Amazing herons, ibis and egrets grace the cypress swamp aviary at Brookgreen Gardens

Brookgreen Gardens features the only known aviary built atop an actual cypress swamp. Here you can enjoy a leisurely stroll on the boardwalk while watching magnificent birds feeding and flying in a natural setting: great blue herons, black-crowned night herons, egrets, hooded merganser, white ibis, redhead and wood ducks. Free with general admission ($12 adults, $10 seniors, $6 children 4-12), which is good for 7 consecutive days.

Great blue herons live along coastlines, in marshes, and near the shores of ponds and streams. They are expert fishers.

The largest Lowcountry bird wading in fresh water marshes

The Great Blue Heron is the black waters king of the South Carolina Lowcountry

Herons stand still for long periods of time waiting for fish to come near their sharp bills. They kill their prey with a quick thrust and then swallow it whole. Some have been known to choke to death attempting to swallow fish too large for their S-shaped necks!

The great blue is the largest heron in North America with an average wingspan of 6 feet. They can cruise at some 20 to 30 miles an hour.

Though great blue herons hunt alone, they typically nest in colonies. Females produce two to seven eggs, which both parents protect and incubate. Chicks can survive on their own at two months of age.

Blue herons are very sensitive to human intrusion and will often abandon the nest if disturbed.

Great egrets are found near water and feed in wetlands, streams, ponds, tidal flats, and other areas. They mainly feeds on fish but can also eat frogs, snakes and small mammals.

Large freshwater marsh birds near Myrtle Beach

The Queen of the Cypress Swamp

Great egrets nest in trees, near water and gather in colonies. They are monogamous, and both parents incubate their three to four eggs. Young egrets are aggressive towards one another in the nest, and stronger siblings often kill the weaker chicks.

Did you know? The great egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society. During much of 19th century they were almost completely wiped out, being hunted for their magnificent white feathers. Today, the great egrets population has recovered significantly while under legal protection for more than a century.

The white ibis has reddish beak and legs. It wades in shallow water feeding on crabs and crustaceans. The white ibis lives in huge colonies, some as large as 50,000 birds! Nests are built by both parents with materials usually stolen from other birds’ nests. The male brings the materials while the female is the one constructing the nest. The young are cared for by both parents until fledged, at about 4 weeks of age.

Bird watching at its best at Brookgreen Gardens near Myrtle Beach

What you got there? The heron is stalking the white ibis trying to steal its catch...

The black crowned night heron is one of the most common herons in the world. It can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. They are short-legged and stocky birds that inhabit freshwater swamps and marshes. The black crowned night heron is mostly active at night. They feed on small fish, invertebrates, amphibians and mice. Like all herons, they are very social birds and live in colonies.

Social nocturnal heron live well at Brookgreen Gardens

The smaller but feistier black crowned heron

This exhibit opened in 1977 and it was the first aviary habitat built on an actual cypress swamp.

Bird watching in the cypress swamp

This is my house!

The tallest center poll is anchored 70 feet into the grounds and extends 90 feet into the air. The Cypress Aviary exhibit withstood many hurricanes including Hugo.

Swamps are forest wetlands. They act like a sponge, filtering pollutants out of the water.

The water looks black because of tannins that come from decomposing plants and some plant roots. Waccamaw River which supplies water to this swamp is considered a “black water” river.

The plants in swamps have special adaptations that enable them to tolerate high water levels. Some of the swamp trees featured in this exhibit include Tupelo, Gum, Red Maple and Bald Cypress.

Make sure to see the rare farm animals and the daily live wildlife demonstration at the Lowcountry Center.

Here is a list of fun activities kids can enjoy around Myrtle Beach for about $10 or less.


It’s a Zoo! Come see Brookgreen Gardens’ native wildlife and rare farm breeds

Brookgreen Gardens is most famous for its exquisite collection of American sculptures and lavish gardens. They are also great preservation stewards of native wildlife and rare farm animal breeds. Here foxes, alligators, deer, wild turkeys, river otters and many wading birds live in a natural habitat. At the farm you can enjoy seeing (and sometimes pet) unusual types of horses, cows, sheep and fowls. The breeds were brought to South Carolina from Europe and Africa as early as 1500s!

