As we ventured down the boardwalk, Mark Musselman, education director at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, held up his hand, motioning me to stop. We stood there in the middle of the walkway listening to the sounds of the forest.The sounds were soothing, like a relaxation tape, but I had no idea what I was hearing. Mark, on the other hand, had already picked out the sounds of eight different birds.
Every couple of yards we stopped as he pointed out different nuances of the swamp from animals and plants to the color of the water. Where I saw big trees and pretty reflections in the water, Mark saw a natural habitat full of creatures living in their own unaltered environment.
At first I wanted to do a simple blog on what I saw after a couple of hours on the boardwalk and along a canoe trail but after multiple visits with different members of the Audobon Center staff, I realized I had only begun to 'see' the forest. I was so mesmerized by the towering Bald cypress, I missed many details throughout the forest until someone pointed them out.
It is true what they say, I couldn't see the forest for the trees.
The swamp forest is located in the National Audubon Society's Francis Beidler Forest near Harleyville. The 16,000 acre preserve is home to one of the largest remaining stands of virgin Bald cypress in the world. The swamp has been kept in its natural state with the exception of a boardwalk that allows visitors to access the swamp and observe its natural inhabitants like snakes from a safe distance.
In an effort to keep the swamp in a natural state, Musselman said, they do not tamper with or disturb any part of the forest except to clear limbs from the boardwalk. When Hurricane Hugo swept through the forest in 1989, a large number of trees fell. Those trees were allowed to stay and soon became home to many animals and plants. He added the trees would decompose in time and add nutrients back into the soil.
Everything that happens in the forest directly relates to how the forest evolves and changes. The staff study the changes and learn how the animals and plants adapt to new surroundings. For example, a tree hollowed cypress stump left after the tree fell became the home to a small deer.
As we walked along the boardwalk, Musselman carried a sheet of paper and made notes. Armed with his binoculars, he would hear a Prothonotary Warbler and stop to watch it, looking for bands on the leg. Beidler Forest received a TogetherGreen Innovation Grant to study the breeding habits of the Prothonotary Warbler in order to protect the species.
The study, called Project PROTHO, involves the collection of data by not only staff but visitors to Audubon South Carolina who record bird sightings along the boardwalk. The data collected helps the staff track each bird's movements throughout the forest.
One morning, I tagged along as Jeff Mollenhauer, director of bird conservation, and a group of bird enthusiasts as they set up a mist net along the boardwalk to catch the Prothonotary Warblers so they could be banded. Mollenhauer would setup the mist net in key spots and use a portable speaker system to project the call of the bird. In seconds, the birds would fly into the net and the group would help Mollenhauer measure and weigh each bird before banding and setting it free.
Besides the birds, Musselman opened my eyes to other interesting parts of the swamp. For example, the water flowing through the swamp is not black like it looks. Obviously, the large trees cast a shadow over the water which causes it to look black. Also, the swamp acts as a filtering system for the water as it flows through and into the Edisto River.
I could go on but the point I will make is you really can't appreciate what you see until you know what you are looking at.
The Beidler forest is home to Bald cypress trees, many of which are over 1,000 years old. The trees have a shallow root system and along the roots, knees grow vertically out of the ground. Musselman explained the knees grow tall enough to protrude from the water and either act as part of an anchor system or a storage cavity for the tree.
The trees tower above the swamp and create a canopy which keeps the swamp cool. At one point along the boardwalk we encountered a hollowed out cypress tree big enough to allow someone to stand inside. Animals use trees like this throughout the swamp as shelter.
Taking time to appreciate nature opened my eyes to many interesting sights. At one point we passed a Cottonmouth snake and a turtle sunning on a log before finding a bird bathing in the swamp.
One of my favorite things was taking a canoe ride through the swamp. As Musselman said, the ride offers a look at the swamp from a different perspective.
One thing I looked forward to from the moment I entered Beidler Forest was seeing an alligator. Mussleman explained that they did not like the interior of the swamp because of the lack of sunlight. Along the river leading to the forest, they lined the banks and sat on logs soaking up the rays as we passed by.
I learned a lot from my time at Beidler Forest about the landscape of a swamp. I would not have learned as much had I walked out on that boardwalk by myself. Musselman and the rest of the staff opened my eyes to nature by allowing me to see what they see on a daily basis.
As Musselman said it is easy to go to work everyday when your office is a swamp. Like the saying goes -- Love what you do, do what you love.
Paul Zoeller is a freelance photographer new to the area. Do you have an idea for a new blog or a question about a current blog? If you do contact Zoeller at firstname.lastname@example.org.