Mimosa

There are generally three types of Mimosas found in the Greater Slidell Metropolitan Area:

 

- The Mimosa Tree (Albizia julibrissin) is  a lovely, exotic-looking Asian tree of medium size with dainty, fern-like leaves, pink flowers and a spreading, flattop shape. They fit in well with artificial landscaping schemes.

 

 

 - There is the popular libation made of chilled champagne and juice traditionally served in a fluted glass at weddings, brunches and lawn parties.

 

 - And finally, the Mimosa Weed, also known as Chamberbitter (Phyllanthus urinaria), a small obnoxious plant that pops up everywhere there is disturbed ground which includes most of the Greater Slidell Metropolitan Area, especially gardens.

 

This last item gets its nickname because it looks like a tiny Mimosa tree seedling.  It has durable little seeds that can bide their time and sprout when you’ve turned your back. This summertime plant grows almost immediately into a sprawling, rangy, red-stemmed tangle that doesn’t get much more than a foot tall and spreads out to cover only a square foot or two of ground. It’s an Asian import from the tropics and has become “pantropic” to infest much of the southeastern U.S. It has become cold resistant enough to have taken a bite out of southern Illinois too.

 

Because the first starts of this plant look like little Mimosa trees, many people mistake them as the result of that tree’s prolific seed output. Because there are so many of them, they seem to grow from among the roots of plants we want to keep, making herbicides impossible to use, so gardeners have to give them the old hand treatment. Though sometimes it seems as though it’s darkest before the dawn, all is not lost; there are at least a couple of positive notes about the weed.

 

1.) Since they only seem to invade disturbed soil they have not naturalized enough to go toe-to-toe with native plants and have not escaped into truly wild places. You only find them in urban areas and in places where man has torn up the soil. 2.) This plant has long been recognized in Asia for its medicinal qualities and now Western scientists are giving serious research into using it for curing kidney stones, gallstones, liver diseases, viral infections and possibly tumors.


Camp Salmen's Notable Oaks

Camp Salmen Nature Park has many large, fine old Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) scattered within its 130-acre boundaries. Their greatest concentration is on the high ground by Bayou Liberty. Well before the Boy Scouts came, even before Joseph Laurent built his trading post on the bayou two hundred years ago, the people who occupied this site enjoyed the tree’s shade and beauty.

We measured and mapped many of the oaks on the ridge and the Parish cleared around some of them to make them more visible. In order to keep track of “where is what” in the park we use the oaks as landmarks and have given some of them names. They probably had names before but since we don’t know what they were we’ve taken the liberty of doing it again:

The Leaning Oak – This tree on the edge the Parade Ground is, by far, the most popular tree in the park and a main attraction in its own right. Something made it lean over years ago and someone was nice enough to prop it up with a couple of heavy iron pipes. The tree has also done an admirable job of helping itself by bulking up its “fore roots.” It presents a gently sloping, humped-back that is too tempting to the thousands of children and adults compelled to climb on it.

Bayou Liberty Oaks – There are several nice oaks in the vicinity of the Salmen Lodge and amphitheater that frame Bayou Liberty nicely and provide a splendid light show every afternoon when the sun in the Western sky glows through the hanging Spanish moss.

The Cathedral Oak – This large, old oak apparently spent its youth growing up and away from a crowd of trees growing from the clay pit Joseph Laurent dug for making bricks across from his trading post. Spending time under its spreading, protective branches is like being in a natural cathedral.

The Broken Oak is the unlucky twin to the large, living tree next to Salmen Lodge. It is impressive how many tons are held in the air by these trees and what is left of this one has split from its massive trunk and is resting on the ground.

The Parking Lot Hat Rack Oak – This lone tree, along with several others in the park, probably grew up out of crowded conditions that allowed it to have a broad crown but no drooping branches.

Mary’s Oaks in the vicinity of her grotto are an impressive grouping that includes another massive broken oak as well as several “hat rack” trees that are next to the park’s the future link to the Tammany Trace bike path.

The Order of the Arrow Oak is the King-Daddy of the park’s oaks by virtue of its great girth and the fact it is the only one registered with Louisiana’s Live Oak Registry. It was named by the Scouts after one of their ceremonies and now resides in the middle of the park’s Nature Garden.


Gallberry

Gallberry (Ilex glabra) is the Rodney Dangerfield of Camp Salmen’s plants. It’s a fairly nondescript, knee-high, shrub that occurs everywhere in Camp Salmen’s forest — especially along trails we’ve cut through the woods. Because it thinks so much of itself, it likes to be among the first plants to populate freshly cleared land and flourishes in both shade and sunshine. Plus it thinks it’s pretty funny.

 

 

For example, after trees were thinned out from the Pine Savannah Boardwalk area and the ground began to heal up from the heavy equipment, Gallberry just barged right in and took over. What was supposed to become a pine savannah, a mixture of grasses and a variety of shrubs between widely spaced trees to mimic the native Longleaf pine woodland of St. Tammany’s Parish, ended up looking more like a Gallberry plantation.

 

Somehow, after a judicious herbicide application, the seed from native grasses must have sensed it was they who were supposed to populate this spot and the following year we got the look we were seeking. In fact, the resulting botanical assemblage was pretty handsome, true to form, and stuck it out to make annual reappearances. See what I mean about the Gallberry? No respect, no respect at all.

 

Despite being such a sad sack, Gallberry plants do have their benefits. For example, bees use their pollen to make excellent honey, their copious berries feed wildlife, and horticulturalists plant them and trim them up to make pretty hedges.

 

Next, what is envisioned for our simulated savannah is a good replacement for the frequent fires that historically visited southern Longleaf pine forests. These low intensity events would flash through the woods and actually rejuvenate the area. Since this method would be impractical inside of a wooden boardwalk (and may be an unwise move in a suburban environment), mowing is considered the next best thing. As insane as it may seem to destroy a plant installation that took so much trouble to produce, if this isn’t done plant succession will eventually replace the savannah and it will eventually become dominated by shade producing trees and thus, lose the effect. Besides, mechanical reduction is efficient and oxidization is oxidization, whether by a quick fire or by the slow metabolism of decomposing bacteria. In any case, look forward to watching how the savannah recovers this growing season and watch out that Mr. “Gallberryfield” doesn’t try to horn in again.


French Mulberry

A plant now putting on a bizarre fall display at Camp Salmen is the French Mulberry (Callicarpa Americana), also known as the American Beautyberry. It grows several round clumps of purple-lavender colored berries stacked “Dr. Seuss style” up and down its stalks.

 

 

Raccoons love the berries. Last fall we watched a large ‘coon clumsily climb onto one of these plants to nosh on them. He was oblivious to our presence, probably because he was preoccupied by their wholesome goodness.

 

I learned the berries were safe for humans, tried some and concluded there was not much to recommend them. However, I suppose if you lived outside all the time, were covered in fur, had no income and couldn’t get to a store, you’d resort to such a thing. Indeed, since the berries occur in great quantities in the park all sorts of other mammals and birds also take advantage of this bounty.

 

Apparently, my trying some of these berries was not too far off base; the longer they stay on the plant, supposedly the sweeter they become. People who wait for them to be at their peak use them to make jellies, wine and pies. If consumed in large enough quantities they also have a laxative effect, so beware, not too many pies at once! Also, the leaves of the plant have an insect repellant quality and folks have been known to stuff them in their clothing to enjoy this effect. Imagine the sight.

 

As an aside, another mulberry, the one from the Morus species, was once important to St. Tammany’s extinct silk industry. Yes, that’s right; Mulberry Grove Plantation just north of Covington was planted in the 1830s as a home for the silkworms that favored the leaves of this plant. Silk production from this caterpillar’s cocoons was originally an ancient Chinese technology, one that caused Marco Pollo and other adventurous Europeans to travel great distances in the 1300s to bring back this luxuriant textile. The colonial French brought the trees and the “worms” to Louisiana as they cast about for ways to make money from their new colony. The enterprise did not last but the place name and the trees remain.


Ditch Life

I love the ditch life at Camp Salmen. No, this is not about some personal moral failure of mine, it’s about the true diversity and beauty of things growing in the drainage ditches along the park’s Parish Parkway; check it out when you drive in, you’ll be gobsmacked.

Moisture, slope, soil and semi-annual mowing by the St. Tammany Department of Public Works make this mini-ecology one of the most diverse, rapidly changing habitats in the park. Its many wildflowers and plants are either politely waiting their turn in the growing season, vying for a place in the sun in intense, merciless competition or starting over again to resume their rise to supremacy. Such drama!

 

Recently, the most prominent plant in the ditch and on the parkway has been the wispy, spire-like Dog fennel (Eupatorium compositifolium). If the name seems familiar it’s because it’s cousin to a plant whose seed is a popular seasoning for pork, fish and lamb chops. After crushing some of the dog fennel I smelled something green and fresh like from the kitchen cutting board and also smelled something pungent like Vic’s VapoRub.

This week the rising star in the ditch is Coffee Weed (Sesbania herbacea). It’s popping up along the Parkway and will become huge four and five foot high banks of emerald green clumps before the mowers arrive. It has foot-long, star-shaped fronds of small, paired leaves that splay out from tall, spindly stalks and have an appearance that reminds one of a fern or mimosa; some confuse it with Rattlebox. They eventually develop pretty little orange-yellow flowers that beget long, skinny seedpods containing the namesake “bean.” Unfortunately, these won’t make a good pot of coffee because, in spite of the name, they are poisonous.

For a plant, they sure do move a lot. Their vertical growth is so fast you can probably hear them crackle at night. In addition to that, they’re “heliotropic” (Greek: “helio” = sun, “tropic” = turn). At the beginning of the day their leaves and stems face east toward the morning sun. During the day they slowly twist to follow the sun and end up facing west. This obviously helps them drink up as much of the sun’s photons as they can. The plant also performs the nocturnal act of “nyctinasty,” (Greek: “nukt” = night + “nasty”). At dark the leaves fold up and stay that way for the night, which seems like an appropriate thing to do after such a hard day’s work.


Blue Grass

Melodic Bluegrass mountain music with guitars, fiddles and plaintive, high lonesome voices — white soul music, if you will — does not necessarily come to mind when driving down Camp Salmen’s Parish Parkway. What you will see, however, is plenty of actual Bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium). Clumps of the grass with the blue-grey cast are mixed in with the menagerie of other grasses and herbaceous plants that line the road.

 

 

Grasses have been important to mankind for thousands of years for crops, feeding our livestock, ornamenting our surroundings with lawns and making sports such as baseball and golf possible. Grass is from a group of plants called graminoids which include rushes, reeds and sedges; however, I’ve never heard anyone declare, “The graminoids are always greener on the other side of the hill.”

 

The secret to grass is that, unlike oak trees, banana plants, or rose bushes for instance, you can crop off blades of grass just above the root and they will grow back quickly just as they were, time and again. Animals that man either employs or eats such as sheep, cattle, goats, rabbits, horses, llamas, deer, camels and antelope, in turn, eat grass in a procedure called grazing.

 

These animals practically live with their heads bowed to the ground and typically use a front set of teeth ideal for nipping off the blades, a set of molars for grinding the blades into something like hummus and a set of multiple stomachs to thoroughly process it.

                                                     

Any farmer who raises grazing livestock will tell you he makes his living as a grass farmer as much as by raising animals and not just any grass will do. Nutritional content of grass is affected by soil and growing conditions and these make some areas of the country better than others for growing good grass for livestock.

 

Much sought after acreage like the meadowlands of the Bluegrass Region in Kentucky, where underlying limestone helps the grass contribute to strong and sturdy horses or the Flint Hills of Kansas where cattle are fat and happy, are prime examples. Not so much for grass in Louisiana, but it works well enough to make the state rank somewhere in the middle of the pack nationwide for raising cattle.


Wasps & Armadillo

A recent surprise find at Camp Salmen Nature Park was an underground nest of Southern Yellow Jackets (Vespula squamosa), a type of wasp also commonly called a ground hornet. They are known to deal painful stings to those who may blunder too close to their nests. 

 

The entrance to the nest was discovered inside a small depression camouflaged by grass and leaf litter. I returned the next day prepared to do battle, armed with a can of wasp spray. To my surprise the underground nest had turned into a neatly excavated hole, it looked like it was dug out with a shovel. Then I saw many shreds of honeycombed paper nest scattered on the ground around it.

 

My best guess is an alert, insectivorous Nine Banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) beat me to the nest. Good for him (or her) for he/she enjoyed a feast of tender, juicy wasp larva and probably did not mind the storm of furious wasps ineffectively hammering away at his/her armor. Good for me because I got to avoid having to deal with the thing.

 

I examined the hole. It was large, about the volume of a volleyball — or an armadillo. In fact, the walls were smooth from the beast doing its work. There wasn’t much dirt heaped around the hole because it had probably been mostly full of the paper nest. I theorize the nest had been started in a void-space under a tree root and the wasps slowly took away more dirt as they expanded it. The armadillo had burrowed right into it, pulling out hunks of nest, consuming the larva on the ground outside then diving back in to excavate more.

 

 

The wasps were still drifting in and out of the empty hole in a business-as-usual fashion. The armadillo hadn’t killed any of them, only their young. Now they were just a disappointed and disconnected swarm. I wondered if they were going to try to rebuild the nest here or elsewhere but decided to take no chances and hosed the hole with the spray; the bottom was littered with dead wasps later. Good riddance to them and hooray for our brave and helpful little Mexican friend, the Armadillo.


Thistles

The worst part of winter is yet to come. The herbaceous plants (those without woody stems) are busy withering away, yet a brand new, plump, juicy Spiny Thistle (Cirisium horridulum) has popped up out of the ground by Camp Salmen’s mailbox. So how come?

 

 

Firstly, winter and early spring are simply their season. There is not much in the way of competition, so they take full advantage of the situation. They also possess a short list of winterizing traits - an antifreeze solution of salts, sugars and other elements in their juices, toughened cell walls, compact leaves and proximity to the warm earth.

 

These plants have an unusual pattern of growth. They start out as a flat stack of spiky leaves arranged in concentric rings on the ground. This stage is spectacular in itself, some span over a foot across. It’s what they do next that is really strange. When the moment is right, the main stalk in the center grows upward, taking each layer of leaf-rings from the stack with it, one at a time, from the center out, until the complete plant stands on its tall, succulent stalk with pinkish flowers on top. The flowers are favorite forage for honeybees and other insects.

 

 A young thistle plant before going vertical.

 

Once winter releases its death grip, the plant’s population really takes off. They especially like open lots and pastureland, where their numbers can be a bane to farmers and ranchers. The imposing, spiked leaves guard the tempting stalks, and grazing animals with tender mouths can get injured (the plant isn’t called horridulum for nothing). However, livestock scientists have actually developed a training program for cattle (who have tough enough mouths to ingest the weed) that gets them to include thistles in their grazing diet.

 

 A thistle about half way through its growth spurt.

 

 

The plant’s stalks are also the desire of culinarily adventurous humans. Thistles are said to taste like celery but one had better be wearing leather gloves if one wants to grab these things to jerk them out of the ground and try peeling away the leaves.

 

Thistles are a national symbol in Scotland and show up on their flags, crests and heraldry. The plants prickly pugnacity and tenaciousness reflects the national character — “Mess with me and you’ll likely come away hurt.”

 

 A mature thistle forest.


St. Tammany and the Pines

St. Tammany Parish’s number one renewable natural resource has always been pine trees. Since the early 1700s, cutting them down and processing them into useful products have been major local industries.

 

The Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) comprised the original forest that blanketed the Southeast’s coastal plain. These huge trees and the ecology of the plants and animals that surrounded them were what Native Americans lived in and adapted to over thousands of years. The first Europeans and then the Americans that later migrated from the Thirteen Colonies logged them to use as the base material for processes and products that met the needs of their time.

 

- They used pine for lumber. They would fell a tree, saw it into beams and planks and ship it off to build a house, a city or a ship.

- Staves were cut, formed and bound together with iron bands into barrels, a basic mode of storage and transportation for all kinds of commodities.

- Stakes and shingles required the selection of a short section of log with a straight grain and then the use of a sharp-edged tool called a “froe” struck by a mallet to cleave the log into these products.

- They would also burn pine chunks underneath a carefully managed blanket of dirt so that they smoldered and made charcoal. This slow process burned off obnoxious volatiles and left a carbonized, concentrated energy source used in cooking and heating.

- Masts and poles were made only from the strongest, straightest timber that appeared to be without any serious defects.

- Tar, pitch, resin and turpentine were refined from the copious amounts of sap that bled and collected from the Longleaf. These items were called Naval Stores and were vital for preserving rope, sails, wooden boats and other things.

 

As the nation grew the Longleaf pine forest ended up being largely depleted by the turn of the Twentieth Century and was replaced with the faster growing Slash and Loblolly varieties of pine. Today, vast pine plantations of these trees are used to produce lumber products and wood fiber that is essentially pulped or liquefied wood for use in a multitude of paper-related products.

 

Now things have gone full circle. The latest thinking is that the old, original forest ecology of Longleaf that evolved here over hundreds of thousands of years was actually best suited to this environment and may prove to be more resilient to the stresses of climate change. There is a movement afoot to restore this ecology and who knows — maybe our great-grandkids will live amongst forests of Longleaf Pine. 

 

 

A young Longleaf pine, note the long needles. The new growth spire on top is called a “candle.”

 


Christmasberry

Among the plants at Camp Salmen that are not part of the original forest but instead, showed up during the last century as an invasive species from the Orient, is the Christmasberry (Coral ardisia). It is so named because of its clusters of vivid, red berries. It’s also known as Australian holly, coralberry, spiceberry, hen's-eyes and scratchthroat. This last name may have something to do with its identification as toxic to livestock and humans, though native birds and raccoons are known to happily consume (and spread) the berries. The second to last name must be about a chicken I hope I never meet in a dark ally.

 

The plant is a low, evergreen shrub with dark, waxy leaves that might make one think vaguely of a mini-magnolia. Each year small, whitish flowers yield clusters of berries just under its crown of leaves. These berries are its chief distinction as they stay on the plant for most of the year. Specimens in our woods occur in small bunches and typically don’t get much taller than a couple of feet, though they can get up to six feet tall. You can see the greatest concentration where they carpet the wooded slope between Mary’s Grotto and Goldfish Bayou.

 

The plant is native to Japan and was introduced to Florida as an ornamental around 1905 by an overly helpful horticulture industry. It wasn’t spotted as an escapee until 1982. Now it’s spread across the Gulf South.

 

The dense, low canopy it creates shades out most of the sunlight from the lower understory plants that belong here. Its year-long production of seeds creates an overwhelming secondary generation of seedlings waiting just underneath.

 

Though you can temporarily wipe out stands of this plant, you can’t ultimately get rid of them. Its prolific seed production insures that there will be plenty more replacements. They are known to regenerate after fire and cutting. The waxy coating on its leaves sheds herbicides. Yanking them out of the ground by hand works but is impossible over a large area. Dispersal of the seed by animals is an ongoing fact of life.

 

On one hand, such plants as the Chritmasberry ruin the diversity of the native plant community, potentially making the Earth a planet of weeds, susceptible to the relentless onslaught of the aggressive gutter punks of the plant and animal kingdom. On the other hand, like it or not, these plants are here to stay. How would you like a decorative Christmasberry for your next Holiday Season?

 

 

 

The plant’s bright red berries, just in time for cheerful, Holiday decorating. Note the profusion of small starts underneath, ready to shade the sun from other, possibly more deserving ground cover.


Air Potato

Species relocation and displacement has gotten more and more serious over the last few centuries, especially since the invention of intercontinental sailing ships and airplanes. Environmental problems like water and air pollution are within our realm of technical abilities to address but it is not quite as easy when it comes to mankind’s rearrangement of species all over the planet. Now, aggressive new invaders that are not going away are suddenly crowding out native species that had slowly evolved in-place.

 

This month’s invasive species is the Air Potato (Dioscorea bulbifera), a starchy tuber or yam that grows from a vine that can get to be seventy feet long, tall enough to get to the top of our tallest tress. It has large, shiny valentine-shaped leaves and dangles a little brown potato used for making even more potato vines. The plant originated in tropical Africa and Asia where it is used by people for food and folk medicine. Fortunately, none are known to be at Camp Salmen but they’ve been seen around town. People gladly grow them in their yard because they are quick and pretty but they can take over the neighborhood by using their shady leaves to steal the sunlight and turn living shrubs and trees into dead trellises, similar to what Kudzu does. Like all obnoxious plants they are hard to eradicate.

 

An expedition of naturalists recently went to Grand Isle in a desperate effort to try to keep Air Potato vines from taking over the rare and beautiful natural oak forest in the middle of the island. I’m surprised the Cajuns down there haven’t come up with some way to cook these things and take care of the problem. Alas, the potato from the variety growing here is considered by some to be toxic and bitter (it’s full of diosgenin, a steroid used in the manufacture of birth-control pills). However another source states that, despite their slimy texture, they need only to be diced, rinsed in water, and cooked to make them safe. The Japanese use them in their pancakes and in other dishes. For a number of principled reasons I’ll stick with the Idaho varieties of potato.

 

 

 

 

The gorgeous, heart-shaped, shiny, shade producing leaves of the air potato.

 


The Frogs of Winter

Except for a little recent brush clearing in one corner, the old, shallow clay pit between Camp Salmen’s main parking lot and the park’s office building is hidden behind a wall of vegetation. The sounds that come from it — the remarkable roar of a frog chorus after a long, hot, humid rainy day in the summer —tells it’s prime frog habitat. During dry spells when one can penetrate the brush barrier and walk through the pit one sees why; it’s a tangle of shrubbery, trees, standing water, muck and wetland plants.

 

You would think the pit would be silent in the middle of winter but at least two kinds of frogs have a greater tolerance for the cold than most of their cousin frogs. They like to mate at any time of year and, thus, keep up their nocturnal racket to attract the opposite sex.

 

One is the Cajun Chorus Frog (Pseudacris fouquettei). Most people know them from the wall of sound they make from area ditches and wetlands, a sound that constantly goes “cheep-cheep-cheep-cheep.” Because they are smallish (one inch), grey/brown and stay hidden under the leaves, they can confound the careful observer in a most fraudulent and deceptive manner by seeming to be invisible in spite of all the noise they make.

 

 

The other frog has a creepy sound that if you didn’t know what was making it, would raise the hair on the back of your neck — a sound that combines a noise like a squeaky pair of rubber shoes or from rubbing an inflated balloon with the growling chatter of demons from the netherworld. Its source is the Southern Leopard Frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus). These are a handsome, distinctive-looking frog; a frog’s frog. They can grow up to about five inches long, though most are about three inches long. They’re sleek looking, with pointy snouts and a couple of angular, racy ridges on their back. Their chief distinction is the large leopard-like spots scattered over their smooth, moist, froggy bodies.

 

 

Both frogs like it wet, are quite happy with conditions in our pit and await all their other frog cousins to liven-up and join them in the summertime chorus. And don’t forget, like the TV commercial points out and in spite of evidence to the contrary, don’t confuse “frog” with “fraud.”


Red-wing Blackbirds

One of the loveliest sounds you hear out in the empty, expansive marshes down Bayou Liberty is the sweet, trilling song of the Redwing Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). While the invisible wind rustles the tall grass, their song fills the air from every direction. As far as the eye can see many of these birds are flitting about or perching high as they can to mind their territory and make the marsh both their home and hunting ground. I was surprised and pleased to hear their welcome music and see masses of them this week at Camp Salmen. They were in the company of their silent, wall-eyed partners, the bobbing red-breasted Robins. Both were feeding in the trees and on the lawns. 

