Lowcountry's fancy for feathered friends flies on

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comDecember 10, 2011 

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Someone from the outside looking in on those of us nested in the Lowcountry might call us bird brains.

And they would be right.

Birds have been on the minds of Lowcountry residents as long as there have been Lowcountry residents. The same is true for visitors, including John James Audubon and William Bartram, who traveled this way as early as the 18th century.

So a lush new photography book about our birds is not a fly-by snapshot of Lowcountry life. The book by David Lynch of Hilton Head Island -- "Finely Feathered: The Marsh and Lagoon Birds of the Lowcountry" -- continues a chorus in the woods that by now should be part of our DNA.

Lynch's words reflect the solid information of a high school biology teacher of 30 years. His photographs reflect a hobby run amok, now parading into our living rooms: the knobby orange legs of the ibis, the raincoat-yellow feet of the snowy egret and the piercing talons of the bald eagle.

He says the book is "to delight, inspire and celebrate the amazing variety of Lowcountry birds."

Barry Lowes, the dean of southern Beaufort County birders, says, "It should have a place in every home on a table close to a garden window."

Sometimes, it seems as if there is no garden window in the Lowcountry. It seems as if the birds are part of the family.

"The towhee stays with us from October to April," wrote Edith Inglesby of Bluffton in her 1968 book, "A Corner of Carolina," with illustrations by Jim Palmer. "We like him not only for the good taste he shows in selecting our garden but for his compelling personality. There is nothing grand about him, yet he is never overlooked. His song is said to be, 'Drink your tea, drink your tea.' Blufftonians are not averse to stronger beverage but they take his remark as suggestion ... not reproof."

CAREFUL OBSERVERS

In August 1972, Corinne VanLandingham wrote in her "Sand Dollars" column in The Island Packet:

"Do you think birds like music? Yesterday, while our radio was higher than usual, there sat eight birds on the rail outside our breakfast room window. Cardinals, painted buntings and Carolina chickadees ... all apparently enjoying the rendition of Beethoven and even swaying a bit back and forth.

"The feeder was full, so they couldn't have been waiting for food. And one little chickadee was in the basket, swaying away with his eyes closed. One of the biggest reasons I never get anything done is because I've become completely addicted to bird-watching."

Nancy Duane Cathcart was among the first to take a scientific approach to documenting this addiction -- and encouraging it. She had a degree in botany, covered Hilton Head Island by horseback and jeep and was said to have never worn a dress except on her wedding day at St. Luke's church.

Beyond being an observer, she was an activist. Her book, "The Natural History of Hilton Head Island, S.C.: A Field Guide," published after her death in 1980, is dedicated "To the lost places of the island."

In telling us what plants and animal life can be seen where and at what time of year, her "check list of birds prepared by Hilton Head Island's Audubon Society 1960-1976" runs four pages.

Cathcart, who wrote nature columns in the Packet called "The Windward Edge" and later "A Voice in the Wilderness," thanks a hall-of-fame list of others who aided her passion: Caroline "Beany" Newhall, Orion Hack, Alva Cunningham, Betty MacDonald and Todd Ballantine. The local Sierra Club chapter is named for Nancy Cathcart.

Pierre McGowan's book "Tales of the Barrier Islands of Beaufort County, South Carolina" includes a two-page list of birds seen in his first 80 years of rambling in the woods and waters surrounding Beaufort.

When super-wealthy New York City financiers Alfred L. Loomis and Landon K. Thorne owned 20,000 acres on Hilton Head Island in the 1930s and '40s, Loomis and MIT president Karl Compton made scientific surveys of the island. They recorded 19 varieties of duck, 293 covies of quail in 1936, and noted that "as many as 4,000 Widgeon have fed in the duck ponds during a winter," according to Jennet Conant's book about Loomis, "Tuxedo Park."

ROOT OF THE MATTER

Bird walks were a hot social outing soon after the bridge was built to Hilton Head in 1956.

Inglesby describes one of the Sunday-afternoon adventures with field books and binoculars:

"Not all of us are young or willowy. The women are given to slacks and bright head scarves; the men affect rather showy shirts and jackets. As we stand en masse, binoculars trained on one small song sparrow atop an enormous pine, we must present a tableau that would cause a New Yorker cartoonist to yearn for his drawing block."

She also records a scene from decades ago much like those captured in the colorful pages of Lynch's new book.

Inglesby wrote:

"Once we saw a great blue heron, magnificently tall, feeding near a sea gull. Suddenly a porpoise, with we swear an amused look on his face, leaped up beside them. As quickly they were off ... raising their raucous squawks of alarm.

"We think of Henry Timrod, that South Carolina poet and naturalist who had, we think, the root of the matter in him when he thanked:

'Him who placed us here

Beneath so kind a sky.' "

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

Lowcountry birders to gather for long-running wildlife census

Five Minutes With: Barry Lowes, Christmas Bird Count organizer

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