the experience. The result was a pleasant outing through interesting and varied habitats, combined with the satisfaction of seeing an unusual native wildflower in its natural environment, blooming in profusion.

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