Posts Tagged ‘Crayfish’

My Expedition to Kettle Creek Battlefield, the Little Kettle Creek Fossil Site, and the Great Buffalo Lick

May 21, 2011

Now that the school year is finished, I finally had a chance to tour some of the sites I’ve been ruminating about lately on this blog beginning with…

The Kettle Creek Battlefield

In Febuary 1779 Colonel Boyd of the British Loyalists sent 150 men to forage the nearby farms for supplies such as cattle which they likely stole.  While the foragers were  busy slaughtering their booty, Boyd hunkered down with the rest of his men on a hilltop near Kettle Creek which is actually more of a small river about 30 feet in width that runs through what today is Wilkes County, Georgia.  Colonel Dooly of the Patriots decided this was a good time to attack because he only had 340 men compared to the 550 remaining Loyalists who were missing the foragers.  Andrew Pickens led a frontal attack up the hill, while flankers led by Dooly and Elijah Clark headed through the woods.  Unfortunately for the Patriots, Boyd’s skirmishers and sentries successfully ambushed Pickens, and the swollen creeks and canebrakes slowed down the flanking attacks, making them well behind schedule.

The Patriots attacked up this hill.  The Loyalist who took this photo was kind of nervous–note the blurry image.  Actually, I took all the photos in this week’s blog entry.

The Loyalists were winning, but the battle turned when a Patriot musket ball struck Boyd in the heart, killing him, and just at that moment the Patriot flanking attacks emerged from the canebrakes.  Now surrounded on three sides,  the Loyalists retreated in panic toward their only escape route–the cold swollen waters of Kettle Creek.  Some made it across, but up to 70 were killed and 70 more captured.  The Patriots suffered just 9 dead.  Some of the Loyalists who escaped were later captured and hanged because they’d previously pledged their loyalty to the Patriots.  This seems harsh by today’s standards, but back then, going back on one’s word and disgracing one’s honor was considered a crime equal to murder.  The battle demonstrated the futility of British efforts to subdue its American colony.  The foraging thievery of the Loyalist militia  turned the countryside against them as well.

Graveyard for veterans of this battle.  Most buried here didn’t actually die on the battlefield.  Some didn’t die until 65 years later and chose to be buried here.  They must have talked about this battle for the rest of their lives.

List of soldiers proved to have fought in this battle.

Monument to the battle

Behind the battlefield, a nice hardwood forest slopes toward Kettle Creek.  The canebrakes are gone.

Today, the Kettle Creek Battlefield sits at the end of a long gravel road that cuts through miles of young loblolly pine stands and old fields where turkey and deer are abundant.  I chased a turkey with my car for awhile, and the turkey chose to try to outrun me for about 100 yards up the road before it flew a little, landed, and finally cut into the brush.  It’s a small battlefield within a woodlot of black oak, post oak, shortleaf pine, and shellbark hickory.  The canebrake is gone, probably due to fire suppression.

The Little Kettle Creek Fossil Site

(For more on this site see my blog entry of March 17, 2011.)

Little Kettle Creek is a much smaller stream than Kettle Creek, but it flows through a surprisingly deep gulley–evidence that it’s a very old watercourse that at times has run much deeper.

Note how deep this gully is compared to the size of the stream.  Both banks must be at least 30 feet deep.  It must be very old and in the past has run much deeper.

It’s obvious the creek is old because it has eroded a miniature canyon here.  This is the only Pleistocene fossil site in the entire piedmont region of southeastern North America, yielding remains of mammoth, mastodon, bison, deer, voles, lemmings, and catfish.  Fossil sites are rare in this region for 2 reasons: a lower frequency of floods during arid glacial climate phases, and acidic soils which completely dissolve bone.  Nevertheless, there must have been a flood that washed fossils into this basin.  I briefly prospected for fossils under the bridge in a likely location behind a rocky dike where lots of smaller rocks and stones accumulated, but I came up empty.  The actual fossil site is a few hundred yards downstream from here, however, I chose not to trespass–the barbed wire across the creek hinted at hostility toward interlopers and a determination to keep cattle inside.  I supposed the area under the bridge was a public right of way, though maybe I was on shaky ground, and I didn’t stay long.  Still, I’m convinced there are more fossils to be had here and in other piedmont rivers and creeks in Georgia.  It’s just a matter of taking the time to look.  They’re just harder to find than they are in productive sites like those in Florida.