 

It may be the dead of winter, on a cold, grey day the world does indeed appear dull and dead, but encouraging signs of the upcoming spring are everywhere — Red Maple blossoms, sprouting green irises and waves of the earliest migratory birds chatter their way through the neighborhood. A certain number of Redwings stay right here year ‘round, as in the aforementioned marsh, but a certain number of them yo-yo annually up and down the continent, feeding on seed left over from the last fall and following what the new warmth of the season provides as they make their way back to their northern summer homes. 

 

The glossy black Redwing males are easy to recognize because of the flashing diagonal red and yellow bars on their shoulders, and of course, their call. The mostly monogamous females in their company are slightly smaller and a brownish black with white streaks on their breast.

 

These birds are of the passerine type, the most popular bird design on the planet, accounting for over half of all the bird species. They are laid out like your standard bird. Although they all don’t sing, they are generally known as the songbirds. Down their throat is a piece of equipment called a syrinx, the avian equivalent of vocal cords, the manipulation of which allows them to make a wide variety of beautiful (think whippoorwills) and not so beautiful sounds (think crows).

 

They are also known for being good at perching, having three toes fore and one toe aft below each skinny leg, plus they possess a good sense of balance.


Goldfish Bayou

Goldfish Bayou creeps out of the Camp Salmen woods, passes under Parish Parkway and our wooden bike path bridge on its way to Bayou Liberty. Recent brush clearing has revealed more of it in the busy Camp Ridge part of the park.

 

The stream is typical of the web of natural channels that drain both rainwater and oozing groundwater from the coastal plain. In developed urban areas like Slidell, these streams are usually either replaced or modified by drainage ditches, but the Goldfish meanders through the woods in a mostly natural state. As such, it has to do a lot of dodging and ducking around both dead and living trees.

 

The Goldfish is what is known as an intermittent stream. Though it carries water most of the year, only the wider, deeper part at its end holds water year round. Standing water disappears from the upper parts of the channel during summertime dry spells.

 

Goldfish has an unusual tributary. While the bayou minds its own business as it winds through the woods north of the park’s main trail, just south of the trail is the shallow ex-clay pit that comprises the park’s Gum Swamp. Water held here does not flow to the bayou by way of a channel but, instead, flows from the pit over ground to the Goldfish as sheet flow. You can see the brown stains and muddiness from this periodic phenomenon on the path through the field at the entrance of the main trail.

 

With the coming and going of the water in Goldfish over the course of the year, there is an ebb and flow of life in the bayou. Small fish and the micro-critters they feed on invade the stream as long as there is enough water to wet their gills and then retreat downstream as the stream dries. So too for predators like snakes and birds who hunt for them. An otter was once spotted as he prospected up the bayou looking for what it had to offer in the way of food.

 

In places where the bayou backs up and spreads out a bit one can find open areas that hold water long enough to be clear of undergrowth. These are among the prettiest spots in the park and one such place can be found on the trail north of the nearby Salmen Lodge. It is interesting to speculate on just how the bayou may have been used by the people who occupied the building in its long history as a home and trading post.

 

So why is it called Goldfish Bayou? Goldfish are not naturally found at all in Louisiana but I bet it had something to do with the boys who were once Scouts here.


Springtime Colors

After a long, gnawing, winter made much of the vegetation at Camp Salmen dead and brown, spring is creeping in with a scattering of new color that vividly contrasts against the dull background. Red Swamp Maple seeds, bright green willow, iris, clover and a plentitude of white flowers on American Plum, Mexican Plum, Parsley Hawthorn, Mayhaw, Common Pear and Dogwood trees, polka dot the landscape and their colors easily catch the eye.

 

In contrast, you’ll note the dead leaves on Red Oak and American Beech trees hang fast until well into spring until it is they that stand out against the bright spring backdrop. These trees will belatedly get with the program and assume their green, summertime, chlorophyll-filled foliage.

 

Colorful birds flit hither and yon and rival the plants for our attention. The vivid cerulean blue of the Blue Bird with a complimentary orange blaze on its chest, the bright red of the chirpy Cardinals and a multitude of returning migratory birds add action to the rainbow effect. Now, why exactly is all this glory?

 

Well, besides the obvious spiritual explanation, the great scientific theory, one which, by the way, defies the use of the scientific method for accurate reproduction, is that a planetesimal meandering about our solar system during its formative mosh pit years whacked the Earth upside the head and left it perpetually addled and spinning with a twenty-three degree wobble. Simple as that, whatever became in the way of life here has had to deal with this — but aren’t the results wonderful?

 

From every perspective on the surface of the globe this wobbling seems to make the sun itself change its daily path during the course of the year. At this time here on the northern half of the planet the sun appears to arc higher and higher over the horizon with each longer and longer day. Someone living on the southern half of the planet, at the same distance between the equator and the poles, is experiencing the exact opposite thing. Here in the U.S., federal intervention actually makes our sunsets delay an hour as daylight savings time takes effect this weekend.

 

Another neat aspect of the change of the seasons is the lag effect between the celestial mechanics of our wobbling, revolving planet and the change in surface temperatures. We divide the year into quarters within this geometry– two equal equinoxes and two extreme solstices – but it takes a while for things to warm up or cool down after each of these waypoints has passed. The resulting weather can be something to look forward to. May we always have long and glorious springs and autumns.


Birder's List

It’s springtime at Camp Salmen Nature Park in Slidell, and birds

are making a great noise everywhere in the park to either call attention to themselves (for a mate) or expressing joy that winter is almost over. During the course of the year thousands of these winged beasts fly in and out of our 130 wooded acres or make the park their permanent home. Professional and amateur birders visit often and have inventoried the many species of birds sighted here in the checklist below. This is also a handout in our Main Pavilion and archived in the Nature Notes section of our web site. We are calling on all bird watching enthusiasts to use the handout to report any new species they might see so we can add them to the list.

 

Double-crested Cormorant

Great Blue Heron                 

Great Egret                                       

Black Vulture                                                

Turkey Vulture                                             

Wood Duck                                                   

Broad-winged Hawk                                    

Red-tailed Hawk                                           

Laughing Gull                                               

Ring-billed Gull                     

Mourning Dove                    

Yellow-billed Cuckoo                                   

Barred Owl                                                   

Chimney Swift                                              

Ruby-throated Hummingbird                                

Belted Kingfisher                             

Red-headed Woodpecker                           

Red-bellied Woodpecker     

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker                

Downy Woodpecker                        

Hairy Woodpecker                                       

Northern Flicker                   

Pileated Woodpecker                                              

Eastern Phoebe                    

Great Crested Flycatcher                             

White-eyed Vireo

Yellow-throated Vireo                                 

Blue-headed Vireo               

Red-eyed Vireo

Blue Jay                                 

American Crow                                             

Fish Crow                                                      

Tree Swallow                                                

Carolina Chickadee              

Tufted Titmouse                  

Brown-headed Nuthatch    

Carolina Wren                      

House Wren                                      

Ruby-crowned Kinglet        

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                     

Eastern Bluebird

American Robin                    

Gray Catbird

Brown Thrasher                               

Cedar Waxwing                    

Orange-crowned Warbler   

N. Parula                                                       

Yellow-rumped Warbler     

Pine Warbler                                    

Kentucky Warbler                                       

Common Yellowthroat                                 

Hooded Warbler                                          

Northern Cardinal               

Summer Tanager                                         

Eastern Towhee                   

Field Sparrow                                                           

Savannah Sparrow                                      

Swamp Sparrow                   

Song Sparrow                                                           

White-throated Sparrow     

Indigo Bunting                                             

Red-winged Blackbird         

Common Grackle                  

Brown-headed Cowbird                              

American Goldfinch


Wildlife Corridor

In a short period of time Slidell expanded from the quaint old brick downtown that originated down by the railroad tracks, into a pretty good-sized metropolis; ranked twelfth in Louisiana’s roster of cities. However, only a third of the people who live in the Greater Slidell Area actually live inside the smaller municipal boundary, the rest are spread out in every direction across the surrounding hundred square miles.

Camp Salmen was once an isolated destination way outside of town. It was at the end of a long, dusty drive. The Scouts had to travel through piney woods and across marshes to get here from neighboring communities. Now, since we’ve slicked-up the road system a bit and built suburbia all around this patch of woods, it’s become an urban park.

All is not lost, especially for city-addled citizens and the remaining wildlife, for this refuge, along with the other large, wooded properties in the riparian zone on Bayou Liberty, are part of a wildlife corridor linking the woods to the north with the woods and marshes to the south and west. Take a look at a Google Map satellite view and you’ll see its greener along the bayou (you can also look up riparian zone while you’re at it).

Some of the animals that troop through the park are super-secretive creatures that absolutely HATE to be around humans and avoid them at all costs: deer, coyotes and bobcats for instance. They travel up and down the corridor, furtively staying hidden in the brush and move about only under cover of darkness. However, some of them are not above slinking up to the edges of civilization to look for something to eat like a chicken or something from the garden.

Other animals like squirrels, rabbits and raccoons are exhibitionists in comparison. They don’t mind people at all, as long as they keep their distance. These wily creatures know they can scamper up a tree or bolt into the bush or growl ferociously and bare their teeth to avoid any real life or death confrontation with humans; it’s the aforementioned predators they need to worry about. Still, we’re all just one big, happy family at the park so come visit us.


August, 2014

There is an explosion of Ladies Hatpin along our Pine Savannah boardwalk and trail. It’s a curious looking wetland plant with a cute little compact round white flower on top of splayed clumps of skinny, two foot tall stalks, giving it its name (though actual ladies hatpins are now long past being in vogue).

The very earliest colors of fall are staring to show up and are easy to pick out of the background of summer green. The Black Gum tree (gums are known to be among the first trees to loose their leaves in fall) are turning yellow with irregular red splotches. The effect with the backlit sun is quite remarkable. The red is the color of blood and makes the tree look like it was witness to a massacre. Some of the malignant poison ivy is also beginning to show its fall yellows and reds.

Rabbits are everywhere in the mornings and evenings (don’t forget, they’re “crepuscular” meaning the are only active at the beginning and end of each day) and seem oblivious as they eat and eat and eat. One let me watch it from about fifteen feet away. However, they will quickly vamoose if they think you’re too close. Coyotes are already in the park, leaving furry turds on our asphalt at night, as they seem to like doing.

Creeping ground vines like the Morning Glory are slowly taking over parts of ditches, meadows and the edge of the woods. There will be more as fall progresses and they attempt to smother everything else at the end of the growing season.

Tight little schools of mullet are feeding on the surface of Bayou Liberty, slowly flowing along together as they feed on pollen and whatever the “scum do jour” is floating on the surface.

There are still a few redheaded woodpeckers darting around the trees. I hear they’re scheduled to pull out and migrate to Texas for the winter. I look forward to seeing their return and with their vivid colors and antics next spring.

Checkout the wonderful variety of plants, especially the tall, gangly Coffee Weed in the ditches on Parish Parkway while you can. The mowers are to come shortly and level all in their fall mowing.

A new, utilitarian steel barn is underway by our office and will provide needed storage space for us and other Parish departments.

The current drought has parched many plants, the French Mulberry is looking especially wilted, our lawns are browning and the road is dusty. A little rain would be nice but any time the breeze kicks up and stays steady the weather can be fairly tolerable.


Gum Swamp Boardwalk

If you take the crosswalk on Parish Parkway across from Mary’s Grotto, go through the field to the entrance of the Main Trail and take the first path on the right, you’ll find Camp Salmen’s Gum Swamp Boardwalk. It goes through a near swamp — a low, wet spot in the woods we believe was the result of clay mining by the Salmen Brick and Lumber Company a century ago. A temporary railroad or “dummy line” was laid through these woods from the main railroad (what later became the Tammany Trace Bike Trail) and was used first to remove the timber. Then a dragline was brought in to scrape away the topsoil to reveal the ancient clay deposits underneath. This clay was dug up to make bricks at Fritz Salmen’s brick factory by the track in what is now Old Town Slidell. Traces of the rail bed can still be seen here and there in the woods that re-grew after this episode.

 

There are other remnant clay pits in the park and indeed, all around the Slidell area. Fritz’s brick factory was a juggernaut that made millions and millions of bricks that greatly contributed to the region’s growth and in particular, New Orleans’ Central Business District, in the 1920s including the renowned Roosevelt Hotel.

 

This low ground forms a basin that holds rainwater that slowly seeps into Goldfish Bayou and on to Bayou Liberty. This flooding reduces the number of small plants here and keeps the ground wet enough for moisture-loving trees like the Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) and Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflu). You can tell the Black Gum by their flared trunks, wrinkly grey bark and pointed leaves, and the Sweet Gum by their five-pointed leaves and spiky, round seedpods that drop all over the place in fall and winter.

 

The moisture gives rise to other wetland plants like a kind of tall wetland grass with a white button-like flower called Lady’s Hat Pin (Syngonanthus flavidulus); there’s Red Swamp Bay (Persea borbonia) and May haw (Crataegus aestivales), famous for bearing a fruit used in jellies. The Club mosses (Lycopodiopsida) look like weird, light-green, foot long pipe cleaners with bulbous tips. Animals that live in these woods, or like to pay an occasional visit, include blue-tailed skinks, armadillos, eastern grey squirrels, several snake species, deer and many kinds of birds.

 

We invite you to check it out; the boardwalk is not very far from the Main Pavilion where you’ll find maps and a handout about this attraction. Once there, adventurous hikers may be tempted to keep going and discover some of the other the trails in our woods.


South St. Tammany Nature Tour

Camp Salmen Nature Park shares the natural beauty of St. Tammany Parish with several other places up and down the highway where stately oaks, piney woods, quiet streams and broad marshes are preserved for future generations. Add in the interesting history and culture of this Parish and it’s easy to see what a blessing it is that so many of these wonderful assets are so easily accessible.

Some of these natural and cultural areas can be seen on the drive to or from Camp Salmen Nature Park along Hwy. LA 22/U.S. 190 where federal, state, parish, municipal and private properties are either free to visit or require only a modest admission fee.

The top attraction that literally ties it all together is the twenty-eight mile long Tammany Trace bike path across the Parish. It and its many trailheads scattered along the way perfectly blend the town and country experience.

Beginning in the west, visit historic and scenic Madisonville Water Street on the Tchefuncte River by boat or car. A block away on Main Street is one of the loveliest drives in the state into the marshes south of town.

Just across the river in Mandeville you’ll find venerable old Fairview State Park, Purple Martins under the Causeway, Sunset Point Park and Fishing Pier, the Old Mandeville waterfront and lovely Bayou Castine. A very good museum at the Tammany Trace Trailhead on Girod Street explains the town’s remarkable history.

The Northlake Nature Center next to Pelican Park on the east side of town has miles of wonderful nature trails as does the sprawling Fontainebleau State Park across the highway. This park also features historic ruins, a beach and museum.

The federal Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge along the Pontchartrain shore and their headquarters museum in Lacombe protects 14 miles of lakeshore and thousands of acres of woods and marsh and contains many wonderful trails, roads and boardwalks.

And course, we like to think of Camp Salmen Nature Park as the crown jewel of this string of valuable natural resources and a worthy destination for people seeking to spend some time with nature.

Still, there is plenty more to see on the other side of Slidell. There is the scenic drive down Pontchartrain Drive into the marshes along U.S. Highway 11, Carr Drive and Rats Nest Road on the lake shore, the St. Tammany Fishing Pier, the scenic drive on Highway 90, the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area, White Kitchen Preserve and Honey Island Swamp.

See St. Tammany — for a Natural Experience!


Red-ear Turtles

Our most common native turtle, one most Louisiana kids have played with and the one you’ll most likely see basking on a log at Camp Salmen is the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). This species is rugged and easy to breed and has been exported in great quantities as pets to Europe, Australia, South Africa, Israel, Asia, the Caribbean and the South Pacific where they have been turned loose by disenchanted and irresponsible pet owners to make itself at home and become an international bully. Yes, our home grown Slidell Slider is someone else’s invasive species, aggressively taking over habitat, displacing the locals and being so brutish about it that it has made the Top 100 List of the World's Worst Invasive Alien Species. (They can’t help it.) 

 

Why is this turtle called a slider, you ask? Well, these traits combine: it’s semi-aquatic, so it likes to be in the water, preferably warm, slow moving water (though its completely capable of knocking around on land), it’s “poikilothermic,” meaning its only as active as the temperature it finds itself in (that’s why it’s always basking on logs to “charge up its batteries”) and it’s as paranoid and jumpy as a rabbit, ready to “slide” off the log and escape into the water at the slightest hint of trouble. 

 

It’s winter, so where are they all now? It would be a mistake to say they are hibernating; the herpetologists (reptile scientists) like to say the turtles “bruminate.” Both of these procedures involve slowing the metabolism but the difference seems to be hibernators are “out like a light” for the duration of winter and bruminators can arise on an occasional warm day and get a sip of water before going back to “sleep.” 

 

Their “red ear” is a patch of color right behind their eyes, making them easy to distinguish from all other turtle species. This fades as the turtle gets older. Their actual ears have no external manifestation at all but are under the skin, making the turtle a little hard of hearing. In fact, the animal’s legendary skittishness comes mainly from its sensitivity to vibration. There is some speculation that Mutant Ninja turtles are of this breed, perhaps due to their green color and aggressive, international behavior. However, extensive research does not reveal this red ear patch, unless it’s consistently hidden under Ninja’s omnipresent eye masks.


Red Wasps

Everyone is familiar with the flat, upside down paper nests of the Red Wasp (Polistes carolina) hanging from house eaves or hidden in surprising places. We have a big one way up under the peak of the roof of Camp Salmen’s main picnic pavilion. It’s well beyond reach and unlikely to do anyone harm. There are lessons in family values and sisterhood in the life cycle and habits of this insect.

 

The queen and perhaps a sister or two emerge from winter hibernation to collaborate on a small nest. They fly off to grab small mouthfuls of wood to spit out and form little hexagonal paper cells where the queen’s larvae are deposited. As summer progresses more cells are added, larvae and sisters are made and the nest grows into one big, giggly sorority party. Boys aren’t welcome and are produced only toward the end of the season for mating purposes only. Afterward they’re expected to fly off somewhere and die.

 

This sisterhood does a few other wasp-like things. They nurture their larvae by stinging hapless caterpillars to quiet them down and then tear hunks of their flesh from their comatose bodies to feed to the young’uns. They also sip nectar in ladylike fashion. The queen goes on a rampage late in spring by taking over other nests, aggressively and viciously driving off its occupants and establishing her own iron rule. She also gives this same treatment to her poor, aging sisters who originally helped her build her nest. She drives them away and they have to try to start their own nests before the cruel winds of winter approach.

 

How to avoid wasps: In warm months always assume nests can be in any quiet, hidden, covered area. I’ve found them under picnic tables, roof eaves and banana leaves, hanging from tree branches and fences, inside trailer hitches, birdhouses, sheds, horizontal pipes, electrical switch boxes and most any little-used space with openings for them to come and go. You should definitely look first before you proceed or both you and the wasp(s) will be unduly surprised. You’ll get stung and the wasp will go on about her business because, unlike the heroic honeybees that lose their stinger and die, wasps can sting again and again.

 

Once you locate a nest, then it’s a matter of proximity. If you’re a little too close, all the wasps will turn in unison and stare at you, pricking up their pointy black wings, ready to pounce. If you’re lucky and happen to notice this first, the hair raised on the back of your neck will tell you to back off, otherwise — surprise, surprise.

 

At safe distances Red Wasps are a “go along, get along” kind of stinging insect and will leave you alone if you leave them alone. I recently discovered that, unbeknownst to me, a nice size nest was not three feet from my head every day I entered our well house last summer. However, some people elect not to take any chances and if they see a nest they apply a wasp spray that has a robust, far-reaching stream.


Pitch Pine

A friend of mine, who once surveyed East Coast trees for her college degree, came by Camp Salmen last spring. As she walked past the little bridge on the Bayou Liberty trail she suddenly exclaimed, “By golly, I think that’s a northeastern pitch pine!” (Pinus rigida). The reason for her surprise was this was a tree she was pretty familiar with from her studies and it was not supposed to be any closer than Northern Georgia. In fact, it’s the main tree found in the famous New Jersey Pine Barrens, a region so named because of its sandy, acidic soils that never could be farmed but produce a heck of a lot of pine trees. I told her, “You got a sharp eye girl,” as we looked over the specimen. It was huge — one of the largest pines in the park, about three feet wide and a head above the other trees. It looks like it should be at least a century old. 

 

I was curious enough to do some research on the tree. This one had most of the traits of a pitch pine: height, location in sandy soil, a thick bark, similar needles, seed-cones and appearance. The needles were not quite as stout as a pitch pine but these trees are known to hybridize with loblolly, shortleaf and pond pine so it might combined with one of those. Like a lot of plant species that are similar to one another, pine trees can hybridize all on their own and come up with either a whole different species or take on traits that leave botanists arguing over what it is. This tree certainly doesn’t look like the other local pines. 

 

Like the Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris ), once the dominant native tree on Camp Salmen land, Pitch Pine is known to ooze gobs of sticky sap or pitch. This was refined into products like tar and resin used to preserve wood and canvas. This was a big industry in these parts and maybe the tree is a remnant of this - Ole Fritz Salmen might have planted it himself. Then again, it could just be a random volunteer. 

 

Unfortunately, we’ll know exactly how old the tree is sooner than later. I was shocked to recently look up and discover it was dead and brown. It doesn’t appear to have any signs of a lightning strike, maybe it was old age, or maybe as a northerner it couldn’t take the heat stress. Since it’s on a busy trail it will have to be removed and we can then count the rings. I’ll let readers know how many. In the meantime, please come by the park and pay your respects.

 

(Editor’s note: The tree had about 140 rings, meaning it got its start in the 1870s. It also had a sizable termite colony in its center that may have helped kill it.)


Francois Pichon, Neighbor

When Joseph Laurent built his sturdy little trading post on the banks of Bayou Liberty in the early 1800s it became something of a general store serving the community of Bonfouca until the end of the century. In 1901 Fritz Salmen bought it and the surrounding land, eventually turned it over to the Boy Scouts of America and finally St. Tammany Parish Government acquired it in the early 2000s. The old building now stands as the Salmen Lodge in Camp Salmen Nature Park.

One of the store’s neighbors down the bayou was Fracois Sidone Pichon (b. 1818, d. 1896) who kept a journal of his routines from 1848 to 1886. Keeping such a diary was common at this time and was not necessarily about the writer’s innermost thoughts or observations on the issues of the day but could be simply be a dry record of the happenings of day-to-day life. Keeping any diary is always a good discipline and once discovered by posterity it becomes a welcome window to the past. Pichon’s decedents, of which many remain in the neighborhood, were nice enough to have shared the account.

It’s not hard to imagine that the routines in Pichon’s life were not unlike those of many of his Bayou Liberty neighbors. So how did the people of Bonfouca get by in the days before internal combustion engines, satellites, labor saving electric appliances, inflation- adjusted cost of living estimates, computers and nuclear weapons?

Francois’ two main preoccupations were providing food for his family; he had a wife and nine (!) children and the other was his cash business working on the many wooden boats he hauled up onto his bank to caulk and repair. He used his journal to track his almost constant schedule of working on hundreds of the boats that served the bayou and lake trade.

Most of the of the journal’s entries were about tending to the details of farming: maintaining fencing, out buildings, livestock and crop rows and the steady regimen of planting and harvesting demanded by the march of the seasons. Like virtually everyone else in the neighborhood, in these days before Winn-Dixie, he was, first and foremost, a hard working farmer, feeding his family from the land.

The rest of the time he was a hunter. His journal refers to the hundreds of times he went down the bayou into the marshes to shoot ducks, fish or hunt in nearby woods. He proudly kept scrupulous records of what he bagged and who went along with him. These trips were, no doubt, a source of great relaxation to him plus they helped put food on the table.

