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A Look at Lowcountry Nature in Transition

Eran Kilpatrick examines a flowering plant.

Eran Kilpatrick examines a flowering plant.

At nine a.m. Saturday morning, several residents, both young and not-so-young, participated in a nature walk through the Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary conducted by University of South Carolina’s Salkehatchie Campus’ Associate Professor of Biology Eran Kilpatrick.

“It is true, spring arrives early in the South Carolina Lowcountry, but amidst the red maple seeds and yellow jessamine flowers, there are still signs of winter,” Kilpatrick said. “Early March is an ideal time to observe nature in transition at the Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary, our local wildlife park owned and managed by the City of Walterboro. The sights and sounds we are surely to experience while walking the trails are evidence that spring is almost here. This past February was one of the wettest months on record, so all of the tributaries that feed the Sanctuary and eventually flow into the Ashepoo River are full, ensuring plenty of water for all of the growth and activity that will take place only weeks from now.”

The nature walk took participants along the historic Charleston to Savannah trail and through a variety of floodplain and swamp forest habitats. Throughout much of the walk, participants were able to observe the sheer magnitude of all the water that is flowing through the swamp forest, reiterating the importance of how fluctuations in water levels are important for plants and animals that live in the swamp. “A multitude of flowing and non-flowing wetlands occur in Colleton County, and the Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary has prime examples of black-water creek swamp habitats, which are typical features of the upper ACE Basin,” Kilpatrick noted.

A wide variety of woodland birds were observed, including species that spend all year in the Sanctuary, such as the Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, and Red-bellied Woodpecker. Although spring is close, the participants were able to observe some of the Lowcountry’s winter bird residents, including the winter wren, hermit thrush, and golden-crowned kinglet. This winter has also been an exceptional year for sporadic migrants. There was also no shortage of bird songs, and a mixture of songs and call notes made by both winter and permanent resident bird species were heard during the walk.”

The Sanctuary is also perfectly suited to function as an outdoor lab for a variety of courses and research projects, Kipatrick said. “In 2011, we conducted mapping and habitat characterization study of the green-fly orchid, the only epiphytic orchid in South Carolina. Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants for support. Some of the more familiar epiphytes are species like resurrection fern and Spanish moss. The green-fly orchid is uncommon throughout South Carolina and requires specific habitat conditions. We visited one green-fly orchid study site to learn about where this plant lives and how it colonizes other trees and becomes established in young swamp forests. We also observed another rare plant, the southern twayblade orchid, a small winter flowering terrestrial orchid that often goes undetected in floral surveys. It’s reassuring to know that we have populations of these rare plants, and a diversity of other interesting wetland plant species, in our backyard.” He added that the Wildlife Sanctuary property is open and easily accessible year round so that the best of nature can be enjoyed during all seasons.