AUDUBON NEWHALL NATURE PRESERVE IS FLOURISHING AGAIN
Audubon Newhall Preserve has bounced back after Hurricane Matthew and is open for business daily on the south end of Hilton Head Island.
Business, in this case, could mean bird watching on a sunny morning, joining a guided nature walk led by volunteers, or strolling solo through the park’s tree-lined paths.
It’s a testament to human perseverance in the face of adversity and the resilience of nature. Last year, the 50-acre preserve took a beating during Matthew and remained closed for months.
“It’s come back nicely. Most of the damage was limited to area people can see from the road,” said Tom Hennessey, a member of the Hilton Head Audubon Society and who is involved with the park.
Many large pine trees fell in the parking and entrance area during the hurricane, and a timbering company the group hired to clear them left deep ruts in the ground. But pioneer plant species have sprouted in the open areas, a deep blanket of pine straw covers the ruts and, at press time, volunteers were scheduled to spread mulch on some bare portions near the entrance.
The lagoon at the heart of the preserve and its more than two miles of trails weren’t affected much by Matthew. They still offer a peaceful, shady oasis where thick tree trunks, leaves and underbrush muffle the noise of cars whizzing by on Palmetto Bay Road. A rare land feature called a pocosin — a depression on an elevated piece of land containing specially adapted plants — is accessible by an elevated boardwalk.
On sunny days it’s possible to see an alligator sunning itself on the bank of the lagoon. Cries of songbirds reverberate in the still air. Visitors can pick up a trail guide — illustrated by renowned naturalist Todd Ballentine — at the entrance to the park, and are invited to note in a waterproof book near the entrance the species they observe in the park. Donations also are accepted.
After the wallop packed by Matthew, many weren’t sure if the preserve would return to its former glory. But luckily, things could have been worse.
Hurricane Matthew wasn’t devastating to bird populations in the preserve or on the island in general, because the storm hit when birds that nest in the tops of trees had already fledged their young, said biologist Carlos Chacon of the Coastal Discovery Museum.
“For birds like bald eagles, the timing was good,” he said.
And thankfully, Tropical Storm Irma was kind and left Audubon Newhall Preserve alone.
The Audubon Newhall Preserve was established in 1965 when Caroline “Beany” Newhall recognized the need to protect native plants from the path of development. She convinced Charles Fraser — who shared her love for the environment — to set aside the land for the preserve. Over the years, Newhall spent many hours transplanting plants to this protected environment, and she left an endowment to ensure the preserve’s upkeep.
Many people have carried on Newhall’s labor of love. Jack Greenshields, who passed away in June, spent countless hours taking care of the preserve and helping others enjoy it. In addition to being chairman of the Audubon Newhall Preserve, Greenshields was president of The LowCountry Master Naturalist Association, vice president of the Hilton Head Audubon Society, vice president of the South Carolina Natural Plant Society, and a docent for the Costal Discovery Museum.
“Jack left big shoes to fill,” said Bob Clemens, the preserve’s current chairman.
He is aided by Audubon Society member Rita Kernan, who trains the volunteer guides and is in charge of signage marking interesting native plants.
Sea Pines also helps out. Staff from Sea Pines opens the gate to the preserve at sunrise and close it at sunset every day of the year and maintains the firebreak that surrounds Audubon Newhall.
Improvements at the preserve are continuing. The entrance will get a facelift soon, when a formal gate with two brick pillars is installed. The new entrance will “look like a monument,” Hennessey said, and should be nearly hurricane proof.
The Hilton Head Audubon Society will conduct guided walks in the Audubon Newhall Preserve at 10 a.m. Thursdays from Nov.1 through May. Experienced naturalists will discuss the history and wildlife in the preserve. The walks are free, but donations are appreciated. Reservations are not required. The preserve is at 55 Palmetto Bay Road on Hilton Head Island.