Birding Today: What defines swamps and marshes?

The infamous King Rail of Red Slough area.

What defines swamps and marshes?

While we all had that high amount of rain, we were given a temporary swamp in my favorite birding venue, which includes trees. This low-lying land near my favorite lake is generally a fringe area along lakes and rivers with trees and woody vegetation. When it flooded, it turned into an area of interest and it is on a well known migratory path.

While it was flooded, it turned into a magical area for several kinds of birds, as the water raised vegetation. This begat many insects, who also tend to migrate while birds do, and these southern birds came a great deal nearer to an area that I’ve become enamored with.

Thusly, this transitional land had the makings of a shrub swamp, and history showed that Boomer Lake was an area that once flooded freely before a dam was constructed on the south end in 1925. Stillwater Creek became an artificial reservoir when this action was taken and the dam did an excellent job of eliminating flooding in the area, even during our terrible 2019 extended rains.

If this area retained water with the mulberries, cottonwoods and other trees that like to be in or near water, it would be a true swamp, like it once was, and since it basically had been devoid of water over the years, it readily accepted what was once there. So a flooded area will become a shrub swamp before a swamp forest or true swamp, which is where cypress knees fit so well.

One of the most famous swamps in McCurtain County is Red Slough, and that hosts some of the best diversity of birds, dragonflies, and butterflies during migration that I have ever encountered in Oklahoma, including not-so-often seen rails and is a veritable warbler magnet. This prairie pothole was formed by a retreating glacier.

Since a marsh is a wetland consisting of grass and reeds, it is also a permanent buffer zone and part of an important natural environment, growing and dying back seasonally and in cycles. This ecosystem holds much diversity regarding the purity of water, carbon sink, and flood control, and attracts a multitude of birds like the American Bittern, Sora, and herons and egrets forage there regularly for food.

Marsh birds are skulkers and use their environs to the fullest, as tall grass and cattails provide excellent habitat. These birds are also aptly built for this area with long toes, which gives them the ability to run across plant life on the surface of the water. The American Coot and Pied-billed Grebe also enjoy this area, actively breeding in these Oklahoma locales.

Swamps were once erroneously considered wasteland where nothing good could be found. This led to wanton destruction of valuable areas over the past two centuries, which also caused the loss of a valuable bird that many of us never saw, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Keep your eyes on the ground and your head in the clouds. Happy birding!

Deb Hirt is a wild bird rehabilitator and professional photographer living in Stillwater.

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