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Old Black Water: Refuge introduces tours on remote waterways

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

A red-tailed hawk swoops over the pine forest of Sandy Island, and all eyes lift from the trail hoping for a glimpse.

The fearless hawk is the loudest creature in the woods today, squawking and swooping through the treetops of an open savannah on the backside of the island where few visitors stray.

Capt. Gates Roll of Coastal Expeditions is leading a group of two dozen birdwatchers from Waccamaw Wildlife Refuge at Yauhannah to Sandy Island, hoping to spot a red-cockaded woodpecker among other elusive species. Alas, the birders are only treated to four nesting holes in pine trees.

Gates says the federally protected red-cockaded woodpecker is the only one to nest in a living tree. Sap runs from the hole down the tree trunk, providing gummy protection from predators. There are 40-plus red-cockaded woodpeckers on Sandy Island, Roll says. He calls them “fussy birds” probably because they live in family groups that don’t get along.

A century ago, the red-cockaded woodpecker nested in longleaf pines growing in forests with floors kept clear by naturally occurring fire. Roll says the longleaf will come back to Sandy Island, but not in his lifetime. He points to black marks on the trunks of skinny trees as evidence of controlled burns used to manage this 9,000-acre forest now that it is protected by the Nature Conservancy and managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Replaced by the fast-growing loblolly, only 2 percent of America’s longleaf pine remains, Roll says.

But the birds of Sandy Island and the ecosystem formed by the Great Pee Dee, the Little Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers and the adjoining, meandering creeks are the objects of this voyage from the refuge by the Island Cat, formerly the Bulls Island ferry. Roll says the birding trip is part of a “feasibility study” to see if regular excursions would be profitable from the refuge.

The boat ride to Sandy Island takes an hour and travels through habitat that has recovered from man’s exploitation. Bull Island, near the refuge, was heavily logged a century ago. Evidence of a rail line remains, along with a few millennium cypress trees the loggers missed, Roll says.

The Island Cat strikes out on the brown-tinted waters of the Pee Dee for Sandy Island. The river’s water is clouded with nutrients and sediment from as far away as the Blue Ridge Mountains. Little Bull Creek and Yauhannah Lake make up what is considered the dividing line between the Pee Dee system and the acidic, black water of the Waccamaw River that has percolated through wetlands and been stained the color of brewed tea by decaying leaves. Roll calls this a “very rich community” of water tupelo, cypress, black gum and elm. All are trees that can grow in water.

This summer’s heavy rainfall has tested their resilience as water marks on the tree trunks are as tall as a man’s head. This is the highest water Roll has ever seen here, flushing old trash out of the woods and into the river.

The visitors center for the 27,000-acre refuge at Yauhannah has been a popular spot for 8,000 years. Native Americans called it “Uauenee” or Great Bluff. In 1716, white traders recorded 546 deerskins shipped to Charles Town. Before bridges were built, there was a ferry crossing for travelers going between Conway and Georgetown. The refuge, home to more than 200 bird species, was established in 1997.

Ten minutes after leaving the refuge’s dock, Roll stops the boat and turns around to get a better view of some swallow-tailed kites in a tall tree. “Eight, nine, ten,” Steve Thomas, of Conway and a member of the Audubon Society, counts. Thomas has been birding all his life and has never seen anything like this. One kite has its wings spread wide in the morning sun.

Swallow-tail kites are known to bunch up before they depart for southeastern Brazil for the winter.

“Amazing,” Thomas says.

The boat spends 15 minutes plying the river’s current for better looks at the kites. Roll decides to shorten the trip to Sandy Island by returning to the refuge and riding with the current down Little Bull Creek. He warns that the creek will get narrow and snaky. Thinking better, he changes his description to serpentine and finally just winding. The foreshadowing is lost on members of the expedition party.

Birders identify a yellow-crowned night heron, an anhinga and an ibis whose shape is recognizable from Egyptian hieroglyphics. A white egret in a tall tree and a spotted sandpiper catch birders’ eyes. Binoculars turn in unison when more experienced birders call a species. Alligators sunning themselves on logs pose for photos.

Sandy Island rises sharply from the banks of Little Bull Creek. Roll says the island has two distinct habitats: a bottomwood forest and a longleaf pine forest. The eastern side of the island was once home to 10 rice plantations. The western side is remarkable for its hills.

The Island Cat is beached, and expedition members depart for a 2.5-mile nature walk. They spray themselves with mosquito repellent and grab their backpacks and water bottles. This is not their first rodeo.

A white-breasted nuthatch immediately catches Roll’s ear and then the chirp of a summer tananger. “Birds are not quite as loud this time of year,” he says. A wood peewee and a nighthawk are heard and then spotted.

Well-equipped birdwatchers open the birding apps on their cell phones to call back. They hold their phones in the air so the sound will travel, admitting that this is not “pure” birdwatching.

With most of the hiking party’s eyes in the trees, a cottonmouth rattlesnake interrupts the forest’s tranquility. The snake doesn’t want to be bothered and slithers into the leaves to hide. Roll says he is pretty good sized, “more impressive for his width than his length.”

Roll finds the remnants of a slider turtle nest and hopes the little ones were hatched and not eaten. Bird calls fall silent as the party walks parallel to the river back toward the boat. The only noise is a collective shriek when a copperhead crosses the path. “Pretty,” someone says above the noise of clicking cameras.

Back on the boat, one of the adventurers says it’s the unexpected that makes the day. For a bird hike that turned up close encounters with two snakes, he’s gotten his money’s worth.

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