• An Impatient Scientist

    Maria Whitehead has transitioned from the study of birds to the protection of their habitat — and ours.

    By Clinton Colmenares

It was one of those mornings when everything sparkles. A cold front had swept a week’s worth of rain and clouds out of the Upstate and the sun was enjoying an unhindered gaze, dancing through a cool breeze and bouncing off of early-summer leaves and freshly filled lakes.

Maria Whitehead pulled her Prius into the parking lot at Table Rock State Park after driving from her home in Brevard, North Carolina, and got out to say hello, looking as if she was ready for a five-mile hike rather than a casual interview.

She is in her element — the fuel-efficient Prius, perfect weather, protected land. Whitehead has helped preserve 22,000 acres of land across South Carolina over the past decade, first as a program manager with The Nature Conservancy and, since October 2016, as a senior project manager for the Open Space Institute, a conservation organization based in New York state.

But like the Pee Dee and Waccamaw Rivers that wind through the northeastern part of South Carolina, where Whitehead was reared, the flow of her career path from ornithologist to conservationist has been, she says, sinuous.

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.

The rivers and forested wetlands run through her

Whitehead’s environmental education began at home. Her family has lived in Back Swamp, South Carolina, just north of Florence, for 200 years on land that is now protected by a conservation easement with the Pee Dee Land Trust. Growing up, the forested wetlands were her schoolhouse and her cathedral, full of lessons on flora and fauna and nurturing a deep, abiding reverence for the land.

Whitehead spent her childhood running through woods, building forts and catching snakes. “We raised a great horned owl at home and just had some really unique experiences that sparked a sense of wonder,” she says. “I think it is that sense of wonder, for those who can hold onto it into adulthood, in the natural world that keeps calling us back.”

An early immersion in the outdoors draws many conservationists to the field, Whitehead says. “I developed a love for the natural world and a sense of place, a deep connection to that place where I was raised. I think it’s that combination of an appreciation for nature and the natural world with a sense of place and a connection to that place that leads us to the realm of conservation.”

At Clemson, Whitehead worked with wildlife ecology professor Drew Lanham as her doctoral adviser. She was his very first doctoral student, and he calls her a rare bird herself, “one of those students who come to be mentored and end up mentoring.” He notes that “her head and heart worked in tandem to inform the tasks her hands had to do. That connection of head to hand to heart is a mantra for me now.”

Whitehead, he says, “came with all the tools necessary to do the bird work she’d been hired to do. However, as I watched her work through the years — hours afield in rough conditions, starting a family, giving back in after-school programs to an underserved community she’d adopted in Greenville, running marathons in her ‘spare’ time — it became evident that I was watching a rarer species than I would ever see through my binoculars.”

It was from Lanham that Whitehead says she learned about what it means to have a relationship with the land. “He has such personal stories that touched me, and I think have touched a lot of other people, about our emotional connection to place,” Whitehead says.

“For part of me, land and that sense of what land means, relates back to my history and a connection to ancestors who actually depended on the land for their resources and for their livelihood. I think it means broader things to me as well,” Whitehead says.

She mentions a conservationist’s creed, Leopold’s ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

“Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac is a bit of a bible in the way we think about a land ethic, and our relationship to the land,” she says. Conservationists are called to think holistically about land use for humans, but also to include non-human species “as part of a community that depends on the land.”

  • “I think it is that sense of wonder, for those
    who can hold onto it into adulthood,
    in the natural world that keeps calling us back.”

Working both sides

One of Whitehead’s principal roles with the Open Space Institute is putting current, legitimate climate science into the hands of people trying to conserve the landscape, “so they can make more informed decisions about how to prioritize land protection.”

Whitehead identifies land that will be “resilient,” which she describes as “most likely to sustain natural communities and be reservoirs for biodiversity in the future.” Not coincidentally, the most resilient areas are those less touched by people.

The Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge is one of those areas — 55,000-acres spread across three Lowcountry counties: Horry, Georgetown and Marion. The refuge “is a central and important place for swallow-tail kites in South Carolina” with the highest breeding density of the birds in the state, Whitehead says.

