One of my favorite outdoor activities in the Lowcountry is to make the short trip over to Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive for a relaxing view of the wildlife du jour. From Bluffton, the wildlife drive is only 15 or 20 minutes away.
Part of the 175-acre Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (SNWR), Laurel Hill is a 4-mile drive through a pre-Civil War era rice plantation, now the perfect protected habitat for countless birds, ducks, reptiles and other wildlife.
It is free, open 365 days a year from dawn to dusk and you can hike it, bike it or drive it.
Be sure to have your camera ready, as photographic opportunities are plentiful. I often see hawks, woodpeckers and ducks of all kinds including blue-wing teal, shovelers, black ducks and pintails.
Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive is on GA 25/SC 170, about one mile east of Port Wentworth, Ga. I would suggest stopping first at the SNWR Visitor Center at 694 Beech Hill Lane, off U.S. Highway 17, to pick up printed information and view the wildlife displays. The staff there includes wildlife biologists and other specially trained personnel.
If you love the outdoors and observing wildlife, you will appreciate the natural beauty of Laurel Hill, but don’t go just once. Plan to return every season, because the naturescape and the critters change with the season.
During spring when the weather is mild, the alligators spend much of the day on the banks of the canals; in summer, they are often floating in the water to stay cool. On one visit, I counted 28 gators and that was just one side of the canal!
In fall and winter, the refuge attracts migratory birds on their annual journey along the Atlantic Flyway. The acreage also serves as an important nesting habitat for wood ducks, bald eagles and anhingas, to name a few.
The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that on average, 25,000 ducks make the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive area their winter home.
The Savannah National Wildlife Refuge includes an ecosystem called a tidal freshwater marsh. Rare now, due to development along the coast, it is a beneficial wildlife habitat with the largest area remaining on the east coast lying within the SNWR.
Tidal freshwater marshes support a biologically diverse population, including not only waterfowl and reptiles but also fur-bearing mammals such as river otters and beaver. The aquatic impoundments alongside most of the drive also provide habitat for spawning largemouth bass and sunfish.
For more information, visit fws.gov/ refuge/savannah or call 843-784-2468.
Glenda Harris of Bluffton is a freelance writer and editor, nature lover and aspiring novelist.