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Reflections from the Swamp

Mike Dawson reflects on the nearly 40 years he spent working at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary at Francis Beidler Forest before retiring this fall

Mike Dawson’s first job right out of college was as the Naturalist in the Francis Beidler Forest at the Audubon wildlife sanctuary in Four Holes Swamp. He retired this year, after 38 and a half years with the organization, in the same sanctuary, as its Center Director and Sanctuary Manager.

Of his decades-long tenure, he says, “I fell in love with the swamp, the Charleston area, the job and the people I work with. It’s been a dream job.”

He’s shared the swamp through tours and stories, seen the land through a dozen hurricanes, helped find the second oldest confirmed Cypress tree in the world—which is housed in the Beidler Forest—served as a game warden, and he’s working still on securing Four Holes Swamp’s place in history by trying to establish and document its cultural and human history. Mike has recently applied to have Four Holes Swamp designated as a site on the National Undergound Railroad Network to Freedom through the National Parks Service.

He says, “What has kept me with Audubon for so long and interested in the job—besides just a love for the swamp—is the diversity of the job. Things are seasonal. About the time you get tired of doing one thing, the season changes and the responsibilities do as well.”

Mike says he’ll most miss leading night walks through the swamp. "I tell groups of students and visitors that because the Beidler Forest is wild, because it’s untouched and pristine, it’s the kind of place where wildlife encounters that are funny, that are weird, that are scary, and that are fascinating can happen. That is part of what has held me here and why I love the swamp.”

The wildlife encounter he’ll miss sharing most sounds just like an Aesop fable.

It starts with him leading a canoe trip and hearing some splashing. “I’m pretty good at identifying splashing noises, but this was an unidentified splashing object. Turns out, it was an immature Red-shouldered hawk. His whole body was underwater and his head above, and his wings were outstretched on the top of the water. The splashing noise we were hearing was him doing what I would describe as the bird’s version of the butterfly stroke.

“I don’t know what you know about hawks, but they’re not ducks. They don’t belong in the water. So, we couldn’t figure out, one, why he was in the water, and, two, why he wouldn’t get out of the water.”

To investigate, Mike and another gentleman got out their canoes into knee-deep water and waded towards the hawk. The hawk scurried away and got himself lodged between two logs. They got up to him and Mike grabbed the bird by the equivalent of the elbows and lifted him up out of the water.

He says, “That’s when we realized what the problem was."

About a 2-foot brown water snake had somehow tied itself in a knot and in the process tied the hawk’s legs together too.

“As you can imagine, when the snake was stabbed by the hawk’s eight, needlepoint talons, he probably was wiggling around pretty wildly and purely by accident—don’t make the mistake of thinking this was the snake’s intention—tied itself in an overhand knot. Like shoelaces. It pinned the hawk’s legs together, he then lost his balance and fell into the water. Now, he’s soaking wet. He doesn’t have waterproof feathers, so his wings are too heavy to fly out of the water and his legs are tied with a now-dead snake, so he can’t climb out of the water. So, he’s just butterfly-stroking around.

“But I’m having this wonderful experience with a hawk. I’m 12-inches from his face and having a magical moment.”

Then the other guy reaches in and grabs the snake, unties him like he’s taking his shoes off. So the hawk’s legs were free. Naturally, he flipped up a talon and pierced Mike’s thumb. He’d freed himself and was then able to get up on a log and out of the water.

Mike concludes, "We finished the canoe trip a couple hours later, came back around, and the hawk was gone, so hopefully he learned his lesson about the snake and the log."

The moral of this story is probably something like, “No good deed goes unpunished,” but the scar the hawk left on Mike’s thumb probably more symbolizes a decades-long career serving and enjoying nature and the mark Mike, too, left on the Beilder Forest.