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Audubon Swamp Garden - South Carolina

Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 04-26-10

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron, Audubon Swamp Garden - Joe Kegley


Great Egret in breeding plumage

Great Egret in breeding plumage, Audubon Swamp
- Joe Kegley

The Audubon Swamp Garden occupies 60 acres near the entrance of Magnolia Plantation in Charleston South Carolina. This section of the plantation was originally used as a freshwater reservoir for the rice fields. The reservior has since been converted into a wetland habitat. Trails, boardwalks, and dikes surround and cross through this cypress-tupelo swamp, allowing visitors easy access to the environment and its inhabitants. The rear section of the swamp borders a driveway and a paved path used for the plantation's nature train tour.

The swamp is named after John James Audubon, the famous naturalist and hunter known for his paintings of birds. At one time, Audubon was a guest of the Reverend John Drayton, then owner of Magnolia Plantation. Audubon used fine shot to kill his subjects. He then propped the birds into natural positions using wire and set about capturing their essence on canvas. This method deviated from the other artists at the time who used stuffed birds in rigid positions as models. Audubon's work set high standards against which later ornithological drawings and paintings would be judged. Over his lifetime he discovered 25 new species and 12 new subspecies. At the time his field notes and paintings contributed significantly to the understanding of birds and their behavior. Charles Darwin even occasionally quoted Audubon in his publications.

For a map of the Audubon Swamp Garden's 1.25 mile trail, click here --> Audubon Swamp Garden Trail Map

Nature Perspective

The Audubon Swamp Garden is probably best known for its wading bird rookery during the spring. See the above trail map for the exact location of the rookery. Birding and photography are popular activities at the swamp. Nesting birds observed included Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Anhingas. The Great Blue Herons seem to prefer to nest in higher branches of the trees while the Great Egrets usually offered the best viewing opportunities. The Little Blue Herons and the Snowy Egrets usually nest in the brushy tree thicket areas of the swamp making their nests harder to observe.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula, Audubon Swamp Garden - Joe Kegley

Pileated Woodepecker

Pileated Woodepecker, Audubon Swamp
- Joe Kegley

While the long-legged waders seem to occupy the attention of most tourists and photographers, I actually found the songbird activity much more interesting. Six of the bird species I observed in early April were winter residence in (or getting close to) the process of migration. These species probably departed not long after my visit for their northern territories. These included Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Cedar Waxwings (these guys were everywhere), Hermit Thrushes (again a fair number), White-throated Sparrows, Blue-headed Vireos, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. It was fun to observe the mixture of winter residence among the spring arrivals.

Probably the most vocal of the songbirds during my April visit were the Northern Parula and the White-eyed Vireo. Both species appeared to be quite active in the wooded area between the swamp and the parking lot. In addition to the previous mentioned, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Prothonotary Warblers were also found while birding the same area.

Northern Flickers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers were frequently heard on the north side of the trail, but the jewel of the picidae family tree had to be the Pileated Woodpecker. During my brief visit I was able to observe one individual who had a liking for a particular stump in the swamp. So much so, the bird came back several times to forage which allowed for a couple of photographs. Birding the northern side of the trail was also where most of the Blue-winged Teal were found.

During my brief weekend visit in early April I observed the following bird species:

Waterfowl and Waders Moorhen Common Grackle Tufted Titmice
American Coot Snowy Egret - (rookery) Fish Crow White-eyed Vireo
Anhinga - (rookery) White Ibis Hermit Thrush White-throated Sparrow
Black-crowned Night Heron Wood Duck Northern Flicker Yellow-rumped Warbler
Blue-winged Teal Songbirds Northern Mockingbird Yellow-throated Warbler
Canada Goose Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Northern Parula Raptors
Double-crested Cormorant Blue-headed Vireo Pileated Woodpecker Barred Owl
Great Blue Heron - (rookery) Blue Jay Prothonotary Warbler Osprey
Great Egret - (rookery) Brown Thrasher Red-bellied Woodpecker Red-Shouldered Hawk
Mallard Carolina Chickadee Red-Winged Blackbirds  
Little Blue Heron - (rookery) Cedar Waxwing Ruby-crowned Kinglet  

