The mill pond is one of those places you've likely never heard of -- back in the bottom of the Little Salkehatchie River, out in the middle of nowhere.
When the first flight of white ibises sweeps in, the cypress already are clustered with great egrets, showing their plumes, nipping and courting. Wood storks circle in to preen with their mates in the nests. The ibises come flocking, by the dozens, by the hundreds -- flight after flight after flight until they swarm across the skies and the pond. The branches hum like bees with honks and whirring.
By dusk, the cypress are thronged with white wings that glow like fresh snow.
"You really can't describe it. People have no idea what you are talking about. You try to tell them and they don't understand," said Ted Ford, standing on the bank by his cabin. "I don't know how many times I've seen it and it's still a stirring sight."
The old cypress pond was just part of the place when Ford bought his river-bottom hardwood acres in 2004. A James Island resident, business owner and Ducks Unlimited member, he is a lifelong hunter and fisherman. He wanted a country retreat, a place of his own where "you get to paint it with your own brush," he said quoting a friend.
For Rosemary Ford, his wife, the place was "Ted's thing." Until they spent that first night on the bank with thousands on thousands of ibises, great egrets, cattle egrets little blue herons, wood ducks and anhingas.
"I'm just kind of amazed," she said. "It's become a little more my thing now."
For the Lowcountry, the old pond in upland Colleton County is one of the most remarkable of countless obscure wetlands that are again becoming the nurseries of the place. Threatened and once-threatened species like wood storks and egrets are re-populating, moving out from their coastal rookery strongholds such as the ACE Basin rice fields.
The stork, the majestic, black-and-white winged wading bird, was decimated by habitat loss to only 11 recorded pairs in 1981. Now more than 2,000 haunt the state, the largest colony in the country. Today, it's nothing unusual to see a wood stork careening out from the little wetland nook along Interstate 526 near Tanger Outlet Center in North Charleston.
Ted Ford's pond is a reason why.
The birds came back in no small part because the vast ACE Basin rice fields were conserved. They will keep coming back because of a landscape of smaller, privately held wetlands like the 50-acre pond that the Fords just put under conservation easement along with the rest of his 400-plus-acre holding. The easement was donated through Ducks Unlimited.
"It's an invaluable wildlife habitat," said Dean Harrigal, S.C. Natural Resources wildlife biologist who works in the ACE Basin and has visited the pond. The cypress trees provide the birds the nesting they need in water deep enough to discourage nest predators. The proximity to the Salkehatchie gives them wide-open forage near the nest to feed hatchlings and teach the young to forage on their own. "It makes it unique," he said.
The pond is a key piece of the "last phase" of the ACE -- a privately conserved tract in an upland reach of the basin, beyond the coastal plantation rice fields thought of as the heart of the place.
"A lot of the Lowcountry rookeries are old rice fields. The farther inland you get, the more rookeries you find in old mill ponds," Harrigal said. They give the birds stepping-stone "islands" between the sanctuary and developed environs of the Lowcountry. At one point, the Fords' pond was considered the second largest wood stork rookery in the state, after the Whitehall Plantation rice fields in the ACE proper.
"The thing is, it's man-made," Ford said, created when a tiny creek was dammed to provide waterwheel power to mill corn. A nearby property owner told Ford that one of his ancestors helped build the dam as a slave in the 1800s. Sometime afterward, the dam broke, the pond drained and the cypresses grew in the damp bottoms. It was then re-dammed, becoming that singular habitat vital to wading birds.
Ducks Unlimited, a hunting-oriented conservation group, is one of the founding parties of the ACE Basin, the landmark, quarter-million-acre privately and publicly conserved delta south of Charleston. Ducks Unlimited holds conservation easements on 115,000 coastal acres in South Carolina from Georgetown south, said Chris Vaughn, land protection coordinator.
There's not much among those holdings like Ted Ford's pond.
"It's a pretty spectacular place," Ford said.