Other entries throughout a journal are densely packed with details and record the pageant of life and death among the citizens of the bayou including, sadly, those of his own family. His pen usually stayed silent during the times tragedy struck this close. His visits with neighbors, his trading, his occasional trips to the big city across the lake and other north shore communities were also noted and seem to be a relief from the relentlessness of the homestead.

A photo in the frontispiece of the journal shows both Francois and his wife Adele posed before the camera, sitting comfortably and contentedly side-by-side in their middle age and seems to speak across time of “a life well lived.”


More Park

When the weather is right, one of the most satisfying tasks at Camp Salmen Nature Park is to literally create more park for people to enjoy. This is done by clearing brush along some of our trails – by thinning out scraggly understory trees and shrubs, by eliminating invasive plants and by trimming low limbs. This opens up nice views and creates nooks and crannies for people to explore. It’s gratifying to see how the foot traffic of park visitors keeps these new areas cleared. Last spring St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister, impressed with the park’s Live Oaks, even got into the act by arranging for some mechanical brush clearing to bring several specimens of this magnificent tree out of hiding.

 

A lot of this work has been done near the water. Beautiful Bayou Liberty, the small Goldfish Bayou tributary and the park’s wetland areas draw people’s attention, particularly adventuresome children, who just naturally have to go to the water’s edge and take a look. Check out these recently cleared areas next time you visit the park:

 

The downstream end of our Bayou Liberty Trail, just beyond the Salmen Lodge contains two boat slips that were heretofore obscured by brush. The first one is unique: it’s lined with concrete and is pointed at one end for a boat’s bow. It’s from the Scout Era and apparently held their motorboat and was attached to a canoe house. Next to it is a huge fallen Live Oak with its living twin next to it. Both appear to be old enough to have shaded Joseph Laurent when he built his trading post (the Salmen Lodge) in the early 1800s. Folks are now climbing all over it and getting their picture taken. The trail ends at what we call the Big Boat Slip, built by the previous landowner and now open on all three sides for the curious.

 

Little Goldfish Bayou is gradually emerging. It’s the park’s only tributary to the big bayou and parts of its banks near the bridge and up and downstream are now visible from different vantage points. More brush is targeted for removal here.

 

There is a huge clay pit on the north side of our main parking lot that has been hidden behind a screen of invasive Chinese Privet, Cherokee Rose and native Pepper Vine. Most visitors don’t realize it’s there. Because of the pit’s limited drainage it’s full of interesting wetland plants. Look for an expanse of Lizard tail blossoms this spring. It should make a pleasant welcome for people getting out of their cars on their way to a walk in the park.


Mistletoe

There is a whimsical old Christmas holiday tradition of hanging a bough of Mistletoe (genus Phoradendron) in a doorway and using it as a lure or an excuse to peck the lips of a significant other who happens to occupy the same space. The idea is as old as the Druids and was a public mania when I was a kid. Small twigs of the stuff were packaged in cellophane and available at cash registers for spontaneous purchase. Later, my friends and I got so rabid about it we conducted mistletoe hunts from a boat, using a long-barreled goose gun to collect huge quantities. Alas, the custom is not as prevalent as it once was but kissing, thank goodness, has never gone out of style.

 

After the leaves drop from the trees in winter it becomes evident to what extent these evergreen, parasitic shrubs infest the woods. Their dark, clumpy forms are easy to spot high up in the bare trees. To be more precise, they are “hemi-parasitic,” that is, they can get some of their nutrients on their own with the use of chlorophyll in their leaves but they usually get most of it, plus a fair measure of water, by mercilessly sucking it out of the host tree. They actually take root in the fiber of the tree’s high branches with an organ called a haustorium. These can be so detrimental to the host it may eventually result in the branch falling off, taking the parasite with it.

 

You have to wonder how people got the idea of mixing a botanical parasite with love.

 

Curiously, the etymology of the word mistletoe derives from old German for dung (mist) and branch (tan). It turns out, the sticky white seeds of the plant, which are toxic to humans, get stuck to the beaks of the birds that gobble them up. Since they have no table manners or napkins, these birds are known to wipe the seeds from their beaks (or poop them out) on tree branches, thereby spreading the plant to another host. Those Germans sure had keen powers of observation. So do modern naturalists. They have determined this parasite is actually important to the ecological diversity of the forest by providing food, pollen and nesting material to the different animals that may actually depend on them.


Lizards

A bright green lizard hunted on the railing outside the Camp Salmen office, creeping a few inches at a time until he suddenly jumped to clamp his jaws around a tiny bug. Occasionally he would abruptly stop his forward progress, do some tiny push-ups, raise his head and extend his bright, ruby red dewlap from his throat for all to see. He was notifying any nearby female lizards that he was a stud and available; just in case any were watching, you understand. To any male lizards that happened to be in the neighborhood there was this bold statement: “This is MY territory. Stay away. The girl lizards are mine, too.”

It’s hard to believe that, besides alligators and a handful of other less ubiquitous lizards, this swaggering six-inch critter is all that’s left of Louisiana’s once mighty Reptilia lizard class. The dinosaurs that populated the state and the world with seven-ton monsters that ate 80-ton monsters during their millions-of-years rule are now just bones and Mesozoic ooze in the strata below our feet. However, asteroids and mass extinction have not held back our little friend because he shares many of the same traits and possesses the entire attitude.

The proper name for the lizard is Anole. They are also called chameleons because they can change color. This is courtesy of special cells in their skin called chromatophores that can switch the animal’s appearance from either a shade of brown to a shade of green, depending on the brightness and color of the surroundings and their mood. This is unlike the true African and Asian chameleons, the ones with the curly tails, cocked eyes and smooth moves that have such a larger color palette to work with they can even go polka dot if they have to. Among the anoles there are rare mutations that are blue or yellow but they are a lot easier to spot by predators and tend to get eaten. If a cat or a kid mauls an anole their mood and color darken. They become dark brown, get black circles around their eyes and act morose. Wouldn’t you?

Though the proper name of this creature is Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) most people around here just call them lizards. They are the predominant native variety though there are a half-dozen similar species that were imported from the Caribbean as pets and turned loose. The brown anole from Cuba and the Bahamas is invading the U.S. South and taking over ground level habitats from the Carolina variety, driving them into the treetops. These are recognizable by an orange dewlap and a zigzag pattern on their back. They can also change colors but only into a festive black, how can you tell what mood they’re in? I haven’t seen any at Camp Salmen so far, so little Romeo is free to roam the railings, looking for love and bugs.


Keeping Cool

The heat of summer has been beastly lately, so how do the beasts of Camp Salmen keep from overheating or expiring outright? They use thermoregulation — the ability to keep their temperature within the right operating range in order to function properly. While winter’s cold requires that hot and cold-blooded animals use a certain set of strategies, Louisiana’s endless, torrid summer demands a whole other set of tricks, unless, of course, you’re a human and you just head for the air conditioning.

 

Avoidance — dig a hole in the ground and stay in it during the heat of the day like armadillos, some reptiles and insects do.  The number one rule: stay in the shade! Crawl under something; seek the coolest microclimate, preferably one with moisture (more about that in a bit). If you can, fly away to a cooler part of the continent like Canadian Geese do. Elephants and hippopotami (neither of which reside at Camp Salmen by the way) would ease themselves into the cooling waters of Bayou Liberty like our alligators do. 

 

Topor — this is the summer version of winter hibernation when high-vibration animals like hummingbirds and bats hole up during the heat of the day and quiet down. 

 

Panting—dogs, wolves, lemurs, alligators, birds and bears, all covered in either insulating fat, feathers or fur, simply open their mouths and suck in the outside air to turn their oral cavities and lungs into heat exchangers that exhaust internal heat. Some of these animals do this in combination with other techniques. Shedding fur and feathers from a winter coat is another good idea.

 

Sweat — if a human can’t stay in air conditioning, he or she must rely on his or her sweat. For those that exist all summer by scampering from one air conditioned space to another and somehow end up trapped outside, you’ll recognize this condition by the wet stuff oozing out of your pores to the point of saturating your clothing. Don’t panic and freak out or call an ambulance, this might just save your life.

 

The sweating technique is used to varying degrees by most mammals, but horses and humans do it by the gallon. It takes advantage of an elegant aspect of physics: evaporative cooling. When a droplet of water (or sweat) turns into vapor it actually stores heat at the molecular level, creating a sensible cooling effect. Adding moving air helps tremendously.

 

I can’t imagine how people lived here before electric fans and air conditionings were invented.


Dirt

You may have read about the plants and animals at Camp Salmen Nature Park, so what about the ground upon which all their activities take place? This fundamental aspect of the park contains just a little bit of concrete and a lot of dirt.

 

The concrete here is mostly left over from old Boy Scout structures. Concrete is, as a matter of fact, man-made limestone. The Romans figured out how to use this mineral’s transformative ability. It can be ground into a fine power then wetted, formed and the dried to resume being hard as a rock. In modern times people have vastly increased its strength and usefulness by reinforcing it with iron rods, allowing mankind to advance from viaducts and small pagan temples to interstates and soaring skyscrapers.

 

But, what about dirt; what is this mysterious substance that is the foundation of all the things growing in the park? It is made of just two basic components.

 

Minerals – In other parts of the country, rocks from deep within the Earth are exposed at the surface and are broken down by water and weathered into clay, silt, sand and gravel. Since there are no native rocks on the Earth’s surface anywhere near here, most of this material is imported to Louisiana by the Mississippi River. Also, in the recent geologic past, mass movement of these materials into the South came from the rushing melt water from rock-grinding Ice Age glaciers.

 

Organic material – The surface of the Earth is crawling with life forms frantically stealing parcels of energy and carbon from each other or manufacturing it out of sunlight. Most of these die and rot, or more politely, break down through biologic activity and the magic of chemistry; otherwise there’d be great piles of the stuff all over the place. Even the bottom of the deep ocean accumulates a steady rain of dead material drifting down from above. A certain percentage of this dead material holds onto its stolen carbon and energy, is covered up and magically turned into hydrocarbon items like coal, gas and petroleum.

 

This rind of dead stuff mixed with rocks clinging to the surface of the planet is elegantly referred to as soil and includes minor amounts of water and gasses. From this mixture sprout things growing from it and living in it like Camp Salmen’s trees, earthworms, doodle bugs, moles, ants and armadillos.


Circadas

During the last of the heat of summer, the air around Camp Salmen is filled with the thunderous serenade of the Cicadas (order Hemiptera). If you listen carefully you’ll hear the different summertime songs used by different species to attract mates. Some have a long, loud ascending then descending song. Some have an undulating ”wee-oh-wee-oh-wee-oh” song. Some sing for just a few seconds at a time. It is supposed that a bunch of them singing in one location have it so their songs overlap and confuse predators. Indeed, it’s hard to tell exactly where they are up there among the leaves of the trees.

All cicadas spend most of their lives underground in the dirt sucking on roots. Most varieties do this for two to eight years but two varieties famously stay underground for 13 and 17 years. The thirteen-year brood just emerged to great fanfare both in the press and in the air around the park. In the end, the cicada finally crawls out of the dirt up a tree trunk and the tender “nymph” shucks itself out of the back of its last molt and leaves the empty shell clinging there. They stiffen up to look sort of like a huge, bug-eyed fly and spend this final stage singing in the trees and mating. Ah, the life.

They make sound with a membrane in their chest called a “tymbal.” When they suck it in it makes a loud click and when it flexes back out it makes another click. They do this so rapidly it makes a buzz and hollow chambers and vents in their chest and throat amplify it to a hundred decibels and attenuate the sound to their taste. One observer wrote that holding a cicada when they made noise was like holding a joy buzzer.

Some mistakenly call them locusts but a true locust is more like the kinds of grasshoppers that occur in great, Biblical plagues to consume Midwestern crops and clog car radiators.

Cicadas are usually accompanied by the staccato, late summer trilling of crickets in the background but it all sounds just like a case of tinnitus to me.

And, yes, they are eaten by people in Africa, Asia and Latin America and, at one time, by the Ancient Greeks but, alas, this did not remain a part of European culinary tradition. Now some folks in Columbia, Missouri are trying to get the ball rolling on cicada eating in the U.S. but I don’t think it will catch on here since we already have our own peculiar culinary habit of eating “Mudbugs” in mass quantities.


Centipedes

One creature at Camp Salmen I just can’t seem to warm up to is the centipede (Latin for hundred foot ). They live in the grungiest environments; amongst rot and decay, in filthy cracks and underneath things you probably ought not to have turned over.

 

They’re not enchanting. They don’t turn into moths or butterflies and they have too many legs. You can’t even look them in the eye because they barely have any, all they can see is whether its night or day.

 

Actually, the more I research them the less there is to like. They are creatures of the night, spending their days lurking in dark, moist places. Some are poisonous, with pincers on their back ends and they can have venomous bites that are painful to humans and deadly to small animals. They are predators, known to attack, and eat, small birds, spiders, mice, bats, lizards, earthworms and most anything with a soft body. Of course, adorable creatures like mongooses, rats, salamanders and snakes eat them. Lovely bunch, the whole lot of them; they all deserve each other.

 

More centipede facts: it’s thought there are some 8,000 varieties of this arthropod in all manner of environments all over the planet. They are cousins to the Millipedes who have even more legs. They appeared hundreds of millions of years ago and, depending on the variety that arose from this auspicious event, come with 30 to 300 pair of legs, can live up to six years and are up to 12 inches long. One redeeming quality is they take care of their young, by either licking the fungus off of them, or simply eating them (I guess it depends on what you mean by "take care of”). They can also make humans do a spontaneous, spastic little dance if one accidentally lands on them.

 

Of course, the species found in our nature park are strictly of the small, harmless kind, so much so they are almost cute and cuddly.


Bull Sharks

Are there sharks at Camp Salmen? Well, maybe. Lake Pontchartrain is only four miles away and it is a well-established fact that it is a temporary kindergarten for juvenile (3-5 ft.) Bull Sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) in the lake during the summer. Members of this species are tolerant of fresh water and are known to make forays up streams to look for food. Yes, I know it’s a bit of a stretch but what else is there to worry about?

 

I’ll never forget the story former St. Tammany Parish Councilwoman and commercial fisherman Connie Glockner told about wade fishing at Goose Point, right next door to Bayou Liberty. She didn’t know it was a favorite gathering place for schools of young Bull Sharks. When she happened to look down and saw dozens of dark shark forms swimming all around her she got out of there faster than in a hurry.

 

The Boy Scouts used to routinely paddle to the lake from here, camp out on the shore and return the next day. Presumably some swimming was involved. I wonder if they knew about the lake’s summertime Bull Shark population.

 

These stories help emphasize the fact that there have been no recorded attacks by Bull Sharks in the long history of people in Lake Pontchartrain. The sharks spawn in Chandeleur Sound and like many other oceanic species use the brackish waters of the lake’s estuary to grow up in relative peace before venturing into the open ocean to become top predators. When they’re young and in the lake they make like the callow youth they are and only pick on small fish.

 

The shark has a propensity for swimming up rivers and has even been spotted way up the Mississippi as far as Illinois. They’ve earned nicknames like Zambezi Shark, Lake Nicaragua Shark and Ganges Shark after the water bodies where people have been inadvertently feeding the big adult version of the species (7-8 ft.) for centuries. Can this sort of thing happen here at Camp Salmen? I repeat, there have been no recorded attacks by Bull Sharks in Lake Pontchartrain and, presumably, any of its tributaries. Besides, we don’t allow swimming in the park anyway.


Black Swallowtail Butterflies

Earlier this summer I watched a pair of Black Swallowtail Butterflies (Papilio polyxenes) flutter madly around each other. This species seems to be Camp Salmen’s most numerous and arguably, its prettiest butterfly. They fly with big, floppy wings that seem ungainly but they appear to navigate with great aeronautic skill because they seem to be able to go straight to where they want to go.

 

I couldn’t tell if the two were mating or fighting. It seems the species is pretty much preoccupied with defending territory or getting hooked up with the opposite sex. As they flitted and bumped into each other I imagined they were either doing a delicate, poetic aerial ballet set to romantic violin music, or they were just fighting like a pair of sissies. It turns out it should have been pretty easy to tell since the boys have gold dots on the top and bottom of their wings and the girls have beautiful blue hues on theirs.

 

Now the summer is waning and I’m amazed they’re still around. An insect this big, black and slow, lazily gliding around open fields, ought to be an easy target for hungry insectivores on the wing. In their previous larval version they were a gaudy green, white, yellow and black striped caterpillar that looked like it came out of Alice in Wonderland. These make themselves unpalatable by eating things that make them taste toxic. Though the adult butterfly does not do this and is, indeed, edible, predators still avoid them. They accomplish this by simply mimicking the appearance of another big, black butterfly, the Pipevine Swallowtail that is toxic. Apparently, potential predators elect to take no chances and leave both bugs alone.

 

Being endowed with the classic, coiled up butterfly proboscis, the Black Swallowtail feeds on nectar all summer long by unrolling and jabbing this appendage into flowers to get the sugar rush it needs for all that fluttering around. It is during this act that it performs the double duty of inadvertently spreading pollen from flower to flower, and doing plants a huge favor since they can’t easily do this for themselves because they have no wings and don’t get around like the butterfly does.


Bird Ears

There isn’t a season or a time of day birds aren’t singing at Camp Salmen. In springtime when love is in the air, a great variety of birds of a feather are trying to get together, however, mating isn’t the only reason birds call out. Sometimes they’re letting everyone in earshot know it’s their territory or they’re warning others of potential predators in the neighborhood or maybe they’re trying to locate a lost chick. Sometimes it seems they simply want everyone to know how happy they are just to be here. So you’d think that an animal that relies so much on making noise would have big ears to listen; big honking ones like a Fruit Bat, yet they appear to have none.

 

Birds do, in fact have ears but not external ones. They lack pairs of the sound-gathering devices called “pinna” (ears) found on other animal’s heads. Besides avoiding the obvious problems with wind resistance they seem to do pretty well with just holes located a little behind and below the eyes. These are usually covered with fine feathers for a couple of reasons. One is to keep stuff out of the hole and the other is to function like a foam cover over a blustery politician’s microphone; it filters out the wind noise that flying would bring about. This technique works very well for hawks and owls, Birdland’s best listeners. They can hear clearly enough to concentrate on faint rustlings that betray the presence of a mouse or other prey in the leaf litter down below. Additionally, their ears are lopsided; each is not located on the exact opposite place on their head. This asymmetry makes it easier to more closely determine exactly where the sound is coming from, giving Mr. Mouse even less of a chance of avoiding detection. Oddly enough, what look like ears on Screech and Horned Owls are just ornamental tufts of feathers.

 

Birds hear about as well as humans. Their inner ear is actually structured like ours with multiple chambers, eardrums, little tapping bones and fluid-filled cochleae containing tiny hairs to translate sound into nerve impulses. Scientists have been able to strap them down and submit them to audio testing to find they are superior in detecting some aspects of sound and come up short in others. See http://www.earthlife.net/birds/hearing.html.

Another vital function of ears for birds is finding and maintaining the pitch-perfect balance they need to operate within the three dimensions they travel. This is very important for an animal that can whip around trees like they do or perch high on a wire to sing their little hearts out and not fall down.


Armadillos

The Spanish Conquistadores, who apparently loved wearing armor in the tropical heat, affectionately named the unusual critter they found in Mexico little armored one — or Armadillo. However, the local Aztecs, who had been around this animal a much longer time, knew them as rabbit-turtles.

 

 

Camp Salmen’s Nine-banded Armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) look like little rambling helmets. Their furry undersides are soft and unprotected but they can curl up (thus the nine segments in their shell) and get a certain amount of protection. This shell is actually more like thick leather and is a little flexible. It does a good job of ignoring insect stings and discouraging predators. They can successfully turn their backs on an attacker when pinned down in their burrows.

 

I was shocked when I first saw an armadillo in action. From photographs I imagined they were ponderous, lumbering beasts. Instead, they are quick, fidgety hustlers, constantly digging here and there for a tasty morsel. This insectivore has an acute sense of smell and jabs its pointed nose again and again into leaf litter and soil as it claws to find grubs, worms, beetles, eggs or the occasional wiggly lizard. They’ll make a mess of Camp Salmen’s freshly mulched gardens. They can also bust up anthills and use their sticky tongue to lap up ants and termites.

 

 

The ancestors of the armadillo were South American, and millions of years ago some evolved to be the size of automobiles. In all, they’ve developed about twenty varieties including the Screaming Hairy Armadillo, the Hairy Long-nosed Armadillo, the five-foot Giant Armadillo and the diminutive (five inch) Pink Fairy Armadillo.

 

 

Falling sea level eventually allowed this breed to migrate north through Panama where the Nine-Banded Armadillo became the most successful species. They were known as a strictly Mexican item until they crossed the Rio Grande in the late 1800s and began to rapidly expand their range into the United States. They were still somewhat unusual around here when I was a kid and are now quite commonplace. They are now found across Dixie from the Rockies to the Atlantic and as far north as Kansas.

 

Unfortunately, people are most familiar with the animal as road-kill. They have a disastrous behavioral trait of jumping a couple of feet straight up when surprised, like when a car is suddenly and successfully steered over them, then they get nailed by the undercarriage.


Beaver

You can tell there are Beaver (Castor canadensis) at Camp Salmen by the pointy stumps and sticks from the small trees they’ve gnawed.  Humans almost always use saws. Beavers supposedly do this to gather materials for building their dams and lodges.

 

 

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Cane Flies

Misunderstood by some and pretty much considered useless by just about everyone else (except for the birds and bats who eat them) are the gangly, bumbling Crane Flies (from the fly family Tipulidae). They recently popped out of the ground in their long-legged thousands at Camp Salmen and promise to be here all summer long. They’re mildly obnoxious, like someone you have to put up with in your life that has a harmless but persistent personality disorder.

 

So what exactly do Crane Flies do? Blunder into people’s faces, sit where they don’t belong, land in food, buzz around light bulbs, lose their legs at the slightest provocation, mate so there can be a fresh batch of them as soon as they can lay eggs and then leave their expended corpses on our nice, clean floors. They live most of their lives as long, plump larva, eating rotting organic debris in soil and water bottoms and (I’m not sure why) have the rugged, he-man name “leatherback.” They have other false identities, some that give them a more ferocious reputation than they deserve.

 

Some people think these things are male mosquitoes. This may be an understandable mistake considering many species we encounter are “sexually dimorphic,” that is, there is a remarkable difference between the male and the female version. (We like to say among our own kind, “vive la difference.”) Actually, you practically need a microscope to tell male and female mosquitoes apart. Though Crane flies are similar in appearance to mosquitoes they are ten times larger and don’t bite (although I’ve seen some people, mostly girls, freak out at the sight of them).

 

Crane Flies have also been misidentified as May Flies, though this insect looks more closely like a Dragonfly and has a little more grace and purpose in life.

 

Crane flies are also known as mosquito hawks and mosquito eaters. This folklore probably happened because they look like big ‘skeeters that would probably hunt small ‘skeeters but nothing can be further from the truth. The adult Crane Flies we see flying around don’t hunt; they don’t even have mouths and die shortly after mating. A mosquito could care less if Crane Flies are present.


Clover

Among the first things to billow out of the ground at the beginning of Camp Salmen’s spring are large, luxuriant clouds of emerald green clover. Anyone who remembers how cool and bountiful it feels to their bare feet just wants to get down and wallow in it. Only a sense of propriety may hold them back.

 

To be less poetic, clover actually grows in mats. The tri-leaves are on stalks sprouting from a web of spreading, horizontal, underground roots called rhizomes. Clovers are a vital link in the nitrogen cycle of life on the planet. They live with symbiotic bacteria on the microscopic root hairs of their root nodes that take this inert gas and convert it into a form more useful to plants and leave it in the soil in a process called nitrogen fixation. This naturally preps the ground for the growing season and is smarter and cheaper than fertilizer.

