As wildlife goes, the Prothonotary Warbler is the undisputed headliner of the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. A standout with its striking yellow-orange plumage and ink black eyes, this songbird is a crowd favorite, especially in the spring when it can be seen dutifully nesting in the cavities of cypress tree knees.
We spotted one sitting on a tree branch, happily singing away on a fine spring day in May. Beidler Forest boasts some of the highest densities of breeding Prothonotary Warblers in South Carolina.
But this avian showstopper isn’t the only star in the swamp forest. On a recent visit to the 16,000-acre Audubon Center, we spotted three different types of snakes, a Southeastern five-lined skink, yellow-bellied sliders, Great Blue Herons, a Yellow-crowned Night Heron, several white ibis, an alligator and one menacing-looking fishing spider.
Originally established to preserve 1,800 acres of old-growth swamp forest, the Audubon Center at Beidler Forest is also home to some mighty impressive trees—many of them as much as 1,000 years old! It claims title to the world’s largest remaining stand of virgin Bald Cypress.
The forest is part of the Four Holes Swamp, a 45,000-acre matrix of black water sloughs and lakes, shallow bottomland hardwoods and deep bald cypress and tupelo gum flats. A 1.75-mile boardwalk offers visitors the chance to explore this unique and wild sanctuary.
We spent a couple of hours walking through the swamp, observing some of the mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians that live amongst the towering cypress and tupelo gum trees. Topping my list of wildlife sightings was the Water Moccasin we spied sleeping on the ground near a rain shelter, camouflaged by the swamp’s leaves and sticks. Although I felt perfectly safe standing several feet above him, it is the closest I have ever come to a viper outdoors.
Lake Gibson, one of the “holes” accessible from the boardwalk, provided more opportunities to check out other residents of the swamp, including an alligator and several large yellow-bellied sliders.
As we continued on the boardwalk loop we came across the famed hollow cypress. Visitors are invited to scooch through a large opening in the base of the tree for an inside look at this magnificent wetland conifer. Although the tree is alive and well, it is completely hollow as billed. A few branches are visible at the top, but mostly what you see is sky.
If you really want to venture deep into the Four Holes Swamp, book a canoe trip led by an Audubon Center nature guide. They also offer guided Night Walks on select Saturdays throughout the year.
Beidler Forest is located about an hour from Columbia and Charleston off I-26. Click here for more information or call the Audubon Center at (843) 487-9988.