The Enchanted Forest

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.

By Frank Graham Jr.
Published: January-February 2011

Mollenhauer, formerly a biologist on Beidler's staff, used the boardwalk during 2009 and 2010 as an unusual opportunity to spy on this migrant warbler during its breeding season. Earlier counts estimated that as many as 2,000 pairs of prothonotaries nested within the sanctuary. Mollenhauer and his assistant, Denise Ecker, made their initial observations from the wooden walkway. To map the nesting sites, they dutifully climbed over the railings into the muck and shallow water and made their way about, carefully stepping on fallen logs or even on the cypress knees--those stubby, cone-shaped growths from the roots that sprout out of the water all around each tree.

Through banding birds and monitoring their movements in his Project Protho, Mollenhauer confirmed in the study's first year that most nested in cavities in standing trees or hollow cypress knees. About half of the nests fledged at least one chick. Cypress knees, surrounded by water, have the obvious advantage of deterring potential predators, though someone saw a rat snake swim to one such nest and destroy it.

In the project's second year local schoolchildren and enthusiastic adults made more than 200 nest boxes from half-gallon milk cartons and installed them in the swamp. Mollenhauer hoped the boxes would attract more of the warblers to outlying plots, formerly cut over by loggers and now recovering since Brunswig acquired them for the sanctuary. Five percent of those boxes fledged young. Of equal importance was Mollenhauer's discovery that, after nesting, many of the adult birds, along with their young, abandon boardwalk areas to feed and rest for migration in the upland forest hundreds of yards from the wetlands. The finding helps prove the importance of upland areas acquired as buffers for the swamp.


Four Holes Swamp is technically a "blackwater swamp," its water stained the color of weak tea by tannin drawn from the forest's fallen leaves. Francis Beidler, a lumberman with good conservation instincts, bought part of the swamp as a business investment in the 1890s. Later generations of lumbermen cut much of the forest over the years, though Beidler's family helped preserve 1,700 acres of old-growth bald cypress and tupelo gum. (Scientists now estimate one of those cypresses to be 1,500 years old, and dozens more, 125 feet tall, are in the thousand-year-old range.) By the late 1960s conservationists realized that further cutting would shrink the swamp to insignificance. The National Audubon Society, working with The Nature Conservancy, raised $1.5 million to buy the property at the heart of the swamp, and Audubon took over managing 3,415 acres.

Brought in to run the new sanctuary, Brunswig soon found he had a lot more than land management on his plate. With the help of Audubon's New York office and the Beidler family, he raised the money to build a nature center and boardwalk. But he credits Kenneth Strom, his game warden at Beidler in 1976 (he later  went on to become the manager of Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska and is now acting director of Audubon Colorado), for urging him to begin buying land. "Charleston will be here someday," Strom had said. "This boundary line of ours is untenable."

That was the beginning of what Brunswig calls his program of "aggressive acquisition." The suburbs were moving his way, and the accompanying land drainage, stream diversion, and road building would inevitably strangle the swamp. The sanctuary had to grow or become irrelevant. So Brunswig scrambled during the early years to pick up whatever local plots came on the market. "We had become part of the community here," he says, "and we tried to anticipate what might come up for sale, then find a way to buy it."

Using the boardwalk as the sanctuary's centerpiece, he attracted both adults and schoolchildren, many of whom entered a swamp for the first time in their lives. "We've seen kids walk in here, scared to death of snakes or almost anything else they might see from the boardwalk," says Mike Dawson, Brunswig's longtime sidekick at Beidler and the center's director. "But when they come back in future years, they swagger in like they were born in the swamp and ask us where all the snakes are."

Local families, as well as visitors from all over the state, soon grew familiar with the pine walk and the nature center's programs. They volunteer for projects or give money for sanctuary expansion. The Beidler family, based in Chicago, continues to contribute annually for the sanctuary's operating expenses. Brunswig will add a prime piece of habitat when he can, but he knows he can't buy up all of the Low Country. Being personally acquainted with almost every landowner for miles around, he has turned with increasing success to conservation easements.

Lewis Hay, one of South Carolina's longtime conservationists, is director of land protection for the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, a Charleston-based group of property owners protecting farms and timberlands in that area. "We began to realize that upstream determines the water quality of everything down here around the Ace Basin," Hay says. "We have to protect the river corridors, among them the Edisto, and Four Holes Swamp is a key to that. We've worked with Norm now for six or eight years. He knows everybody, hears everything, and when property comes up for sale or easements, he calls me."

South Carolina, a poor state overall with a decidedly conservative bent, would seem an unlikely arena for land preservation opportunities. But, as Brunswig points out, people "do easements" because they want to.

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Frank Graham Jr.

Frank Graham Jr. is a field editor for Audubon.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


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