 

 

If you examine our springtime groundcover you’ll see there are several types of clover here, all in the Trifolium family. White Clover is largest, with faint white chevrons on each of its three leaves and spherical white flowers popular with bees. Yellow or Subterranean Clover is slightly smaller and has small yellow flowers. These two apparently originated in Europe, North Africa and west Asia and were brought here to act as agricultural cover crops and forage for livestock and deer. They’ve since gotten away and have spread everywhere on this continent. Yes, some Americans have actually been known to eat clover by spreading in on their salads. It’s high in proteins, making it a good survival food but is a little rough on the digestion. Therefore, it is not recommended that someone get down and their knees and graze it directly off the ground but boil it in water a little first.

 

 

For those of you who have “looked over a four-leaf clover that you overlooked before” here’s the rub: the reason for this is you have only a one in 10,000 chance of finding a clover with this mutation because that’s how often they occur in a patch of clover. You can increase your odds by intensely staring at the patch for an interminable time but that, unfortunately, is supposed to neutralize the luck you’d be getting if you just looked down and found it. Even more rare are five-leaf clovers and clover has been found with even more leaves but looking for these would really be pressing your luck. The botanists haven’t made up their minds if genetics, environment, or a combination of the two, causes this phenomenon, but the most viable theory is that it’s because of leprechauns.


Wax Myrtle

The utility plant of south Louisiana’s wetlands, and a major player in Camp Salmen’s woods, is the Southern Wax Myrtle or Bayberry (Myrica cerifera). It’s an evergreen that ranges in size from a large shrub to a small tree. They can be found in both salt marshes and Cypress swamps; all they need is a piece of slightly elevated, drained ground like a canal or bayou bank. Plus they grow in most any other environment in the Southeastern U.S.

 

Another undiscriminating trait is how it grows — any old way it can. They will do whatever it takes to reach the sunlight, even attaining grotesque shapes to work around the other plants in the forest. They can be found leaning way over toward an opening, or branching off in several directions to catch the sun here and there with clusters of leaves bushing out from the ends of their branches. Sometimes the tree can add to the beauty of Bayou Liberty by reaching over the water in a pleasing fashion. They also attain bizarre, Dr. Seuss-like shapes in the woods.

 

Besides its supreme ecological adaptability, another specialty of the plant is its wax, an aromatic coating on its berries, once harvested for candle making. Other parts of the plant have been used for medicine for an amazing variety of ailments — fevers, dysentery, convulsions, colic, diarrhea, palsy, bleeding gums, seizures and as a topical antibiotic. Animals eat them as food and depend on their digestive juices to strip away the wax to get at their yummy natural, nutritious goodness. They then poop out the seeds all over the forest and help spread the plant around.

 

Another unusual characteristic of the plant is that its many aromatic compounds adds to its flammablity. In case of wildfire it goes up in flames like the Hindenburg. Not to worry though, its root system stays safe underground and ready to spring back to allow the plant to re-grow and participate in another round of competition in the recovering forest.

 

 


Our Trails

Camp Salmen Nature Park is one of a string of beautiful natural areas on the nature-blessed North Shore. Besides having amenities like picnic pavilions, historic structures, meeting places and scenic Bayou Liberty, the park has four miles of footpaths, bike trails and boardwalks for close-up observation of nature. With the Holidays upon us and lovely, cool weather, it’s a prime time to take a hike, get some exercise and enjoy the wonder of it all.

As you walk the one-mile length of the park you can see signs of how the land developed over time. The banks of Bayou Liberty and the main “Camp Ridge” part of the park were laid by pre-historic floods. The Salmen Lodge, originally an old trading post and early brickworks, are relics of the settlers and Native Americans in the early 1800s. The ancient Longleaf Pine forest that once stood on this land and the clays underneath were extracted at the turn of the last century by Fritz Salmen who left rail beds, clay pits and a generous gift to the Boy Scouts. During the next century the land recovered nicely with the help of Louisiana’s ideal “hothouse” climate. A mix of hardwoods, Slash pine, native and non-native plant species allow the landscape to continue to recover and evolve. 

We have three trail systems:

  1. The BAYOU LIBERTY TRAIL (approx. ¼ mi.) next to the main parking lot includes the popular SWAMPWALK BOARDWALK through wetlands to an observation platform overlooking the quiet waters of the bayou. To the north of the boardwalk (upstream) is the Nature Garden and Outdoor Classroom and to the south (downstream) is the amphitheater and Salmen Lodge. Glimpses of the beautiful bayou are along the way.
  2. The asphalt BIKE PATH (approx. ½ mi.) is a spur from our future link to the Tammany Trace Bike Trail. It begins at the pavilion, crosses Goldfish Bayou, goes past Mary’s Grotto and follows the W-12 Canal to the gates to Slidell’s suburbs and the downtown end of the Trace.
  3. The MAIN TRAI L (approx. 1 mi.) begins in the corner of the field across Parish Parkway from Mary’s Grotto. Stay to the left, and except for a couple of short dead ends, goes through the woods all the way to the other end of the park. On the right are several loops and exits to the parkway. The GUM SWAMP BOARDWALK is the first trail to the right after the beginning of the trail and the PINE SAVANNAH BOARDWALK is at the other end, near the park entrance. Maps are in the Main Pavilion.

Different ecological zones are along the way: Flatwoods, bottomland, hardwood forest, old-growth pine, oak and pine savannah. Where the tree canopy has been opened up by Pine Beetle infestations, hurricanes, tornados, the Boy Scout camp and the nature park, sunlight is let in and these areas can appear scrubby and confused. The new vegetation sorts itself out through intense competition and the plant life begins another attempt to seek equilibrium.

You can’t get hopelessly lost, the park is too small and there are too many neighbors all around, but you do have to watch the time so you can get back to your car before 5:00 pm closing. A quicker path back to the beginning follows the edge of the woods along the parkway.  Enjoy!


Snowy Egrets

They are a familiar sight here in South Louisiana but to those unaccustomed to seeing large, exotic-looking, pure white birds hanging out so close to humans, it must be fascinating. The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) is often seen still-hunting for fish, insects and crustaceans in roadside ditches and waterways, or flying elegantly above our neighborhoods. They also happen to be part of the Camp Salmen Nature Park logo because there always seems to be one or two of them stalking the banks on our part of Bayou Liberty. 

They are a big bird in stature only, standing two feet tall with a three foot wingspan, yet they weigh only about three-quarters of a pound. I once found one that had just been struck by a car and, as it was the first time I ever had an opportunity to lay hands on one, I was astonished at how remarkably light it was; like a bird ought to be, I supposed.

Egrets have bright yellow feet that apparently help scare up their prey, long, spindly black legs for wading that stick straight out behind them as they fly. There is a long, pointy, black beak on the other end; all the better for plucking up the small animals they eat. If need be they can adroitly toss their victim in the air to catch it and reposition it for swallowing. Their slender neck is usually coiled in a graceful “S” shape while standing or in flight but stretches out straight when they gulp their catch.

They usually find an isolated spot nearby to roost together up off the ground for the night. They seek even more remote locations to build their rickety nests in trees for group breeding. It’s an awesome sight to come across dozens of their stark white forms nesting together deep in a dark cypress forest.

The species got into real trouble at the turn of the last century because their breeding season plumage, a cascade of special, lacy white feathers, were considered quite fashionable on a lady’s hat. Since the value of these feathers exceeded that of gold, they were slaughtered on an industrial scale to near extinction. This problem actually gave rise to the nation’s first wildlife sanctuaries. Fortunately, this happened at the same time women’s fashions lurched off in other directions.


Vultures

Vultures are magnificent in flight, soaring effortlessly high above, wings spread wide, seemingly taut and light as a kite. They have only to make adroit and subtle moves with their wings, hardly flapping them at all to stay aloft on the breezes forever. They wheel about, this way and that, cruising for just the right scent - the whiff of rotting flesh wafting from the land below. Then they spin down for a communal meal with friends. These scavengers are part of Mother Nature’s “Cleanup Crew,” a none-too-proud fraternity scouring the surface of the Earth to clean up such messes before they get out of hand and become pestilent. They are ugly specimens, with disgusting eating habits, but they serve a great purpose in nature’s complex food chain.

It’s a curious juxtaposition, this beautiful, elegant vision in the sky and the ghastly feeding behavior and the placement in the food web but these are the facts. Unlike many animals who only take an occasional carrion meal - raccoons, lions, yellow jackets, crows, dogs, flies, wolves, bears, owls, hyenas, etc. - vultures feed almost exclusively on the dead. They are considered such an integral part of the ecology they are a protected species under a 1918 Federal law. For instance, you can’t just “choot ‘em” and have one stuffed for display in your office or living room.

There are two birds of similar size, shape and mission soaring over St. Tammany: Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) range from the tip of South America to Canada and the American Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) lives in the southern part of North America to the northern part of South America. They both share the same repulsive diet and traits like having no voice except the occasional grunt or hiss, naked heads and a preference for flying over semi-wooded land (open areas are easier to exit if dinner is suddenly interrupted).

You can tell the two vultures apart on the ground because Cathertes has red on the head, like a Turkey. The Black Vulture’s head is covered with wrinkly, grey skin. Neither will win an avian beauty contest. In flight, the whole back two-thirds of the wings and tail of the Turkey Vulture are light grey in color. The Black Vulture is light grey only on its wing tips.

In America the term Buzzard is sometimes used for these birds. It’s an old European name for certain kinds of raptors, which was transferred across the Atlantic by the Europeans who stuck it on these scavengers.

In spite of having driven past thousands of these birds feasting alongside the highway, I’ve found them to be cagey beasts that don’t like to have their photograph taken. I once tried repeatedly to get some shots of a small group just down the road but they kept a close watch on me and fled up into the trees each time I showed myself to get a good shot. Apparently they were more comfortable around the predicable, speeding automobile than with a stalking photographer lurking about. They should have never worried because there were many good reasons why I wasn’t about to horn in on their dinner.


Salmen's Lodge

The old brick building next to Bayou Liberty at Camp Salmen began being called the “Salmen Lodge” after Fritz Salmen donated it, and a considerable amount of land, to the Boy Scouts for their new campground. However, the history surrounding the building predates Fritz Salmen, Scouting, Slidell and even the United States. It was a part of a nearly 300 year old community called Bonfouca on Bayou Liberty, one of the first on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It was established just after New Orleans was founded when a fellow named Bertram Jaffre (who called himself “La Liberte’”) and others settled where bayous Liberty, Paquet and Bonfouca came together. He helped pioneer north shore industries like cutting timber and making charcoal and bricks. Other Frenchmen moved here to do this and to farm, fish and hunt. They also built beautiful boats – schooners and sloops that plied the lakes and the Gulf Coast to trade in these products. These people gave rise to generations of Creoles whose decedents live here today. Bonfouca (the emphasis is on the last syllable) was a century and a half old when Slidell was just a rough rail-worker’s camp next to the tracks.

In the early decades of the 1800s a lake trader named Joseph Laurent built a brick “blockhouse” on a high bank of Bayou Liberty next to a wide spot where he could turn his schooner around. The building that was to become the Salmen Lodge was in the Creole style, with front and back porches, tall windows and a raised floor for ventilation. Laurent established a trading post here and had local Indians and settlers as his clients. Laurent also manufactured bricks and clay pits and brick rubble from this enterprise remain on the property. During the Spanish and early American eras much of the brick made on Bayou Liberty helped build the French Quarter we know today. For the rest of the nineteenth century the building served the local community as a store and an office for a ferry across the bayou.

At the very beginning of the 1900s Salmen Brick and Lumber Co. bought this property, and in the tradition of La Liberte’ and Laurent, cut its timber and mined its clay for bricks. Some twenty years later Fritz Salmen was conducting business in New Orleans when a thunderstorm prevented him from crossing the street. A boy with an umbrella showed up by his side and offered to help. When Fritz tried to give him a tip, the boy politely refused explaining he was a Boy Scout and this was his good deed for the day. Fritz was charmed, took the time to learn more about scouting, liked what he learned and decided to give the property, for which he no longer had a use, to the Boy Scouts of New Orleans. To honor his generosity they named the new Boy Scout Camp and its historic old trading post after him.

Some sixty years later, after nearly 400,000 boys had stayed at Camp Salmen, the Scouts where finished with the property and St. Tammany Parish Government acquired it to turn it into Camp Salmen Nature Park so future generations can continue to enjoy this beautiful piece of land. The plans are to return much of the park and the Salmen Lodge into what they were probably like in the early 1800s and possibly use the old trading post as a special event facility and a museum dedicated to the long, colorful history of Bonfouca. 

 


Otters

On only a couple of occasions have I had the great, good fortune to see River Otters (Lontra canadensis) at Camp Salmen. They once were more common across North America - in the Northwest, Canada and the eastern third of the country-  but, unfortunately, they have gotten scarce in many parts of the country because of loss of habitat, plus they really don’t like water pollution. They will turn up their noses and leave streams that are unpleasant to be in or where forage has been diminished. Also, their numbers were diminished because they were extensively trapped for their fur but this fashion trend is not as much in vogue as it once was.

The first otter I saw here was crossing Parish Parkway from one ditch to another. They have a distinctive hunched-over shape when they move and are easy to recognize, even at a distance, especially when they’re  plain- as- day in the middle of the road.  It apparently was making its way up the park’s Goldfish Bayou from Bayou Liberty, no doubt on the hunt. I was impressed they would scour for food so far up the tributaries off the main stream.

The second time I saw otters was just the other day, in frigid weather. There were two of them travelling side by side down the middle of Bayou Liberty. They would pop their heads up, grab a breath and go down for a minute, scouring the bottom while moving downstream. They would pop back up about twenty feet further and then repeat the process. I watched, transfixed by the beauty and uniqueness of it, until they disappeared around the bend. The fact that they were hunting in Bayou Liberty speaks well for the ecological health of this local water body.

Otters are cute as can be, with a cartoonish, mustachioed face like Teddy Roosevelt’s and a sturdy yet slinky body that moves in a lithe way. This isn’t hard to figure when you consider they are part of the weasel family but this particular model is supremely adapted for living in and around water. They have webbed feet, a sleek, streamlined body that is well insulated, closeable nostrils and ears to shut out water and stiff whiskers to help them find things to eat on the murky bottom.

What otters scare up for dinner includes crustaceans, clams, amphibians, slow moving  fish and bottom dwelling insect larvae but they will even have a go at birds, reptiles and small mammals  they find on the bank. On land they have a kind of loping gait and don’t move very fast on their short legs. It’s  In the water where their moves are more agile.

Otters are very social animals and get together in sizable, mixed groups (young and old, male and female) in summer when they hunt (usually at night), groom each other, play with one another and live together in dens. The females tend to stay by themselves with the kids in the dens during the winter.  Its fun to watch them frolic and cavort on nature shows on television or at the zoo but I’d really love to get to see this sometime in person.


'Possum

The most enigmatic creature at Camp Salmen has got to be the Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) Are they ferocious predators that hold dogs at bay and terrorize chickens at night? (They’ve been accused of reaching in and viciously yanking birds through their cages.) Or are they just the chumps of the Animal Kingdom, eating scraps from trashcans? They lumber along like they’re dumber than a box of dirt, but they may actually hide great wisdom, like Yoda of the forest (Louisiana Indians once deified them and worshiped ‘possum figures in their temples). ‘Possums can be cute; with fuzzy, round, little ears, soft white fur, pink feet and pointy little pink noses, but they can also be repulsive, smelly, disheveled and drooling; threatening anyone who comes near with bare teeth and vile hissing. For an animal, they certainly have personality plus.

They are an omnivore’s omnivore – eating anything they can get their little paws on, from garbage, carrion and crunchy, writhing centipedes to delicate berries on the vine and sweet persimmons from the tree. Another distinction is they are North America’s only marsupial, nursing their tiny babies in a pouch just like a Kangaroo or Koala. As the babies grow up it is charming to see them clinging on Mama’s back for a ride.

Their chief claim to fame is “Playing ‘Possum.” When they get really scared they “escape” by conking out and appearing to be dead. It’s a good trick that has kept them from becoming dinner many times. Their bodies do weird psychological and physiological things. They assume something like a catatonic state for one to four hours that they can’t voluntarily snap out of. They lie down, curl up and with eyes half shut and their mouth open, their lips curl back and they start to drool. Their bodies stiffen like rigor mortis has set in. You could kick one around or carry it like a football and he won’t “break character” because he can’t help it. To top it off, the normally fastidious groomer excretes all over himself, matting his hair and stinking up the place. He looks a mess and I wouldn’t blame anyone, man nor animal, for not wanting anything to do with him in this condition. Still, all in all, I’ll always contend that most possums are better than some people.


Maritime Heritage

Recent north winds dropped the level of Bayou Liberty about as low as it goes in winter. This exposed part of the shoreline, normally underwater, is showing something I never noticed before- several heavy, granite blocks. Given the location, they had only one purpose I want to imagine - ballast from the schooner Marguerite.  This was the boat owned and operated by trading post owner Joseph Laurent who, no doubt, routinely tied her up here.  Could it be?

Joseph Laurent (b- 179? - d. 1865) was likely the first to build where Camp Salmen later came to be. He built a trading post on the bluff above the bayou (now named Salmen Lodge) and was a lake trader, someone who routinely sailed from north shore rivers to deliver locally produced materials, crops and farm animals to New Orleans and Gulf Coast destinations and returned with other merchandise. There were dozens and dozens of these guys and their boats operating on Lake Pontchartrain in the early 1800s, for water was the best way to travel. They were the pick-up trucks and taxi cabs of their day.

The Marguerite was built on the Tchefuncte River in 1811. She was a two-masted schooner, 48 feet long, 13.5 feet wide and weighing 18.5 tons.  She drew 3.5 feet of water and was seaworthy enough to take whatever Lake Pontchartrain was likely to throw at her. On top of all the other advantages of the site, Laurent chose this part of the bayou because it happened to be wide enough to turn the boat around for the return trip.

Consider everything it took to safely operate this piece of equipment. Not only did Laurent have to navigate long distances using mast, sail, block and boom, he had to contend with all manner of wind and wave. He also had to get up and down Bayou Liberty to get to his trading post. Fortunately, the bayou trends southwest and prevailing winds would often favor this tack but there are dozens of curves throughout the bayou until you reach the lake. A contrary wind could have stopped the Marguerite dead in her tracks. Hopefully Laurent packed a lunch.

There were only two ways back then that we know of, for getting in and out of this predicament - warping and towing. With warping, a hand was actually sent overboard with a rope, either swimming or in a dingy, to grab the next tree and pull. Or you could have gotten towed with an ox or a mule from the bank. Although this sounds a lot easier, it means a great deal of preparation by hacking away any obstacles on the bank to create a tow-path. This is something else I'll just have to wonder about. That Camp Salmen actually has a maritime heritage is a wonderful added feature to our park.


Ligustrum disgustrum

A couple of real troublemakers at Camp Salmen are the privets of the Ligustrum clan. No, these are not degenerate, marauders of Norwegian stock, as their name suggests, they are invasive plant species from Asia. They and their seven cousins were “invited” to this country as well-behaved decorative plants but have since become naturalized, escaped into the wild and gone crazy. Since they were from latitudes similar to those in the U.S. they quite liked it here and decided stay and take over. They out-compete our sweet, innocent, native plants and are in the middle of attempting to crowd them out of existence and replace them.

Most of us are familiar with the thick, waxy, dark green leaves of Japanese Ligustrum, also called Wax-leaf Privet (Ligustrum japonicum). People have actually encouraged this plant by inviting it on their property. Its durability and robustness make landscapers swoon, so they use it in hedges. If left alone and not trimmed it can grow into a small tree. It pops up here and there in the park but does not spread very readily.

The real troublemaker is the beast that wants to take over the world — Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense). It’s the type of plant that takes advantage of any gap in the vegetation by filling in the space with itself and lording over its neighbors to shade them out. If it’s stuck in the shade it will get by in a reduced state as an awkward, scraggly-looking shrub with smaller leaves and sparse, wiry branches. At one time, this wiriness led agricultural agencies across the South to promote it as a poor man’s livestock fence if it was grown close together. This, of course, helped it spread like wildfire.

Its worst side comes out if it finds itself in a place with enough sun and room to grow. It grows dense splays of long, arching branches, each edged with twin rows of larger paired, oval leaves that soak up the sun year ‘round, for it is an evergreen. The problem is there are too many of them. They grow all over the park, muscling their way in between the other plants, reaching up and over, spreading out to shade their neighbors, starve them of sunlight and starve them to death. Nice guys, huh? They are targeted for removal in the park but it is an uphill battle.


Grubs

The raccoons at Camp Salmen are always teaching me new tricks. I recently watched one tearing apart a huge log with his bare paws — a log I thought was solid and intact. He was working right next to the Bayou Liberty boardwalk and didn’t seem to care one whit whether I was watching. The fallen section of pine tree he was on was a leftover from Hurricane Katrina, some eight years ago. Little did I know how ripe and ready it was to become partially demolished by Mr. ‘Coon as he sought the big, tasty white grub worms inside. Yum! No wonder he was so preoccupied.

What is a grub? It is a beetle larva, and the bigger the grub the bigger the beetle. There are tens of thousands of species of beetles and the family of Scarabaeidaeis one of the most popular. Their classic, colorful, armored form inspired theScarab jewelry once wildly popular with the Ancient Egyptians. Somehow they translated the life cycle of the beetle — from egg to grub to beetle and back to egg — into a metaphor for the daily cycle of “Ra,” the Sun.

Many people are familiar with the curled white grubs found when digging in local soil. One of the most popular species that lives here becomes the prolific “June bug” beetle (Phyllophaga) each spring. These larvae cause horticulturalists and homeowners headaches when they feed on the roots of grasses and kill off lawn turf.

Other types of beetle larvae use another kind of feeding strategy: burrowing into and literally eating through moist rotten logs that are full of flavorful “white-rot.” The hurricane left a massive amount of dead wood on the ground at Camp Salmen. This was a banner event for the “decomposers” (any organism that makes a living by eating dead stuff) and creatures like woodpeckers and raccoons that mine decomposers out of dead wood and eat them. (Human entomophagists — insect eaters — prefer them sautéed in butter with a touch of garlic, but that’s another story, one probably not suitable for a family newspaper.)

What Mr. ‘Coon was probably after were the nice big Giant Stag Beetle (Lucanus elaphus) larvae who like eating the rotten logs found across Dixie Land. These are the beetles that have the large, ornate jaws and horns; appendages all the better for attracting females and tussling with rival males. As ferocious as they appear, these jaws are mostly for show and can barely “goose” another beetle, much less rip into human flesh. So, if you find one of these scarabs in the park, don’t be afraid to pick him up and pet him before you let him go on his way.


Freezing Plants

I hope it doesn’t freeze again for the rest of 2014 — I’ve had enough. If you’ve lost a beloved plant, knowing it died a horrible, agonizing death and turned into brown goo, you might be asking yourself, “Why exactly do some plants freeze and others stay green and healthy?”

Here are strategies surviving plants use;

  • Size- It might depend on the build of the plant. Plants that grow low to the ground are less likely to be exposed to environmental stresses than plants that protrude higher in the air, daring the environment to come and get them.
  • Shape– Thermonasty is a plant’s ability to curl its leaves or point its needles downward to reduce its exposure.
  • Anti-freeze– Super cooling agents, or dissolved salts, sugars, enzymes and amino acids in the plant’s juice do not readily freeze in sub-freezing temperatures. This trait may work hand-in-hand with dehydration.
  • Dehydration– As the plant acclimates to colder weather, dehydrin proteins within the plant’s tender cellular protoplasm, help to ease the pure water out of the cell and into the more rugged spaces in between the cells where water is free to form crystals and expand without doing much harm. Also, the walls of the shriveled cells are a little denser and tougher.
  • Leaf size and Additives – Conifers with needles, as well as cedars and cypress with scale-like leaves, just don’t hold much water to begin with. Evergreens add a new layer of cuticular wax on their needles during the growing season for insulation. Woody plants bolster their bark with lignin and suberin to harden themselves for winter.