Highligts from the Lowcountry Zoo and farm (data from the exhibits)
Foxy ladies! The gray fox is the only native fox in North America. The red fox was brought here by Europeans in the 1700s to continue their royal fox hunt tradition. Did you know?

Wild native foxes at Brookgreen Gardens Zoo

The gray fox is the only fox that can climb trees

• Gray foxes can climb trees, which is a great advantage when trying to escape predators such as the coyotes.

• Gray foxes are often mistaken as red foxes. However they are smaller, mostly gray and have a black tip tail. Red foxes are bright red-orange and have a white tip tail.

• Gray foxes are omnivores.

• Red foxes mate for life.

You can always count on the river otters to put a smile on your face. They are playful, funny, cute and may even pose for you! What else can you ask for?

Funny aquatic mammals Brookgreen Gardens

Playful otters are very fun to watch at Brookgreen Gardens

Marsh Tacky horses, Red Devon cows, Tunis sheep and Guinea fowls
Marsh tacky were brought to America by Spanish settlers in the 1500s. They are closely related to the Bankers ponies of the North Carolina Outer Banks and the Cracker horses in Florida.

Marsh tacky Outer Banks ponies Cracker Florida horses

Marsh Tacky horses used by Marion Francis troops in the American Revolution

Marsh tacky horses have narrow shoulders, a sloped rump, a striped down back and a mellow disposition.

Being short and steady on their feet, and with large heart and stamina, they can maneuver swamp terrain without panicking or getting stuck in the mud.

That’s why the “Swamp Fox” General chose them for his soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The Gullah also used them to plow fields and carry heavy loads. Today they are fewer than 250 pure Marsh Tacky horses.

The first Red Devons arrived in America in 1623. The sturdy and docile cattle were used on plantation as food for their meat and milk, and as oxen to plow fields and haul wagons. Both male and female grow horns.

Rare cow breed Brookgreen Gardens animals

The Red Devon, one of the rarest cow breeds in North America

Tunis sheep were brought here from Africa in 1799. They produce very good meat and remarkable long wool. The lambs are reddish at birth and turn white as they grow. Tunis sheep are very tolerant to heat.

Rare breed of sheep at Brookgreen Gardens

African Tunis Sheep brought to America in 1799

The Guinea fowl originated in sub Saharan Africa. They were kept on plantation for meat. As wild birds they were allowed to roam freely and roost over night in trees to escape predators. They forage well for themselves and are tolerant to heat.

There are more fun kids things to do inside the Lowcountry Center and the Children’s Discovery room (free with garden admission).

Brookgreen Gardens admission is $12 adults, $10 seniors and $6 children 4-12 ($1 off coupon in most travel brochures). Tickets are valid for 7 consecutive days. Call (843) 235-6000 for more info. Open daily 9:30AM to 5PM.

Carolina Children’s Garden, Columbia free, fun and magical things to do

Recently we visited the Carolina Children’s Garden inside the Clemson Research and Education Center, right across the Sandhills shopping center. The garden is open daily from dawn to dusk and admission is free. Dogs are welcome but must be kept on leash at all times.

Columbia free outdoor attractions

The view from inside the park is spectacular. I’ve seen people walk around the lake, sunbathing on the lawn or just enjoying a picnic with family and their four legged friends.

Walk the dog around beautiful lake

Very young kids can enjoy a slide, a large sandbox and many places to play hide and seek.

Best outdoor playground picnic tables

I liked the fact that the garden is themed after famous children stories and songs. You can visit Old McDonald’s Farm…

Carolina Childrens Themed Garden

Learn basic gardening skills, like using a wheel barrel to carry things around.

Carolina Childrens Garden Columbia free things to do

Hey, these are Peter Rabbit’s clothes! And that’s how you build a scarecrow for your garden

Magic children themed garden Columbia parks

Kids can see and even sift through a tiny compost bin. And yes, there are few live little crawlers in it!

Columbia fun natural education conservation program

Every month there is something going on, check the website for upcoming programs and events. Next to the garden is the Conservation Station where you can learn how to protect the forest, wildlife, and the quality of water, soil and air.

Mark your calendar! Every year, on the last weekend in April is the Sparkleberry Fair at the Clemson Research and Education Center.

