Hitchcock Woods in Aiken, South Carolina

I visited Hitchcock Woods in 1990 and was not impressed then.  I considered it a boring pine-dominated woods.  However, South Carolina Educational Television recently showed episodes of Naturescene and Expeditions with Patrick McMillan that both featured this park, and I learned more about it and what to look for.  I revisited Hitchcock Woods this past Sunday and with more knowledge of the site, I had a much more favorable impression than I did 25 years ago.

William Hitchcock donated a 1200 acre stretch of woods to the city of Aiken, S.C. in 1939.  The Hitchcock Foundation has since added nearly 800 acres, so that there is about 3 square miles of wilderness in the middle of Aiken.  The trails are wide and sandy and littered with horse manure.  Horseback riding is popular in this town.

The soils consist of sand and kaolin clay that formed during the Cretaceous Age over 66 million years ago when this region was seashore.  The sandy clay soil is unproductive for agriculture and most of Hitchcock Woods has never been under cultivation.  It has also never been clear cut, though selective logging is part of the management plan for the woods.  I saw a great variety of trees here including southern red oak, post oak, water oak, black oak, white oak, overcup oak, red maple, silver maple, hickory, magnolia, persimmon, dogwood, loblolly pine, shortleaf pine, longleaf pine, slash pine, and Virginia pine.

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The soil here is sandy with nodules of kaolin clay.

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Tall old growth trees grow in these woods.

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A great variety of trees grow here.

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The trails are wide and sandy and littered with horse manure.

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More old growth hardwoods.

There are several interesting disjunct species here that are relics from earlier climatic phases.  The poor soils that prevail are a condition favorable for their continued existence at this locality, since they’ve disappeared from the rest of the region. Sandhill rosemary (Ceratiola ericoides) currently grows on the sandhills of Florida.  A relic disjunct population occurs in Hitchcock Woods.  This species likely was more widespread throughout southeastern North America during the late Pliocene/early Pleistocene when the region suffered through an especially arid climatic phase.  However, it may also have been more widespread during the most recent Ice Age Maximum about 20,000 years ago because climatic conditions were quite dry then as well.  Disjunct populations of Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) are also Ice Age relics that likely occurred throughout the region during colder climatic stages.

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Virginia pine growing around the chalk cliffs is a disjunct species normally found in the mountains.

Many of the trees in Hitchcock Woods are at least 200 years old.  Some longleaf pine trees (Pinus palustris) have red-cockaded woodpecker (Dryobates borealis) nesting cavities.  This species is the only woodpecker that makes nesting cavities in live longleaf pine trees.  The oozing sap repels predatory snakes seeking to eat nestling birds.  After years of fire suppression red-cockaded woodpeckers disappeared from Hitchcock Woods.  They require open conditions.  The Hitchcock Foundation began managing prescribed fires 20 years ago, and the red-cockaded woodpeckers could be re-established here some day.  For now the park’s 5 other species of woodpeckers use these cavities.

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I think this is a longleaf pine.  Some longleaf pines in Hitchcock Woods may be more than 200 years old and have red-cockaded woodpecker nesting cavities, though the birds have been extirpated from this area.

A population of fox squirrels (Scirius niger) lives in Hitchcock Woods.  The gray color phase predominates here.  Fox squirrels are uncommon and local in Georgia and South Carolina.  I hypothesize fox squirrels have difficulty recolonizing forests that have been clear cut.  The young dense forests that resprout following clear cuts are more favorable for gray squirrels (Scirius carolinensis).  Gray squirrels are more nimble and can escape predators by jumping from tree top to tree top.  Fox squirrels prefer racing across the forest floor to escape predation.  The presence of fox squirrels in Hitchcock Woods suggests they were formerly more common in southern forests before they were clear cut. I was hoping to see a fox squirrel, but they are more active in the morning, and my hiking companion doesn’t get out of bed until nearly noon.

Rain has eroded the clay and sand here into chalk cliffs.  This is where I found Virginia pine trees.

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Chalk cliffs are a naturally eroded environment.

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Another view of the chalk cliffs.

The Sand River is another interesting geological anomaly in Hitchcock Woods.  Water flows down this creek following a rainy spell, but normally it’s just a river of sand.  It’s located on the other side of Hitchcock Woods from the chalk cliffs.  I’ll visit that part of the park another time.

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