RAVENEL — The boardwalk wending through the cypress swamp is evocative of Four Hole Swamp in Calhoun County. It emerges into forest that is similar to wooded areas of Pinckney National Wildlife Refuge. Keep walking, and you arrive at rice-field habitat not unlike the freshwater portions of the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.
The Caw Caw Interpretive Center in Charleston County encompasses nine distinct — and distinctive — landscapes in a compact, walkable area. It is a short jaunt from Beaufort County to the park in Ravenel, on this side of the city of Charleston. Caw Caw, which is run by Charleston County’s parks department, features six miles of trails and trailside exhibits, more than 1,400 feet of elevated boardwalks, restored rice fields and historical significance — it was site of the Stono Rebellion in 1739.
Knowing how to show a girl a good time, I took my wife there recently to try out the spotting scope I gave her for her birthday. We arrived full of anticipation (and, at 9:30 a.m., a bit later than we were shooting for) after reading about the array of flora and fauna the park offers. Some of the thousands of naturalized tea plants from a 20th century tea farm remain, and areas managed for ducks and other wildlife. The park website also boasts of otters, deer, swallow-tailed kites and bald eagles. More than 250 species of birds have been spotted there.
The weather was as gorgeous as the property. We took an extreeeeeemely slow walk through the rice fields and managed to take in about half of the trails in three hours. We can’t wait to go back and walk the rest of them, even though we’ve had far more successful days spotting birds and other wildlife. No otters, no deer, no swallow-tailed kites. (Not that we expected to see kites; those don’t appear in the Lowcountry until spring time.)
We also saw few of the ducks supposedly attracted to the rice fields restored for that purpose — just one brace of blue-winged teals that flew overhead about halfway through our walk.
There were highlights, though:
• We saw a bald eagle swoop down over the rice field, although it flew by so fast, we didn’t realize what we had seen until we got home and ID’d the bird in a photograph. It doesn’t matter how many times I see a bald eagle; it’s always a highlight.
• We watched for several minutes as a flock of at least a dozen wild turkeys crossed a service road through the forest bordering the Caw Caw Swamp. They halted to check us out from about 100 yards away, then continued on their way.
• We noticed something hopping around on the road about 50 yards beyond the turkeys. Squirrels? An otter crossing? Turns out, it was northern flickers. Neither of us had ever seen them on the ground, but that apparently is fairly common practice for these woodpeckers, which have slightly curved bills that help them pluck grubs and worms from the soil.
• I tend to gauge the success of a trip by the species I manage to photograph for the first time, and there was at least one of those, possibly two. We watched — from quite a distance — a northern harrier fly up one side of the rice field and back in search of a meal. Although he was far away, the distinctive white rump was clearly visible. I also got a shot of what I think was a swamp sparrow, though I’m not 100 percent positive. Sparrows give me fits, in no small part because there are so many of them, with minor differences, I’m seldom confident even when laying eyes on a common species. In fact, I’d appreciate help from anyone taking a look at the frame in the attached photo gallery.
• I usually get all geeked up about birds, but perhaps the day’s best spot was a white peacock butterfly. The species is native to South Florida and only occasionally migrates into the South Carolina Lowcountry.
Caw Caw Interpretive Center also features an exhibit center and the F. Lamarr Wiley Learning Center, which has a classroom, wet lab and picnic area. Nature, history and environmental education programs are offered for groups of all ages. Morning bird walks are at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The park also is easy to find from Beaufort County — right off U.S. 17 South, at 5200 Savannah Highway in Ravenel after one of the prettiest drives you’ll ever take.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; closed on Mondays and Tuesdays
Call: 1-843-889-8898 or 1843-795-4386