The Enchanted Forest
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.”
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.
“There’s a multi-generational commitment to land here,” he points out. “Even conservative politicians are progressive when it comes to easements—they don’t want government or nonprofits to own everything. With an easement, they agree there are certain defined limitations on its use—no radio towers, no convenience stores, for instance—but they still own the land and get certain tax breaks.”
Neighboring property owners trust Brunswig. Typical is Holcombe Bell, whose farmland abuts the sanctuary. He has placed easements on three tracts totaling 430 acres that include cropland, timberland, and wetlands. He has also persuaded his brother and a first cousin to come aboard, and the latter is trying to convince another cousin to follow. Edsel Taylor, a close neighbor who was born in Four Holes Swamp and is now warden at a local correctional institution, also signed an easement.
“Norm and I share a lifelong love for the outdoors and the ol’ swamp,” Taylor says. “He has inspired me, talking about the land on our walks in the woods, and I came to realize it was possible to protect this whole watershed. I even helped get the state to grant an easement on some wetlands that are part of the institution’s holdings.”
The ride hasn’t always been smooth. Hurricane Hugo, which devastated parts of South Carolina in 1989, landed a particularly violent blow on Four Holes Swamp. Turbulent winds snapped pines in half and uprooted larger trees, including oaks. The storm smashed long sections of Beidler’s boardwalk.
Brunswig and his staff restored the boardwalk, while charting the swamp’s recovery. “For years I used the word Hugo every day,” remembers Dawson. “It was such a life-changing factor. But Hugo made us realize the forest was changed more by these big storms than by a thousand years of succession.”
Brunswig and his sanctuary have come far. “In the long run, if we’re not protected from environmental degradation, the whole corridor to our south—including the Ace Basin itself—won’t be sustainable,” he says. “So now we’re perceived as being central to the whole conservation effort down around the coast.”
The plants and animals at Beidler Forest evolved in a disaster-prone ecosystem, but the boardwalk can’t regenerate itself. Part of it has gone nearly 33 years on lumber that was guaranteed for 20. Now Brunswig and Dawson have set off on a capital fund-raising campaign to rebuild this crossing into a magical land: an intact swamp, where barred owls call, Swainson’s warblers sing, yellow-crowned night-herons forage for crayfish—and little golden birds build their nests in cypress knees.
The Francis Beidler Forest is a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance, the first Audubon sanctuary to earn the designation. To learn more or to contribute to Beidler’s boardwalk reconstruction effort, visit Audubon South Carolina. For a video about Beidler, click here.