Of course, none of these defense mechanisms are a complete guarantee against extreme temperatures or monstrous ice storms that physically wreck vegetation. This falls under the category of evolution, where the strong survive and the weak turn to goo.


Cedar Trees

We lost a large, old Southern Red Cedar tree (Juniperus cilicicola) at Camp Salmen recently. It provided beauty and shade to front of the Salmen Lodge for years but had unfortunately become a lingering victim of Hurricane Katrina. It was leaning dangerously close to the historic lodge, advanced in age, and though someone had tried to save it and the building by propping it up with a piece of telephone pole, it wasn’t enough to insure the survival of either one, so the tree had to go. It’s a shame because it was apparently a relic from the earliest days of the Boy Scouts at their new campground. I counted 85 rings, which made it around 1929 when it either volunteered or was possibly planted as an ornamental shrub.

For those who pay close attention to such things, these are not true cedars but are junipers. It was a special coastal variety, preferring the sandy soils found along Bayou Liberty and able to tolerate a little salty coastal air, unlike the more common Red Cedar that grows inland all across the eastern half of the U.S.

All in all, Cedars are nice trees. Around a house they have a wonderful fragrance. Look closely at the cedar tree’s greenery and instead of needles, each twig is covered with numerous tiny chlorophyll-filled “leaves” that overlap each other like scales on a fish. Their pinkish/red-brown wood is rot resistant and, as an added bonus, repels moths. Cedar-lined chest and closets are known to protect clothing from these insects year round. Native Americans used to make excellent hunting bows with the wood and modern uses include pencils. It is possible it was a Red Cedar that was spotted high on the Scotlandville bluff by the French explorer d ’Iberville who gave Baton Rouge (“Red Stick”) its name.

These conifers are somewhat brittle in old age and lose limbs from various mishaps. They can also become misshapen by smothering vines but they have the potential to attain a classic “Christmas Tree” shape as well as reach the ripe old age of 800 years. We have several rugged specimens here and there in the park.


"Camp Brick"

On the surface, Camp Salmen looks like your typical nature park: lawns and green trees everywhere, wildlife scampering about; all the usual nature park stuff. Little betrays the billions and billions of bricks and brick parts buried beneath the surface here. Go anywhere in the park and turn a spade of dirt and you’ll likely come up with a brick. This one of the park’s themes.

This place began with bricks. It’s just up the bayou from where the Frenchman “La Liberte’” made a living in the early 1700s making bricks from local clays. The clay was brough to Bayou Liberty naturally, suspended in its moving waters. Little by little, over hundreds, even thousands of years, it settled out and accumulated in quiet, flooded areas and covered up over time. Jaffre and other Frenchmen dug up the clay, formed it into small, rectangular blocks and baked them in small ovens or kilns. Jaffre’s bricks were snatched up like brick hotcakes in old New Orleans and were put into the foundations, floors and walls of the city’s earliest structures. Others caught on to his little scheme and the mania for making bricks spread from there up and down the bayou and beyond until, much later, Slidell became the “City of Brick.”

New Orleans ended up burning to the ground twice in the late 1700s and the Spanish, who were in charge, declared, “Enough is enough!” and decreed that all new construction would henceforth be of brick and mortar. The game was on for brick and mortar makers on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

By the time Joseph Laurent bought this place in the early 1800s, “brickbats,” which is what broken bricks are called, were noted as being piled high on the banks of the bayou and were used as local landmarks. Laurent built a trading post here with his own bricks and, no doubt, dabbled in the trade for them across the lake. What is probably one of his old clay pits, “the hole in the ground from which the French Quarter sprang,” remains next to his trading post, today’s Salmen Lodge.

Later, Fritz Salmen, a.k.a. “Grand Master Brick” and his posse (family) took brick making to a highly industrialized art form and sought clay deposits throughout the area. What later became Camp Salmen gave up its clay to him and became, in exchange, a repository of evermore brick waste from Salmen’s factories. This was added to brick deposits along the bayou that fortified and defended its banks from erosion.

Mixed in with all this are the countless “Bricks Named Joe.” A lot of broken St. Joe bricks also made it onto the property and each loudly declares its personal identity and soul to any and all. 

 

One of Fritz Salmen’s bricks.

 


Bowl & Doily Spiders

This time of year when the morning humidity is just right it’s striking to see the hundreds, if not thousands of what I’ve been mistakenly calling “basket spider webs” up and down Parish Parkway in the park. These are made by a spider who hangs a small, compact basket-shaped web from tall grass and shrubs that droops with the fullness of the morning dew and are thus easy to spot. The webs tend to become invisible during the day after the dew evaporates.

It turns out the scientific name of the tiny “sheet web” spider responsible for this is Frontinella communis and its proper common name is Bowl and Doily Spider. It gets this term because its web, about the size of a human hand, is usually in two parts — a bowl shape that sits above a flatter disc shape, like an upside down halo. To some, this lower part resembles a doily but since I have never used a doily in my life I’ll probably continue to erroneously call them basket spiders. An old English superstition calls them “Money Spiders” because, and this is a stretch, if one of these spiders is found crawling on you it means they are there to spin you new clothes which means good fortune.

They have at least a couple of distinctive behaviors. They orient themselves perpendicular to the rays of the sun. Scientists think this must have something to do with the way they regulate their body temperature. As you know, a spider doesn’t simply sit around waiting for prey, it lurks. This spider does its lurking in the narrow space in between the bowl and the doily. When a gnat, fly or other small insect blunders into the bowl (this web is not sticky, so the insect has to sit still for a moment) the spider trots over and bites it from underneath through the web. This hiding spot inside the web is also imagined to give the animal a measure of protection from its equally small enemies, making it feel safe and secure in spite of living outdoors in such a fragile construct, waving in the wind with cars whizzing up and down the road.

If you get into the park early enough on one of these cool and humid autumn mornings you may be lucky to see these webs lining Parish Parkway, especially where the dew tends to linger down in the ditch. It’s a beautiful sight and if you look closely and see a Frontenella communis wave and say hello.

Close-up of a Bowl & Doily spider’s dew covered web. Note the small spider hiding in between the “bowl” and “doily.”

 


Why St. Tammany?

Camp Salmen Nature Park is part of St. Tammany Parish’s newly formed Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, and all three of these elements are in plentiful supply here. There are also historic links to these same ideas in the name “St. Tammany” and in the history of the native people of the Parish.

In the early days of the French in Louisiana, long before New Orleans was established, the small garrison under Bienville was able to make it through their first few winters in the Louisiana wilderness with the help of the Colapissa Indian tribe in their village on Bayou Castine in present day Mandeville. Reason and peace prevailed between the Europeans and the natives. They all had to contend with the forces of nature and each brought their own technology, knowledge and culture into this struggle.

The ship’s carpenter Andre Penicaut relates the kindness offered to the foreign guests — lodging in the Chief’s house, feasts of game brought by the hunters, fresh wild strawberries brought by the village maidens, and wild tribal dancing and merriment accompanied by the French fiddle. To these weary visitors this hospitality under the beautiful moss-draped oaks on the Pontchartrain shore must have seemed like time well spent in a restful wilderness paradise.

Almost a century later, during the formation of the United States, there was a fondness in the thirteen colonies for the memory of Delaware Chief Tamanend the Affable. He and his tribe had been similarly helpful to the English in their early days in America, and during these friendly encounters they exchanged philosophical ideas on liberty, friendship, equality and the brotherhood of man. By the time of the American Revolution, the ideals of Tamanend, or “St. Tammany” as he became known, had achieved nearly cult status and St. Tammany Societies sprang up among the patriots. Some of these men migrated to Louisiana after the war, and when they established this parish they invoked the name of the wise Delaware chief that they revered and also perhaps evoked the memory of the generous local natives.

We are blessed with the legacy of the Native Americans, their spirit and the many names they gave to the bayous, rivers and places of the Parish — even its name.


Tung Tree

Tung Nut Trees - Invasion by Invitation

Camp Salmen has a curious tree on its grounds, a Chinese invasive species called Tung (Aleurites fordii). These have large, roundish, flat leaves, some bigger than your hand. They are vaguely heart-shaped; the term “tung” supposedly means “heart” in Chinese. The tree also produces huge, green, golf-ball size nuts each year. People are always picking them up off the ground and asking - “What the heck are these?” Well, they’re poisonous, so don’t eat them.

Several young Tung grow in the shade along the Bayou Liberty Trail and we keep a fairly large specimen in the sunlight nearby, for old-times sake, for these trees have an interesting history.

On his journeys to the Far East in the 1200s the Italian trader Marco Polo was informed that the oil pressed from the nut of this tree was good for lamp lights, medicines and waterproofing various materials, even preserving the wood in ships. He brought it back to Europe where was indeed used as a wood preservative for centuries. Around WW I U. S. agronomists heavily promoted planting the tree as a way to keep recently logged Southern forest land in commerce. Industrial-scale cultivation, production and refining of the oil ensued. At the onset of WW II the material was in such great use it was declared a ”strategic commodity” as it was used for ship’s paints and waterproofing and lubricating ammunition. It also substituted the Chinese sources disrupted by the war. Federal subsidies allowed the industry to swell in size.

Unfortunately, some things that go up must come down. A combination of persistent winter frost & freezes and devastating hurricanes ruined Tung plantations across the Gulf South during the second half of the last century. The market also soured from foreign competition and the appearance of modern synthetic substitutes. The industry all but collapsed, save for a tiny demand by purists who still desired the products superior, and natural, wood preserving qualities. The once promising cash crop met an ignominious end by being categorized as an “exotic pest.” All that are left around these parts are remnants and refugees. They pop up here and there and shade out the natives but are fairly easy to control so we  left just a few for grins.


The Clearing

One of the nicest things about my work at Camp Salmen is helping to make the park more enjoyable for people to visit. First off, it’s already such a beautiful place to visit because of the nature of the land and the way it’s been developed and managed (or simply left alone). As a matter of course, we try to keep it looking good; picking up the litter, cutting the grass and such. Additionally, we’ve been able to add new features like the trails, tree plantings, the playground, the  soon to open amphitheater and plan on adding much more. We recently added another by simply clearing some brush.

Along part of the Bayou Liberty Trail, behind the flagpole, was a bunch of dead Chinese Privet. I killed it a year or so ago because it is an aggressive invasive species, does not belong here, shuts out plants that do and had taken over this part of the park. We decided to remove it by attacking it with saws and long-handled loppers.

It was a good afternoon’s work, cutting the brush off as close to the ground as we could and piling it up at the base of a big oak tree buried in the clutter. On the left hand side of the clearing that emerged was a previously hidden marsh full of Louisiana iris in springtime bloom. It was a beautiful spot and would be a delightful discovery for anyone hiking on our trails.

The next week we decided to break out the big guns to do more clearing. Our Bobcat machine is like a giant Swiss Army knife with lots attachments and we mounted one that made quick work of what would have taken several days, if not weeks of arduous hand clearing. In an afternoon we had a brand new part of the park – complete with a marsh, several huge Live Oak trees, an overlook on Bayou Liberty that is practically a cliff-side view plus possible space for a picnic pavilion. I call it “The Oak Grove.”

Check it out next time you pay a visit to the park. It is still a little rough, so be careful where you step. I’m know you’ll love it.


Swallow-tailed Kites

I saw the most extraordinary bird soaring above Camp Salmen the other day. It had long, gracefully curving wings, a sharply forked tail and striking, black and white aerodynamic stylings. It looked like raw speed personified. It was a Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus), asmall hawk actually and a nimble predator known to swoop down and pluck small creatures like lizards, grasshoppers, frogs, snakes and mammals from the treetops. That I’d like to see. It is apparently so obsessed with speed it even drinks on the fly by skimming just above Bayou Liberty with its beak agape.

It’s a migratory bird that wisely spends our winter in the northern parts of South America and in the Amazon basin. During our spring it makes stops in Central America, Cuba and the Caribbean islands on its way to summer in the good old Southeastern U.S. where it mates and breeds in woodlands and wetlands. We are lucky to be so honored.

The property along the Bayou Liberty corridor is a perfect fit for the bird. If you look at a Google map of the area you can see it is largely wooded on both sides of the bayou, from the rural north to the Lake Pontchartrain marshes in the south. This is one of the reasons why our park enjoys roaming deer, Canadian Geese, fox, Great Blue Herons, alligators, and all sorts of other creatures who like to move under woodland cover. They also use Bayou Liberty like their drinking fountain.

A few days later I was lucky to see a half dozen of these Kites wheeling in the open air above the flagpole on our parade ground. They were probably taking a break from their nearby nests and doing some late afternoon hunting and cavorting in the waning light of the day. We have several kinds of bird habitat in the park and birdwatchers are always welcome. Of course, the open skies over the bayou are where most people can catch a glimpse of the largest and fastest flyers.


Squirrel Indictment

Probably the most familiar animal at Camp Salmen is the Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis),the bossy little “Prairie Dog of the Sky.”

“Squirrel” is right. I can’t think of another creature that so lives up to its name; they are the champions of indecision. I once watched one rashly run out in front of a car, catch himself, go back, change his mind and go back (in front of the car), go back then turn around and dive under the car anyway. Buddy-D chose a good name for his misdirected Saints fans.

As doubtful and indecisive as they seem here in the good old U.S.A. they are absolute international terrorists overseas. They are considered an invasive species that has largely displaced the kindly Red Squirrel in Olde England. The species is also on its way to dominating squirreldom in Italy, Ireland and other parts of Europe.

They are shifty-eyed compulsive and paranoid, known to hide seeds, nuts and berries in thousands of locations in a season. They even fake this activity if they think someone is watching. Our indolent squirrels at Camp Salmen Nature Park don’t bother. They spend summer and fall rifling cypress and pine trees, leaving a mess of sticky half-chewed cypress balls, pine bark, needles, seeds and stripped pine cones discarded on our boardwalks like chewed corn cobs.

Even though they are supposed to be kind of cute, their cuteness was lost on me some time ago. Instead of being the shy, retiring tree-dweller type, they can be quite boisterous and disruptive in the quiet, peaceful wood. During courtship season they bark incessantly and recklessly chase one another from branch to branch, gnaw on innocent trees, steal food from bird feeders, cause a ruckus by blundering into Blue Jay territory and trespass in human dwellings to vandalize — all while contemptuously flicking their tails at observers who stand aghast.


Rosy Wolf Snails

We don’t have wolves at Camp Salmen but our mollusks have to put up with the equivalent - the Rosy Wolf Snail (Euglandina rosea). These are vicious, slow-moving predators who prefer to consume other soft-bodied slow movers like slugs (“No shell, no fur, no claws, no bones - just pure protein. Yum!”). They can also slurp a snail right out of its shell, without seasoning, earning them another name: Cannibal Snail. Fortunately, most of our readers aren’t mollusks and have nothing to fear.

There were a lot of these snails in the neighborhood where I grew up and since they couldn’t outrun me, they did not escape my curiosity. (Maybe I couldn’t find anyone else who would play with me.) When you pick up one it draws up into its shell right away but gamely creeps back out to resume its hustle and bustle. They have curious little eyestalks, feelers, tasters and sniffers protruding from their business ends. These shrink and disappear when you trifle with them but quickly grow back as the animal resumes its normal operations, which is moving ever forward to find its next victim and meal.

The snail’s light-brown shell actually does have a rosy hue and is surprisingly lightweight and fragile. This light weight is combined with a relatively large two inch long “foot” that enables them to travel three times faster than their prey so they always win the “Fat Man Race.”  We used to find silvery slime trails all over our patio in the morning. Apparently this wasn’t just meaningless meanderings; the snails were actually on the hunt the night before. Where these paths converged is probably where they sensed prey with their sensors and took off in “hot” pursuit to follow a trail to the target. No wonder I saw all those empty shells lying around. You have to love their technique. It involves using that giant foot to wrestle the victim, stabbing him with a “radula” and extractingprotein, other details are not suitable for a family newspaper. You’ll stop thinking of them as some kind of cute creature from Mother Nature’s pixie garden.

After I saw one crossing the road the other day I remembered my old association with them and determined to learn more (I love the Internet).  I found out a lot of new stuff about them but didn’t find out the one specific thing I asked myself when I saw that snail: Why was it crossing the road?


See History

TIME IS VISIBLE AT CAMP SALMEN - Part 1

Besides the trees and wildlife, layers of time can be seen at Camp Salmen Nature Park.

The land itself reflects the geologic past. Bayou Liberty was formed when the sea level lowered a couple of million years ago, uncovered the land and let rainwater find a way to channel to the sea. Much of the topography in the area is from the huge quantities of Ice Age melt water, silt, sand and gravel carried from the far north by the Pearl River. 

Also during the Ice Age, sea levels were lower and the people later mistakenly called “Indians” walked into North America from Asia. They eventually migrated to these parts and lived on the banks of the bayou and hunted in the marshes. They left shell, stone, bone and pottery pieces on the ground in piles called ’”middens” which became evidence of their thousands of years of occupation.

It is said the presence of these natives in the neighborhood was one of the reasons Joseph Laurent built his trading post here in the early 1800s. It is now called the “Salmen Lodge.” Of course, La Liberte’ was one of the first Europeans to come to this bayou nearly three quarters of a century before. Many of his fellow Frenchmen followed his example and also produced building products – lumber, charcoal, pine tar and bricks from the forest.

Laurent was a trader who used his schooner “Marguerite” to carry the settler’s products and produce to the growing city across the lake and bring back manufactured goods. He probably used the wide part of the bayou in front of his store to turn his schooner around to make it ready for another trip. He also evidently made bricks on his property and you can still view his clay pit remains. The building continued as the neighborhood store for almost a century. Hidden in the ground around it are old privy holes, the footings of out buildings, cisterns and many other artifacts that would be an archaeologist’s dream.

Over the course of the next 150 years, the community on the bayou became known as “Bonfouca” and the Frenchmen were gradually replaced with native-born Creoles. Then something new happened just a few miles to the east. A railroad from Mississippi to New Orleans was built in the 1880s and the project’s work camp became the town of Slidell. Fritz Salmen and his enterprising family carried on the traditions of Northshore forest products and put the town on the map with their highly successful building products industry. Eventually they bought this land, extracted its timber and clay, and changed it by leaving clay pits, railroad beds, brick fragments and the beginnings of a new forest. In next week’s column learn about changes to the land when the Boy Scouts and St. Tammany Parish government made an appearance.  

CAMP SALMEN’S HISTORY - STILL HERE TO SEE - Part 2

Last time we learned that Salmen Lodge was Joseph Laurent’s old Indian trading post and was a part of the “ancient” Creole community of Bonfouca on Bayou Liberty. The community was nearly a century and a half old when the upstart town of Slidell showed up on the railroad tracks nearby. Since then, more history happened at Camp Salmen Nature Park and more evidence of time’s passing was left behind.

Fritz Salmen was a forward-thinking man who believed in putting his land to good use after extracting its timber and clay. He had numerous land development projects like farms, pastureland and housing. His idea of donating some of it to the Boy Scouts of America led to a considerable amount of infrastructure being emplaced over the next 60 years for the enjoyment of nearly 400,000 boys.

Remnants of the Boy Scout Era are everywhere in the park. The woods contain traces of wire, plumbing and lumber from out buildings once scattered around the encampment. Some of the trails follow the paths between them. Their first cafeteria left a pile of stove coal and the newer cafeteria left a slab that sprouted a big, brand new picnic pavilion, the centerpiece of the new parish park. The “Leaning Oak” on the parade ground was propped up with a couple of poles to hold it up for generations of climbers. The old water tower looms, rusting overhead, as its water well still functions nearby. The bayou bank has remnants of the scout’s canoe dock and their old boat slip hides in brush. The mound of dirt over the swimming pool is now a lovely picnic area and curbing under a nearby oak shows the location of the previous ‘20s era pool. Mary’s Grotto demonstrates the care taken for the scout’s spiritual development.

Bridging into the new era of St. Tammany Parish parks is the monument honoring Fritz Salmen for his generous donation to the scouts. A new flagpole represents the scout’s patriotic ideals. A brand new copy of their old amphitheater will continue to provide a place for the spirit of community.

A winding new paved Parish Parkway meanders through the woods to replace old Camp Salmen Rd. There are bricks, bricks and bricks — everywhere — mostly buried. Nearly a century of brick making took place here, in addition to brick rubble from Slidell’s brick manufacturing heritage, and demolished brick scout buildings. The place might as well be called “Camp Brick.”

For the future, the young “upstart” Slidell continues to grow out from its beginnings on the railroad track and now surrounds Camp Salmen where our Nature Park remains a valuable island of refuge and an important link to the past.


Poison Ivy, etc.

For people who really get into nature, who just want to embrace all that lovely lush, green foliage and roll around in it, think again. If you can’t keep your distance and avoid reaching out to touch and feel, a dose of poison ivy might be your reward.

These are problem plants:

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is the most common; it’s a vine that typically grows up tree trunks but can also show up in bushes and in other unsuspected places. It has pointy leaves in clusters of three in various sizes and they turn a vivid red in the fall. The vine clings to the tree with tiny hair-like roots that are also poisonous. If you are a committed tree hugger or one of those people who just has to bound up the next tree you see, remember this saying: “Hairy vine – no friend of mine.”

Poison Oak (Toxicodendron pubescens) is a shrub with leaves that are also in clusters of three. The leaves are similar in pattern to those of the white oak tree. I suggest you look these up and remember the shape.

Useful sayings associated with these two plants include: "Leaves of three; let it be" or “One, two, three - don't touch me."

Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is a shrub or small tree (of up to 30 ft. in height!) typically found in swamps. It has leaf clusters of 7-13 leaves and is considered far more toxic than the other two. Staying out of the swamp should be no problem for most people but those that do need to memorize what this plant looks like and avoid contact.

All it takes is one innocent brush against any one of these plants. Their leaves, stems, vines, seeds, flowers and bark contain an oil called URUSHIOL (oo-roo-shee-awl). Its a chemical that quickly seeps into the pores of the skin and causes irritation, blisters, itching and even death if inhaled in quantities of smoke.

For many people, a patch of infected skin may itch for a couple of days then quickly heal. Some people aren’t even affected. Stores sell inexpensive creams to temporarily relieve the itch; more expensive creams actually draw the urushiol right out of the pores and hasten the healing process. Some people are known to wipe themselves down with watered-down bleach as a preventative. If it gets too bad, please go see a doctor. Long sleeves and gloves also help protect but the best strategy is stay away!If you would like us to show you what these plants look like, please visit us at Camp Salmen Nature Park. We’d be glad to show you around.

 


Lovebugs

I spotted a few Lovebugs (Plecia nearctica) loitering over the grass the other day and absently thought, “Oh, its springtime, they’re back. No, wait, aren’t they supposed be here in late summer?” I looked them up – there are actually TWO crops of these loathsome creatures every year – April-May and August-September. UNHHH. I guess I had tied to put them out of my mind.

At their worst, which is about every year, I can’t imagine a more worthless creature on the face of the planet. There can be thousands and thousands of them, flying aimlessly around, landing all over our cars, our boats, our food, our fresh paint and us and they stink to high heaven. At least they don’t (and can’t) bite. They supposedly only dabble a little nectar and pollen and live only three days or so (though their swarm lasts a month). The female, being the larger of the two, usually takes the lead, lives longer and gets to drag around a corpse for a day or so.

They are almost of no benefit to anyone or anything – except the decomposers that deal with them in the end (though they, themselves are decomposers, feasting on decaying leaf matter in their previous larval form). Nothing much eats them alive because they are too acidic and this acid dries and scars the leading parts of speeding vehicles. Research indicates one reason they are attracted to automobile grillwork is they like engine exhaust and fumes, which is why they are all over our highways. This fascination with fumes is also why they like to get stuck in fresh paint. They also love the color white, which explains why they cling all over our white boats, especially those with fuming engines.