A look up Little Kettle Creek.  I just missed catching a deer fawn in this photo.  The mammoths, mastodons, and bison may be gone, but at least the deer are still here.

I did see lots of wildlife here, despite the noise of a nearby hay mowing machine.  A finger of forest along the creekside snakes through hayfields.  I saw a deer, a deer fawn, and lots of deer tracks.  A crayfish observed me swing my hand through sand and rocks in my futile search for fossils.  Swallow nests litter the bottom of the bridge.  A broad-winged hawk flew in front of me, and I almost stepped on a mourning dove.

This crayfish watched my futile attempt to find fossils.

I didn’t find fossils in front of these rocks, but I did find neat stones that were half black and half marble white.

Swallows make mud nests under all small bridges in the Georgia countryside.  I love the speed at which they fly.  They consume vast quantities of flies and mosquitoes.

Wilkes County is still a beautiful bucolic setting, especially the area along Highway 44 between Washington and Tyrone.  It consists of rolling hillsides with rich pastureland and hayfields interspersed with oak woodlots.  There’s less of the monocultured loblolly pine tree stands that dominate much of the rest of the region.  It has a population of only 10,000 people.  They might be outnumbered by deer and turkey.

The Great Buffalo Lick

In 1773 the Creek Indians, after seeing how the British colonists murdered the Cherokees in battle, agreed to meet local British leaders at the Great Buffalo Lick to negotiate a peaceful settlement.  A surveyor’s malfunctioning compass nearly derailed the agreement.  William Bartram reported an Indian chief’s temper tantrum over what he considered a bewitched instrument.  But the instrument’s measurements were disregarded, and the Creek Indians ceded much of Georgia to the colonists, not realizing this was a permanent deal because they didn’t understand the concept of private property rights.  They thought they were merely giving the British temporary permission to use their territory.

My quest to find this site resulted in a comical failure.  According to Dr. De Vorsey, the true site of the Great Buffalo Lick is 5 miles north of Philomath in Oglethorpe County, and .5 miles south of Buffalo Creek. I drove well past Philomath without being aware I’d passed it.  My daughter asked me when were we going to get to the site.  I told her when we passed Philomath, and she informed me that we’d passed it a long time ago.  I drove back and realized why I’d missed it–Philomath consists of just 5 houses and a volunteer fire station.  I went .5 miles back in the other direction and found a hollow that looked just like one William Bartram described in his book Travels.  He observed deep pits that buffalo, deer, feral cattle and horses licked into the clay soil, and some of these hollows filled with grass.  I saw this and assumed it was the site and photographed it.  Later, after I came home and reviewed my notes, I realized I only backtracked .5 miles instead of 5 miles.  Oops.  Nevertheless, my initial error led me to drive past this distance, and I didn’t see a 50 foot boulder, nor did I notice Buffalo Creek–two markers Dr. De Vorsey mentions in his article.

The hollow I mistakenly thought was the site of the Great Buffalo Lick.  Maybe it was a pit created by buffalo licking into the kaolin clay.  However, it’s probably just a dried out old cattle tank.  The owner of the land has Black Angus cows for sale.

This is clay soil that may be part of the Kaolin clay vein the buffalo used to utilize.  They didn’t lick it for mineral salts, but rather to aid in digestion.

I’m not the first to error in locating this site.  There are 3 other sites that have mistakenly claimed to have been the Buffalo Lick site.  Two are in Greene County, and the other is also in Oglethorpe County.  The Oglethorpe Historical Society needs to get off their duffs and put a marker in the correct location. 

Dr. De Vorsey correctly identified the site when, with the help of his students, he luckily found a 1796 survey for a “plat of land” 2400 feet from Buffalo Creek, and the description of land markers matched that of Bartram’s.  See

For next week’s blog entry, I’m going to discuss how state highways mirror the ancient Indian trails.

