Only at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest can one experience the largest stand of virgin bald cypress trees in the world. Each bald cypress tree (Taxodium distichum) averages around a thousand years old, existing long before the arrival of European settlers in South Carolina. Located just up the road from Charleston in Harleyville, Beidler Forest in Four Holes Swamp (also known as Four Hole Swamp) is a gateway to ancient history.
People sometimes arrive at Beidler with expectations of insatiable alligators, trees canopied with snakes, and unrelenting mosquitoes. Thanks to Revolutionary War hero General Francis Marion – better known in South Carolina as the Swamp Fox – the myth of a Lowcountry swamp as a dangerous labyrinth was propagated in order to stave off Redcoats. However, General Marion knew the area’s swamps well enough to use them for his own undetected travel and understood that the only real fear was getting lost. Yet cultural lore persists, and people still misunderstand the ecology of a healthy swamp.
A two-mile boardwalk removes any possibility of getting lost at Beidler Forest. And while visitors may see snakes on a sunny day, they won’t be on the walkway, as snakes mostly sun on old tree stumps or travel under water to avoid detection by predators or prey.
As for alligators, Beidler Forest usually has only one, in the lake at the end of the boardwalk’s loop. The lake is the only habitat with enough open sun and deep water to support such a large reptile. And mosquitoes? The farther one ventures into the swamp, the more they disappear, as Beidler’s blackwater is not stagnant. It continuously flows to the Edisto River, making it an undesirable breeding place for them.
A summer resident popular with both visitors and researchers is the Prothonotary warbler, seen below. After wintering in South America, these cheerful-looking songbirds return to their previous territories within the swamp to breed. The bright yellow birds are the only warbler in the eastern United States to nest in cavities, and often they make use of Beidler Forest’s innumerable cypress knees. The old-growth cypress swamp provides ideal habitat for Prothonotaries, creating a high-density population for the brilliantly-plumed birds.
An ongoing research project called Project Protho tracks banded warblers so researchers can learn more about their breeding and nesting habits. The species has been in decline since 1967, primarily due to the loss of the mangrove habitat they rely on for the winter months. Those involved with Project Protho hope to learn from the birds themselves how to better protect the ecosystems necessary for their survival.
A permanent resident of Beidler Forest is the barred owl, seen above. The owl is fairly common in South Carolina and is known for its wide range of vocalizations, most notably the distinct mating call. The mating season begins in early spring and usually runs through August. Barred Owls typically inhabit dense, lowland forests and swampy areas such as Francis Beilder Forest and the ACE Basin. Although not currently threatened or endangered, the Barred Owl is very sensitive to changes in its natural habitat and serves as an indicator species for the state of the ecosystem.
Wildlife at Francis Beidler Forest