In the southern half of the refuge the conversion of fresh to salt water, due to a combination of drought, dams, water extraction and high tides, is squeezing the birds out. Protecting them isn’t as easy as posting a sign and expecting the swallow-tailed kites to move in. “Those birds are really tricky,” Whitehead says. “They won’t just go occupy any tract you’d like them to use, even if it’s a beautiful tract you’ve protected for them.

Whitehead’s expertise in the swallow-tailed kite is informing conservation strategies to protect the birds. Through one lens, she sees biodiversity in natural communities; through another, human communities. It’s a duality that suits her.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability
and beauty of the biotic community.”

A SHIFT IN SCIENCE

Ecology and conservation — and science in general — have become political footballs. The gap between the public’s knowledge and opinions of science and science itself is widening, with climate change in the middle. But Whitehead isn’t daunted. The stakes are too high, and conservation cuts across political persuasions.

“At the end of the day, debating over the source of climate change doesn’t really change the fact that a lot of us can see those changes and recognize that they’re happening, and can talk about how to best prepare and how to face the ones we’re dealing with,” she says.

Ten years ago, an important focus of conservation science was a carbon credit program; it had bi-partisan support, and conservationists thought it was imminent. The program would have reduced carbon emissions and created a new stream of revenue for land stewardship and protection.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham co-sponsored carbon credit legislation with Joe Lieberman and John Kerry. In February 2010, he told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, “If you are 30 or younger this climate issue is not a debate. It’s a value.” The carbon credit program would create jobs and help the country become energy independent. As Graham said in the Times column, “We can’t be a nation that always tries and fails. We have to eventually get some hard problem right.”

Two months later, an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico failed catastrophically. The Deep Water Horizon spill became a rallying cry for environmental efforts and the carbon tax.

“That huge opportunity that everyone thought was going to happen was then gone,” Whitehead says. Momentum was lost. “When that passed, suddenly there was this shift, and the conversation wasn’t as much about addressing carbon as it was about, ‘All right, now we’re seeing these impacts, and we gotta start thinking about adapting.’”

Adapting and science take money. And helping raise money is another part of Whitehead’s job. Ever the optimist, she sees opportunities in the chaos.

“I think we’re seeing in some cases broader investment from foundations to backfill what could be gaps in funding. We have foundations and philanthropists thinking about what could be a short-term lapse in funds for science, funds for land protection,” she says.

U.S.Geological Service marker at Caesars Head

USGS marker at Caesars Head

Here I am. Where are you?

Up on Table Rock Mountain, where the Cherokee say the Great Spirit takes his meals, the gray- and tan-streaked face of folded gneiss stands out like a rip in a curtain, a ragged transition between a scrubbed-blue sky above and hardwood greens below.

When Whitehead steps out of her car, birds come alive, as if knowing an appreciative friend has come calling. Birds, Whitehead says, remain central to her work as a conservationist.

“That’s a red-eyed vireo,” she says picking out a particular call. “It’s saying ‘Here I am, where are you?’”

She points out a black-and-white warbler, spots an Eastern bluebird, hears a crow, a cardinal and, in the distance, a rooster. When asked to identify a distinctive bird sound, she says, politely, “I hear a frog.” The “bless your heart” is understood.

Ornithology is a distant study; after all, birds live above us. Sometimes, she says, raising binoculars to peer into the trees, she never even sees the birds.

Swallow-tailed kites are especially elusive. They almost never touch the ground, she says. “For anyone who’s had a bird in the hand, it’s a pretty powerful experience because they’re so rare. They’re a wonder.”

Perhaps more than anything, Whitehead wants people to do their own running through the woods, building forts and catching critters — those experiences that spark a sense of wonder and reverence for the land. “People have to have their own experiences to connect to the natural world,” she says.

That connection leads to action. Conservation is not a role solely for the professionals. Land owners can permanently protect their land or learn ways to manage it better, she says. Volunteering at public sites, like state or national forests or refuges, provides crucial support — politically and scientifically.

“It’s good for folks to know that everyone has a role to play in conservation.”

Clinton Colmenares is director of research communications at Clemson.

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