David Lauderdale

Bird watching is a serious sport in the Lowcountry

Some of you may not yet know a cattle egret from a tufted titmouse.

But to enjoy the Lowcountry, you're going to have to know your birds.

It's no accident that the great early naturalists John James Audubon and William Bartram lurked along our shores like great horned owls.

Neither is it an accident that our great early developers named our streets after the sublime sightings of Audubon and Bartram: Green Winged Teal Road, Yellow Rail Lane, Dove Street.

Fortunately, the people who flocked like swallows to these streets often came outfitted with as many binoculars as 9-irons. They loved to waddle about in little gaggles, marveling at the mysterious hand of God aflutter on the marsh and in the live oak forest.

Nancy Duane Cathcart, rest her soul, wrote "The Natural History of Hilton Head Island, S.C.: A Field Guide" so that others could understand the wonders she documented in constant forays by Jeep and foot. Her checklist of local birds compiled from 1960 to 1976 by the Hilton Head Audubon Society runs four pages.

And Edith Inglesby, a librarian who knew her way deep into the Lowcountry on horseback, assures us that not everyone who appreciates birds has to be an expert.

She describes the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, when volunteers comb the county each December to count birds, as a learning experience.

"We mooch along, content with our 'l'ècole buisonnière' sort of knowledge," she writes in her 1968 book, "A Corner of Carolina." "But hedgerow learning isn't enough. Out comes 'Peterson's Guide' and an admonishing finger indicates to us that the bird really is a pine warbler. 'But warblers are all so confusing,' our mentor kindly adds."

The December 2010 bird count -- three of them countywide -- took place with thermometers frozen in the high 20s and 10-knot winds, prompting one volunteer to say, "We felt like we were standing naked on the beach."

Barry Lowes says the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton count had its highest numbers ever: 151 species and 36,041 birds (including 40 eagles and eight hummingbirds) counted by 151 people. Helen Chatterton says the Sun City-Okatie count was up 43 percent over last year to 142 species and 8,744 birds. Ken Scott says the count by 35 volunteers on Beaufort's barrier islands was up in its second year to 116 species and 9,000 birds.

They warn that numbers can be deceiving because they're working harder to find the birds. Still, they're thrilled at the number of birds. I'm thrilled at the number of people still willing to sort loons from snipes.