Whiskers and Doing the Charleston
Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge, near Mattamuskeet, someone said contains Ring-necked Duck and Brown-headed Nuthatch. I found neither. Maybe at my new location there would be nuthatches. I had called Geraldine Cox yesterday from Mattamuskeet. She was on my list as a Christmas Count compilers, and local birding expert of Washington, North Carolina. The town sets at the head of the Pamlico River, not really a river but the name of the estuary of the Tar River. The telephone call at first seemed as if I was intruding, which I was, but the conversation soon turned positive once I explained that I was just out of high school and trying to see as many birds as possible. The schoolteacher at the other end of the line apparently could not resist a potential student, and I was eager to learn. Geraldine, a few years my senior, lived with her parents in the quiet outskirts of town. They invited to me to bunk in the spare bedroom.
Geraldine told me that for the last two months other obligations allowed for only casual birding out her back yard and from her classroom. I told her that I hardly ever saw any interesting birds from my school windows but that I had spent plenty of time trying, or at least dreaming I would see something. Two months of not birding had had its limits. She was ready for some serious birding. I mentioned that I was looking for Brown-headed Nuthatch, and was instantly pointed to the door. There it was. My first Brown-headed Nuthatch was foraging at a suet feeder in a tree just a few feet from the house.
We started birding early the next morning. After just a few minutes of driving, Geraldine introduced me to a new birding term. We had spotted something perched on a branch of a tree. Closer examination revealed our subject was nothing more than an oddly shaped wooden knot. She said, “oh, it’s just a whisker. “ She explained that something that looks like a bird but is not is a whisker. That’s a better way of explaining, “that bunch of leaves that washed up and stuck to the fence wire isn’t really a bird. “ While birding with Geraldine, I noticed she was very interested in the mount for my scope, my hand made rifle gunstock. She also had a similar stock, which she had purchased from an advertisement in Audubon Magazine. Mine was larger. Geraldine, with short arms, liked the feel of my stock, and we agreed to trade. The longer stock also had a nice sling that made it easy to carry.
Geraldine also introduced me to her friends; the McLaren’s who owned a tract of land full of bird feeders and plants to attract birds where I found my first Bay-breasted Warbler. The four of us, Mary, Mac, Geraldine, and I birded a nearby marsh one afternoon where a strange plumaged sparrow caught us off guard. I first thought it was a species I had never seen. The bird was very cooperative, allowing close observation from all angles. It was a Swamp Sparrow, somewhere between juvenile and immature plumage. We continued on the deserted road through the marsh. Except for the strange sparrow, our stroll was uneventful until we returned to our car. I jumped on a mound of dirt that was stacked high with big chunks of asphalt. I stood astride a painted yellow line of former highway for one last scan over the marsh. A big King Rail then sauntered across an open stretch of shallow water. Mary scurried to the top of the mound just in time to see the regal rail slip into the dense reeds. That was number three for new life birds.
Before midnight of my last night in Washington, Geraldine hauled her portable record player out into the back yard. We hooked it up to a long extension cord, and cued the needle at the beginning track for Barred Owl of Peterson’s guide to bird sounds. Twice we thought we heard one or two half-hearted hoots. Maybe it was wishful hearing. We tried the screech-owl track and were happily successful. The next morning Geraldine was about to leave for her classroom. She remarked that maybe it was a good thing that she did not bird too often because it would not be so enjoyable if she did it every day. Somehow, after almost five months of birding, I have never thought the last day was any less enjoyable than the first.
The Maurine’s relayed me south to New Bern, a town with about 5,000 more people than Washington’s 10,000, and to their friends, Fred and Margaret Conderman. The hosting abilities of the Counterman’s was wonderful, with breakfasts just a window from red cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Redwinged Blackbirds and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. The Counterman’s followed with nutritional lunches and dinners and a clean soft bed, all of which was warmer than my usual fare.