The insect is an invader from Central America, having crossed into Texas around 1911 and has since spread across the Gulf Coast. It is believed their numbers have been limited by a parasitic fungi, so I say, “Hooray the parasitic fungi! We can’t have more parasitic fungi!”


Doves

DOVES

They are known as the meekest birds yet they are boldly present all over Camp Salmen, grazing by the dozens on field and trail, fretfully bounding for the trees at the least provocation. Startling hikers by suddenly flushing from the brush. It’s the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), one of the most widespread and numerous bird species in North America. In spite of their reputation of timidity, I suspect they are secret exhibitionists.

You can identify them from their buff, grey-brown color, the black spots on their sides, red legs and the beautiful v-shaped white trim visible on their tails when they fly. When they fly, they emit what I can only describe as a wheezy, squeaky chortle. This whistling sound is actually made by the action of their feathers. When the mood is just right in the evening they also make a moaning “coo” that gives them the “mourning” part of their name.

Their little bald-looking, round head with black, beady round eyes and pointy little black beak give them a non-serious, almost twerp-like look; they are definitely not “Angry Bird” material. To further their non-threatening demeanor, they feed exclusively on seeds and rocks. Yes, rocks. The bird isn’t stupid. They can be seen perusing small pebbles looking for just the right size to swallow and hold in their “craw” or “crop.” This is sort of a pre-stomach muscle, a wide spot in their throat where these rocks help grind the seeds before they move on down the line.

Another thing they do with this crop is perfectly gross. They produce something generously called “crop milk” which they feed to their nesting young by coughing it down their throats. This makes me feel lucky I wasn’t born a bird.

Another reason I’m happy to not be a dove is that generations of people have been making sport of them by taking them home for dinner. The massive harvesting of this natural resource can only be accomplished with their full cooperation. They breed often and in great numbers. We seem to be doing our part very well at Camp Salmen because they are now everywhere.


Alligator

I saw a shad fish shagging out of Bayou Liberty the other day and wondered if he was trying to avoid an encounter with the resident top predator, an American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) named “Albert.”  He may be “King of the Bayou” but you couldn’t normally tell by looking at him because usually looks just like a floating log.

Funny thing about how differently people react to the presence of ‘gators. Some live in mortal fear of them, some want to feed them. Either response can result in the ‘gator’s early demise or removal. It does not have to be so.

Millions of alligators inhabit the swamps and marshes of the Gulf Coast states, particularly Louisiana and Florida, where the scaly beast is a colorful part of the lore. Although the Bayou State contains twice as many wild gators, the Sunshine State can claim one dark statistic we cannot – there have been twenty-one human deaths by alligator recorded there and none in Louisiana. Part of the problem is that Florida simply has many more humans, a disproportionate number living where ‘gators live and they tend to recreate in the state’s plentiful fresh water lakes. It could also be our coastal people are more rural, familiar with and respectful of the reptile. The situation in Florida seems like a good argument against building subdivisions in wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, all this has helped give the beast a fearsome, and undeserved national reputation.

WARNING: DO NOT FEED ALLIGATORS

An un-fed, wild alligator will remain wild and leave people alone. They have plenty to eat in nature, especially with all the fish in Bayou Liberty, and are naturally scared of people. An alligator would rather swim away and hide that confront a big, old dangerous human. But alligators who are fed by humans may think “food” when they see people. These ‘gators can become a nuisance and must be removed or killed. We want Albert to stay just where he is because he is part of the natural cycle of life in our Nature Park and so we don’t feed him and won’t let anyone else even try. By the way, an even bigger ‘gator cruised up the bayou the other day, apparently to come a courtin’. I think “Albert” may be an “Albertina.”


Crazy Ants

I’ve had to put up with red fire ants since my mom and dad turned me loose in short pants. For half a century the South American invaders were a well-established fact of life and had become part of Louisiana lore. The best a southern boy could learn to do was watch where he was standing to avoid the multiple bites that came out of their mounds. Sometimes that wasn’t enough and they’d surprise you by finding a way to get at you any way.

Last Year at Camp Salmen red ant mounds were plentiful, especially on our lawns where people go. Only careful, diligent treatment suppressed them but they never were eliminated and their mounds routinely popped back up. I had gotten used to their annual rhythms and was anticipating their Summer Offensive when, miracle of miracles and glory be, they began to disappear from the property! For me, this is big environmental news.

Last year I noticed that treated “dead” fire ant mounds continued to be occupied by mysterious, tiny black ants that scurried around in the wreckage with a rapid, erratic motion. At first the experts I consulted had no explanation but now we know these are another South American invader, Crazy Ants (Nylanderia fulva), and they are spreading across St. Tammany Parish and the Gulf South, steadily displacing red ant populations as they go. They are also known as Raspberry Ants, named after the fellow who first described them in 2002 but I’m sure everybody will end up calling them by their obvious name.

I have written before about the royal mess we’ve made of Louisiana’s ecology by transplanting non-native species all over the planet then letting ‘er rip. Maybe what has happened is an accidental environmental victory – or maybe not. Scientists are trying to catch up with this new phenomenon and learn more about the ant and how it fits in to Louisiana’s reinvented ecology. One question keeps coming to my mind - how do they do that, especially against such a ferocious, well-placed adversary?

So far I like them just fine, more power to ‘em. They’ve quietly replaced red ants, make no mounds and don’t bite. But they do seem to have an affinity to humanity’s electrical systems, even those found in cars, which could be a draw back.  There are also no poisons or controls known to stop them, yet. At Camp Salmen, Mother Nature is surprising us all the time!


Doodlebugs

You wouldn’t think it, but we have billions of crustaceans running around Camp Salmen. No, not crawfish, shrimp, lobsters or crabs, it’s the one we don’t pay much attention to because they are so small and stay down low - the lowly Doodlebug (Armadillidium vulgare). It’s a little quarter inch long isopod also known as a pill bug, sow bug, woodlouse or rollie-pollie. Some consider them nothing more than “harmless garden pests” and actually seek to kill them with garden pesticides!  Personally, I have a soft spot for them because I’ve known them since I was a wee lad plus I’ve developed a reverence for anything that’s been on the planet for 300 hundred million years, a time before the dinosaurs, back when they were making coal.

And what do doodle bugs do? They are decomposers,  “detritivores” who eat detritus, the leftovers of life, discarded leaves, mown grass, fallen limbs, etcetera. They help turn this stuff into soil. And how do they do it? Watch one closely; they go “doodle, doodle, doodle” as they trundle about on their fourteen legs looking for detritus. When they find it, they use a specially adapted eighth pair of legs to stuff what passes for their faces with detritus. What comes out the other end is soil.

When they get frightened they have enough segments to roll themselves into a tiny little balls. This is known as their “pill mode” (thus the nameArmadillidium, as in armadillo). They stay that way until they think it’s safe, and then they unroll themselves like tiny little Transformers and resume their merciless hunt for detritus.

In case you’re still not impressed, go on-line and check out the ghastly Bathynomus giganteualso known as the Giant Isopod,Mr. Doodlebug’s close cousin. These are four pound pink versions of Armadillidium thateat whale carcasses and whatever and whoever else drifts down to the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean. I doubt if they taste like lobster. You’ll be glad all we have are doodlebugs.


Wolf Spider

I was bent over, handling clumps of old pine straw mulch when a large brown spider came out from underneath. I said, “Hello” because I’d seen many of these spiders before and knew they were harmless; though I have no keen desire to just fetch one up and be friends. This one looked different though. I noticed she was carrying something quite remarkable and bizarre slung under her abdomen: a big, beautiful, blue orb. And it was the most astonishing color of blue – was it azure or cerulean? At first I thought it might have been some kind of bird’s egg she had stolen. She guarded it jealously and drug it around, stuck to her backside. I decided it might be her egg.  I said, “Goodbye” and we quickly parted company as I went back to work.

This apparently was an encounter with a type known as a Wolf Spider, from the family Lycosidae, meaning, “wolf.” I once knew one of these who lived comfortably just over the water in my boat shed and grew to be a tremendous size, largely because it was in a protected spot and the fact he/she lived for years. Like all spiders it was a carnivore and I wondered if it also fished.

Wolf spiders aren’t big on building elaborate webs but they have the equipment, spinnerets and glands, and can eject enough silk to line a tunnel hideout and even make a trap door for it.  To compensate for their lack of an ensnarement strategy, their capture and kill technique is to suddenly bolt out of their hole and pounce on a victim to deliver a venomous bite. (I didn’t say they don’t bite, they just can’t bite humans very well because our skin to too thick.) With six eyes, they have excellent vision. These reflect very brightly when you shine a light at them after dark. They also have a very acute sense of touch so they can say to their victims, “All the better to feel you in my arms, my dearie.”

Another thing they can do with their web material is creating those egg balls. All the ones I’ve seen in the literature are grayish, so I guess Camp Salmen is lucky to have Lycosidae with such specially colored ones. In fact, I invite the public to come looking for them, like Easter eggs. The parent spider keeps her tail raised high so it doesn’t scrape the egg ball on the ground. When the babies hatch, the adult spider, which has been so ugly to everyone else, turns into an exemplary parent as the babies crawl on top and ride royally around, enjoying her protection.


Whirlygigs Of Spring

When Camp Salmen shifts from drab winter to vibrant spring, the first flash of color is from the red seeds of the Swamp Maple (Acer rubrum var. drummondii,also called the Drummond or Red Maple). This is just not a Louisiana thing, the U. S. Forest Service declares this is North America’s most common deciduous tree and grows everywhere east of the Mississippi. It’s a highly adaptable species that can inhabit a wide range of conditions, from high on mountainsides to down in the swamps. Unfortunately for Louisiana, many of our swamps are dying. Levees built along the Mississippi River have cut off the annual overflows that nourished these wetlands and provided fresh silt. As a result, soils are getting soupy and Swamp Maples are falling over left and right.

Elsewhere on the continent, the tree has become something of an “internal invader.” It is thought these trees were in smaller proportions to other trees when Europeans got to America and are steadily taking over forests at the expense of oaks and pines. Amazingly, they finish their growing season in the same spectacular fashion as they began, by turning their fall leaves to the same crimson color as the seeds.

The tree shows different personalities to the different animals that use them for food. White-tailed deer and certain kinds of butterfly producing caterpillars love to eat the tree’s leaves, however, these leaves can kill a horse. First they get depressed (horses get depressed?) and then lethargic and eventually fall into a coma and die. Watch out, horse lovers! On a lighter note, if you time the tree’s season just right, you can poke a hole in the bark and get a sap that makes one of my favorites – maple syrup.

More on the unusual seeds - They have a graceful, curving wing to one side, sort of like a rigid insect’s wing. They’re angled in such a way that they spin when they fall, like a whirligig or helicopter. This helps them remain aloft so the winds can take them further from the tree. Full sized maples can produce a million seeds. If you’re lucky to be in the right place at the right time you’ll see a gust of wind knock hundreds of these seeds loose from a high branch and they fall in a beautiful, sunlit shower of spinning seeds. They are also a favorite of children who delight in exploring this phenomenon by picking up and flying the little helicopters over and over again. 


The Intrusion

One morning at Camp Salmen I was awakened by the sound of a running engine outside my window. It was 4:30 AM and dark. This was totally unexpected and I immediately thought it was as good a time as any for a nighttime equipment theft. As I went to the front of the building to look out the window, my inner Barney Fife said, “This is it, this is why they hired me to be the watchdog.” I figured the intruders were probably after the Bobcat excavator and were maneuvering to grab its trailer. At the same time I heard the solid “ker-chunk” of my apartment door closing and locking behind me. I suddenly realized I not only failed to carry the key, I  forgot to put on any clothes. The situation suddenly seemed very different.

Fortunately, the headlights outside shifted around and the miscreants disappeared around the corner. I still had time to catch them. I found a spare key, got back in my apartment, got on some clothes and called the cops. The intruders were either still working on the Bobcat or were long gone.

Officer Friendly was at the back gate faster than I could hustle the fifty yards to get it open and she had plenty of back-up. Suddenly there were four police cruisers flooding into the park, gunning the big V-8 engines in their Crown Victoria Police Interceptors and illuminating every lane, driveway and trail with their searchlights. No buggers. They certainly had had enough time to flee.

At least it was a good test run. The cops were quite prompt and anxious to serve and protect. “Whoever” had apparently let themselves out the way they came in, probably using the combination we had given out to too many tradesmen during the past year.

Later that morning I was informed it was the mowing contractor. They had dropped by and let themselves in to retrieve a spool of weed trimmer string needed for an early start on their day. A call would have both warned me and been and unwelcome interruption to my sleep. Barney Fife learned a few lessons too.


Resurrection Fern

res·ur·rec·tion[rez-uh-rek-shuhn] - noun

the act of rising from the dead; rising again, as from decay, disuse, etc.; revival.

This column has previously described the remarkable cloud of life hovering around the magnificent Southern Live Oak. The tree hosts a wondrous variety of other species: birds and insects that rest or restlessly hunt among its branches, creatures that take up residence in its nooks, crannies and knot holes, plants that prefer to grow only in its shade or hang from its branches like Spanish moss or climb its trunk like many kinds of vines do or intimately cling to its bark like mosses, lichens and the mysterious Resurrection Fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides).

Imagine a life spent mostly dead. The fern actually stays shriveled up, curled up and brown most of the time. Only after there has been enough rain does the plant respond by uncurling and bursting back to life, all bushy, lush and green again. High humidity sustains it awhile longer. It then dries, loosing up to 97% of its moisture content (most plants die after losing about 10%). Its estimated it could remain that way for a century and still revive but it rains too much around here for us to ever find out.

The fern decorates only the upper surfaces of the tree’s knarly bark, expecting rain and sunlight from the sky above. And it hosts its own ecology too. It accumulates a kind of soil at its feet, made from its own shedding fronds, its roots, mosses and other residue from the other life on the tree. In fact, it takes many years for the bark to accumulate enough of this “dirt” to get a crop of ferns started. No doubt within this mix is a whole assemblage of critters and other organisms that depend on this mini-environment. It all clings tenaciously in a precarious position high above the ground.

Occasionally, a fallen limb carries a chunk of this little world with it. I’ve had one of these sitting in the shade behind my house for quite some time. The whole aggregation holds together, dies and revives over and over gain, just as expected, just like it’s intended.

Resurrection ferns doing their thing on the rain side of some Live Oak branches.


Message In A Bag

Someone just upstream from Camp Salmen is routinely tossing their carefully prepared bags of trash into Bayou Liberty.  I’ve found many of these over the past year or so – seven on our property in just one week. They must be strewn up and down the bayou on our neighbor’s property too.  Because these bags contain mostly empty soda pop cans they float until they hang up on the bank.  They don’t travel long or far before the sun rots the flimsy bag and everything spills out to multiply this sin against nature.

The bags are all the same. The person doing this fills a standard plastic grocery bag with Diet Coke cans. They might add a couple of empty food containers – cranberry products, juice, snack cakes, junk food du jour - and lots and lots of white cigarette butts, usually packed separately in the bag. The bag’s handles are neatly tied together and the package consigned to the beautiful bayou.

If you dissect a few of these bags, they become little, floating mini-autobiographies. So what does this person say about themselves? Well, they’re actually pretty neat and organized, for being such a slob. They’re self-centered, only wanting neatness in their own surroundings and not caring for the world and the others who have to share it with them. They must think enough of themselves to try to keep the weight off with the diet drinks and they try to eat something healthy with an occasional fruit-based snack. However, their copious cigarette consumption and their bizarre form of littering betrays the fact that while their wheel may be turning, the hamster is dead.

So who is it? I can’t imagine anyone with property on the bayou doing this. There’s too much investment for living in such a beautiful place to turn around and trash it. Maybe it’s a thoughtless workman on a long job? A homeless person camped out somewhere upstream? Whoever it is he or she has an extreme contempt for nature and God’s creation and a certain poverty of their soul.


Live Oaks - Quercus

The crown jewels of Camp Salmen Nature Park are the beautiful Southern Live Oak trees (Quercus virginiana) that grace the grounds. Most of the oldest and finest representatives of this species are scattered around what is called “Camp Ridge” on Bayou Liberty, a part of the park where most of the Boy Scout’s buildings of old Camp Salmen once stood.

This species of oak is a tree of superlatives as they have massive trunks and branches that span large areas of ground. It’s awesome to think about the amount of tonnage they hold up in the air. Their ages easily exceed a couple of centuries. One can imagine Joseph Laurent himself taking respite under one of these stately oaks while working on his trading post (later named the Salmen Lodge) in the early 1800s.

The tree has other remarkable traits. They are an evergreen and only loose a minor amount of their leaves each year. The fallen leaves of more mature trees are somewhat toxic and discourage undergrowth beneath the tree. The tree’s wood is HARD and will challenge any saw. Fallen limbs can remain intact for years. Legend has it that sailing ship carpenters favored the tree’s curved branches for the bow stem and other critical framework. And, of course, there is often plentiful Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) draping from their branches. It is a spectacular sight to see this backlit by the late afternoon sun.

Spanish moss isn’t the only organism hitching a ride. Each tree has its own little ecology hovering around it. Several species of vine depend on the tree to hold them up to the sunlight. Resurrection ferns sprout from the branches and glow an emerald green after it rains. Knot-holes provide homes for birds, bees, squirrels, and snakes and the knarly bark provides places for predator and prey to play a miniature and deadly game of “hide and hunt” between birds and insects.

Some of the favorite oaks pose magnificently for the park’s visitors. The “Order of the Arrow Oak” is the centerpiece of our nature garden. The main parking lot has a specimen called a “Hat-rack Oak” because it spreads wide at the top as it probably grew out of thick underbrush. “The Leaning Oak” on the parade ground has got to be one of the most popular attractions in the park. Some thoughtful person propped it up many years ago with a couple of iron poles so it wouldn’t fall over. Literally hundreds of thousands of people have been drawn to it over the decades because it is so easy to climb. I call my favorite oak “The Cathedral Oak.” It leans out of the old clay pit used to build the Trading Post and makes a beautiful, arching space that you can sit inside. Find a comfortable branch and contemplate the Live Oak, its beauty and the wonder of it all.

 

The morning sum finds its way through the humid air and the Spanish moss hanging from a Live Oak.


Geocaching

In today’s modern “techno” world, with all its gadgets and hitherto unknown and, at times, strange social interactions, something has appeared on the scene called “geocaching,” (geo – meaning “the earth” and cache, like stash, meaning “to conceal” or hide away). It is a pastime centered on the prime piece of equipment required for a modern lifestyle: the smart phone. It seems these devices can access the Global Positioning System and tell you exactly where you are on the face of the planet. Combine that with a good old fashioned game of hide and seek or treasure hunt and there you go. There is even a website explaining this elaborate hobby where one leaves behind messages and trinkets in small, discrete weatherproof packages for others to find. The site even sells plastic hollow logs for hiding one’s stash in the woods.

We’ve known the geocachers have been lurking around the park for some time. They’re a secretive bunch, that’s the nature of the game. I’ve come across their hidden “caches” a number of times and they are usually reasonably well hidden. I’ve even had exasperated “cachers” blatantly ask me if I knew where a cache might be found. That kind of takes the fun out of it, doesn’t it? Two new packages appeared in the park the other day that were not at all usual.

One was sitting under a pine tree. It was larger than others we’d seen, wrapped in “survivalists” camouflage tape and poorly concealed. The next day a co-worker found an even larger one in a military ammo can. It was not concealed at all, just sitting next to the trail. Anyone, especially a curious child, could have walked up and opened it.

This is also the “Age of Paranoia.” I haven’t been the same since the Tylenol scare. Since the 9/11 disaster, villains have come up with the most dastardly, bizarre notions, like their ideas came from a “Batman” movie. Out of concern and responsibility for the public and with what was perhaps an over-abundance of caution, as we public servants are wont to do, we called the Sherriff’s Department to report the two suspicious packages. Why not? Local law enforcement was happy to be of help and we might have gotten to watch them blow up a couple of carelessly hidden geocaches.

The Sheriff’s duty supervisor considered the evidence. While it was known there was geocaching in the park, there WERE these two relatively large, flagrantly unconcealed packages in a suspicious military style sitting out in the open.  Of course, he consulted his smart phone. The Geocache site explained there were several caches recently stashed around Camp Salmen Nature Park. The supervisor opened up the ammo can and he and his partner had a good laugh. They thanked us before they left

Coda:

An hour later a lady came to the office door to report a strange thing she saw while strolling in the park – an unconcealed ammo can by the trail. Would we consider checking it out or maybe calling the police…?


The Coal Pile

There are many layers of history at Camp Salmen. The bayou and the land itself are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years old. Native Americans, after centuries of occupation, left shell and pottery fragments in the ground. The story of European and American settlement echoes up and down the bayou and is represented by our old 1807 trading post. The landscape was altered in many ways by natural resource extraction and storms. More recently, the Scouts built a campground for nearly a half-million boys. Now St. Tammany Parish government is “repurposing” the land as a nature park for public enjoyment.

Here’s a little story about one of those layers.

Next to the path down the hill to the Swampwalk, under a large oak tree, is a small patch of ground with the black, crumbly remains of a coal pile. Camp Salmen had its beginnings in the 1920s and apparently there was a kitchen located here that used the cooking technology of the time – a coal-fired stove. For some reason, broken glass, ceramic bowls, plates, platters and cups are also in this pile. The kitchen staff must have had a jolly time smashing unworthy dinnerware. I imagine the scouts could be a pretty rambunctious bunch around such delicate things.

Interestingly, some of the fragments of this dinnerware are marked with the logo of the old Grunewald Hotel in New Orleans. It was a big, fine building built in 1893 with Fritz Salmen’s bricks. This must have been a pretty nice order for Fritz’s relatively young brick manufacturing company. The building was renamed the Roosevelt Hotel in 1923 and the proprietors apparently donated their obsolete bowls and plates to the new scout camp on the other side of the lake.

In later years the scout’s food preparation and serving moved up the hill to a new cafeteria, also since demolished. Most of the former scouts who visit the park today ask, “Where’s the old cafeteria?” Their appetites must have been a significant part of their memories of the place. St. Tammany Parish used the cafeteria’s old slab to build a beautiful new picnic pavilion for its new nature park and people continue the tradition of using this location for eating.

With its nature walks and playground, Camp Salmen is now home to family fun and adventure. Children had enjoyed the grounds for decades and still do today. Though the kitchen and the Boy Scout camp are long gone, Camp Salmen may become a playground for archaeologists someday as well.


Buck Moth Caterpillars

They’re baaack, my old “friends” the Buck Moth caterpillars (Hemileuca maia). They love to eat fresh, green Live Oak tree leaves in spring and can be seen grouped in small, knotted clusters at the ends of the tree’s branches. Soon they will mass together on the tree’s trunk and have a little pep rally. This is when they do a weird thing, bobbing their heads in spastic unison, as if saying “One, two, three - hup! One, two, three - hup! Go team!” After breaking up the rally they spread out to bulk up on more vegetation to go out into the world and make a nuisance of themselves.

Well, more than a mere nuisance, they each bristle with dozens of hollow, sharp spines that work like little hypodermic needles and will inject painful venom into anyone who even lightly brushes against them. I’ve accidently been stung by these little monsters enough times to be tempted to crush them between a couple of bricks on sight, but there are too many, some too high in the tree and besides, this might be contrary to the whole nature park thing. Besides the stings, they become fat and juicy and squishing them is most unpleasant. They are best avoided altogether.

I remember their population explosions in the 90s when they were everywhere - floors, sidewalks and walls; inside and outside. They hurt children and pets and pretty much anyone who wasn’t being careful about watching where the things might turn up. A quick check around the park’s Live Oaks today reveals that aren’t too many at this time, so we’re probably safe.