The Invasion of the Little Lobsters

November 12, 2010

Tens of millions of years ago, probably when dinosaurs still stalked the earth, armies of salt water crustaceans inhabited the shallow seas, salt marshes, and estuaries so abundant in that watery age.  During the Eocene when the Atlantic Ocean periodically receded from the North American continent, these marine crustaceans began to evolve the ability to survive in brackish water habitats that became more and more common, and eventually they evolved into freshwater organisms.  The ecological niche they colonized had few, if any, competitors, and many species evolved.  Southeastern North America has the most species on the continent–evidence that this is the region where crayfish first colonized fresh water.  68 species of 8 genera are known to occur in Georgia today.

Illustration of crayfish anatomy from Crayfishes of Georgia by Holcombe Hobbs.

Biologists like to study crayfish because they represent good case studies of evolution.  Barriers often form in river drainages, isolating different populations of crayfish, and accordingly this affords frequent opportunity for speciation to occur.  Scientists use cladistics (the comparison of anatomical characteristics) to determine the evolutionary relationships between species.  Of course, DNA testing is an even more accurate way to determine these relationships.

Holcombe Hobbs was the foremost crayfish expert in Georgia, and he wrote a very thorough book in 1981–The Crayfishes of Georgia which is available online  for free.  He knew of 65 species in state.  In the 30 years since his book was published, only 3 additional species have been discovered in Georgia surveys, showing  just how thorough he was.

I find most interesting the burrowing habits of crayfish which create little mud chimneys in wet fields and stream sides.  Crayfish also burrow at the bottom of streams, but these don’t result in visible chimneys.

Illustration of crayfish burrows from The Crayfishes of Georgia.  Note the chimney-like hills.

It’s likely the ancestors of crayfish lived in intertidal zones near the sea shore.  At low tide they survived dessication by digging burrows in the sand and mud, similar to many modern day organisms.  Later, this habit helped them survive drought when they colonized upland freshwater habitats.  Crayfish are yet another example of a Pleistocene survivor because they were able to survive the many dry climate phases of the Ice Ages.  Today, upland crayfish dig burrows down to the water table.  Other species dig burrows directly in stream beds.  The ones that dig on land usually tunnel around tree roots.  According to Dr. Hobbs, these can be difficult to excavate when collecting specimens.   Some species defend their burrows aggressively; others retreat deeper into side chambers.  During droughts and cold weather, crayfish plug the tops of their chimneys to stay warm and moist.  If the water table falls below the level of their burrow, they become dormant.

Much crayfish habitat has been destroyed by the creation of reservoirs which are like deserts for this animal.  They don’t like deep water.  However, man has created a lot of crayfish habitat.  Crayfish do like to live in roadside ditches.

Here’s a list of major rivers and drainage systems in Georgia and the number of known crayfish species each holds.

Altamaha–22 species

Chattahoochee–14 species

Chatooga–9 species

Coosa–15 species

Flint–14 species

Ogeechee–16 species

St. Mary’s–7 species

Satilla–10 species

Savannah–20 species

Suwanee–8 species

Tennessee–12 species


When my family first moved to Athens, Georgia in 1976 (I was 13), I delighted in rambling around the woods that surrounded the partially developed residential neighborhood, not far from Cedar Shoals High School.  It was mostly second growth pine and oak interspersed with old fields and plum thickets.  There was even a pond site with a small waterfall that led to a chain of beaver ponds.  (Developers have since destroyed this last described landscape and built a shopping center over it.)  One day, a newfound friend and I took a dip net to one of the creeks we frequently followed.  Along the creeks, we always saw the handlike prints of raccoons, and occasionally the empty shell of a crayfish that had provided a meal for the former.  Simply by swinging the net across the bottom of a stony section of the creek, we collected two dozen crayfish in a short period of time.  We put the crustaceans in a bucket and brought them h0me, setting the container in a backyard lawn.  The next morning, the crayfish had vanished–a mystery for us then because we didn’t know crayfish are nocturnal and can travel over land at night.

Crayfish taste delicious–much like shrimp but without the iodine flavor.  Eat them fresh, not previously frozen.  Fresh, the tail meat is delectable, and the juice from the heads (actually the brain) is rich.  Previously frozen, they smell bad upon preparation.  The tail meat is still palatable, though nothing special, but the juice from the heads tastes like a mixture of mud and rotten fish.


Hobbs, Holcombe

The Crayfishes of Georgia

Smithsonian Publications 1981