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Friday, March 2, 2018

It Is a Wild Life in Sewee!

The Sewee or "Islanders" were a Native American tribe that lived in present-day South Carolina in North America.  In 1670, the English founded the coastal town of Charleston in the Carolina Colony on land belonging to the Sewee. The town flourished from trade with the Sewee and neighboring tribes.

Sewee now refers to an area along the South Carolina coast just north of Charleston.  It is part of the tidal lands that are also known as the Low Country, which includes South Carolina's coast and adjacent Sea Islands. Once known for its slave-based agricultural wealth in rice and indigo that flourished in the hot subtropical climate, the Low Country today is known for its historic cities and communities, natural environment, cultural heritage, and tourism industry.

When we decided to camp at the Buck Landing Recreation Area in the Francis Marion National Forest, we anticipated opportunities to paddle and hike.  There are many of those.  But we were surprised to find how much wildlife the area harbors.

The first place we stopped to learn about local wildlife was the Sewee Visitor & Environmental Education Center, which features displays about the various ecosystems, wildlife and heritage of the South Carolina Low Country. Exhibits include the marine ecosystems of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and the ecosystems in the adjoining Francis Marion National Forest. The Center is jointly operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service, and offers nature education programs and activities.

One of the more interesting exhibits at the Sewee Visitor Center was its red wolf center.   The Sewee Center is home for four endangered red wolves, which are housed at the Sewee Center for observation, education and breeding.

These captive wolves help to ensure the genetic diversity of the species.  With a population of approximately 200, the red wolf is one of the most endangered animals in the world today. Originally, the red wolf roamed as far north as Pennsylvania and as far west as central Texas. Like its relative the gray wolf, the red wolf was extirpated from its former range by large scale predator control programs. By the late 1930s, only two populations are believed to have remained; one in the Ozark/Ouachita Mountain region of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, and the other in southern Louisiana and southeastern Texas. Nearly extinct only a few decades ago, the red wolf recovery program began with the help of captive breeding and reintroduction programs.

On May 21, 2013 a male and female arrived at the Sewee Center from the captive facility at Alligator River NWR. The male sired six pups at the Sewee Center on April 8, 2014. One male remains at the Sewee Center and is paired with a female for breeding. Cape Romain’s nearby Bulls Island has played an integral role in the recovery of the endangered red wolf. Due to its protected geographic location and prey base, Bulls Island was chosen as an experimental release site. In 1978, the 9-month successful release of two wolves demonstrated the feasibility of reintroduction into the wild. Bulls Island became the first island breeding site in 1987. The island breeding program closed in 2005. From 1987 to 2005, 26 pups were born at Bulls Island.

We walked out to watch the red wolves.  On our way back, we used a boardwalk through a swampy lowland, and chanced upon this little guy sunning himself on a dead tree branch:

After visiting the Sewee Center, we drove out to the Garris Public Boat Landing in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, which is a short ferry ride from Bull Island.  There, we saw all sorts of waterfowl, including this snowy egret who was concentrating on his fishing:

While we had hoped to take our kayaks out onto Sewee Bay and paddle the wetlands and channels near Bull Island, today proved too windy.  So we decided to see what the nearby Center for Birds of Prey had to offer.

The Center for Birds of Prey is part of the Avian Conservation Cente, established in 2004 as an “umbrella” organization to accommodate distinctive educational, medical, scientific and conservation disciplines within the organization. These operating divisions are: the Center for Birds of Prey; the Avian Medical Center; and the South Carolina Oil Spill Treatment Facility.

The Avian Conservation Center’s medical clinic operates 365 days a year with support from more than 60 trained and dedicated Volunteer Staff members. This state-of-the-art medical facility treats more than 600 injured birds of prey and shorebirds each year. Since its founding, the Center has admitted over 7,000 birds for treatment and release.

The SC Oil Spill Treatment Facility is among the most distinctive facilities housed at the Avian Conservation Center. In 2005 U.S. Fish and Wildlife and South Carolina DNR awarded the Center a $1.8 million grant for the construction of the 3,500 square foot facility, which remains the only permanent oil spill treatment center of its kind on the eastern seaboard. 

Research and field studies combine with the objectives of the medical and educational programs to support the protection of wild bird populations and their habitat.

The Center has led and participated in groundbreaking scientific research on avian genetics and environmental hazards, including an ongoing study of endangered and threatened species in South Carolina such as the Swallow-tailed kite. The Center’s work is well known in connection with environmental threats like the emergence of avian vacuolar myelinopathy (AVM) among eagles and other birds, and poisoning from unregulated landfill substances.

For us, the most interesting thing the Center has to offer is a guided tour of the facility's resident raptor population, some of whom are housed during rehabilitation before being returned to the wild, and other that must be housed there permanently due to the nature of their injuries.

We saw a yellow-faced vulture --

-- numerous bald eagles --

-- a Mississippi Kite --

-- as well as numerous other raptors.  After the tour, our hosts put on a live demonstration of flying raptors, including this falcon --

-- this Red-Tailed Hawk --

-- and an African Kite:

We got a special treat when our hosts brought out two Spectacled Owl chicks and introduced us to them:

Mom didn't realize we had gotten so close to her chicks, so she didn't seem particularly upset:

The Owl Woods housed many other owls including this thoughtful-looking one --

-- this Eagle Owl --

-- and this assertive fellow, who screeched at us the whole time we were looking at him:

There were smaller owls, too:

But the star of the show was this fellow, who demonstrated his flying abilities to us --

-- by flying right over our heads!

But he always returned to his trainer, who rewarded him well:

We must say, however, that, of all the wildlife we saw in the Low Country, the wildest of all was this all-too-common species that we found racing across the environment wherever we went:

We hadn't really anticipated the biodiversity of the South Carolina Low Country.  Combined with the availability of so many types of outdoor activities - paddling, hiking, bicycling, fishing, and more -- it will probably call us back to it the next time we travel along the Southeastern Coast of the United States.

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