Photos: Crowd welcomes hatchlings to Port Royal Cypress Wetlands

jkidd@beaufortgazette.comMay 30, 2013 

I intended to post this blog and photo gallery sooner. I’ll not bore you with excuses for why that didn't happen. Let’s just get down to business: 75 to 100 people were on hand on a beautiful morning May 11 to welcome the arrival of hatchling wading birds at the town of Port Royal’s Cypress Wetlands and learn more about the rookery habitat.

“This is pretty unique," said Bridget Callahan Lussier of Applied Technology and Management, the Charleston-based engineering firm that has helped the town incorporate the wetlands into its stormwater-management system and make the wetlands an attraction for nature-lovers.

“A lot of people look at the wetlands and think this is just a muddy pit full of mosquitoes,” Lussier continued, but it in fact supports a diversity of species in an urban setting.

The free event was sponsored by the town, along with the Lowcountry Institute, Lowcountry Master Naturalist program, the Fripp Island Audubon Club, the Hilton Head Island Audubon Society, the Sun City Bird Club and the Wardle Family YMCA. It included music, birthday cake and guided tours of the Cypress Wetlands trail.

In addition to anhingas and great egrets now nesting in great numbers with their newly hatched chicks, Lussier counted 13 other bird species that day, including a purple gallinule and juvenile little blue herons. That compared to eight species during a trip in March, 1998, well before the town cleared away brush from the wetlands’ edge, added an amphitheater along its border with Paris Avenue and encircled it with a trail and boardwalk.

Many of the improvements were unveiled last year, and even with the increased exposure and number of human visitors, the wading birds returned en masse to the rookery this season.

Lussier said birds can be spooked away from active rookeries — ironically, some of their biggest admirers, wildlife photographers and scientists, often are prime offenders — but because the visitors to the Port Royal wetlands approach by foot instead of boat, their impact so far seems to be minimal.

The habitat is also well suited for breeding birds because the town’s stormwater plan has improved the wetlands’ hydrology. The birds tend to nest on islands surrounded by water, which forms a moat of sorts and makes it difficult for raccoons, possums and other predators to steal eggs. A couple of resident alligators serve the same purpose, Lussier said.

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