We were skunked on the 23rd, when they tried to show me a Wild Turkey. We looked for a Purple Gallinule at Lake Ellis, a small lake dotted by stunted cypress and bordered by a promising marsh. Water lilies grew but the leaves were not the big round ones that would provide a floating perch for our bird. Or so we thought. Again, we failed to find our query. We did find Common Gallinule [=Common Moorhen, a name only the AOU could love], a species not likely to need the big floating leaves. Our luck looking from shore was not working so we paddled a small boat near the shore, in and out of cypress and lake vegetation, looking for whatever we could find. Little Blue and Great Blue herons lumbered away and I saw more Wood Ducks here than any one place I had been. Over forty Turkey Vultures and a single Black Vulture milled around the shore. Some were preening, others seemed to be sunning in the warm afternoon sun.
The next day, after a Cardinal breakfast, we drove to Beaufort and Moorhead City, coastal towns west of the southern end of the Outer Banks. Being back on the Atlantic shore felt comfortable. I wondered how the birding was on Pea Island, but just for a moment. We were now scouting Beauforts’ beef for Cattle Egrets, a sure thing according to Margaret Conderman. None was in sight. Inquiries to a couple of roadside farmers said no large white birds were near their cows since Hurricane Ella.
At Fort Macon State Park, near Moorhead City, birding got better than our peak of zero Cattle Egrets. First, a Western Kingbird, becoming less of a rarity of the east coast, popped up on a wire. I had not seen one for three months and 2,000 miles. Shortly, we found a straggling migrant female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Overhead several gulls and a hawk were wheeling in an updraft slightly over the water. The white windows in the hawk’s wings, its banded tail and reddish underparts fit the Peterson field guide as a Red-shouldered Hawk. The grosbeak, possibly unnerved by the new lifer, scurried into denser vegetation as several pugnacious mockingbirds began mobbing her. All but their chatter disappeared in the understory. Not far north of Moorhead City, we stopped to check out a new promising area. A sparrow popped up and froze on an open perch just long enough for us to come to the collective conclusion that it was a Henslow’s Sparrow. Minutes later, we practically bumped into an immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. The day was leaning to night so we hurried back to the car just in time to spot a different sparrow. Unlike the clear-breasted Bachman’s Sparrow, the new bird had streaks on its breast. The streaks were too broad for a sharp-tailed. Seaside, Savannah, the usual streaked sparrows were ruled out. It reminded me of a Baird’s Sparrow but it was too brown and the bill appeared large for the size of the bird. We added up the field marks, but had to flush the bird one more time to be sure, and we were. Another life bird, a Bachman’s Sparrow.
Both the grassland Bachman’s and the pine forest Henslow’s have major habitat problems. The former species loses habitat to grazing and urban sprawl. Henslow’s Sparrows, the only sparrow endemic to the United States, has had a downward spiral in population since Audubon discovered it in 1820. The usual culprit to the demise of most species, habitat loss comes from clearing pine forests and growth of trees, even in a protected area. Not unlike Kirtland’s Warblers, Bachman’s Sparrow habitat requires managed burning to provide optimum breeding.
Yesterday evening, at the Counterman’s, I met medical Dr. Sam Holmes. He stated assuredly that visiting Wilmington would add to the trip list Gull-billed and Least Terns, Purple Gallinule, Cattle Egrets and a couple of other species. I found none of the species he listed, but I tried to cure my ailment by finding three other new species to help relieve my symptoms.
The first day in the Wilmington region did not have a promising beginning. The person I had corresponded with months ago, as he had previously warned, was off attending a faraway college. He had suggested an alternate contact, who I tried to reach by phone. No one was home. I had the contact’s address, and drove a few miles east. I knocked a couple of times, and checked with a next-door neighbor, who said the person I was looking for was out birding. They said I should wait. Two minutes later “Dot” Earle drove up. She had heard I was coming, and offered her guest room. I wondered what she had heard. My original contact would have told her about my visit. Maybe my friends from up the Carolina coast had called ahead. “Take pity on the skinny kid from Oregon.”
Dot suggested a quick trip across the Intracoastal Waterway to Wrightsville Beach where a beach and town share names on a barrier island. The place, including the ocean, island and sound, was once alive with birds and mammals, even alligators. Unlike the protected outer banks, flat concrete and asphalt and vertical buildings cover most other barrier islands. The island hosting Wrightsville Beach is a reconfiguration of islands, some bulldozed to form one long narrow strand. Habitat alteration, mostly destruction, began early, in the nineteenth century. It has never stopped. I wondered where, in this mess of human habitat, it would be possible to see any birds, let alone something interesting. Still, I had faith that my enthusiastic host knew of one or two undisturbed bits of sand and marsh.