Relax with Winnie, Tiger, Peter Rabbit, The Three Little Bears at the beautiful Caolina Children’s Garden!

Trout hatchery tour, free things to do in beautiful Pisgah National Forest

One fish two fish red fish blue fish…

Western North Carolina, the land of the waterfalls, is truly breathtaking in the fall.

Bobby N Setzer Fish Hatchery Raceway Exhibit

Fun free wild things to do inside Blue Ridge Parkway

Recently, we spend a weekend hiking between Hendersonville and Brevard.

We had fun visiting the Bobby N. Setzer Fish Hatchery and Raceway Exhibit housed at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education.

This is the largest hatchery in the state, which stocks about half million brook, rainbow and brown trout a year and feeds over 80 streams and lakes in 15 counties.

The center is located inside the Pigah National Forest of off Hwy 276 and about 20 minutes drive from scenic Blue Ridge Parkway.

Blue Ridge Parkway Trout Fishing

Self guided tour at the Fish Hatchery, Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education

The raceway exhibit is open Monday to Saturday, 8AM to 5PM and admission is free.

Here you can watch and feed brook, rainbow and brown trout.

The fingerlings grow in a series of 54 outdoor raceways, which are elongated, concrete fish-rearing ponds with a constant flow of fresh water.

In fact the raceways channel 3,500 gallons per minute of cold mountain water from nearby Davidson River and Grogan Creek!

About the trout… (data from the “Raising Trout for North Carolina Waters” brochure)

North Carolina native trout

Beautiful specled trout at Bobby Setzer Hatchery

The brook trout, is North Carolina’s only native trout, nicknamed “speckle” because of the blue-bordered, red spots on its flanks. The back has green worm-like markings and the lower fins are red with a black stripe and white leading edge.

The rainbow trout was brought from the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s. It has many dark spots, a greenish back that fades into silvery white on its belly and a red stripe along its flanks (hence the name). Rainbow trout can tolerate warmer waters than brook trout.

The brown trout was brought from Europe, also in the late 1800s. It is brownish yellow with many black and few bright-red spots along its flanks. Currently, it thrives in the North Caolina streams and can tolerate warm and turbid waters.

Once done with the hatchery tour, you can take the easy interpretive trail through the beautifully restored wildlife garden and hardwood forest habitat. Inside the auditorium you can get up close to colorful fish, frogs, salamanders and snakes.

If you plan to stick around for a few days, take advantage of the high quality outdoor classes for all age and skill levels: fly tying and fishing, hunter education, outdoor cooking, waterfall photography and more. Details online or by phone at (828) 877-4423.

Easily accessible waterfalls Blue Ridge Parkway

Nearby Looking Glass Falls right off Hwy 276

For ever enchanted in beautiful Western North Carolina!

New at Riverbanks Zoo, Columbia wild fun thing to do!

I haven’t been to Riverbanks since the “Lights Before Christmas” event. Last Saturday my daughter and I braved the crowds and the heat to see what’s new at the zoo.

Newest exhibit: Kangaroo Walkabout
Although is hard to replace the feisty sea lions (remember Big Boy?) the kangaroos and wallabies held their own on the fun factor. Kids love to get close (really close!) to the strange looking creatures. The are two staff guides that monitor the animals and are happy to answer questions.

Red Necked Wallabies – Wallabies are the smaller cousins of the kangaroos.

Columbia Zoo newest exhibit

Happy to sit next to young wallabies

The red-necked wallaby is the largest of all the wallabies.

Like kangaroos, wallabies get around by hopping and raise young in a pouch in the female’s belly. They spend the dawn and dusk hours eating grasses and other plants, and rest during broad daylight.

Red-Necked Wallabies have been killed for their fur and because they eat same grass as sheep.

Red Kangaroos – Males are called “boomers”, females “flyers” and the young are called “joeys”. Kangaroos can live up to 20 years of age.

Handsome young male Columbia Zoo

Is fun watching the kangaroos only feet away

In the wild, males live lot less than females (5-10 years vs. 10-15 years) due to constant fighting with other males and their mostly solitary life.

An adult male red kangaroo can weigh 200 pounds and grow to be 5 feet tall, truly remarkable considering at birth he is as big as a jelly bean!

Kangaroos are mostly nocturnal. During the day they cope with the heat by licking their wrists.

