In Lowcountry, natural history intertwines with social history

  • Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Like other migrating waterfowl, buffleheads migrate to Lowcountry shores in late October and November. Some ducks simply pass us by and keep flying south, but buffleheads spend their winters here. PHOTO PROVIDED

I walked the Old Bridge recently, bundled up against the cold, dodging intermittent showers, watching the east wind carry a pewter-walled squall line across the marsh and over the harbor. It was a true Lowcountry winter’s day – a proverbial “good day for ducks” – and enjoying the sodden chill with full enthusiasm were seven bufflehead ducks who were frolicking and feeding in the marshland sea created by the unusually high tides.

I love buffleheads. These compact, black-and-white divers are relatively people-friendly and you can almost always see a group around the rocks at the lower end of Sullivan’s Island in front of Fort Moultrie. Usually in groups of five or seven, they are easily recognized by the large, white circle on each side of the drake’s head.

It was the early 18th century explorer and naturalist, Mark Catesby, who gave them their name, calling them the “Buffel’s Head Duck,” buffle being an archaic word for buffalo. Catesby described them aptly: “The whole head is adorned with long loose feathers elegantly blended with blue, green and purple [and] the length and looseness of these feathers make the head appear bigger than it is.”

Like other migrating waterfowl, buffleheads begin making their appearance along our shores in late October and November. Some ducks simply pass us by and keep flying south, but buffleheads apparently find our climate and food just to their liking and spend their winters here.

As I watched these little ducks against the backdrop of ocher-tinted marsh and the gray fortress walls of Fort Sumter in the harbor, I thought, “what constancy.”

More than likely, these ducks are the same group that arrived last year and the year before that. Because of that elusively understood element called genetic memory – the instinctive homing device which brings migratory birds back to the same locale season after season – I realized it might even be possible that the ancestors of these ducks may have wintered in this very same spot centuries ago. Those ancestor ducks might have been seen by General William Moultrie on his way to Fort Sullivan in December of 1776. Or by a Civil War soldier rowing out to Fort Sumter in December 1861.

I can hear some of you now. “Really, Suzannah! Aren’t you carrying the Charleston ancestor-worship thing I bit too far? I mean, equating Buffleheads to history? Isn’t that stretching it a bit?”

First of all, we still have a natural history. We still have productive wetlands, even close to a major city, where flocks of buffleheads from the Canadian Maritimes continue to winter generation after generation. We still have habitats that are fertile enough to provide buffleheads and a host of other ducks with regular wintertime meals.

Walking the Old Bridge, I thought of all the Christmases that have gone before and some of the historic figures who might have watched a flock of buffleheads as they carried out the orders of their day. I thought of the English explorer, John Lawson. On Christmas Day in 1699, Lawson set out from Charleston to explore the wild interiors of this new land called Carolina. In a long canoe with two Sewee Indian guides, as he began to make his way north he passed the same marshland vista that we still see from the Old Bridge. The Intracoastal Waterway wasn’t there, of course. He was taking the old Inland Passage, an interlacing network of tidal creeks that meander behind the barrier islands all the way to Bull’s Bay.

The marshlands through which Lawson passed are still there. The creeks he traversed are still healthy and teem with life. From the Isle of Palms northward to Georgetown, our coast is fringed by thousands of acres of pristine wetlands which remain alive and productive, three centuries later.

What’s more, we as people maintain our own sense of history. Like the buffleheads returning year after year, we have a unique historic genetic memory that gives us a deep-rooted sense of constancy and security about this place we call home.

Others have laughed at us Charleston folks for dwelling too much on the events of the past. They say we are excessive when it comes to revering our history. It is not that we don’t forget. We simply continue to remember.

Christmas is a time of reflection, especially for remembering our friends. As an historian, I have jokingly written that some of my best friends have been dead 350 years. Now it is our turn. We, the people of this day and age, must fight to be remembered as those who not only preserved the historic past but were equally intent on preserving our lands and waters. These are treasures we often take for granted.

My Christmas wish is that three centuries from now, our own descendants will be able to take a walk in a cold December rain and gaze out upon a pristine marsh at a flock of buffleheads frolicking in the tide. That they will appreciate what is there and the efforts of those who went before that allowed such a vista to endure.

Merry Christmas, everyone. And to you, my bufflehead friends, may you enjoy a fine Christmas repast of marsh plants, crustaceans and whatever else it is you find so tasty in our Lowcountry marshes. Most of all, may we see you next year.

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