Crossing the Waterway on our way back towards Wilmington caused me to wonder how many of the southbound yachts carried birders. It was getting late and evening traffic slowed the pace, but my mind raced south to Okefenokee and Florida. A tern, a gull or two, and a distant shorebird interrupted my thoughts. The birds remained unidentified as we crept back to the house. Black-eyed peas, freshly caught mullet and hushpuppies capped the day.
The next morning was barely above freezing as we searched the sea beyond Wrightsville Beach. We were looking for Gannets, but the horizon was cold and birdless. For the next three days, we scoured the region from the causeway east of Wrightsville to Carolina Beach, Fort Fisher, just north of Cape Fear, and back to the mainland. Luckily, a few feet from the sand and reeds, we found one of those confusing fall warblers. Luckily, the bird allowed us to stare at it long enough to be sure it was a Blackpoll Warbler and a new bird.
On the last day, Dot planned a trip to two new areas south of Wilmington; Orton Plantation, a rice plantation circa 1700 loaded with formal gardens and ponds, and Long Beach on a long offshore barrier island separated from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway. As we drove into the plantation, which reminded me of a city park, I began wondering if this was such a good idea. It was. Anyone’s first Anhinga overpowers all trepidations about birding in such a well-manicured place. Further, south, at Long Beach, we found a White Ibis. A Long Beach resident told us that immature White Ibis, like the one we found today, wander north to visit nesting Glossy Ibis.
The 1957 Fifth edition of the AOU Check-list reported White Ibis as breeding in South Carolina. Northern dispersal of the immature White Ibis is probably explains why, by 2002 (AOU Check-list) the species nests along coastal North Carolina.
Mail was waiting for me at Shallotte, a hamlet not far north from South Carolina. The last mail from home was picked up at Suffolk, Virginia, only 20 days ago but it seemed longer than that. In 20 days, I had been in Great Dismal Swamp, the Outer Banks, North Carolina marshlands and estuaries, more and more Spanish moss, and hospitable homes. In the mail at Suffolk my mom wrote that she enjoyed the last phone call (called from Petersburg), and ever the teacher and librarian, commented that my writing and speech was improving. My dad wrote, “It seems like you are having good luck with your bird count. “ They wrote that the family parakeet, Billie, had died. She and I had little mumbled conversations as she perched behind bars. Whatever I did or said led to a strange behavior of her periodically laying a single egg. If I ignored her, she did not lay.
The new mail, at the Shallotte post office, started out with a description of a windstorm that killed 48 people in Oregon. No one was hurt in my home area. My mom had read the autographed copy of “Hawks Aloft,” which prompted her to read parts it to my dad, who could not handle the fine print. She also wrote, “I will admit I was very apprehensive about you making this trip, but now I think it has been the best thing that could have happened to you.” I could not agree more. She wondered, nonetheless, if the Cuban crisis was going to be a problem while traveling and wrote that my sister cried because she believed I might have to go into the military. What Cuban crises?
There was a long paragraph about my eating habits. My mom was worried that I was not getting enough protein, even going as far as suggesting a kind of canned meat (I will not mention the name, but it is well known, hated by some and loved by others). Several books and essays have been written about it. A reviewer of one such book referred to it as he Cadillac of canned meat but others comment about the conglomerate meat charged with sugar and sodium nitrates). My dad wrote that he no longer was working at the sawmill. He had gotten a job with the school, and even had a conversation with my high school principal, the very person that told me during my senior year that I would never make anything out of my life. What led him to such a conclusion? I never even had the pleasure of toilet papering his home. He told my dad that I would learn more on the trip than most “boys” would in a longer time. That was the most positive thing the guy could say. Then my dad wrote an even longer paragraph chastising my eating habits, and sent a five-dollar bill to me to get a couple of hot meals.
The mail included a letter from Alexander Wetmore. “Dear Ralph: In response to yours of October 10, I have identified your slide as showing Erolia ruficollis.” The Ashtabula, Ohio, sighting was now confirmed thanks to Jon Alquist’s photograph.
