As I walked along a forested Lowcountry trail, I suddenly became aware of a great din of noise echoing through the trees.
I knew I was far from the clamoring interstate and nowhere near any busy airport, but this racket had the same fervor and tone of a busy society going about its work. As I walked closer, the noise began to crescendo and I realized I was half correct. The noise was indeed the stuff of a society on the go, but it was certainly not man-made. I was hearing the squawks and squeaks of hundreds of nesting birds and soon would bear witness to the origin -- the woodstorks were nesting, and I was at ground zero for one of their busiest nurseries: Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve.
It's amazing how birds can either turn the forest into a cacophony of noise can render it silent save for the simple beating of its wings. A half hour before I encountered the rookery, I had become aware of a growing silence in the woods around me. As I made my way between oak and pine toward the lowlands, I saw a flash of movement as a red-tailed hawk rose from the trailside ahead of me and soared effortlessly through a thicket that I would have to consciously navigate -- yet he flew straight and touched not a limb.
Nature was in its full glory at Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve, and I found myself wondering how such a treasure could exist so close to home.
Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve is between Ravenel and Hollywood and is managed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. This is a heritage preserve so it's a slice of nature just for you. It is 643 acres of diverse landscape and wildlife habitat that includes airy pine, hardwood uplands and deep swamp. The wetlands are freshwater impoundments that survive from the days of the old rice plantations and are perfect for fish, alligator, and nesting egrets and storks.
The highlight of Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve is the annual nesting of the woodstorks. They flock here by the hundreds and illustrate the need for such a treasured land.
When you visit the preserve you need to be prepared to walk. A 5-mile there-and-back trail (with a total of 9 miles of interconnected roads and paths) runs the length of the preserve and touches all habitats. Bicycles are allowed and may provide a faster way, but be prepared for hills and off-road conditions.
The first thing that will strike you is the simple beauty of the place. As you descend from the uplands to the swamp, you will pass traces of past human habitation and will be overwhelmed by how nature has reclaimed so much. Your reward after an hour or so of walking or biking will be a view of a vast rookery and a reminder not only of why we live in and love the Lowcountry, but of the incredible need to be stewards of the great gift we have been given.
A mosquito whines. An old Magnolia drops its leaves like faded memories to the ground. And above it are the sounds of new life and new birth in the deep forest.
Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve is an hour and a half from Bluffton off U.S. 17 near Charleston. The preserve is on S.C. 162 between Ravenel and Hollywood. It is off the beaten path but easy to find. From Bluffton, take U.S. 17 to the traffic light at the crossroads of Ravenel. Turn right on S.C. 165 to Hollywood. (No, there are no movie stars here.) Take a left on S.C. 162 at the stop sign in Hollywood. Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve is 3 miles on the left. There is parking at the gate; an information kiosk and maps to the preserve are available on-site. There are no facilities, so come prepared: Bring plenty of water and use bug repellant as per the season. On my recent visit I was left scratching for days, but it was well-worth it for the experience. Hiking and biking are welcome but mind the rules. Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve is open year-round from dawn to dusk, but the boardwalk and other sensitive areas are closed to visitors during nesting season. Woodstork nesting runs from February through September. The nests and storks are easily viewed from a distance. Call SCDNR at 843-546-3226 for more information.
THE BEAUTIFUL, ENDANGERED WOOD STORK
The woodstork (Mycteria Americana) was placed on the endangered species list in 1984. Thankfully, in 1981 woodstork nests had been recorded in South Carolina and Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve became one of the "hot spots" to shelter and observe them in their habitat. This graceful wading bird is unique not only in its size, color and niche in the ecosystem, it also possesses a number of interesting characteristics. It can be observed flying and gliding over the Lowcountry with its neck outstretched, almost pterodactyl-like. It feeds on frogs, fish and other water creatures by wading along with its slightly opened beak in the water. As soon as a fish or prey is sensed its beak snaps shut with incredible speed -- one of the fastest reflexes ever recorded among vertebrates. You may have seen these birds wading in your neighborhood or along the marshy creeks and coves of Bluffton, but for an incredible experience Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve can introduce you to their world in a fascinating way.
Bluffton resident Matt Richardson enjoys taking day trips with his family and exploring the Lowcountry. To see more pictures from his adventures, go to www.Flickr.com and search on the username "greenkayak73." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.