When they are ready, they make a summertime transformation into buck moths. Their moth form is easy to recognize - bold, black and white wings and a bright fuzzy little red posterior. I saw them in unusual numbers last summer, flitting about the woods and blundering up and down the trails. They are kinda cute and have a completely different personality than before.


Amphitheater

We have on a new amphitheater at Slidell’s Camp Salmen Nature Park on beautiful Bayou Liberty.  

First off, didn’t I mean to write “ampi-theater”, like it’s pronounced? I tried, but spell check kept red-lining it until I got it right. Well then, what the heck is an amphitheater anyway, isn’t it some sort of Roman thing where they fought gladiators to the death or sent early Christians to the lions? No. And yes. A little research reveals those sordid events took place in what we now call stadiums, or in the plural, stadia, where the audience sits all around the action. In an amphitheater the audience sits in a semi-circle on one side, but everyone gets a good view. The Greeks, who came before the Romans, were into tragedy, comedy and satyr on stage and used amphitheaters for their theatre.

You’ll notice our amphitheater will be excellent for that – theatrical events plus a plethora (meaning: a bunch) of other things – weddings, award ceremonies, preach’in, family reunions, poetry readings, music, educating and watching regattas on the bayou, to name just a few. I’m counting on the public’s creative imaginations to come up with a few new ideas.

The amphitheater has three long rows of seats for around 150 people and is nestled among shady oaks, overlooking the bayou in a crook of the bluff. It looks a lot like the amphitheater the Boy Scouts had at old Camp Salmen because it was built in the exact same spot. There recently was a Grand Opening and Dedication for this and the nearby Kid’s Connection Playground (more about that later) in April.

Me, I plan on using the facility for what it seems best used for: sitting in the shade, gazing up at the Spanish moss hanging from the ancient live oaks and watching the symphony of life in the bayou.

Looking upstream…

Looking downstream…

The stage…

  1. Camp Salmen Nature Park logo…

 


Winter Weather

All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey (“California Dreamin’,” Mamas and Papas).

This musical phrase keeps popping up in my head over and over again these days. It’s the dead of winter and nature appears to have fallen on hard times. Indeed, death is everywhere, at least for plants; all the annual species now lay rotting at our feet. Animals stay hunkered down and appear to have made themselves scarce. Fewer people are visiting the park. It is indeed grey, wet and dreary. Splendid if you’re a duck.

Did anyone get the license plate number of that planetoid that whacked Earth five billion years ago? The silly little 23-degree tilt it left us with has made a big difference to what happens here.  The whole history of life on this planet has never been without having to accommodate this structural irregularity. But it has adapted to it handsomely.

Its remarkable to contemplate, from today’s perspective, the contrast this weather has with the other distinct parts of a year – spring’s wild burst of life and greenery, summer’s heat, humidity and parched dry spells, fall’s refreshing winds and color. For now, the weather is about as winter-like as it gets in south Louisiana – cold and relentlessly cloudy and wet. I suppose it has its own beauty but that’s mostly hard to see from inside the house.

Though we are almost a month away from when spring commences, there are yet signs. Clover is coming up everywhere. I saw the first spreading, green thorny leaves of a couple of thistles yesterday. Birds continue to flit from tree to tree, staying limbered up for spring’s sing-along I guess. I know buds will pop, the first green leaves will emerge from the muddy swamp floor, March winds will blow and the sun will shine. It was ever thus, Gus.


Pine Savannah Boardwalk

At the far end of the park, almost all the way back up Parish Parkway to the gatehouse on Gause Blvd. is the Pine Savannah Boardwalk. It’s also the northern end of Camp Salmen’s trail system and makes a quarter mile loop. This is land where there was actually open pasture fifty years ago has since been allowed to grow back into woods. Our idea was to recreate a type of forest that was prevalent on the Northshore – Upland Longleaf Pine Savannah. We did this by taking out a considerable portion of the trees to let in more sunshine. We also did some careful burning and planted longleaf pine.  

The magnificent Longleaf was once the prevalent tree in these parts. It was the result of the plant community sorting itself out over millions of years. Now Slash Pine is everywhere because they grow faster and therefore, insure a profit for the landowner in his or her lifetime.

The pine savannah is an open-woodland – plenty of space between the trees with grass, ferns and shrubs covering the ground in between. Periodic fires that swept through this forest type once sustained its ecology. This we know from the layers of burnt material buried over the centuries in local soils and the fact that most of the plants that evolved here thrive with fire. We’ve short-circuited the whole system by building suburbs and farms on top of it and then becoming rather strict about burning.

Peppered here and there in this ecological assemblage are clumps of a vicious animal eater, the carnivorous Pitcher Plant. This curiosity of the Plant Kingdom, a phylum that is used to being bullied and eaten by animals, has turned the tables. It lures anything with legs that can get inside by making interesting odors. An overly curious and greedy creature finds a slippery slope and almost certain death by drowning in the rainwater on the bottom. The plant is more than happy to absorb its rotting carcass.

The pitcher part of the Pitcher plant into which overly curious insects fall to their deaths.


Ooo-Ooo That Smell

In the fall there is a certain odor in the woods at Camp Salmen. It is detectable only here and there, now and again. I’ve never found it particularly pleasant since it reminds me of dirty socks. My nose comes up with flavor note names like “pukey” or “sickly-sweet.” You can catch whiffs of it around rotting leaf litter in humid areas and lingers in the air until spring.

A fellow employee at the park has also known this same smell for years. Since he’s a longtime outdoorsman it has a completely different set of connotations to him - brisk autumn weather and the promise of the hunt. He likes it so much it gives him a charge.

Until recently, neither one of us knew exactly what the source of this smell was and didn’t give it much thought but I’ve begun to look for its source in earnest in areas where the smell is strongest. I have yet to see any flowers, fruits or visible fungus that accounts for it.

LSU mycologist (fungus scientist) Meredith Blackwell advises it is probably a type of stinkhorn mushroom. There are apparently two types in the park. We have plenty of the version called Stinkhorn clathracethat has a very strong, musty odor. Apparently I’m looking for the type called Stinkhorn phallace which I’ve yet to give a positive I.D. to with sight and smell. On-line descriptions show it to be a grotesque, repulsive organism only capable of attracting flies.

It has become an obsession to find one of these. I’m not sure what I’ll do when one finally turns up but I know for sure I won’t be eating it.

 

Stinkhorn Clathraceae


Tropical Storm Issac

Joseph Laurant probably took the advice of the local Choctaw when he built his trading post high on the bluff overlooking Bayou Liberty in 1807. The building still stands and though Hurricane Issac’s waters climbed the hill it could not mange to slip under the fence. However, there were plenty of other indications that this was some of the most water ever in the park. Our connection to Lake Pontchartrain covered the main road, leaving it strewn with debris and mud. The relentless rains left the woods bleeding water for days.

The Swampwalk near the bayou had the most remarkable sights – a half-inch mud deposit and a gang of huge logs left over from Katrina that floated OVER the walk and scattered to new locations. Fortunately, the boardwalk was built well and no boards were loosened from either these hazards or the time it spent underwater. Next door where the lower part of the Nature Garden was flooded the mulch was rolled up and the plants muddied but no other special problems.

On the opposite, north end of the park several pines were down, indicating especially heavy wind gusts were at play. Elsewhere in the park several “hangers” and “leaners” (damaged trees) were found over public areas necessitating the park’s closure for a week so they could be removed. Our storm preparations kept equipment and property out of harm’s way. Otherwise, a little chainsaw work, a lot of limb pick-up and a pass with the mower put the park back in shape.

The sight this week of a mother doe and her white-tailed fawn, plenty of birds, squirrels and raccoons indicate the park’s wildlife endured and survived the storm by simply hunkering down and patiently waiting for better weather.


Humans

This column is usually about the behaviors and characteristics of plants and animals at Camp Salmen Nature Park. Today’s article is about the main animal of the park and of the planet - Humans (Homo sapiens).

Our visitors are almost always good citizens – the kind of people who would want to visit a nature park. Families, couples, individuals and groups stroll serenely about, taking in the surroundings, enjoying nature. The young and feisty run and play. Some picnic in the shade of a tree or sit idly by the bayou. Some hit the trails and range further afield for the exercise. Some seem to make it a point of staying out of sight. That’s all right, as long as they follow national, state, parish and park rules. Most naturally know what to do: “leave nothing but footprints.” However, like rabbit scat on a stump, some leave telltale signs.

We keep the park free of litter so it’s noticeable when it happens; I guess some people just can’t help themselves. Clothing tags from freshly purchased duds for photo-shoots are a big item as are those little cellophane straw wrappers from kid’s drink boxes. Cigarette butts are always a biggie. Flicking them to the ground must be part of the ritual of the habit. My favorites are empty beverage containers flung too far off the trail to easily retrieve but close enough to be seen. I heartily thank all those who are responsible with the paper, wood, plastic, glass and metals they generate. Indeed, at the end of most of the days when we’ve had a lot of visitors you couldn’t tell they’d been here.

Kids seem to be fascinated with rocks. They gather them up from our parking lot and arrange them in little piles here and there or toss them about. Little boys love to rustle up sticks from the brush, swing them around for a while, then ditch them, usually near the Pavilion.

By and large I have high praise for “my people,” the public, our customers. We try to keep the park looking nice for them and are working to make it even better.


Ground Hornets

Readers might remember my story about mistaking bees for hornets. Well, this time there was no mistake. We were using a chainsaw to cut up a fallen tree and the noise apparently got to be too much for one of them. A single hornet came specifically to me and introduced himself with a punishing sting to my ear. I responded to this sneak attack by doing a little dance and exclaiming “Darn!” or some other such thing, as my ear got red and swollen. Fortunately, my partner didn’t get hit and saw where the animal came from – a dead, hollow cedar tree just steps away. There was an angry cloud of hornets hovering around a large hole at ground level. We abandoned the job.

Hornets are ugly characters. We call the variety we encountered “Ground Hornets” because they typically reside in a burrow and will ambush anyone who innocently gets too close to the hole. Generations of grass cutters have suddenly and rudely been appraised of their presence by sudden, painful stings. They are also known as Southern Yellow Jackets (Vespula squamosa) and are a type of predatory wasp that lives in colonies with a social structure similar to bees. Meats and other proteins are favorite foods. They also like sugars and will hover obnoxiously around trashcans to get at discarded soda pop. Supposedly they kill harmful insects and help maintain the “balance in nature.” Its hard to see how this is so if they themselves are harmful.

For the next few weeks we fretted about what to do about the hornet colony. We didn’t want them to hurt anyone else. We expected them to quiet down as winter set in but the weather stayed above freezing and they didn’t entirely cease their operations. Finally one day we decided to counter-attack. We screwed up our banzai courage and armed our selves with fast-acting poison sprays and moved in. We tossed a few sticks at the tree to draw them out. Nothing. We tried again. Nothing. Then I noticed a honeycomb pattern on the ground next to the tree. It was a shred of the hornet’s paper nest. If I had to guess, an armored Armadillo reached up into the tree and ripped out the nest and had himself an insectivore’s tasty meal of hornet larvae. So much for this problem resurfacing in the spring. Thank you Mr. Armadillo. Now I have a new saying: “Nature takes care of its own for those who patiently wait.” It’s that balance in nature thing.


Hole in the Ground

DID NEW ORLEANS COME FROM A HOLE IN THE GROUND ON BAYOU LIBERTY?

There is a "mystery hole" at the heart of Camp Salmen next to the old Spanish era trading post on Bayou Liberty (a.k.a. “Salmen Lodge”). Its a brush-filled low spot that does not appear to be connected to the bayou in any geologic way and without a manual, its purpose can only be conjectured. There's talk of eventually building a pond in it, which might bring it full circle to how it originally began. How does it fit into the history of the bayou and the park?

Among the first white settlers on the bayou was a man named La Liberte' who showed up in French colonial records in the 1720s. He got the bayou named after him and with the other colonists figured out ways to make a living from the local pine trees. They produced lumber, charcoal, shingles, barrel staves and refined the sticky ooze bleeding from the trees into what were called “naval stores” - pitch and tar for waterproofing boat parts and other things. They fired clay dug from the ground for bricks also burned shells from the lakeshore to make lime for mortar. They used these materials to build their own homes and carried them under sail to help build the new colonial capital of New Orleans.

Some eighty years later, when the area was under Spanish control, Joseph Laurent followed the same idea. He built a trading post out of local materials on a bluff a little further up the bayou at place that later became known as Camp Salmen. He also sailed his products to New Orleans and brought back trade goods for the Native Americans and white settlers. His bricks sold especially well because two huge fires had burned down the old wooden French city and the Spanish decreed it would never happen again as all new construction would henceforth be of brick and mortar. The game was on for north shore brick makers.

About a hundred years after this Fritz Salmen bought the land and also mined local clay for bricks for the New Orleans market. The city and surrounding communities were growing by leaps and bounds in this, the Gilded Age, and Salmen became a wealthy man; the area's first mogul. His enterprise grew and diversified and with the help of the railroads he put Slidell on the map.

The clay is from very fine river sediment that accumulated in quiet swampy areas next to bayous like Liberty. Could it be that the clay used by Liberte', Laurent and Salmen was dug from our mystery hole? How much of the French Quarter that we see today came from this hole in the ground next to Bayou Liberty.


Gum Swamp

This is our newest raised boardwalk. It goes through an area that’s both a semi-wet pine flatwood and a gum swamp. And what the heck is a gum swamp? It’s a “near-swamp,” wet enough to be dominated by a moisture-loving tree like the Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) but not so wet as to be full of cypress. You can tell the Black gum by their flared trunks, wrinkly grey bark and pointed leaves. There are also Sweet Gum trees here (Liquidambar styraciflua). These are the ones that drop their spiky, round seedpods all over the place in fall and winter. Both type of gum trees are among the first to loose their leaves when summer is over.

This section of the park has standing water after heavy rains and acts as a holding basin for drainage into Goldfish Bayou, the park’s tributary to Bayou Liberty. This flooding helps reduce the number of small plants completing for space on the forest floor and keeps the ground wet enough for gum trees.

The moisture here gives these woods a unique ecological character. Common species are club mosses (Lycopodiopsida), a kind of grass called Lady’s Hat Pin (Syngonanthus flavidulus)), Red Swamp Bay (Persea borbonia) and Mayhaw (Crataegus aestivales). Animals that like to live in these woods or pay an occasional visit include blue-tailed skink, armadillos, eastern grey squirrels, several snake species, deer and many kinds of birds.

Lady’s Hat Pin (Syngonanthus flavidulus)).


Gnat Clouds

Have you ever noticed how a gnat cloud will hover in just one place and how they do this “conveniently” at human mouth or nostril level? Ever wonder just what the heck it is they think they’re doing in these large gatherings? Well, here are the answers.

A little Internet research and much observation reveals they are looking for love, of course. Like teenagers everywhere, the girls want to be where the boys are and the boys want to be with the girls. Also, like teenagers, they tend to congregate and display obnoxious behavior. Watch closely and certain boys will drop suddenly, and dangerously  from the top of the cloud just to show off and attract the girl’s attention. They all tend to buzz around aimlessly, gossiping and chattering in their own teen lingo. Some are even self-absorbed with hand-held computer devices, oblivious to the world. This is aggravating to those of us who are trying to be more mature and responsible.

Some of this is the “safety-in-numbers” thing and some of it may have something to do with staying oriented to a certain landmark so they can all stay together but don’t expect such a flighty, irresponsible bunch to display too much sense. With all the hormonal excitement, they act just like a cloud of gnats.

Why are they obnoxious and do it in your face? Don’t they know this behavior could be dangerous and they could get inhaled? Peer pressure.  The desire to show off, to be different. “Doing your own thing,” seems to be the buzzwords here. When was the last time you expected a gnat to be cautious and sober-minded, especially when they are in love?


Fritz Salmen

Slidell remembers Fritz Salmen (1857(?) – 1934) with a high school, a street, his prominent old house and a certain former boy-scout camp. And of course, there is his industrial legacy. He essentially put Slidell on the map as it became a Salmen company town. Though the railroad men had naming rights, John Slidell was father-in-law to one of them, Salmen and his brothers were first to take full advantage of the new steel rails from the empty southeastern St. Tammany woods to the big city across the lake. They bought up vast tracts of virgin timberland and dug up good clay for bricks and used them as a foundation for an empire that included lumber, shipbuilding, farming, fired-clay products, banking, ranching, dry goods & groceries, real estate development, railroads and even a church. These industries employed, and fed the families of a great portion of Slidell’s population. Who was Fritz Salmen the man?

Fritz was a Swiss with a Germanic attention to detail, a high degree of inventiveness and a relentless desire to succeed through hard work. He lived during the “Gilded Age” of the late 1800s with its tremendous population growth, “laissez-faire” government regulations and great opportunities for clever, enterprising men to prosper. Some, like Rockefeller, Carnegie and Vanderbilt became known as “Robber Barons” by using predatory and monopolistic practices that helped give rise to the trade unions and their ornery cousins the anarchist. These contributed to the considerable labor troubles just up the road in another company town, Bogalusa. Though he too amassed a fortune and held close control of his empire, all indications are that Fritz Salmen was a kind and benevolent boss who was socially responsible for his time and well-liked in this town.

A glowing article in a 1920s trade publication explained how Salmen liked nothing better than staying in Slidell and minding his factories. He had a good rapport with his hired hands, having a “pretty intimate knowledge of their worries and problems. Every workman feels that he has a personal acquaintance with him and they speak of (him) as “the old man”…with affection. They know he is kindly, just and fair in his decisions and that loyalty to him will be rewarded.” This appreciation remains at the nature park named in his honor.


The Invaders

Camp Salmen’s greenery is like a jungle, an immense tangle of trees, bushes and vines in an astonishing variety of leaf. Its one of the visual pleasures of living in our semi-tropical environment. If you have ever traveled out west, where plant-life is scarce, you can appreciate how we have something growing on virtually every available square inch of ground.

Unfortunately, many of the plants that you see don’t belong here. They were never a part of the native ecology and are now known as invaders. Some were brought by man like Tung and Chinese Tallow trees. They were once thought to be commercially beneficial for their oil and were actually promoted by the government to land owners. It was thought Chinese Privet could be grown close together to make inexpensive livestock fencing. Some plants like Christmas Berry, Mimosa, Wisteria and Cherokee Rose were considered pretty and were planted near homes. Some just crept in or hitch-hiked here on their own. Unfortunately, they all got out of hand. Overly aggressive species beat out the natives for sunlight, soil and space. The obnoxious ones can be considered the gutter punks of the Plant Kingdom.

One of our goals at the camp is to bring the park closer to its natural state; the way it may have looked a couple of centuries ago, before people in ships and airplanes started switching around the world’s plant and animal communities. An invasive eradication program has been attempted to give native plants back their space. We have been successful against Chinese Tallow and Cherokee Rose, for instance, because these were easy to find. However, it’s a constant battle with seeds being brought into the park by wind, water and animals and there are many places for these plants to hide. Also, certain aspects of the natural order like fires and floods have been short-circuited and then there is the advent of suburbs. Completely returning the park to an earlier day is a pretty tall order and we’ll try as best we can but the genie is out of the bottle I’m afraid and, like it or not, the world has always been a constantly evolving place.


Palmettos

The dappled sunlight filtering through the trees on Camp Salmen’s Swampwalk shows why dwarf palmetto palms (Sabal minor) are the “radiant beauties” of the swamp. Their giant, green starburst-shaped leaves are scattered here and there in spiky clusters throughout our wetland woods.

The plant grows on slightly elevated ground in the swamp: low ridges deposited by flowing water, hummocks around trees and on top of old Indian campsites. Historically, both Native American and European travelers used the plant to identify higher, drier ground so they could find their way through the boggy landscape.

Choctaw and Cajuns found ways to use the tough, fibrous leaves of the palmetto in their everyday lives. They wove them with a bit of cane as a stiffener into baskets, trays and backpacks and even children’s dolls. They layered them on top of their huts and cabins to make a durable, weatherproof roof that was easily repaired or replaced. Hunters continue to use them today to conceal their blinds in marsh and woods. Parts of the plant were also known to have medicinal qualities.

Palmettos are slow growing evergreens found across the southeastern U.S. including many of Louisiana’s wet areas. I have seen them in their greatest concentrations carpeting the forest floor along miles of I-49 in the Red River bottomland. There is a small colony of a rare sub-variety in the LaBranche wetlands near the end of the Bonnett Carre Spillway that grows on eight-foot trunks. Most of those found at Camp Salmen are the standard variety that grows on one to three foot stems.

In the spring, they send up tall stalks topped with tiny white flowers. These turn into clusters of black berries at the end of the summer that are food for birds and mammals. We collect these and broadcast them under our Live Oaks. Look closely in the mulch for the little one and two-leaf starts that will some day grow to be big, beautiful green fans.

 


Listening to the Mockingbord

I’ve always liked Mockingbirds. They’re winsome little souls with a lot of personality and their song sweetens the springtime air. Their bold, striped wings easily identify them. They show these stripes with a weird little two-step motion when they do their mating dance.

The bird is noisy and feisty when bravely battling snakes, mammals and birds of prey that intrude in their territory. They will harangue them relentlessly until satisfied the interlopers have crept or flown from the area.

Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos)occur coast to coast in the southern half of North America and are so well liked in the U.S. South they have been named the official state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. They have inspired many a southern songwriter.

They are great mimics, sort of like Mynah birds, but only remember short snippets of other bird’s songs and even do sounds made by insects and barking dogs. They string these together into a long pattern they eventually repeat. I once observed one spend an hour perched atop a phone pole, endlessly singing his heart out, reeling off one riff after another in a long improvisational song as complex, ardent and inscrutable as a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo.

The other day I thought I heard a hawk keening above the trees but all I could see up there was a Mocking bird. It turns out they can do that too - mimic hawks. (He sounded like a pretty lightweight hawk). I had to laugh, this particular talent must come in pretty handy when they want to scare the Bejesus out of the other small animals in the neighborhood.


Loathsome Lubbers

In late March the Lubber grasshopper, also known as the Devil’s Horse, makes its annual appearance at Camp Salmen. From the very beginning they are exact, tiny versions of their big, full-grown adult selves – little half-inch glossy black miniatures with six tiny, spindly legs and a tiny red racing stripe that makes them look quite “boss”. Some remain black and others develop yellow patterns.

At first you find them in clusters, presumably close to where they emerged together from the underworld, where their Mama had laid them. Even in this diminutive size they’re scary little things, with all those legs and their jerky, mechanical movements. They remind you of what a delirium tremens nightmare must look like.

At this earlier stage they seem to prefer open areas, like garden paths, so they can startle you when you suddenly find them scattering under foot. Since nothing much wants to eat them, I understand they taste terrible, they have no reason to hide. Gradually they spread out and spend summer days discretely nibbling away on the park’s prodigious plant life and fattening up.

By late summer they are huge, 2-3 inches long. When the braver children visiting the park try to pick them up the bug lets out a hiss of complaint. They also ooze a toxic “tobacco juice” from their mouth. The kids usually release them immediately. Raccoons and ‘possums that rashly attempt to eat them are known to upchuck as a result. This is one of the ways they maintain their numbers to the point there are still enough of them left to mate shamelessly in the bushes, in full view of park visitors. Mama backs her eggs into the ground and it is there where they spend the winter as larvae, getting ready to begin their annual cycle next spring.


