Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Down To The Swamp

The wedding was beautiful. Our friends, Mark and Dana got married last weekend in Charleston, S.C. and it couldn't have been more perfect. The outdoor ceremony took place in an open glade amid the majestic live oaks, draped in Spanish moss as the sun set gently over the low country. As the bride and groom said their vows, Mississippi kites and anhingas soared overhead. It was enough to take your breath away.

Sue and I were so enamored by the setting (Magnolia Plantation), we decided we would return the next day to celebrate the start of Sue's birthday with our good friends, Jenny and Warren, by walking the grounds at a leisurely stroll and soaking in all of South Carolina's natural goodness.

After we woke and polished off a spectacular breakfast at the Sweetwater Cafe on James Island (a joint that has earned The Bumbling Bushman's highest rating), the four of us drove back over to the plantation and paid the $8-a-head fee to enter the Audubon Swamp Garden trail and boardwalk. Lest ye be confused the swamp garden is a wildlife sanctuary with Audubon oversight, it is not. It is a revenue-generating attraction maintained by Magnolia Plantation, but the entrance fee seems to keep much of the touristy riff-raff out and buys you a chance to see some pretty amazing wildlife and scenery.

Great egrets on the nest.
The 1.25-mile trail and boardwalk first led us through the wading bird colony, where great blue herons, little blue herons, anhingas, cattle, snowy and great egrets have built a communal rookery for raising their young.

The sights and sounds of the rookery are interesting and entertaining enough for the most casual naturalist, but the girl I married happens to have been, at one time, the lead waterbird biologist for the state of North Carolina, and she was in heaven. In her hundreds, if not thousands, of hours censusing and studying heron rookeries, Sue admitted she had never experienced anything quite like what we saw at the swamp garden. With a steady flow of visitors, the birds there are impossibly acclimated to human intrusions during the most vulnerable stage of their life cycle. Everywhere we looked, anhinga chicks begged their parents for food, little blue herons incubated their eggs and cattle egrets gathered nest materials.
Cattle egret
Of course, it being a swamp in the South and all, there were reptiles to be seen as well. It took us a little while, but eventually we spotted our first alligator, a young specimen of perhaps 36 inches. Then Warren was lucky enough to see a much, much larger gator, maybe 10 feet, have a half-hearted go at a female wood duck. The gator missed out, but it was plenty obvious none of the swamp's big lizards was going to go hungry anytime soon. The place was a veritable smorgasbord of gator food; with half-a-dozen broods of wood duck ducklings paddling around, an ever-present possibility of heron or egret chicks falling out of their nests and a turtle population that approaches biblical proportions.
Gator snack. Jenny calls them "turtle popcorn."

As we made our way around the swamp garden, the neotropical songbird population was in full song as the breeding season approaches full swing in the South. Prothonotary warblers, northern parulas, summer tanagers, white-eyed vireos, blue-gray gnatcatchers and great-crested flycatchers belted out a background symphony, with amphibian and insect soloists that merely hinted at the unseen riot of life around us.

We would have stayed all day, but duties back home in the mountains for Sue and I, and the North Carolina coast for Jenny and Warren, beckoned and it was time to hit the road again. On the drive home, Sue and I couldn't help but plot our next trip to the low country. Maybe this fall we can squeeze in a weekend on one of the undeveloped barrier islands South Carolina is so lucky to have - I sure hope so.
Whatcha lookin at guys?


  1. Glad you guys were able to check out the plantation the following mornning. When we visited the location last year I remember specifically telling Dana, "Man, Brian, Dad, Jamie and the rest of the gang is going to love this place".

  2. Yessir, we liked the heck out of it. I don't mind telling you that Mississippi kites flying overhead during the ceremony are a good omen. Many. many years of happiness my friend.

  3. Joan and I were there last April. We got lost and bungled our way to the swamp through that back gate. I would have loved to have paid someone the money, but you know how it is with My People.

    We saw a Eurasian Teal. I don't know if it has been split yet. The water was high and the ducks were great. We also found a big Yellow Ratsnake.