APPLYING THE RESEARCH
“At the end of the day, I think I’m an impatient scientist,” she says.
After graduating from Davidson College, Whitehead went to Australia as an intern for the School for Field Studies, which sparked an interest in birds. Back in the U.S., she got a master’s degree in wildlife ecology and management from the University of Georgia and in 2003 a doctorate in forest resources from Clemson, focusing throughout graduate school on avian ecology.
She studied songbirds in the coastal plains and the mountains, but developed a specialty in the swallow-tailed kite, a bird the National Audubon Society calls the most beautiful raptor on our continent. It’s a tuxedoed bird, black and white, with a long, black, forked tail, like a svelte penguin that can fly. With a twitch of its tail the bird soars through swift, acrobatic flight with nary a flap of its wings. It is the only raptor that lives in colonies, nesting high in the cypress and hardwoods of the forested wetlands in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, until August, when it migrates to Brazil.
But the beautiful bird’s habitat is being lost to conversion — salt water flowing farther up the Waccamaw, the result of increased development and climate change. The salt is turning forested wetlands where kites live into brackish marsh and salt marsh. This type of habitat loss spurred a career change for Whitehead.
“At the end of the day, I think I’m
an impatient scientist.”
“I spent about 10 years in avian research during and after my master’s and my Ph. D.,” she says. “I spent a lot of time in the acquisition of knowledge about birds and about natural habitats, and I figured out during that time that what birds need and what a lot of our natural communities need is habitat protection. By working in the applied realm, by working in land conservation, I get to move from the acquisition of knowledge to the application of that knowledge.”
She hasn’t outgrown her science roots. “We do a lot of education of other land trust groups and nonprofit organizations that deal with land protection and help them think about how to incorporate climate science into their operations and their daily program and work.” She pairs that science role with direct involvement in land protection projects across the southeastern United States.
Some of those projects are large in scale. “I may think about places that are most important for animal movements and look at places to protect over the entire eastern United States,” she says. “In other cases, I might be looking at a very small local scale.”
One of those smaller-scale projects is just outside Conway, South Carolina, where floodplain forests protect communities by soaking up water like a sponge. In South Carolina, she reminds us, “we’ve had tremendous flooding in the last several years.”
The floodplain forests also help secure drinking water, and they make incredible habitats for birds such as swallow-tailed kites and other aquatic organisms.
“We have certain natural habitats where the compounding benefits really add up, and it starts to be a very clear choice to invest in protection of those habitats.” To make it an even clearer choice, the Conway site will also provide recreational areas for the community, with a series of trails that could eventually connect the downtown with Coastal Carolina University.