Leanna McMillan, assistant director at the Outfitter Center at Oldfield, checks out the community garden with her constant companion, Bear. PHOTOS BY GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

Rolling down SC-170, most people passing the Oldfield community notice only the white picket fence enclosing the fields that occasionally hold a few horses. Next to the community’s entrance sign, a much smaller one pronounces Oldfield as an Audubon International Certified Sustainable Community, an award not easily achieved. 

Although Audubon is primarily synonymous with birds, this designation from the international branch goes far beyond tending to the needs of feathered dinosaur descendants. It encompasses all manner of wildlife that inhabits the marshes along the Okatie River, as well as the landscape within the fences.

Leeanna McMillan, Outfitter Center assistant director and the community’s naturalist, said the process began before her arrival in 2019, but her efforts since then ensured that Oldfield would be recertified.

“To get the original certification, you have to have a list of goals and objectives that you want to reach. That’s kind of a lengthy process to get all those in line and get them approved by Audubon,” McMillan said, “and then we had to have a site visit.”

That evaluation visit resulted in Oldfield earning the designation in 2018 in the record time of one and a half years, not the usual three to five years. 

The Oldfield Golf Course is certified under the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, which includes such recommendations as maintaining numerous bird boxes for blue birds and wood ducks and monitoring water usage. But the sustainable community tag goes much deeper toward balancing people with nature.

Audubon International helps the communities achieve a number of goals by helping them work through three stages needed to become certified: assessment, planning and implementation. Communities focus on 15 different areas, including natural and cultural resources, land use planning efforts, ecotourism, volunteerism, and environmental awareness through education.

At the Outfitters Center, a small nature center gives community residents and their guests an up-close look at a few creatures that inhabit the marshes and surrounding area. The star of the show is Col. Hazzard, a small alligator named after the previous owner of Oldfield. 

“I had to get an educational permit to have him. I got the permit from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. About a week later, DNR’s alligator biologist called me because they confiscated this gator from an illegal online sale,” she said. “They were looking for a home so that’s where he came from. I can keep him until he’s 36 inches long. He’s 27 inches now.”

In addition to the gator, there are yellowbellied sliders, a diamondback terrapin, saltwater fish and snakes. There are books to borrow and brochures to help people identify things that fly, crawl, walk and slither.

From the dock adjacent to the center, McMillan, who has a captain’s license, takes guests on river eco-cruises aboard the Oldfield Belle, a covered pontoon boat.

“People who aren’t from here want to see the area and experience the nature here,” she said.

Other aspects that fit into the Audubon certification include assets such as a quartet of beehives. McMillan said the hives produced 80 pounds of honey last year.

With her ever-present canine companion, Bear, McMillan checked on the community garden near Oldfield’s main gate, one of the sources of pollen.

“We’re in the winter so it’s not as beautiful as it normally is,” she said. 

Most of the individual beds were still green with lots of lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli, plenty of herbs like oregano, sage and marjoram. There are grapefruit, lime and pecan trees. 

The children’s garden has herbs and other plants, and there is even a fairy garden for the little ones. A small grape arbor is wrapped with muscadine and scuppernong grape vines that have produced wine. 

“It’s all volunteer work, and it’s a true community garden where everybody gardens and everyone harvests,” she said. The garden holds about 40 beds and there are plans underway to expand the garden to 80.

Volunteers built the gate, the arbor and many other structures found around the community, including the chicken house for heritage chickens in the equestrian center which is also home to a pair of Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs named Ham and May. 

“We do a farm-to-table program for the kids which includes the chickens and pigs. At this time of year, we let the kids feed pumpkins to the pigs,” said McMillan. “The rest of the Halloween pumpkins we take over to Whippoorwill Farms in Ridgeland for their pigs.”

When it was certified, Oldfield was one of eight communities in the world to be so designated. Now it is one of 13, a number that includes the Town of Hilton Head Island, which earned its designation in 2017, and was recently recertified.

Brian Eber, senior environmental planner, said the town sets goals and tries to work on them each year in order to keep in the good graces of the sustainable community program. 

“Obviously it touches key points in our long-range plan that we completed in 2020 for bicycle safety, rentals, public transportation, cost of living and recycling,” said Eber. “One of the things we’re looking to do is to add traditional recycling along our trails, so that if you’re cycling you can recycle.”

One of the things that often is overlooked is stormwater. The Hilton Head Town Hall has a xeriscape garden that requires no irrigation. 

“You don’t use irrigation but you can plant a garden, our native flowers, bushes, trees – you can plant all native plants and have a garden because they thrive in this environment,” Eber said. 

When people come to Hilton Head, they want to experience the island, so visitors are directed to places like Newhall Preserve and Sea Pines Forest Preserve, where the longleaf pine is being reintroduced.

“I think it used to make up 80% of the pine population before development started happening a long time ago. We’re trying to reintroduce this,” said Eber. 

The town also has a native plant guide that is given to developers for wherever they want to plant trees as buffers along the shore line or in the developments. 

“Sometimes people think only of the birds that are in our preserves and communities, especially people look for the raptors, but we also look out for the shore birds – the pelicans, seagulls – all of them,” said Eber. 

Counting: It’s all about the birds

The Hilton Head Audubon Society, which is part of the National Audubon Society and not connected with Audubon International, has helped Hilton Head succeed in its efforts toward sustainability. It also participates in the annual nationwide bird audit known as the Christmas Bird Count. 

Between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 of each year, groups of bird lovers will organize to take a tally of species and total numbers of birds located within a prescribed 15-mile circle. Research scientists, wildlife agencies, conservation biologists and others use the results to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. 

Local bird clubs, including Hilton Head and Sun City, have completed their counts already, but anyone interested might check with the group in Edisto. According to the bird count map at audubon.org, this group has scheduled its count for Jan. 2, 2023. Contact Tom Austin at land@edisto.org to see if he still has openings.

If you didn’t get in on any of the holiday counts, you can still participate in another citizen-scientist project called the Great Backyard Bird Count that requires nothing more than sitting in the comfort of your home on your porch (or looking out of your living room, bedroom or kitchen window) and counting the birds you see.

This event takes place from Feb. 17-20, 2023, and bird counters can spend as little as 15 minutes or as long as they want on any or all of the four days. 

For more information, a checklist and how to report what you see, go to birdcount.org. 

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.