Juvenile American Alligator
Juvenile American Alligator, Audubon Swamp Garden - Joe Kegley

Marsh Rabbit

Marsh Rabbit, Audubon Swamp
- Robert Kemmerlin

In addition to the avian variety of wildlife, reptiles and mammals were also present. There are a fair number of alligators within the 60 acre swamp. Inclined wood platforms have been built at various locations in the water to allow the alligators an easy way to sun. In addition to the American Alligators, yellow-bellied sliders also used the platforms and it was not unusual to see 4 or 5 turtles alongside the gators on these man-made landings. More interesting is the juvenile alligators one might find in the east section of the trail. They can usually be found during the springtime not far from the intersection of the paved nature train path and the driveway that borders the east side of the swamp.

The mammal you are most likely to see in the Audubon Swamp Garden is the marsh rabbit. An interesting behavioral trait is that these rabbits can swim, they have no problem with water. When threatened they may jump into the water and float submerged with only their eyes and nose exposed on the surface. White-tailed deer may occasionally be observed near the wooded boundaries of the swamp. Though otters are supposedly present, I did not see one. Otters are probably more comfortable in the swamp during the winter when alligators are dormant. Raccoons seem to be more prevalent near the actual plantation where they can find food scraps from tourists visiting the gardens.

For a 2009 video of Audubon Swamp Garden click here --> Audubon Swamp Garden video
Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler, Audubon Swamp
- Joe Kegley

Wilderness Experience Perspective

Nope, sorry, there is no wilderness experience whatsoever at the Audubon Swamp Garden. One should realize this is a tourist attraction, the more people who come, the more money Magnolia Plantation makes.

You are going to hear traffic noise throughout the Audubon Swamp Garden trail system, the swamp is close to Hwy 61 (Ashley River Road). There is also a nature train that gets going around 9 or 10am and the driver engages the tourists through a loud speaker system. It's fairly obnoxious, though perfect for those with mobility issues, so I think a good idea from the plantation's management standpoint.

Not all is lost, if you enter the swamp at dawn, you will have a fairly quite and more personal experience up until about 9:00am. If you wish to do that, you will need to purchase your entry ahead of time the day before, or if you plan on visiting more than a couple of days, a season pass maybe in order. You will need to enter through the 'Exit' gate on Hwy 61 if you arrive early, the 'Enter' gate will be closed until the normal operating hours.

Photography Perspective

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush, Audubon Swamp
- Joe Kegley

For most wildlife photography a long lens is going to be required. I used a 500mm with a 1.4 extender giving a total focal length of 700mm. The rookery, for the most part, is too far away from the boardwalk for photos of nests. In addition, the trees are littered with branches obscuring clear shots of the nests. While one might not be able to obtain clean shots of the nests, it may be worthwhile to hangout in the area for in-flight shots.

There are plenty of landscape backdrops available for scenic photography. Be sure to go in the early morning if you want to capture the foggy mist enveloping the bald cypresses and their spanish moss companions. One should note that much of the water is covered with duckweed or other aquatic vegetation so there is not much opportunity for capturing reflections. Reflection opportunities are better on the small lakes near the plantation.

There are many other photography opportunities within short driving distances of Charleston, SC. The area includes many historical structures either in the city or surrounding area. Bull Island is a popular destination for wildlife observation, birding, and shelling.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Audubon Swamp
- Joe Kegley

Gear/equipment Suggestions

  • Insect Repellent - During early spring repellent is usually not necessary, but it might be good to keep some on hand just in case.

Location and Points of Interest

Directions - Traveling south on Interstate 26, take Interstate 526 west at North Charleston. Drive approximately 5 miles to the Ashley River Road (Highway 61) north exit. Follow the parkway approximately 2 miles until it dead ends into Bee's Ferry Road. Bear right onto Bee's Ferry Road and drive about 2 miles until it dead ends into Highway 61. Turn left. Watch for the Magnolia Plantation signs. Magnolia Plantation is 3 miles up Highway 61 on the right.

Audubon Swamp Garden (Google interactive map)

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Additional Information

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