They can hop over 6 feet tall fences, leap over 25 feet and reach speeds of 30 mph! When threatened, kangaroos stomp the ground with their hind legs and thump with their tales. They can deliver a powerful kick if necessary!

The Gorilla exhibit is still a family favorite. There is renewed interest after the short yet exciting escapade last year and the sad departure of Kimya, the youngest male, this year.

Silverback gorilla survivor Columbia zoo

The one gorilla who did not get away...

2010 Price and Food Updates:

Admission is now $11.75 adults, $9.25 children (under 3 get in FREE), $10.75 military and seniors. There is a new $28.75 (per person) Combo Pass that includes admission and unlimited rides.

Really cute meerkat Riverbanks Zoo

The Meerkat Manor of Columbia!

There are 2 new “Explorer” membership options, $99 individual and $149 family, which provide unlimited rides and attractions on top of the usual benefits.

See all the details here.

You can get a $20 Day Pass for unlimited rides and feedings. The price for each individual attraction has not changed ($5 pony ride, $2 train ride, $2 3D Theater, $1 carousel, and $1 giraffe and lorikeet feeding).

Best place to eat is still the Kenya cafe, which is open year around and offers indoor A/C seating. All grill meals include french fries and cost around $4. Choose from burgers, hot dogs, chicken tenders, chicken and BBQ sandwiches. There are grab-and-go salads, deli sandwiches, yogurt, fruits and more.

Stay wild, be cool at the Riverbanks Zoo!

All roads lead to Fort Walker? The Port Royal Battle, the Blockade, the Charleston Siege, and the first Gullah town (Hilton Head historic tour)

The Hilton Head Island history is rich and powerful, with the Civil War period as its most fascinating and nation-impacting act. We were lucky to experience it last summer, during the “Forts of Port Royal” tour provided by the Coastal Discovery Museum.

Things to know before you go
• The cost is $12 for adults and $7 for children ages 4-12 (subject to change check the museum website for latest prices). The tour lasts ~1:45 minutes, with the first half hour spent inside Westin Hotel, listening to a

Battle of Port Royal Civil War historic site

Here was fought the largest naval battle in US waters...

historic overview.

This part is the hardest to digest and enjoy by young kids. Amazingly, my then 4 years old, was happy to just doodle on the couch next to me.

• You are expected to drive your own car to Westin (where the tour starts) and the Fort Walker / Fort Sherman ruins inside Port Royal Plantation. Our guide courteously offered to drive us in his car, which we did.

• There is not much left of Fort Walker, just some earthen mounds surrounded by huge oak trees. The only visible ruins are from Fort Sherman (built on top on Fort Walker). However, the views of the Port Royal Sound are spectacular! Added bonus you can catch a glimpse of Ted Turner’s personal island…

• It gets very hot during summer. Bring a hat and water; wear sunscreen and insect repellent. Once on the fort grounds there is very little walk involved.

Incredible facts and funny trivia about the Port Royal Battle and Hilton Head
• Before the Civil War, South Carolina was one of the richest states. Thanks to its staple crop, the extra long and super fine Sea Island cotton, Hilton Head was believed to house the world’s most millionaires per square feet!

Port Royal forts ruins

Civil War Battle of Port Royal

• Fort Walker was the first fort built on the island, near the spot claimed by British Captain William Hilton during its famous expedition in 1663.

Erected in a hurry in 1861, the fort was meant to protect the South Carolina coast against Union attacks.

• On November 7, 1861, the “Battle of Port Royal” became the largest naval battle ever fought in American waters. 18 Union warships and 55 supporting craft led by Admiral S. F. DuPont, carrying 13,000 troops, 1500 horses, 500 surf boats, and 1,000 laborers, bombarded for over 4 hours Fort Walker and Fort Beauregard.

• The Battle of Port Royal established Hilton Head as the headquarters for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, started the war-long attack on Charleston, and led to the creation of Mitchelville, the first town developed specifically for the newly freed slaves.

Mitchelville became the birth of the rich Gullah culture and was also the sight of the first mandatory education system in the United States!

