To the casual observer, the blue-winged teal foraging purposefully among the cordgrass of an old plantation pond look like nothing more than a flock of ducks intent on finding dinner.
But in ecological circles, these migratory birds and their avian kin are super heroes, credited with bringing together three often competing entities - private landowners, conservation organizations and government agencies - to save a Southern culture on the brink of extinction.
"It's all about the ducks," said Charles Lane, chairman of the ACE Basin Task Force, the grassroots coalition that set out in 1988 to protect 350,000 acres of waterfowl habitat known as the ACE Basin.
Named after the free-flowing Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers, the unspoiled estuary - one of the largest wetland ecosystems on the Atlantic coast - is a hidden ecological gem in South Carolina's Lowcountry. Most travelers making the drive along US 17 or Interstate 95 between Hilton Head Island and Charleston pass through the ACE unaware of the stunning landscape that lies just beyond the blacktop.
They miss the miles of undisturbed beaches, marred only by the tiny tracks of shorebirds and a scattering of shells left by an outgoing tide. They never see the peregrine falcons gliding effortlessly over a vast expanse of marsh grass or experience the serenity of floating along a blackwater river as it twists through a bottomland forest under a canopy of ancient cypress.
Largely spared from commercial and residential development, this estuarine ecosystem has such enormous natural value that The Nature Conservancy designated it a flagship conservation site and one of the "Last Great Places on Earth."
More than just biologically rich land, the ACE Basin is a historic landmark. The wetlands once served as fertile grounds for the Lowcountry's lucrative rice industry. But with the abolition of slavery in the late 1800s, the plantation rice dynasty came to an end, leaving the historic farmland between Beaufort and Charleston up for grabs.
Lured by the area's moderate climate and abundant wildlife, influential industrialists like J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford began buying up the plantations and converting them into private hunting retreats, restoring and managing the former rice fields to attract waterfowl.
"Had it not been for the Northern sportsmen who bought large tracts for wildlife management," Lane said, "this section of South Carolina would look like the coastal areas to the north and south of us."
Through conservation easements and land donations, the ACE Basin Task Force has protected to date some 215,000 acres of the diverse habitat, including pine and hardwood uplands, forested wetlands, tidal marshes and creeks, barrier islands and beaches. While most of the land remains privately owned, 79,000 acres are open to the public.
Visitors have the opportunity to hike and bike a vast network of trails, winding through remnants of the rice plantations now managed as waterfowl impoundments. They can paddle the three rivers and their tributaries and take in the natural beauty of a land as rich in history as it is in wildlife.
Of the original 160,000 acres of tidally influenced rice fields in the state, about half of the impounded wetlands still exist today - 26,000 of them in the ACE. Built by hand by African slaves, the system of canals and dikes used in the cultivation of rice continues to bring fresh water from the rivers into impoundments to create and manage wildlife habitats and grow foods favored by a wide range of wintering waterfowl, shorebirds and neotropical songbirds.
"An incredible amount of labor was required to dig the canals and build the dikes," said Dr. Ernie Wiggers, director of Nemours Wildlife Foundation, located on the 10,000-acre estate of the late Eugene DuPont III. "It was the equivalent of building the pyramids."
By the beginning of the 1800s, slaves had cleared tens of thousands of acres and dug 780 miles of canals in the South Carolina coastal plain.
Today, more than a dozen public lands offer visitors access to the ACE Basin, where they can view an array of wildlife from alligators and otters to endangered or threatened species like wood storks and bald eagles.
Because the Ace Basin lies along the Atlantic Flyway, it attracts a fantastic variety of birds year-round. More than 265 species of resident and migrant birds have been sighted in the estuaries, including the rare whooping crane.
"It's one of the best birding areas on the east coast," said Dr. Al Segars, a South Carolina Department of Natural Resources veterinarian and coordinator of the stewardship program for the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). "It's a very dynamic system that is changing all the time. Every season offers something different to see."
To help educate the public on the importance of preserving the land, the NERR stewardship program offers a coastal exploration series featuring interactive outdoor events, many of them free, that take visitors into the ACE Basin to view wildlife and learn about the area's ecology, history and culture. Click here for more information on the NERR outings.
Self-guided driving tours also are available at several of the publicly owned properties, including Botany Bay Heritage Preserve and Donnelly Wildlife Management Area. Maps of the routes are available on-site and online, and they offer suggestions about where you can stop to view birds and historic artifacts and take in scenic vistas.
For a great introduction to the ACE Basin, visit the Interpretive Center at Edisto Beach State Park. Along with interactive displays, the center offers regularly scheduled programs on the pristine estuarine system and its fragile resources.
Once you have the lay of the land, you can set out exploring. You can find a list of the ACE Basin's public lands and some of the recreational activities that offer visitors the chance to enjoy the natural beauty and cultural heritage of this unique Lowcountry landscape here.