Set on the marshy bottomlands surrounding the Savannah River, this federally protected habitat provides a safe place for migratory waterfowl to pause along their journey between nesting and wintering grounds so as to refuel and reboot. As one of more than five hundred National Wildlife Refuges peppered across the country, the aim is to furnish our long-distance fliers with protected spots to feed and rest along their biannual travels. With the ever-growing onslaught of human development, these crucial areas are strategically placed provide the equivalent of safe lilypads to hop along as the birds make their way north and south along their migratory flyways.
Three thousands acres of the refuge is made up of freshwater impoundments, which can be dated back to the mid-eighteenth century when the soggy land was used to grow rice. Hand built dikes enclosed the waterlogged rice fields, offered an easy conversion into current prime aquatic habitat for waterfowl and wading birds.
The refuge has a 4-mile loop called the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive that cars can follow at as slow a pace as they choose to observe the multitude of coots, ibises, moorhens and egrets that plunge their searching beaks into the shallows, in search of the next succulent invertebrate. While I did see a pair of blue-winged teal, it seemed as if most of the waterfowl (think ducks) had already carried on northward toward their breeding grounds.
There are plenty of pull-offs along the drive for those of us who want to hop out and get on a short trail or two. I walked along one of two dikes hugging a shallow canal and watched harriers (handsome birds of prey sporting long tails) sweep low above the grassy landscape in search of prey. I encountered several alligators, the largest must’ve been about nine feet, at least in my head. The opposite bank of the canal provided a supreme sunning spot for one of the larger buds. I was glad I chose the side I was on, and continued along my way after waving hello and taking an image or two.
If you ever find yourself in the Savannah area, be sure to make this wildlife refuge a definite part of your trip!