An Enchanted Forest in South Carolina

Prothonotary warbler
(Image: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Forty miles northwest of Charleston, South Carolina sits the 16,600-acre Audubon Center and Sanctuary at Francis Beidler Forest.

When Audubon South Carolina executive director Norman Brunswig took over as sanctuary manager in the early 70s, the land was about one-fifth the size. To keep the sanctuary relevant and to block development, he decided he had to expand the original 3,415 acres.

Today the sanctuary—home to dozens of thousand-year-old cypress trees—sees more than 300,000 visitors annually. Many come for a glance at a prothonotary warbler, a small goldenrod-colored songbird. Others come for the chance to walk through a real-life swamp. In the January-February 2011 Audubon, Frank Graham Jr. investigates:

The boardwalk is a yellow brick road of sorts, a passage into the dim green light under pines, tupelos, and ancient, ramrod-straight bald cypresses rooted in a sink of mud and water. Butterflies and little golden birds gleam for a moment in a sun shaft, then melt into the moist shadows.

This boardwalk, 1.7 miles long, is the spinal cord of the 16,600-acre Audubon Center and Sanctuary at Francis Beidler Forest in South Carolina’s Low Country, 40 miles northwest of Charleston. For 32 years its stout pine planks have led perhaps 330,000 visitors into a primeval world—the real thing. The sounds of a swamp are here: a barred owl’s sharply accented bark, the curious chittering squeak of the brown-headed nuthatch, a resonant chung, chung, chung of a frog unseen and, at the moment, unidentified. The smell? As fresh as a daisy, because the sanctuary is in the heart of Four Holes Swamp, where the dense, undisturbed vegetation filters the air and water flows through from remote, mostly untainted sources. And that has made all the difference.

Beidler Forest’s importance reverberates beyond its borders. Primarily, of course, it’s a sanctuary, home to a wide variety of plants and animals. The trees, water, and tangled understory of vines and shrubs are a haven for many neotropical warblers and other migrants in transit during spring and fall. Four Holes Swamp was a 60-mile-long ribbon of flooded forest when Europeans settled South Carolina. By the late 20th century excessive logging, drainage, farm chemicals, and urban sprawl threatened its integrity. Yet preserved within the sanctuary today are 1,700 acres of the world’s finest remaining strand of old-growth bald cypress and tupelo gum trees.

The Edisto River, which Four Holes Swamp empties into, is a source of Charleston’s drinking water and a contributor to the vast, 350,000-acre estuary called the Ace Basin on the coast. Today some 12,000 people a year walk down the Beidler boardwalk—birders from all over the world and children from area schools—to watch the wildlife, take pictures, and learn how an intact ecosystem works. Read on.

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