No one had mentioned it, or I maybe I just wasn‘t listening. I began searching the stations on the car radio. Surely, every station will be jammed with news about what was going on. Today, the radio, on the last day of October, was quiet. No one announced that we should get under our desks and wait for a survivor to tell us it was all clear, that we could come out and life would go on. Everything seemed normal. It was raining, as it always did in Oregon on Halloween.
The crisis, technically the Cuban Missile Crisis, was over. How I managed to avoid hearing about it amazes me, but in the 60s, 24 hour television news, hours and hours of talk shows with pro and con political railings dripping out of the audio speakers and dripping out of the speakers themselves, did not own the airwaves. CNN did not have a reporter embedded on the scene. CNN did not exist. Sure, there was the nightly network news. I could have listened to David Brinkley, who was from Wilmington, or tuned in some other source, or one of my birder friends could have warned me. Maybe they talked about it but I had birds on the brain. Cuban missiles were not going to dampen my spirit, whether I knew about them or not. I do recall hearing the word Cuba in a couple of conversations, but birds, birds, birds was the hot topic. The mess came to a boil on 16 October 1962 when intelligence revealed to President John “Jack” Kennedy that the Soviet Union had started building missile bases in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida. In a nutshell, Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the guy in charge following Stalin‘s murderous reign, came to a heated agreement that the missiles were to be removed. The posturing, debating, and teeth gnashing went on until 29 October. The imminent threat of nuclear war was averted, not just the threat from Cuba but elsewhere. I never appreciated the graveness of the threat and reality of nuclear war, although living in in the Washington, D.C. area for 30 years raised my fears more than I wanted. How can anyone sanely survive entertaining the complete horror of a nuclear weapon? Talk about habitat destruction. The aftermath of a nuclear blast puts to shame any habitat alterations dreamed up by commerce and allowed by government. Now the Soviet Union is gone but threats loom ahead.
Last night was uneventful, thank goodness. I hadn’t wanted trick or treaters tricking me last night, and had pulled far off U.S. 17, surrounding most of the car with bushes. Waking was difficult. I was tired from lack of sleep. The boards of my berth were hard compared to the real beds I had been sleeping on for the past several days. It was cold, nearly 32 degrees. I was spoiled. I had become soft. All those breakfasts of eggs, bacon, toast, hot cereal, hot coffee, and all those warm soft sleeps had taken their toll. Getting back to the simple life, the cold and sometimes wet buggy nights, was something I knew I must again get used to.
Although I had planned originally to stop at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I drove on until I located the place to hide the car. Today would be a tour of Brookgreen Gardens, a 4000-acre sanctuary full of formal and informal gardens, ponds, sculptures and some natural habitat. Pettingill mentioned Wild Turkeys and numerous species of ducks could be found in the Garden. Past the open rustic gates were Ring-necked Ducks, Canvasbacks and Canada Geese. The Ring-neck was new for the trip, and so were the Wild Turkeys that strolled unconcernedly about 20 feet from my gaping mouth. Should I count the new duck and the turkeys? They seemed too unafraid to be wild. I certainly did not count the Flammulated Owl freshly captured in eastern Oregon, the toucan my cousin jokingly showed me in a grocery store in Ohio, or the Golden Eagle in a Vermont zoo. None of those birds could, at the instant I saw them, fly freely from their captivity. However, would I count them if suddenly they escaped? The Audubon Field Notes recorded a Harlan’s Hawk [= a dark northern subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk] that was wearing a leather jess. Should it be counted? I finally rationalized that Pettingill would not have mentioned the waterfowl and Wild Turkeys unless they were actually wild. I was still suspicious. When I was sure no one was looking, I rushed the ducks and turkeys to make them fly. Two new species were added to the trip list.
“Camp” was made a few miles down the road near the town of Georgetown on the banks of the Great Pee Dee River. What a great name. A large part of the day was used to bring my notes up to date, write four letters, and plan my next stop. I decided to visit McClallanville, a small town surrounded by the Francis Marion National Forest that is dubbed the gateway to Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. One of the refuge staff had supplied a name and address of the leading birder of the region. Unfortunately, I had not made any previous contact, and he had no phone, which meant if I wanted his help, I would have to show up at his house, unannounced. Late in the afternoon, the thick clouds were threatening more rain. I drove down a remote road on small farm aptly named Ardea, a generic name for several species in the herons.
