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Birding: More than a walk in the woods

By Peter M. Williams, Jr.


As one whose eyes are normally fixed on a distant summit or gazing down some dark hole in a limestone outcropping, moving back to the Lowcountry nine months ago has forced me to take up some new hobbies. The Lowcountry, for all its charms, is somewhat lacking in high places, and as someone who currently has more pieces of metal fused, screwed and wired throughout my body than I have years on this planet, it was about time to hang it up anyway. After all, the bothersome thing about summits is that sooner or later, you must descend.

Still, my natural attraction has been to solo activities that involve a bit of adrenaline, and although I have no ethical opposition to hunting, I’ve never done it, and you can only fail at fishing so many times before you snap the rod over your knee. Like most people raised in the Lowcountry, I have an affinity for water, but once I was back, I found a few obstacles in the way of developing an aquatic hobby: I love sailing, but lacked a boat; I used to surf, but couldn’t bring myself to buy a board. I enjoy walking on the beach, but it feels like I should be drinking.

It seemed that exploring the wetlands of the ACE Basin and surrounding areas from a kayak or canoe was my best bet. So, when my esteemed publisher informed me that I’d be writing an exposé on Lowcountry birdwatching and ornithology, I brushed it off. Spend a few cool mornings in the woods, maybe take a canoe trip down the Edisto, take some pictures — piece of cake, I thought.

Cut to one week before publication and before I have my scribbled notes on local ornithological history (dating back to prehistoric times), a list of species found only in and around the Lowcountry, plus quotes from local experts and amateurs about. There are books and color prints of rails, and I can assure you of one thing: Birdwatching (or “birding” for short) is no easy undertaking, at least not for someone who has trouble sitting still and is almost never quiet, and it is nothing short of enthralling. I learned to love it, and I hope that in this short article, I can show my gratitude in finding joy in an interest I never knew I had.

As most locals know, ornithology has a deep-rooted history in the Lowcountry, dating back to the indigenous peoples who inhabited these lands centuries ago observed and interacted with the native bird populations and shared a profound connection with the avian world, incorporating birds into their art, stories and rituals. Many Native American tribes of the Lowcountry — the Cherokee, Catawba and Yuchi, to name a few — revered the eagle for its strength and wisdom; the heron was viewed as a symbol of patience and grace.

When European settlers arrived in the late 1600s, they were similarly fascinated by the diverse birdlife of the “New World” and their observations and collections laid the foundation for formal ornithological studies. One of the most notable early naturalists was Mark Catesby, an Englishman who journeyed to the Carolina colony in the early 18th century. Catesby’s extensive work, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, provided the world with detailed illustrations and descriptions of numerous bird species, many of which continue inhabit the Southeast to this day.

Fast forward to the 19th century, and the advent of more organized scientific research brought about significant advancements in the field of ornithology. Though not a native of South Carolina, it’s impossible to speak of North American ornithology without mentioning John James Audubon, who arrived in the Lowcountry in 1831and joined forces with amateur ornithologist the Reverend John Bachman, a native Charlestonian who presented Audubon with preserved specimens previously unrecorded. Their work contributed immensely to the study of birds in the area, with Audubon’s novel approach to scientific illustration, which initially irked the academic community with its bright colors and differing perspectives. Simultaneously beautiful and anatomically accurate, the illustrations in his magnum opus, The Birds of America, (one of the most expensive printed books in existence), features several species found only in the Lowcountry. In the 20th century, this tradition was carried on by Alexander Sprunt, who published South Carolina Bird Life after serving as the curator of ornithology at The Charleston Museum.


A plate by John Jay Audubon. IMAGE COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Today, ornithology in the Lowcountry has evolved into a multidisciplinary science, incorporating genetics, ecology and conservation efforts to better understand and protect our region’s avian inhabitants. With numerous birding clubs, several wildlife refugee centers (including the Waccamaw Wildlife Preserve, one of the foremost coastal birding destinations in the Southeast) and two raptor observation sites in the area, the Lowcountry remains at the forefront of ornithological research in the Southeastern United States.


The elusive and distinctive prothonotary warbler. IMAGE COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

During the course of researching and writing this article, I came across a few species worthy of note — some are rare, some are common, but all are fascinating. The first of these is the prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea). This vibrant yellow warbler is aptly nicknamed the “golden swamp warbler” due to its preference for nesting in the cypress swamps and bottomland hardwood forests of the Lowcountry. The birds arrive in our region in spring, filling the swamps with its cheerful song, its striking yellow plumage makes it stand out in the dense verdant vegetation. I was lucky enough to take a trip down Penny Creek near the Edisto this past spring and was fortunate to hear its song, a rapid succession of chirps that crescendo in volume and pitch. With a little practice, it’s rather unmistakable.

I’ve always been partial to woodpeckers (I feel a sort of mental kinship with any animal that repeatedly beats its skull against hard objects), so I was excited to come across the red-cockaded woodpecker. A critically endangered species found in the pine forests of the Lowcountry, this bird is easily recognized by its distinctive black and white plumage and a tiny red streak on the sides of its head, this fellow plays a crucial role in maintaining the health of longleaf pine ecosystems.


A red cockaded woodpecker in the wild. IMAGE COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

According to ornithologist Craig Watson, “Prior to Hurricane Hugo hitting the Francis Marion National Forest, there were about 500 active clusters of red cockaded woodpeckers in the forest, and that went down to about 120 in overnight. From one hurricane, we lost 90 percent of the cavitied trees and 65 percent of the birds themselves.” With the future of the species on the line, ornithologists saved the species by installing artificial cavities in the remaining trees in an effort to provide the remaining birds with a place to live. The plan had never been tried before, but thankfully it was successful. Although the red cockaded woodpecker remains protected by Endangered Species Act and is still a rare sight, populations are on the rebound.

Our region is also conveniently situated in the middle of the migratory path for many large species of raptors — carnivorous flying behemoths like the barred owl or the majestic bald eagle. One may also observe the peregrine falcon, used in falconry throughout history and which has been clocked at speeds approaching 250 miles per hour while diving for their prey. One local ornithologist reported seeing more than 50 peregrine falcons while birdwatching near Botany Bay at the nearby raptor observation point. In the ACE basin, yours truly was fortunate to spot a bald eagle perched high in a loblolly pine, observing his domain. The bird was enormous, and I felt my primitive fight-or-flight instincts kick in as he gave his boogie board-sized wings a casual flap and adjusted his footing, revealing fearsome talons that would filet me in a heartbeat.

So, as is usually the case, my initial impression of birdwatching as a rather pedestrian and mundane activity could not have been more wrong — I can only hope I didn’t voice it too often. Ours is a land rich with natural wonders: Perhaps there are no high rocky peaks or deep valleys and canyons like the ones that dot the American West, but our space in the world is no less spectacular; with that being said, I already enjoy messing around in the woods above all other hobbies, so this is a skill that can be honed for a lifetime.


Peter is the managing editor of the Charleston Mercury and the Carolina Digital Daily. He can be reached at peter@charlestonmercury.com. Click here to subscribe to the Carolina Digital Daily and the Mercury. For advertising inquiries, contact Brooke Butler at bbutler@charlestonmercury.com.

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