Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pettigrew State Park (Creswell, NC)

We stand on a boardwalk extending over a large, glassy lake encircled by bulky cypress whose stark horizontal branches are softened by curtains of Spanish moss. Through the morning mist, I can almost discern an ancient Algonquian fisherman canoeing in the shallow water. I can nearly make out the low voice of this haunting mirage, calling out to his wife on the shore, but seagulls begin squawking loudly overhead, thus arresting my self-indulgent reverie at Pettigrew State Park.

My husband and I first explored this captivatingly beautiful park in the spring of 2006. Located in North Carolina’s pancake-flat outer coastal plain, seven miles south of Creswell, Pettigrew State Park consists of over 5,000 acres of wild lands that surround mysterious Lake Phelps, North Carolina’s second largest lake, and border the tea-colored Scuppernong River. Nine miles of hiking trails takes weekend explorers past bald cypresses ten feet thick, comparably rare white cedars, and gorgeous wildflower displays.

Those same nine miles of hiking trails introduced Mark and I to both the brutality and delicacy of the natural world. The park also yielded numerous herps (i.e., reptiles and amphibians) and birds, which we added to our “life lists” (i.e., a semi-narcissistic record of all the species one has ever seen, used to impress few and bore many). But I digress, on to the brutality.

About 15 minutes after arriving at the park, Mark and I stood near the edge of a swampy thicket, filled with dense evergreen shrubs and some medium-sized trees. With binoculars gripped tightly and pressed close to our faces, we watched a yellow-billed cuckoo ten feet up with bated breath. The yellow-billed cuckoo, also known as the Rain Crow because of its propensity to call before storms, is generally shy and elusive. These jay-sized, brown-backed and white-breasted denizens of wet woodlands, are distinguished by the yellow of their lower mandible (ornithologist-speak for beak), a gargled ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-kowp-kowp-kowp-kowp-kowp masquerading as a song, and the clear cooing call that is their name-sake.

The yellow-billed cuckoo, with its five inch wide nests looking more like tea plates than bowls and delicate blue eggs, seems harmless enough, even a little pathetic. So much so, that no one even seems to mind that they sometimes borrow others species’ abandoned abodes. However, this bird’s secretive habits and sloppy nests mask a brutal nature. As my husband and I stood mesmerized by this motionless avian specimen, we noticed a devious spark in its eye. Suddenly, it made a hopping dash, drew its head down with lightening-speed and came up with a large, lime-colored green tree frog. The yellow-billed cuckoo, with unabashed relish, gobbled down its amphibian feast.

After shaking off the after shocks of this brutal scene, we continued our hike. We literally nearly stumbled upon a big eastern box turtle in the middle of the path, and even found a long, sinuous red-bellied water snake basking in the dappled sun light. Soon we were introduced to Nature’s more delicate side. At eye-level, in the lush under-story of the lacustrine woods, two large butterflies danced before us. The butterflies were striped like zebras, white and black, but the white lines were imbued with an iridescent, almost glowing quality. The hind-wings were splashed with a hint of crimson and azure, ending in long tails.

We were watching the mating dance of the zebra swallowtail butterfly, a resident of the eastern United States known to breed in moist, low woodlands like those at Pettigrew State Park. The male zebra swallowtail typically searches for a mate near larval host plants, i.e., young paw-paws that the zebra swallowtail caterpillars thrive on. After mating concludes, the female will lay tiny rounded eggs on the leaves or trunk of pawpaws. These foam-green eggs are laid singly and relatively far apart because zebra swallowtail caterpillars will actually eat their siblings and neighbors, if they get too close. After feeding on paw-paw leaves, the caterpillar eventually forms a hard-shelled case resembling a curled-up, dried leaf. In fall or the following spring, another enchanting zebra swallowtail will emerge from this unprepossessing chrysalis, starting the cycle anew. For my husband and I, the twirling path of the frolicking zebra swallowtails and the erratic beating of their wings, lulled us back into reveries of days past at Pettigrew State Park, and left us content with the capriciousness of nature, human and otherwise.

Additional Information: Click on the link for maps & directions.

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