Deep in Four Holes Swamp in Harleyville about 45 minutes from Charleston, you will find Francis Beidler Forest much like a velvet swathed box tucked away in a dresser drawer, holding some of nature's most extravagant jewels for safekeeping. Home to the prothonotary warbler, the yellow-crowned night heron and other elusive and astonishing creatures, Beidler Forest is itself a jewel in South Carolina's crown of exquisite natural places of beauty and ecological diversity.
Listed as one of the nation's most important birding sites, Beidler Forest is talked about in hushed tones by enthusiastic birders, not to keep it a secret, but because encounters there demand reverence. A popular highlight of the Santee Birding and Nature Festival, those who had been there recommended it as a place to see "lifetime" birds, or birds you've never seen before and will never forget after.
Equipped with an interpretive booklet, visitors follow a 1.75 mile boardwalk into the heart of the swamp, guided by with interpretive signposts, rain shelters and plenty of good gazing spots.
Nature does not wait for you to catch up. Nature does not pose on demand and appear just because you are there to see it, but if you move so as not to break the spell, nature astonishes. Beidler Forest teaches this lesson of the attentive and hopeful approach, without expectations, ready to be surprised. And here, nature will surprise you around any given corner at any given moment.
One minute you may be straining your eyes, even with binoculars, to catch sight of a mysterious flutter high in the leaf canopy. And then, a warm yellow flash bursts out of the gray-green swamp just feet in front of you and there, on a cypress knee nearby, a prothonotary warbler looks straight at you from his bright eye and sings his head off in ecstatic salutation.
Or the yellow-crowned night-heron stalks through the dappled brilliance of fitful sun and wind playing in the swamp's foliage, pauses to catch a fish and eats it while you stare, astonished.
"How can we ever stop looking? How can we ever turn away?" asks poet Mary Oliver. This is precisely the question resounding in the birdsong at Beidler forest where a 1.75 mile walk can take hours and last a lifetime.
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