The coronavirus pandemic has brought big changes for one of the largest National Audubon Society sanctuaries in the country.

"Since 1975, Silver Bluff has been a wildlife sanctuary and has protected ecologically sensitive areas," said Brandon Heitkamp, the center's new sanctuary manager. "A lot of what we've got going on had been affected by (the pandemic). Areas like education, fundraising and some of our other projects have been impacted."

Recent retirements and some layoffs in the National Audubon Society have resulted in the center's already small staff having to carry multiple job titles and juggle countless responsibilities – something Heitkamp said can be "overwhelming" when it comes to managing 3,400 acres of vulnerable habitat critical to the protection of endangered species that live there.

One such type of animal – wood storks – is a big attraction for bird watchers at the Silver Bluff Sanctuary. Each year the center hosts the annual Storks and Corks dinner, one of their biggest fundraising events, which is marked by an evening viewing of endangered wood storks at the sanctuary's stork ponds.

Heitkamp said it is impossible to host the event this year because of the coronavirus.

"It's very sad," said Heitkamp, who has worked at the Silver Bluff sanctuary for a decade. "There's no fundraising right now. It's a difficult time to be handed the reins."

Staff is asking for donations through other means, such as checks addressed to the sanctuary, to assist with upkeep at the sanctuary during the pandemic. 

Education programs in flux

On a typical year, Heitkamp said around 2,000 students will visit the sanctuary and participate in its education programs, but those programs have been completely disrupted by coronavirus. 

"We're still paying our teachers here, and we're working on ways to get our groups out safely," Heitkamp said. "We're working on materials that can be done through video. We don't want to lose our education here, so we're trying to go status quo."

Heitkamp said it's unlikely any public school students will be able to make it to the sanctuary this year, though teachers are attempting to create a virtual education program for public schools. 

"I just don't think it's going to work because of the busing," Heitkamp said. "It's hard to social distance on those."

The virus has also forced the sanctuary staff to slow their plans for expanding their education facilities. The current education building – a trailer gifted to the sanctuary from the Savannah River Site in the 1980s – is outdated and overcrowded. The center secured funds to construct an outdoor pavilion to give the students and other visitors more room, but plans to construct a new building to replace the trailer have been put on hold.

"The money is there," Heitkamp said. "It's safe and earmarked, but we don't have a set plan. Everything is in such flux ... we don't know exactly what it's going to look like – even the education program itself – going forth with the virus." 

The center will still be carrying out its plans to demolish the old trailer.

While COVID-19 has has some negative impact on the site, the staff has worked hard to adapt. Their ecological programs have been very successful, and they plan on reintroducing red cockaded woodpeckers back into the sanctuary soon. 

"We're very positive," Heitkamp said. "We feel like we're doing good work."

The staff also hopes to extend the sanctuary's open hours due to a high uptick in hiking interest. 

"We're happy to have hikers," Heitkamp said. "If people want to come see the storks, it's a great place to be socially distant and to get out. It's a good, safe place to come if you stay with the people you came with. We've got 6 miles of trails and open-air picnic areas."

A new trail – the Quail Trail, which overlooks the Savannah River – has just been opened on the property.  

"It's nice to see families," said Travis Scott, facilities assistant. "With kids out of schools, we've seen a lot of families spending good, quality time outside with their kids."

Kristina Rackley is the health, education, and general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard. To support local journalism and access more articles, subscribe by clicking here