A bloody family affair – The Confederate troops were under the command

Fish Hall Plantation design at Port Royal Sound

Modern day replica of Drayton-Pope Fish Hall Plantation home

of General Thomas F. Drayton, a prominent local plantation owner, politician, and president of the very profitable Charleston – Savannah railroad.

Amazingly, his brother Commander Percival Drayton will lead the Union Navy attack, including the USS Pocahontas, which was credited to have inflicted the most damage during the battle!

• Despite heavy bombardments there were less than 100 casualties, a significant low number by later Civil War battles standards.

• Following the battle, close to 50,000 Union troops were quartered on the island, more than the number of today’s residents!

• The U.S. Customs House on Robbers Row street, conducted enormous amounts of business as dozens of ships entered the port monthly from as far away as Boston. It is said that most of the goods were sold on the black market to the Confederates…

Here is the virtual tour of Fort Walker:

If you are really into Civil War fort battles, then drive 1 hour south to Savannah and visit the legendary Fort Pulaski. There are live cannon and musket firings in the weekends. Admission to the park is less then $5 (free for kids).

Free walking tour of historic Southport, half an hour between Wilmington and Sunset Beach

Nestled on the mouth of Cape Fear River, Southport is one of the most charming cities along the North Carolina coast, with an incredibly rich naval and military history.

Oak Island Lighthouse

Southport Ferry to Fort Fisher on Cape Fear River

In 1500s and 1600s European explorers such as Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon and William Hilton discovered its riches; in 1700s ruthless pirates like Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet ravaged its canals.

During the Civil War, cunning river pilots defied the blockade, and in 1900s businessmen tried in vain to make the city a prominent railroad center. Nowadays, movie directors have “conquered” the city and shot more than 50 films for the last 20 years.

This post highlights some of the attractions you can enjoy along Southport’s self-guided walking tour. Most data comes from historical markers and outdoor exhibits, and the walking tour brochure you can grab at the Visitor Center.

Any visit to Southport must include a stop at the NC Maritime Museum (free admission) and a family fun ferry boat ride to Fort Fisher ($5 per car one way) and the exotic NC Aquarium ($8 adults, $6 children 6-17, free for kids 5 and under).

Stocks and Pillory at Old Brunswick County Jail

Funny punishment Old Brunswick County Jail

Walk the walk, talk the talk at Old Brunswick County jail

Built in 1904 for $6,738, the Old Brunswick Jail served the county until 1971, when an annex was completed. Both buildings were discontinued in 1978 when the county seat was moved to Bolivia.

The 1st floor provided living quarters for the jailer and his family. The 2nd floor had 2 cell rooms containing 4 bunks, a commode and washbasin and a small runabout.

Sissy Spacek is considered the jail’s most famous “criminal”! She stayed here in the summer of 1986, during the shooting of Crimes of the Heart.

The jail is now a museum and also home to the Southport Historical Society. The annex is home to the Southport Friends of the Library.

The museum is opened April through October.

The Railroad’s Come to Town…Willing, But Slow
Between the Civil War and the construction of the Panama Canal in 1904, local residents and investors desperately sought to surpass Wilmington in building the railroad link to the Appalachian coal fields. Smithville will become the railroad first refueling stop, thus bringing fame and fortune to the small fishing village.

Happy Southport Residents welcome the new train station

Willing, but slow...the short lived Southport train service

So in 1890, with much fanfare, a huge coal dock was built on Rhett Street and the town proudly changed its name to Southport, the “Port of the South”.

For 20 years, 15 rail companies failed to build the railroad, until Wilmington, Brunswick and Southern finally succeeded in 1911.

By then, technology has changed and ships had begun to burn oil and not coal, causing some investors to lose fortunes.

On November 25, 1911, a huge celebration marked the train’s arrival with bands, speeches, boat races and picnics. The trip from Wilmington took 2 hours and 36 minutes. Nicknamed “Willing, But Slow”, the passenger service continued until 1933. The station burned in 1940, never to be rebuilt.

Nearby is the 18th century Old Burying Ground, peaceful resting place to prominent families ship captains, soldiers an driver pilots. Note “The winds and the sea sing their Requiem and shall forevermore” obelisk mark honoring river pilots and seamen lost in the 1872 and 1877 storms.

