The Enchanted Forest
An ancient cypress swamp thrives in the heart of South Carolina’s Low Country, spared from encroaching urban sprawl by a sweet-talking forest guardian and visitors’ goodwill.
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.
Beidler Forest has a champion, a prime mover. Norman Brunswig became sanctuary manager in 1973, just before Audubon formally dedicated the site, and he remains as executive director of Audubon South Carolina. Few evangelists summon quite the enthusiasm or persuasive energy on the job that Brunswig brings to his advocacy for the sanctuary’s value and biodiversity. Now 64 years old, he is of medium height, with an agile body that seems built for scrambling over fallen trees in the swamp. His youthful, good ol’ boy smile and dialect serve him well in masking from wary locals his darkest secret—an Illinois background. Yet he is now, unmistakably, of the Carolina Low Country. “You can never have enough land,” is Brunswig’s mantra. A real estate entrepreneur turned inside out, he grabs acreage to hoard it, creating a buffer for this watery sanctum against the suburban juggernaut from the south. When Brunswig took over the sanctuary 37 years ago, it was 3,415 acres. Since then, through acquisitions, he has increased its size almost five-fold, to 16,600 acres of swamp and upland. And he has orchestrated buffer on buffer—an additional 6,000 acres of conservation easements designated by his neighbors on their family properties.
This added land doesn’t just keep sprawl out; it invites species in by providing habitat. Visitors to Beidler, which has been identified as an Important Bird Area, may see swallow-tailed kites sweeping gracefully over a surrounding working farm, preserved from development by an easement. When water levels are high, ambitious guests can explore the swamp beyond the boardwalk from canoes and spot a host of wildlife, including alligators, water snakes, and various herons.
For birders, researchers, or visiting kids, however, the boardwalk remains the swamp’s point of access. Built of pressure-treated pine in 1978, it remains safe, though it is becoming rickety in spots and the entire structure must soon be replaced. Many of the guests come to see the dozens of prothonotary warblers that nest along the boardwalk’s length. Despite their size (5.5 inches long), these tame, heavy-bodied mites, colored orange-yellow on head, breast, and belly, are almost guaranteed to be among everybody’s favorite birds.
The prothonotary is the only eastern warbler that nests in tree cavities. (Prothonotary, which refers to certain Roman Catholic scribes noted for their yellow hoods, is a bit of a stretch.) Migrating north in spring from Central America and northern South America, the species breeds in swamps or along forested banks and streams from the Great Lakes through much of the Southeast. It is by no means rare or endangered, though the federal Breeding Bird Survey notes the species has declined by 40 percent over its range since 1966, chiefly because of the loss or degradation of its habitat. Thus the prothonotary remains outside many areas visited by casual birders and isn’t often spotted by anyone in New England or some other northern regions. There’s a hoary joke among regulars in New York City’s Central Park: If a mugger threatens you, don’t call for help. Just yell “Prothonotary!” Dozens of birders will come running and scare the cutpurse away.
“In the spring and summer, the [Beidler] swamp is probably the best location in South Carolina to see and photograph the prothonotary warbler,” Jeff Mollenhauer remarks in his 2009 book, Birding South Carolina. “These birds are truly fearless at Beidler, and it is an amazing experience to be within an arm’s reach of a singing male.”