At a small inlet, Captain Grant silenced the motor to point out a thick bank of waist-high spartina grass, crucial to this delicate ecosystem. Not only is it a habitat for a number of bird species, it's also a vital link in the food chain.
Sea Pines Forest
My wildlife viewing quest wouldn't be complete without a visit to Sea Pines Forest Preserve, a 605-acre dedicated wildlife habitat best known for its mysterious Indian Shell Ring, remnants of a civilization that inhabited the island approximately 4,000 years ago. Some experts theorize the shell ring was a site for ceremonial rituals.
I chose to explore the preserve on horseback, so at Lawton Stables I hopped on a quarter horse named Ragin' Cajun, (he was a docile animal, despite the name) and set off on a guided trail ride through the lush maritime forest.
Spanish moss clings like cobwebs to the branches of centuries-old live oaks, bestowing the forest with an ethereal aura. With a little imagination, that could be a unicorn instead of a deer behind that thicket of pines.
But this is no enchanted forest, and our guide reined in my flights of fancy by giving us the facts about the animals that thrive in these wetlands. At least 160 species of birds make Sea Pines Forest their winter home, but plenty can be found year round.
After the ride, I set off on foot for Lake Mary, one of four man-made freshwater lakes on the preserve. That's where I had my most breathtaking wildlife encounter of all.
As I was snapping photos of birds, I came practically face-to-face with an 8-foot-long alligator sunning himself on the lakeshore. I could count every ridge on the reptile's back and every scale on his rough, murky — colored skin. I was way too close for comfort.
If the lion is king of the jungle, the gator is king of the maritime forest, demanding respect from every species that inhabits the island, including humans. He was as still as one of the palmetto trees and I had no desire to test how fast he could move if provoked.
When I was a safe distance away, I put my zoom to good use and clicked until I had my most treasured photo of all — an image of this Lowcountry icon enjoying life on the island as much as I had.