Magnolia Plantations & Gardens
Article by Deanna Lozier
Images by Don Lozier
Tucked away among primordial swampland and the ubiquitous southern mossy oak trees lies Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, a veritable photographer's haven some 20 miles north of Charleston, SC. With its 500 acres of varied flora and fauna, including some 254 migrating and year-round bird species, Magnolia has become one of my favorite destinations due to boundless photographic opportunities in a picture-perfect setting replete with southern charm. Although the plantation is open year round and offers continuous blooms and birding, the spring season provides the most interesting photography subjects. Magnolia becomes resplendent with azaleas in full bloom in the spring, and migrating and nesting herons, egrets and ducks populate the swamp garden.
Thus, it is with great anticipation that I once again find myself at Magnolia in early spring. Upon entering the grounds of Magnolia, I always feel a sense of time transportation as I pass through the live oak forest and head toward the parking lot next to the plantation house which generations of the Drayton family have called home. Little has seemingly changed since Magnolia Plantation was founded in 1676, surviving despite attacks both human and natural (Union forces set fire to the plantation home during the Civil War and Hurricane Hugo ravaged the grounds in 1989). Aside from the historical plantation house, the site includes gardens of varying plant species, a wildlife refuge, a zoo and nature center, seven bridges and the Audubon Swamp Garden.
As is typical during my visits, I begin my tour at the plantation gardens, the entrance to which I am greeted by a male India Blue Peacock in full plumage. The peacocks at Magnolia roam the grounds freely, the males parading with their blue-green iridescent feathers fully displayed and eerie echoes of their unique breeding calls wafting throughout the grounds, sounding much like a cat calling in distress.
Upon entering the gardens, I am enticed by the scent of wisteria in the air, and surrounded by azalea blooms in shades of pink, purple, and white. Further along, the path continues to entrance with poppies, irises, daffodils, tulips and lilies waving in the gentle breeze, offering an opportunity for macro shots of their blossoms. The garden path offers additional distractions in the form of white wooden bridges, most notably the infamous Long Bridge, which cross over the still black waters and provide stunning backdrops for scenic snapshots and their reflections. Although I am enchanted by the gardens and the landscape shots I have been afforded thus far, the generally teaming wildlife has been notably absent save for a few Ibis near the Cattail Refuge. This is probably a good time to switch gears for a view of the wildlife at the Audubon Swamp Garden some distance from the main garden area.
Despite the teaming wildlife and natural beauty to be found in the Audubon Swamp Garden, I am always amazed at the lack of attendance on any given day at this site, usually my favorite part of the Magnolia experience. I typically find myself completely alone during my visits to the swamp. The swamp is reached by either strolling along a rather lengthy nature trail from the gardens or by driving to a separate parking lot. Due to a cumbersome load of photography equipment, I choose the latter option.
As I begin on the boardwalk leading through the flooded forest of cypress and tupelos, I spot a red-shouldered hawk landing in some nearby trees with fresh lunch. I quickly snap a few shots and, feeling like an intruder, move on to allow him to eat in peace. I then spy a Little Blue Heron attempting to catch his own lunch, and likewise take a few shots and move on. As I approach the main swamp area, I hear the distinct “yucka, yucka, yucka” call of the Pileated Woodpecker. I spot him just off to the left of the trail but at some distance in the trees. While the lighting is not that good and Iím not able to get a good picture of the woodpecker, it is quite a treat simply to watch this massive bird hammer awkwardly at the tree.
Making my way further along the path, I can hear squawking noises coming from around the next bend, and find a great number of Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets making their nests in the trees. In fact, one tree has at least five nests - one of the herons, another of an anhinga, and three of the egrets. I remain some time watching them gather nesting materials and building secure nests. Time passes quickly as I load up another memory card, capturing shots of the birds in flight, creating nests and their courtship activities. Reluctantly, I move on.
The large open water area of the swamp gardens has generally provided the most opportunities for wildlife viewing, and once again I am awarded with sightings of blue-winged teals, green herons, yellow and black crowned night herons and wood ducks. There are also turtles and alligators basking in the sunlight and enjoying the warm spring weather. White ibis are here as well, scouting out nesting locations. Sadly, the sun is approaching the horizon and it is time for me to leave as the gardens prepare to close.
Visiting Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is an enjoyable experience, and one that I personally look forward to each year as spring beckons. The gardens provide a peaceful oasis of blooms while, conversely, the swamp is teaming with wildlife and activity. For the photographer, wide angle and macro lenses are the best choices for photographing the gardens. These options will allow close-up shots of the flowers and good scenic shots of the forest and bridges. The swamp requires a larger telephoto lens of 300 mm to 600 mm for nice portraits of the wildlife, and a wide angle will offer optimum scenic shots of the swamp's cypress trees. A tripod is recommended for sharper pictures throughout Magnolia.
I do return once more in late spring to witness a transformation of sorts. At this time, the Great Egret and the Great Blue Heron chicks have hatched and are fed by their parents. The swamp is alive with dragonflies and butterflies. The alligators position themselves below the trees of the nesting birds for those serendipitous moments (for them, not the young hatchlings with missteps). The beautiful symmetry of the water lilies can be captured and duck weed begins to engulf the swamp. A take few pictures this time, but the images are there for the taking. Most of them instead go home in my memory rather than the camera's memory card.