Hinshaw column: Audubon Swamp Garden

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 31, 2011

By Wayne Hinshaw
For the Salisbury Post
CHARLESTON, S.C. — A truly unique place to experience.
Imagine walking into a swamp with all the creepy-crawly creatures and alligators in the black water below you. The air and trees above the water are full of egrets and herons tending to their nests in the tops of trees. God’s swamp creatures going about their natural business, not paying much attention to human beings walking through their homes is a treat for nature lovers.
This is the Audubon Swamp Garden.
In the 60 acres of the backwater cypress and tupelo trees swamp, the creatures and plants flourish together. The boardwalks, dikes and foot bridges make it possible to access an area that is usually off limits to everyone except the most hardy outdoorsman. The boardwalks snaked all around through the swamp between the trees. Maybe “snaked around” is the wrong term to use when you are in a swamp, but I didn’t see any snakes. I thought there had to be snakes somewhere.
Armed with good shoes for walking, a camera with a long telephoto lens or binoculars, I was ready to adventure into the “wild.” Into the wild without the usual difficult obstacles like a boat or canoe and a guide. This swamp is part of the grounds at the Magnolia Plantation but quite separate from the formal gardens and the house tour.
About the time of the Civil War, 150 years ago, the owner, the Rev. John Drayton, invited the great bird artist John J. Audubon to the swamp to gather waterfowl specimens for his paintings. Thus, the swamp has been named after Audubon. The movie “The Swamp Thing” was filmed here.
The great egrets, with their yellow beaks and Snowy egrets with their black beaks, populate the swamp in large numbers. Their nests in the trees are surrounded by the black swamp water. Their nests look crude and rough, but the nest must hold the heavy birds. The big birds look so awkward ,with long white necks and longer legs when they walk on the ground, but yet they are so graceful when they are in flight with neck bent in a curve and their legs extended straight back and the wide wingspan all very much coordinated. Seeing these big birds fly between the tree limbs is quite amazing.
The great blue herons nest in the taller pine trees and are much less active than the egrets on this visit. The smaller green herons work the water for food.
The swamp water is mostly black murky water covered with a green growth around the tupelo trees. A marsh rabbit searching for food stands in water several inches deep. A yellow-bellied turtle rests on a log, enjoying the late evening sun.
The lazy-looking alligators, with that deceiving built-in smile on their faces, like the warm sun while they rest on bench-like structures man had placed in the water for them. I suppose they wanted the gators to stay out in the water rather than on the dikes and paths where humans walk.
The late afternoon sun turns the water into a golden reflection mirror. It was remindful of the movie “On Golden Pond,” with the loons on the golden pond. On this day, it is the egrets on golden swamp.
There were plants that I could not identify like one with a long stem with a lantern-like top making a ball shape, a really strange plant. Beach grass, marsh grass and small bushes provided most of the group cover. The “jack-in-the-pulpit” is a plant I do recognize. As the sun dips low in the sky, a beautiful fern backlit by the evening sun glows like it is on fire.
A walk in the swamp at sunset is a refreshing way to awaken one’s spirited outlook on life.