Hitchhiking Frog

Every evening I have to check the trashcans in the pavilion to make sure there is no food left in them for the raccoons to have a nighttime frolic. They are not very tidy when they do. For some unknown reason I’ve been finding three or four tree frogs hiding in and around these cans. I’ve admonished them, “This is not an honorable thing for a frog to do, hang around trashcans. Plus its dangerous, you can get accidentally squished. A nice lily pond would be a better place for you.” One evening one of the frogs took a ride with me on my buggy. I was loading up garbage bags to take to the dumpster and a frog hung on the bag. He moved over to the big blue barrel I carry for watering plants. Its nice and smooth like he is and he wasn’t inclined to get off. So we went for a ride. We went to the dumpster first and got rid of the bag then went around the corner to Mary's Grotto. We saw Mary, stopped to pick up a piece of litter on the ground, got on to the bike trail, stopped to remove a stick that had fallen on the trail then headed down the hill for the bridge over pretty Goldfish Bayou. As we approached the bridge I hollered over my shoulder, “This is a good spot, you ought to consider it.” I’ll be golly-darned if I didn’t catch him out of the corner of my eye taking a well-timed leap from the moving buggy, through the bridge railing into the creek bottom. He made a perfect landing in a beautiful setting. I thanked him for taking up my suggestion, for his initiatives and for his bravery.


Green Briar

One of the heartier, persistent and more obnoxious plants growing at Camp Salmen is the Green Briar. It comes in several varieties known collectively as Smilax. It is one tough customer; a climbing vine that starts with just a handful of pretty, bright glossy green leaves and steadily grows into a long, stiff, rangy trunk covered with sharp, evil, flesh tearing thorns. They grow high up into the trees and can take over a considerable chunk of forest canopy. Unlike most other vines that discretely cling close to their host tree, the Green Briar comes out of the ground a short distance away from the tree trunk and arcs gracefully though the air so it can ensnare larger creatures like humans who innocently try to move through what they thought was open woods.

It consolidates its hold on the ground (and improves its longevity) by growing an irregular, bulbous underground “potato” on its root. This makes it almost impossible to pull up and eradicate even the smallest ones – especially the ones growing in a favorite garden.

My reading indicates the Choctaw considered the flour made from these potatoes as a favorite food. I had to try this and prepared a root. It was as hard as wood and when I managed to saw the thing open its cut face spontaneously grew tiny hairs before my eyes, making it almost too creepy to touch. After some rough work with a cheese grater I blended the shavings with a bit of conventional flour and fried a small boulette in oil. It wasn’t half bad. Kind of nutty, like a Hazel nut, a little bitter, like an acorn

In the spring ithis plant's soft, growing tip looks particularly alien and malevolent. This is said to taste a lot like asparagus and nature nuts consider it desirable to eat but I think I’ll wait another year.


Go Take A Hike

Fall is already underway and its time to think about trying some of Camp Salmen’s trails through our beautiful woods. We have three trail systems with about three and a half miles of footpaths, bike trails and boardwalks, each with its own character and story. Maps for these trails are available at our Pavilion.

  1. The BAYOU LIBERTY TRAIL (approx. ¼ mi. one-way) is right off our main parking lot. Go past the display signs straight to the park’s most popular feature, the SWAMPWALK BOARDWALK. It zig-zags through a riot of lush, ever changing plant life to an observation platform overlooking the quiet waters of the bayou. A plant identification guide is available in the pavilion. Back at the beginning of the boardwalk the OUTDOOR CLASSSROOM and NATURE GARDEN are to the left (north) and the famous SALMEN LODGE and trails beyond it are to the right (south). Lovely views of the bayou can be seen along the way.
  2. The BICYCLE TRAIL (approx. ½ mi. one-way) is a spur from our future link to the Tammany Trace. It’s a smooth, asphalt path that starts at the Huntwyck gate, follows the W-12 Canal, goes past Mary’s Grotto, crosses Goldfish Bayou and ends at the Pavilion. Along the way are several gravel footpaths on the right that lead to Parish Parkway.
  3. The “BACKBONE TRAIL” is the longest (approx. 1 mi. one-way) and begins across Parish Parkway from Mary’s Grotto. Stay to the left, and except for a couple of short dead-ends, it goes all the way to the other end of the park. Along the way are several loops and exits to the parkway on the right. The GUM SWAMP BOARDWALK is near the beginning. The PITCHER PLANT BOARDWALK is at the other end, near the entrance to the park. Different ecological zones can be seen in between: flatwoods bottom land, hardwood forest, old growth pine and oak forest and pine savannah. A quicker path back to the beginning of the trail follows the edge of the woods along the parkway.

Frogs Love It Wet

Frogs love it wet. They want the world to be wet, all the time. (They themselves are wet.)

Next to the house at Camp Salmen is a low area full of trees, brush and brambles. It was apparently a clay pit, several acres in size, where material was mined for bricks way back when. It holds rain-water now and is prime frog habitat. At dusk on a warm, muggy evening, particularly if it rained that afternoon, the pit gives rise to a thundering chorus of happy frogs. Thousands of voices chirp, croak and sing in every pitch and cadence. They join together and are remarkably loud. If it happens to rain again the frogs get even happier, wetter and louder. “Bring it on!” they roar, “Get wet, dammit!”

If you step onto the back porch looking over the pit you would have to raise your voice if wanted to have a conversation. You wouldn’t have to worry about interrupting the frogs because they couldn’t hear you over the noise. Go inside in the air conditioning and close the steel door and the sound reverberates through the walls.

This carries on through night. By dawn most of the frogs have presumably found who or what ever it was they were looking for and only an ardent handful are hoarsely croaking. Finally, two or three, then one lone voice, then silence as the sun comes up and the frogs are satisfied.

 


Dragonflies

They are lords of the air, predators who suddenly swoop down to terrorize mosquitoes, gnats, midges and other such small things. A dozen of them can be seen patrolling back and forth over the patch of lawn between the Camp Salmen pavilion and “woodpecker grove.” Its their hunting ground all summer long. They appear to cooperatively fly over roughly the same repeated pattern and altitude, interrupting their flight only with the aforementioned swoops.

They also possess a certain grace, floating gently about on twitchy, x-shaped wings. Sometimes they perch regally on a twig or, better yet, a car aerial and survey the landscape with their mechanical, 360 degree gaze.

They come in a variety of vivid colors: royal blue, red, yellow, gold, powder blue, pink, green and white with bold black stripes. They are like some sort of psychedelic hallucination to someone who has spent too much time outside on a long, hot muggy summer afternoon.

Then they do a weird thing at the end of their season. There are fewer of them by this time because they’ve spent the summer being someone else’s food - birds, lizards, frogs, spiders, car radiators and even fish canget them. After awhile they just don’t seem to care. They become docile and will actually buddy up to humans and make themselves available for close inspection. It’s as if they are telling us, “I’m done here. I’ve done my part. Eat me if you want but I prefer we just be friends.”

 

 

 


Doe, a Deer

One evening I was rounding the last curve on the road to the house and stopped dead in my tracks at the beautiful sight in my headlights: four full-sized, well-proportioned, graceful, healthy looking does browsing on the lawn on my left. They crossed the road right in front of me and quickly disappeared into the woods to my right. I named them “The Ladies” because they had an air of elegance. I’ve since caught glimpses of them and others, alone and in groups, in various parts of the park. A few times a cute little fawn was following along, once one was in the company of a buck. Deer have probably become more common in our nature park because they’re getting used to our hospitality.

One possibility may be the result of a recently planted pea patch on the side of the road between Mary’s Grotto and the bike path to the Huntwyck gate. We got a “two-fer” out of this deal because it had been a barren stretch of clay-covered ground and now a cycle of plant life has been established. A new crop of oats, wheat, clover, barley and greens are on the way for winter grazing.

One afternoon I saw something that made this effort all worthwhile. A lone doe was grazing in the patch at the edge of the woods some distance from where I came to the road from the bike trail. I was determined to get a photograph and as I walked slowly toward the animal a carload of giggly high school girls also came down the road. I waved them down and advised them to look for the deer up ahead. The doe cooperated by staying still long enough for the girls to pull up along side and get a good look at her before she melted into the woods… another value-added attraction of your local parish nature park.


Blue-Tailed Skinks

If you walk quietly down Camp Salmen's Swampwalk boardwalk you may be lucky enough to suddenly spot a large Blue-tailed Skink basking in the sun. A sharp observer who manages to take in this sight might think they resemble an exquisite Tiffany jewel piece - a beautiful bronze body, an elegant suit of yellow pinstripes and a vivid,eye-catching iridescent blue tail. Sometimes older males even sport a noble red head. They can disappear in the blink of an eye and might leave you wondering, “Did I just see what it was I thought I just saw?”

It turns out blue-tailed skinks are the most numerous lizard in North America; from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Atlantic to the edge of the Great Plains. Their official name is the American Five-lined Skink; scientific Latin name: Eumeces fasciatus. They can grow up to eight inches long. Their fancy pinstripes and tail fade as they age through their six-year lifespan. They like things moist in their environment, making them easier to find in and around our swamp, and they usually stay hidden from view, except in those moments when they can’t resist basking in the sun.

Females actually “mother” their eggs but the young’uns are on their own only a day or two after hatching. Afterward, any number of predators - snakes, crows, hawks, shrews, moles, opossums, skunks, raccoons and domestic catsmay have a go at them, but the skink has a unique defensive strategy: they simply detach their beautiful tails and leave them twitching on the ground as a distraction whist making a getaway. If they survive this encounter they get to grow a replacement tail.

Skinks are, in turn, someone else’s predator. They have a liking for spiders, millipedes, crickets, snails termites, grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, various larvae and even vertebrates small enough to swallow whole, like frogs, lizardsand baby mice.


Bird vs. Snake

I was walking the Bayou Liberty trail when I noticed a pecking sound in the woods next to me. It was one of those giant Pileated woodpeckers prospecting a tree just a few feet away. Startled, he took off over the bayou with his two running buddies, the three calling to each other.

I walked just a short distance further when I heard a great ruckus ahead. I moved to a clear view of a dramatic scene over the bayou. A five-foot Chicken snake hanging from a large live oak branch some twenty feet above the water had snagged one of the birds by its wing. The bird was screaming bloody murder and his companions, one of whom was probably his mate, were desperately attacking the snake and screaming as well. But the snake was unfazed. He and the bird dangled beneath the limb as he moved with great deliberation, carefully looping a couple of coils around his prey to insure the capture.

 

The bird quieted down a bit, probably contemplating his fate. The snake’s coils tightened. When the bird tried to squawk again it wasn’t quite as loud as before. I briefly considered trying to somehow help the poor creature but quickly realized that even Chicken snakes got to eat. It was a rule of the club these predators belong to. I didn’t wait for the gruesome “denouement” but I imagine that without proper utensils the snake eventually began his meal with the pointy end of the bird.

 

Bird_v_Snake.jpg

A Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) caught out in the open, all smiles.


Raccoons

Camp Salmen’s “glory-hog,” its most visible wild animal, is the Raccoon (Procyon lotor). It will strut around in broad daylight with little regard for humans, sprawl out asleep in a tree, graze around in the grass or ransack a trash-can. They’re also secretive, nocturnal creatures, like Ninjas; skulking around the pavilion at night, making sure any leftover food items are consumed.

I’m sure if you dig deeper into their little psyches you’ll find a “tragi-comic” character, both carefree and grim from the weight life. They’re comedic with their antics, agile hands, cantankerousness and silly mask yet, their lives can be tragic because they are somebody’s’ food.  Coyotes love ‘em, but coons can put up a fight and can run up a tree lickety-split. Their lifestyle forces them to spend most of their time in the harsh outdoors and they must get by without benefit of prepared foods. They’ve also been known to have run-ins with the automobile, though that hasn’t been a problem in the park.

They also do “cute.” I watched a family of raccoons amble out of the woods, a mama and four young’uns about half her size. The little fur balls were awkward as they tried to stay together, close on her heels. When mama stopped to check some little thing, the little train wrecked as they stumbled into one another.

They were learning from the master, who, no doubt, had the better nose for finding something to eat. When they reached an open lawn Mama bounded ahead and the little buggers scrambled to keep up, lest they all get caught. They disappeared back into the brush and continued making the rounds at old Camp Salmen.


Red Fire Ants

What is the most ferocious beast at Camp Salmen? Well, we don't have any panthers or black bears in the woods or sharks in the bayou. We do have a few furtive, forlorn coyotes, some “fraidy-cat” snakes and one lonely alligator that only frightens fish. I'd have to say that, pound for pound, it would have to be the red fire ant (Solenopsis invicta)

Red ants are mechanical little beasts, each with a strict function in the society of their colony. The worker is the most numerous. They normally toil way in the dark tunnels of the mound, lurking just under its calm exterior but with any kind of disturbance they instantly turn into little badass U.S. Marines. The mound suddenly erupts as hundreds of red defenders, each in attack mode, bust out into the daylight; literally opening up the mound and spilling out in every direction to relentlessly search for the offender, take them on and deliver a painful bite.

Be careful about fooling around with these mounds. Any ants that get on your clothes unobserved will crawl around until they find an unprotected, unsuspecting part of your anatomy and then sink in their mandibles like no tomorrow; like the ant who recently grabbed my leather boot and wouldn’t let go until only his head was left when I tried to brush him off.

We try to suppress the activity of these South American invaders but unfortunately, they seem to favor our green lawns, which is also where our park guests like to go. So, try to remember the two things you learn to do automatically when outside in Louisiana: seek shade and watch that you’re not standing on an ant mound.


Bayou Liberty

By far the grandest view in the park is on the bluff overlooking a wide bend in Bayou Liberty. Its next to the old trading post, an ancient building dating from the Spanish era and one of the oldest in St. Tammany Parish.

You can see a good ways up and down the bayou and watching the water's surface can be mesmerizing. Its like a visual symphony. Things drift slowly by like the clouds in the sky - clusters of hundreds of glittering water bugs of various types, creeping bands of “cat's paws” betraying where the wind rustles the water and murky swirls of floating pollen (or whatever the fallout du jour is from the local vegetation). Overlaying it all is the reflection of trees, sky and glittering sun on the shimmering water.

Additionally, the bayou teems with life in a kaleidoscope of activity. Its like submarine warfare out there. Schools of small fish leave gentle ripples as they move about. There is a random pop, pop, pop of violent attacks by gar and bass, each leaving widening bull eyes in the water. Unseen fish in pursuit of prey zip like meteors. Terrorized ‘Rain minnows,” the nervous Nellie's of the bayou, spook and suddenly flip out of the water in unison at the slightest danger. Its an effect like tossing in a handful of silver dimes in the water. Occasionally a tail breaks the surface when a fish makes an especially acrobatic move on a target. Sometimes a whole fish, usually a shad, will heave himself clear and make a flash-pose in the air. A turtle's head emerges and idly takes in the scene before resuming his hunt. Herons and egrets stalk along the banks. It all happens here and there on the bayou with the randomness of heat lightning.

 

Backlit Spanish moss frames the bayou in the late afternoon.

 

The rain swollen bayou slips away downstream.


Bees

I was making my rounds in the park, near where the swimming pool once was, when I heard a vague “wall of noise” off to the north. What WAS it? The wind? It was hard to tell because someone in that direction was also making noise with a gas powered weed eater.

I went a few steps further and suddenly saw it right in front of me - a twenty foot high, fiercely spinning tornado of yellow hornets! Holy-moly! Some made random orbits like angry electrons. Some flung themselves out of the whirling cloud to search for interlopers like me. Hornets are very nasty creatures. Blunder into something like this and you could die, or at least have your afternoon plans severely altered. Or was it bees? They were yellow. Fortunately, I was too far away to tell for sure.

I cautiously edged around for a better view. If it was hornets they’d probably be associated with a hole in the ground. Find the hole and take care of the hornets later, if you know what I mean, but since I detected no motion toward a hole it must have been the relatively predictable (and tamer) honeybee.

After awhile they confirmed this. They did the bee thing by massing from the spinning cloud to a tree branch. I moved closer and saw thousands of bees crawling all over each other in a big wad. My boss later explained the queen bee was “absconding,” that is, looking for a new nest. The hive was cooling its heels on the branch while she did her search. I warned the nearby maintenance crew and by late afternoon the mass of bees was gone. Only a few lost individuals hovered around the empty branch.

All’s well that ends well. Another day in paradise without suffering either death or debilitation is fine with me.

 


Coyotes

At two o’clock one morning I was awakened by the strangest sound coming through my bedroom window. To my befogged mind it was the laughter and shouts of children, swirling and echoing in the pavilion a hundred yards away; much like the noise the scouts made a couple of weeks before. But as my mind sharpened I had to ask myself, what were kids doing in the pavilion at this hour and on a Monday?

I tried to listen more closely but it was only a ghostly babble, hard to focus on, for it had no vowels or consonants. It was a strange, surreal and chilling sound, like from the movie “Blair Witch Project” and it raised the hair on the back of my neck. I wondered, was it owls? They make bizarre, guttural, gurgling noises at night and trade hoots back and fourth with the other owls. Was it ghosts at the old Indian trading post down on the bayou? That seemed a bit far-fetched. I eventually got back to sleep.

The next day my boss assured me it was Coyotes (Canis latrans). Apparently, sometimes they get their pack together at night and raise a fuss. Maybe they argue over hierarchies or setting priorities or strategizing on the neighborhood’s pet food bowls or where one can find a tasty rabbit. I have seen just one of these scruffy beasts by the light of day in the past two years.

Another night I heard a rustling in the dark outside my window. There was a snarl, a scuffle, then a helpless squeal from some poor creature, snagged by what was probably a roving coyote. Lately they’ve been on a campaign to covert our rabbit population into the furry scat they deposit on our roads and bike paths. I haven’t made up my mind if I should let these rangy, nocturnal creatures remind me more of the “Loup Garou” or the hapless cartoon character Wile E. Coyote of Warner Brothers fame.


Sucker's Bet

If enough wind blows across Lake Pontchartrain from the southeast, water levels rise in Bayou Liberty. Although Camp Salmen is a good ten miles inland, our swamp can get a foot or more of clear water in it. Normally, the small pond next to the Swampwalk boardwalk is barely joined to the bayou, but now it and the surrounding swamp are a new water-world where fish from the bayou can freely come and go to hunt.

This is a fairly common circumstance and usually no problem, unless the water stays up too long then suddenly drops, like when the wind shifts to the north. This commences a three-stage tragedy.

Many of the fish are spread out in the swamp and can’t retreat back to the dropping bayou fast enough. The water has been steeping in the swamp for days and is now a brown organic tea that gathers in the pond. The bacteria love it and multiply insanely. When their sweet, short lives are over, their decomposition robs all the oxygen from the water, thus asphyxiating the fish. A hundred of them can litter the edge of the tiny, thousand square foot pond. Our normally tranquil boardwalk acquires a certain odor along this part.

This quirky hydrologic feature on the banks of the bayou has probably killed thousands and thousands of fish in the untold years since the bayou’s currents formed it. If the fish are hungry enough and the wind is right and the timing is right then its a sucker’s bet for the fish.


The Old Trading Post

By far the oldest thing at Camp Salmen, besides Bayou Liberty and the land itself, is the old trading post. It’s a classic Acadian style building, originally with cooling porches front and back and tall windows for ventilation and was built in the first decades of the Nineteenth Century.

The bayou in front of this structure got its name from a renegade Frenchman named La Liberte’ who left New Orleans shortly after it was founded and became one of the first Europeans to settle on the north shore. He made a living producing building materials from local natural resources and sailing them to the new city.

Joseph Laurent built his trading post about eighty years later to provision local Choctaw and settlers and sail their produce to market in the city. Like La Liberte’, he also produced building products from the land.

The site he chose was perfect: the bluff the building sits on was high enough to escape flooding, the bayou wide enough for Laurent to turn his schooner around and there were plenty of raw materials in the nearby woods. He also operated a ferry. The building has since become one of St. Tammany Parish’s oldest structures.

The interior of the main room.

 

Since the original French-built wooden city of New Orleans was devastated by two fires in the late 1700s, Louisiana’s new Spanish overlords decreed all new construction must be of brick and mortar to prevent another such disaster. This gave Laurent and others a strong market for north shore products - sand and gravel, lime for mortar (which was made by burning clam shells found on lake beaches), bricks from clay and the many things that could be made from pine trees: tar and pitch from the tree’s resin (for making canvas and rope waterproof and rot resistant), barrel staves, lumber, shingles, charcoal, etc. These materials helped build the French Quarter we know today as well as Laurent’s trading post. The wooded low area you can see next door is probably where the clay was mined for the bricks in its walls.

Fritz Salmen bought the old building around 1900 when it was nearly a century old and still in use as a residence, store and ferry office. After logging the surrounding land he donated it all to the Boy Scouts in the 1920s. They named the building “Salmen Lodge” in his honor and used it as a residence for the Camp Manager.

St. Tammany Parish Government now owns the property and has placed it on the National Register of Historic Places and will restore it to the way it was in the early 1800s.

The back porch is thought to have been enclosed shortly before the Civil War.


Cherokee Rose

I can’t imagine a more “Jekyll and Hyde” plant than the Cherokee Rose (Rosa laevigata). It was the height of spring when I started working at Camp Salmen and thousands of gorgeous, pure white rose blossoms dotted the foliage all around, making the park look like Paradise. All I could think was “how beautiful,” little did I know.

During the course of the year I learned that the plant is an invasive species (another product of China) and has few limits on taking over huge sections of woods. Its ambition seemed maniacal for a plant. Whole trees are enveloped in the stuff; turned into dead trellises by its smothering coverage. Long ropes of the vine arced through the air, sprawling in every direction, branching every few feet to build a web over the woods. Hideous “nests” of the thorny rose occurred here and there, waiting to snag the unsuspecting.</p>

Where the rose gets truly satanic is when you go “man to plant” with it. It is covered with vicious fishhook shaped thorns pointed inward so if anything larger than a mouse blunders into the plant it won’t let go without causing grievous harm. It would make a good natural substitute for concertina wire. Just a brushing encounter with it can leave you cut up. You can imagine the end game of an extreme encounter with it would be entrapment, slow, painful death and decay at its the roots.

<p>Therefore, extreme caution and a careful strategy are necessary. What seems to work is a liberal application of a woody herbicide. About six months later you can hack the brittle, rotting branches to the ground. Go slowly with a pair of long handled clippers and wear protective gloves and clothing for the thorns can still cut. Its not over. Care has to be taken to prevent this Hydra from rearing back up. Chances are it has a well-established root system and will start over again. This may mean seeking out the new starts and digging this alien monster up by its roots.</p>

<p>Admire the springtime beauty of this rose at your hazard – as no doubt, thousands of home and property owners have done in the past - and know the consequences.</p>


Red-headed Woodpecker

The August weather is sweltering, but the actual peak of the summer sun was way back in June. Cool fronts are already making their way into the lower 48. Perhaps the shortening days are some sort of a signal to one of the most noticeable birds at Camp Salmen that it is time to begin to mosey west to Texas wintering grounds. They are already getting scarcer and scarcer in the woods.

The Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) has vivid, contrasting black and white bars on their backside, a white underside and a beautiful bright red head and neck. These colors command attention that make them instantly recognizable, especially when they spread their wings to land. They have a distinctive dive and swoop as they lope from one tree trunk to another in the woods, then gracefully flare to make a solid, upright landing like a magnet on a refrigerator.

The grove of trees between the Pavilion and the road are a favorite place for them to hang out all summer and practice their omnivorism - eating both plants and animals. They adroitly capture insects on the ground and in the air and forage for nuts, seeds, fruits, berries and occasionally, other bird's eggs.

They also mine insects from Camp Salmen's plentiful dead trees left from Hurricane Katrina. They also make nests in hollows in this rotting wood. Sometimes you'll hear a tell-tale "knock, knock, knock" of their pecking somewhere up in the leaves. They are hard to spot because they purposely hop to the other side of the tree to avoid being seen. Perhaps they are trying to keep a favorite spot a secret for themselves.

(Ben Taylor is the Caretaker at Camp Salmen Nature Park and will be writing a monthly column to talk about some of the features that the park offers, which is open to the public. This article was published in the Slidell Independent on August 12, 2012)


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