Fort Johnston – Cape Fear River Guardian and Civil War Blockade Runner
Established as a British port in 1748, Fort Johnston was the first commissioned fort in North Carolina and the state’s only fort to serve under 3 different countries! Until 2004 it was considered the smallest working U.S. military installation.

The outer fortification was built of tabby rock, a mix of oyster shells, sand, lime and water. Some sections are still visible at low tide. On July 19, 1775, unable to defend the fort against British troops, NC militia destroyed the fort.

On January 9, 1861, an armed body of civilians overwhelmed Fort Johnston’s lone occupant, Ordinance Sgt. James Reilly, and demanded the keys. Reilly quickly surrounded them and received a receipt in return. However, North Carolina Governor John W. Ellis ordered few days later that Fort Johnston and other strongholds be restored to the Federal Government.

The Confederates reoccupied the fort on April 16, after the fall of Fort Sumter, and again took possession from Sgt. Reilly. He soon resigned from U.S. Army and joined the Confederacy as an artillery officer. Ironically he had to surrender the fort once more in 1865, this time to the Union forces!

Home to successful Civil War blockade runner

1868 Capt. Thomas Mann Thompson House

During the Civil War vessels running the blockade passed through the Cape Fear inlet en route to Canada, Bermuda, Caribbean and Cuba.

They returned to Wilmington carrying military supplies, which railroads transported north to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Eventually the Union blockading squadron sealed ever Southern port, except Wilmington which was protected by Fort Fisher and Fort Johnston.

One of the most successful blockade runner and river pilot was Captain Thomas Mann Thompson, now buried in the Old Ground cemetery. His 1868 house was Southport’s first home with a cupola and a Widow’s Walk.

The NC Oldest and the US Brightest Lighthouses
From the serene Southport Waterfront Park you can enjoy breathtaking views of the Cape Fear River Canal, bustling with big ships, ferry and fishing boats, and noisy seabirds. The jewels are the two lighthouses:

Southport Waterfront Park

1958 Oak Island Lighhouse brightest light in US

Bald Head Island Light built in 1817, is the oldest in the state.

Oak Island Light built in 1958 is one of the youngest in the US (only the one on Sullivan Island was built since) and features the country’s brightest light:

On good conditions it can be seen from 24 nautical miles.

The Oak Island Light is made of black, white and gray color concrete blocks thus it will never require repainting…You can reach Bald Head Island by ferry and Oak Island Coast Guard Station on Caswell Beach by taking Hwy 133.

Tony the Ghost, Quarantine Office and the Oldest House in Southport
Not far from Fort Johnston, on beautiful Bay Street, is the 1859 Brunswick Inn, a prime lodging spot for the high society. Its 30 rooms rented for a whopping $5 per month!

The Inn’s most famous resident was “Tony the Ghost” aka Antonio Caseletta, an Italian musician, who drowned while sailing. The following morning his harp was found with all strings ripped out. To this day people believe his spirit roams the building and can they still hear mysterious sounds.

Besides Brunswick Inn is the Quarantine Office built after the Civil War on pilings in the middle of Cape Fear River and used to decontaminate ships and personnel in the 1930s.

Next is the 1800 Walker-Pyke House, Southport’s oldest surviving house made of ballast stone from sailing ships.

Keziah Memorial Park and the Indian Trail Tree

Cape Fear Indians sites

Magnificent 800 years old tree, the start of the old Indian Trail

Named after local newspaperman Bill Keziah, the park is home to the Visitor Center and the Indian Trail Tree.

Cape Fear Indians, members of the Siouan Nation, have lived in this area (they called it “Chicora”) for centuries.

By 1720 none remained in the lower Cape Fear region.

Legend has it they bent the tree when it was sapling as a trail marker. The tree is estimated to be 400 to 800 years old.
Sixty years ago children could easily crawl under its arch.

Movies and TV Series
Southport’s peaceful marina, exquisite Victorian architecture and oak-lined streets make it a perfect setting for movies and TV filming. Here are just a few:
• TV Series – One Tree Hill, Dawson’s Creek, The Runaway and Matlock
• Movies – I know what you did last summer, The Secret Life of Bees, Pirate Kids I and II, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Domestic Disturbance, Lolita, The Butcher’s Wife and Raw Deal

Be forever enchanted in Southport North Carolina, where history comes to life!

in the summer of 1986