The house, sitting alone in the long shadows of a setting sun, was dimly lit by the puny flicker of kerosene lamps. A storm had apparently knocked out the electricity, or, for a fleeting moment I wondered, was this the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis? My contact, Robert Edwards, responded to my knock. No one seemed particularly excited by the routine power outage. “In the light of things,” I was invited to spend the night. While we discussed where the best birds would be tomorrow, I noticed strange shadows on the walls. They moved, stopped, pounced and made loud noises. The shadows had tails. There were at least five Siamese cats climbing and jumping from ceiling high bookshelves. They also liked jumping into laps, sometimes with needle sharp claws extended. Tropical finches of all sorts chirped faintly in the kerosene rhapsody and a lone brownish cocker spaniel pup crouched in a stuffed chair. A Barred Owl hooted just outside the door. Wow, a new life bird. Then I was told that the owl had been a captive of the family for 10 years. The next morning the sun revealed a pair of Sparrow Hawks [=American Kestrels], three species of pheasants, two huge parrots, and, more interestingly, several Painted Buntings. Robert told me that when he wasn’t teaching high school chemistry and physics, he studied the eclipse plumages of these gaudy buntings.
Our birding day started at Blake’s Reserve, part of the Santee Gun Club. I instantly thought a gun club is not where I want to be, but we saw a variety of birds in addition to the mainstay of the club, plenty of ducks. Soras winnowed from the marsh vegetation. One foraged calmly in the open about 40 feet from where we stood, the first Sora I had ever actually seen. We had already flushed Virginia Rail at the farm, Ardea. Herons and egrets were abundant, and two adult Glossy Ibis wheeled so low overhead that the air could be heard rushing through their wings.
We headed down to Moore’s Landing. That is where the ferry departs for Bull Island, part of Cape Romain National Wildlife. The refuge, occupies about 60,000 acres of marsh, forest and water on a twenty-mile stretch of barrier islands. Pettingill recommended Bull Island but we restricted our birding to around the dock. Mr. Edwards brought grandson, and in no time 12-year-old, John spotted five Marbled Godwits, a species I had been chasing down the Atlantic shore. The godwits were foraging with American Oystercatchers, Short-billed Dowtichers and Dunlins. We later rowed along the marshy shore near Moore’s Landing looking especially for rails and found plenty of Clappers. The Black and Yellow rails would have to wait. During the day, we managed to find 72 species, two of which were new trip species.
Our arrival back to Ardea was just in time. Mrs. Edwards had prepared a hot sumptuous meal accented with a fresh apple pie. The next morning I thanked the Edwards for their kind hospitality and said good-bye to the captive Barred Owl, at least five Siamese cats, assorted tropical finches and parrots and Painted Buntings. It was Sunday, a bad time to be arriving in Charleston. There were plenty of notes to type, and a roadside park looked good for paper work and a night for sleep.
Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge remains a good birding spot. Access is still limited to boat travel just as it was about 300 years when Bull Island was reputed to be a hideout for pirates. The ferry docks at Moore’s Landing to take passengers to and from the wooded island, but now for a fee of $30.00 per adult according to a 2004 website that announced “cash or check only, no credit cards.” The Sewee Visitor Center, began in 1996, now offers interpretive information for the refuge and national forest.
The Great Pee Dee River probably remains as a possible source where rappers might find unusual monikers.
In less than an hour, I would be in Charleston. To me, this Charleston, not Charleston, Vermont, or any one of several other Charlestons, was THE Charleston. Reaching Charleston meant crossing the wide swath of the Wando and Cooper Rivers that spill into the Charleston Harbor between Mt. Pleasant and Charleston. It meant driving the infamous Cooper River Bridge. A couple of my North Carolinian birders chuckled about the bridge, and warned me to keep my fingers crossed. I stopped about a quarter of miles east of the bridge to snap a picture. The Mackinac Bridge in Michigan was impressive, but the Cooper River Bridge seemed impressively scary. The South Carolina bridge opened in 1928, which was a little scary, and it was high over a windy expanse of nothing but water, which also was scary. I had read somewhere that by 1957 the bridge had claimed 27 lives. Some people were, well, scared to drive over it, but that it was safe to cross. Knowing this did not help me feel less scared. The wind alone could be a problem for my little VW, but I was more concerned that the bridge might fall. Somehow, I managed to make the crossing to the other side without seeing the bright light of doom. It was a white-knuckle affair, with no bird watching, that required my fullest attention as I tried to ignore the creaking sounds of a bridge in distress.
