Column: Voice for Lowcountry birds sings sad song

03/09/2014 10:49 AM

03/09/2014 10:51 AM

Barry Lowes says that anytime you're feeling too happy, just call him.

"I'll spoil your day for you," he said.

It's sort of a joke, but not really, because Lowes is Hilton Head Island's senior statesman on behalf of the birds. He says birds are in trouble.

From 1983 to 2010, he was the sole head of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count on the island.

The Toronto native was watching Evonne Goolagong play tennis on television when he was struck by the birds of Sea Pines chirping in the background.

The lifelong birder and his wife, Philomena, flew south for a winter in the early 1980s and have returned ever since.

Last Thursday night, Lowes and two other Hilton Head Island Audubon Society board members were honored as they step down.

Nan Lloyd was thanked for heading the 600-member club's field trips for 10 years, serving as president for two years, setting up its web page and revising the "Birder's Guide to Hilton Head Island and the Lowcountry." She is now promoting participation in the Audubon/Cornell University data base:

Charlotte White was recognized for heading the program committee for four years and co-chairing with Lowes the past two Christmas Bird Counts.

But it was Lowes, now 86, who became the island's guru on birding, the face of Audubon, a protective wing for beleaguered birds, and a voice of conscience for a community that claims to be green.

In an interview on the morning after Lowes urged the Audubon faithful to pull more people into the fold, he said he doesn't like what he has seen here since 1982.

"Everywhere you look, the emphasis is on business and 'We've got to get more business here,' 'We've got to get more people on the island,' and the very thing that brought and attracted the original people was the tranquility and the efforts to keep it that way.

"And ever since, it's just been a steady march of turning it into a business machine rather than a community that is sensitive to the environment."


Lowes said he's seen a drastic drop in the number of birds here.

He said diligence and a growing number of people participating in the annual bird count hides the fact that thousands of birds he often photographed on the beach are no longer here.

He blames the relentless destruction of underbrush and other bird habitat.

"You see the trees come down and the bush hogs going through," he said. "It seems like they're proud when they can get the ground clear."

With no underbrush, birds like the towhees become easy game for predators. Residents, homeowners' associations and developers who think they need to tidy up the landscape are killing the birds.

"It's all about habitat," Lowes said. It's especially crucial at waters' edge.

He said he counted more than 1,000 nests on Joiner Bank a couple of years before it became a borrow site for beach renourishment.

He said he counted 30 or 40 nesting birds by a pond at Shelter Cove before it was cleared to make way for new condominiums.

He said land bought by the Town of Hilton Head Island for conservation is being chipped away at for development.

And he said he's tired of empty promises about development that won't hurt anything.

"They've got the spiel, and those who are innocents don't understand that it's just a scam," Lowes said. "The developers say, 'We'll look after it.' They don't."


Solutions include getting people who want everything big and new to minimize.

"You can put flowers in a flower garden," Lowes said, "but you can also have, beyond there, edges that you just leave alone. Some birds love vines because the hawks can't get through those vines. But we say, 'The first thing we need to do is cut down those vines.' "

Believing is another solution.

"Believing that the wetlands really are nurseries and should not be polluted, should not be filled and should not be taken away for some 'mitigation' elsewhere," Lowes said.

Education is a solution. School children -- and newcomers to the Lowcountry -- need to understand that natural resources have value, and things are different here.

More people need to speak up and get involved.

Lowes said he is just one of many who have taken a turn at the wheel during the island Audubon's 40 years of existence.

He mentioned the late Don Kepler, who stood on the mud flats at the end of Beach City Road every autumn for six years -- doing six hours a day for 60 consecutive days -- documenting migrating hawks.

Lowes urged a spirit of reaching out and embracing people who know nothing more about birds than to ask, "What's that brown thing?"

"We all started knowing nothing," said Lowes.

"You're not remaking the world," he said. "But you are leaving a footprint to make the world better. Just do what you can do, and do it well."

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