By 1964, shipworms were caught chewing away at the Cooper River Bridge supports, which caused sections to buckle and lean. Somehow, traffic continued to flow over Charleston Harbor, but I imagine 2005 will be welcome when a brand new bridge opens.
Besides the rickety bridges and dancing, Charleston is famous because the rare Bachman’s Warbler. Audubon described the warbler in 1833 from a bird discovered in a swamp near Charleston. Many people have traveled thousands of miles to catch a glance at this black-bibbed yellow warbler. It was not photographed until 1958 when John Henry Dick and H.P. Staats recorded an elusive male on film. Had I planned better, I might have had a chance to see Bachman’s Warbler, but it was November. Wherever these birds were, they were not near Charleston.
Bachman’s Warbler population declined because of the usual culprits, habitat loss, habitat destruction and loss of habitat, both in its breeding and wintering ranges. This small warbler also suffered because of its dependence on bamboo, women hat dependence on cute and colorful birds to mix in with feathers of egrets, herons and other easy targets, and hurricanes. The last nest of the Bachman’s Warbler was in Alabama in 1937 and reported by H. M. Stevenson, a fellow correspondent during my Smithsonian days. The last confirmed record of any kind of this rare warbler was in 1962 near Charleston. It was placed on the Federal list of endangered species just five years later, or should that be five years too late. Bachman’s Warblers may now be extinct. There were some later unconfirmed records from Cuba. In 1962, I didn’t know that the last confirmed record had been made just months before my November visit to Charleston. In addition, I did not realize that that sighting was at Moore’s Landing by none other than Robert Edwards. I recall thinking I still had a remote chance of seeing Bachman’s Warbler in the spring of 1963. Even if I could afford to go to their winter range, there was always that pesky Cuban Missile Crisis getting in the way of birding.
The fifth day of November was still young. I telephoned B. Rhett Chamberlain, who was the local regional editor for Audubon Field Notes, recognized preeminent Charleston birder, editor of the Chat, the bird journal for North and South Carolina and, with Alexander Sprunt, wrote “South Carolina Bird Life,” published in 1949. How could I miss? By earlier correspondence, a birding plan was set in place, but a close friend of Rhett’s had just died. Nevertheless, he poured over my worn trip list, remarking that most of the missing eastern species this time of year would be easier to see in Florida. He said I should meet Edwin Blitch, the curator of vertebrate zoology at the Charleston Museum of Natural History. The institution was founded in 1773 and it is the country’s oldest museum. Dr. Blitch and I made plans to meet in three days to do Charleston.
I left the museum with directions to Magnolia Gardens and the name of the manager who, I was told by the curator, would be happy to help me find local birds. Arriving at Mr. Ted Beckett’s manager residence, I was greeted by one of his daughters who couldn’t believe someone would travel to see birds, and who was flabbergasted that I would drive all the way from Oregon to see tree ducks in Magnolia Gardens. Mr. Beckett chuckled. He had a lot to manage. The huge plantation and gardens covered acres and acres of stylized gardens, with low arching bridges reflecting from the dark water of lily ponds. There were hundreds of wild acres, the region I was most interested. Considered America’s oldest man-made attraction, Magnolia Gardens was founded in 1676 and open to the public since 1860. Ted showed me a list of about 300 species he had seen during several years at Magnolia Gardens. That was most of the species on the checklist of birds from the whole state excluding a few normally found along the Atlantic shore. He penciled four additions: House Finch, Evening Grosbeak, Cinnamon Teal and Fulvous Tree Duck.
For the next two days, I wandered freely around the property, searching huge oaks, heavily laden with cloaks of gray-green Spanish moss, thick leathery leafed magnolia, palmetto, bushes, ponds, and marshland. I hardly saw anyone although a man, who introduced himself as Mr. Hastie and owner of the plantation, asked me to show him the tree ducks. I did, even though I had read upon entering the property that the Drayton family owned the plantation. Ted Beckett allowed me park off the beaten path on one of the dike roads for two nights, and provided detailed directions for the best birding locations. Anhingas, herons and egrets were everywhere. Ducks swam in the water not choked by cattails and lily pads. As promised, fifteen Fulvous Tree-Ducks exploded into the air, with a weak goose-like squealing gabble, circled, and flashed their white rump band before disappearing in the afternoon sun. That night, I prepared supper (opened a can), with the voices of coots, gallinules and tree ducks.
The cold of the night felt piercing, and my makeshift bed was unforgiving. My thoughts took me elsewhere. The pretty girl whose picture keeps my wallet open called to my heart. I also thought of less spiritual longings. Running water would be nice. A warm bathroom and soft bed would be great. Home in Oregon rolled through my brain. The temperature hovered just above the magic number between liquid and ice. I must be crazy. Could I keep going until next June?
Sleep was intermittent; I woke a little tired and definitely cold. I gulped down the six breakfast donuts and headed out for Yellow-throated Warblers, but only occasional kinglets flitted in the loblolly pine. I worked a freshly plowed field for a possible Grasshopper Sparrow and found five Water [=American] Pipits. A little after a peanut butter sandwich, I took a short ride in a skiff Mr. Beckitt said I could use. I paddled down a canal toward the tree duck area, nosing the boat into edges of remote pools to surprise a Yellow Rail. The day began near freezing but had now it was about 65 degrees. Rowing in the hot southern sun was not much fun, and birding from a boat, as I had found on other occasions, was not especially productive. After returning the boat to the dock, I trudged back to the car on a dike road. I needed to shed some of my layers, and the car contained food. A few yards from the docked boat, I barely glimpsed something slink through the dike grass. Maybe it was a mouse or a snake. I picked up a few golf ball sized dirt clods and lobbed one to the left. Miraculously, a small chicken-like bird moved to the right and into a bare tire track on the grassy road. The bird actually stopped just long enough to get it in my binoculars for a few seconds. There was no doubt about it. The diminutive bird disappeared just about the time guilt swept over me. Thank goodness, I hadn’t beaned my first Yellow Rail.
The next morning I met Edwin Blitch, who was waiting for me at the Charleston Museum. We loaded into his station wagon and headed for Folly Beach. We stopped to check a small city woodland, and made a side trips to the city sewage treatment area. We picked up Semipalmated Sandpiper and two species of gulls at the last site. A weedy field on the way added three skulking sparrows. Except for a couple of Ruddy Turnstones, Folly Beach was empty. Not even a whisker. So, that was doing the Charleston.
My 1962 notes recorded that my time at the Magnolia Gardens was free. Things change. As of 2004, a fee just to get on the property was $13.00–additional fees would get you to special places that sound great for birds. Perceptions also changed. Everyone mostly ignored my spotting scope slung across a shoulder. Only rarely did authorities ask me about it. The most serious was when a park ranger came to a skidding stop, jumped out of his car to confront me, a suspected poacher. I even carried it on the Mall in Washington, D.C. In the climate of today, I would not jeopardize being mistaken for carrying a weapon. One thing has not changed. The picture in my wallet, the very same photograph of Linda still holds my wallet open when we are infrequently apart.
Edwin Blitch retired from his curatorship to a high school teaching position. It seems I had met a number of teachers along the way, before and during the trip. My fifth grade teacher shanghaied her entire class into a bird club. A spinster, she followed my birding interest from afar, requesting me as pallbearer at her funeral and willing to me her books on birds. I really did not get the birding bug until my 7th grade teacher, Bud Bertrand, began to make me think about learning. Mr. Bertrand as we addressed him then, was one of those teachers, who through his seriousness and caring, made life changing impressions. In high school, there was Don Mitchell, whose discipline and scholarship of how to pith a frog, how to observe and how to record made biology fun. Linda supplied him with frogs and other specimens from her woodland home. She and I shared these same teachers. From time to time, we run into Bud in our small town. The guidance and enlightenment of these old friends, our teachers, taught us appreciation of leaning.
In 1968, William Post became the curator of ornithology at the Charleston Museum. We talked on the phone many times, and met at Smithsonian during his several visits. He talked even more southern than Mr. Blitch did, and invited me to come down to do some birding in Charleston. Someday, I will do Charleston, again.