“Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird.” – David Attenborough, 20th century British journalist
The common idiom “Birds of a feather flock together” truly applies to the Taylor family. Matriarch Mary Taylor’s home of 60-plus years on Spring Lake in Columbia is full of Audubon bird prints, stacks of bird books, and windows with a birds-eye view of the backyard and lake.
The term “birder” is an unofficial midway designation between bird-watcher and ornithologist. A birder, by the Taylor family’s estimation, is someone who daily considers birds’ behavior, beauty, and song, and who seeks to view new and interesting birds whenever possible, primarily on weekends and as part of vacations. A bird-watcher will admire birds on a bird feeder or in a birdbath and might possibly flip through the popular A Field Guide to the Birds to identify a yard bird. An ornithologist is a scientific and zoological designation involving serious study, research, and classification of birds.
Mary’s late husband, Edmund who died in 2017 at the age of 101, was the latter, as was his uncle, the late Alex Taylor, a Lexington County farmer and engineer who amassed large museum-quality collections of birds’ eggs in the late 19th and early 20th century. Some collections were donated to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Edmund’s alma mater, as well as to the State Museum.
Most of the photographs in the commemorative book on Edmund’s life, which rests on Mary’s coffee table, involve family members donning binoculars to view birds. Mary says that when she met Edmund and realized he was so enamored with birds, it fazed her not in the least since her own father and her sister, the late Georgia Hart, were birders. A book of Georgia’s poetry also sits atop Mary’s coffee table, and on the cover is a bird, of course.
“I remember Aunt Georgia sat at a desk that looked out over her street and a big pecan tree in her yard,” shares Edmund, Jr., who now resides in Cashiers, North Carolina. “Sitting at that desk, writing letters and poetry, she probably spotted more migrating warblers than anyone else in Columbia.”
Adds Frank Hart, Georgia’s son and Mary’s nephew, “She believed that every year on exactly the same date that the same white-throated sparrow would come and she would recognize its song.”
Besides Mary, the Taylors point to Mary’s son-in-law, Imtiaz Haque, originally from Pakistan, as this generation’s family authority, although Mary’s grandchildren are beginning to express interest as well. Imtiaz says he had absolutely no interest in birds until he met Mary Beverley, Mary’s daughter. “We loved to play tennis together, but right in the middle of a serve she would look up, see a bird, and point it out.”
Then Mary took him out to a farm one day to look for a Baltimore oriole, which he claims opened his eyes to birds. Once exposed, he was hooked. Plus, since he married into a birding family, he wanted to know more. “I would take close-up photographs of birds I wanted to identify.”
“At first they were a bit blurry,” adds his wife, Mary Beverley Haque.
As he learned about affordable camera technology with ultra-zoom capabilities, what began as a practical application of the camera for birding purposes became an admired skill. “Now I have about 30,000 images. It’s difficult to delete any of them, and each bird photo has a memory associated with it,” he says.
Edmund, Jr., says that all the family is involved in birding at some level. “My brother, George, and I had a pet seagull, crow, and screech owl. We even brought home a pair of young magpies we found in Colorado. For the next 20 years, people in Columbia would see those magpies and wonder what kind of birds they were and where they came from.”
George McCoy, a Taylor family friend and fellow birder, waxes poetic when sharing about his lifelong fascination with birds. “The appeal of birds is that birds connect us outside, to the natural world.”
George was obviously a fledgling birder at 5 years old when his mother wrote in his baby book, “George has gotten very interested in birds.” But his burgeoning interest was solidified when his father took him at age 13 to Maine and hired a lobsterman to take them out to Machias Seal Island, around 10 miles off the coast, to see puffins. While lots of puffins were flying around on the island, George wanted to see one closer.
“The lighthouse keeper took notice of my keen interest in puffins. He pulled on heavy gloves and actually dug a puffin out of its burrow (they nest underground). I was eyeball to eyeball with my favorite bird and actually got to touch it — an experience I will never forget! My father took a picture of the bird that I still have, and my mother wrote on it, ‘Machias Seal Island – 1956.’”
George reflects that birds are important American and global symbols; they are mentioned countless times in biblical scriptures, and they are ecological markers. “Birds symbolize freedom. They are not tethered to the earth as we humans are. Of course, the beauty of birds immediately attracts us. Who has not thrilled at the sight of a cardinal in the backyard on a sunny morning?”
Plus, bird songs and calls have such an enthralling element.
“Birds represent so many good sides of us, and they are just incredible in terms of their impact on the world,” says Imtiaz. “Take vultures, for example. They are ugly. But most people don’t know they keep the world’s rabies population down. And I learned that one owl will eat 11,000 mice in a lifetime.”
“And chimney swifts catch millions of mosquitoes,” adds Mary Beverley.
“One of the reasons I enjoy this hobby is because of the beauty,” says Imtiaz. “Birds are a real reflection of God’s handiwork.”
Birding Connection Broad
George says fellow birders often call one another to discuss a sighting or to plan birding trips. In fact, one factor that distinguishes a birder from a bird-watcher is that a birder will travel hundreds of miles, or get up very early, to see a bird. Many birders go all over the world to see various birds.
Notwithstanding, Frank says, “A birder doesn’t ‘go’ birding — they’re doing it all the time. It’s a way of life. It’s hearing a Carolina wren and smiling. I like to walk along the beach, through the forest and fields, or perhaps into the mountains with my binoculars and a few good friends. Who wouldn’t enjoy being outside with the wind in your face and the sun on your back scanning the surroundings and listening for bird life?”
Mary Beverley and Edmund remember when their parents would gather up all the family members — young and old — for vacation jaunts at Huntington Beach State Park to find, identify, and watch birds. They would all go out looking for the painted bunting and shore birds as an extended family birding event. “You don’t think it’s making an impression, but it does,” Mary says, smiling.
“It’s brought so much cohesiveness to our family,” says Edmund, Jr. “Birds have always been an extra important part of our lives. And you never tire of them. Just the other day, I was waiting in the car and watching a junco shake a hydrangea branch to get the seeds. I’ve never in my life seen that!”
While playing golf, Frank says he is likely to see nuthatches, bluebirds, Eastern kingbirds, phoebes, warblers, Mississippi kites, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, mockingbirds, cardinals, wrens, chickadees, crows, woodpeckers, kingfishers, swallows, doves, and more. “Serious birders will keep a list of all the birds they see that day to compare it with similar lists from other sites or lists from other days at that particular site. Fifty or 60 kinds, or species, of birds would be considered a good day although, during spring migration, a list may approach 100 species.”
Since South Carolina has such incredible biodiversity, just birding in the state is rewarding. And because of its size, birders can easily go from one end to the other seeing a wide variety of birds. Both Imtiaz and Frank share how impressed they are at the number of protected areas for birds in the state, including Congaree National Park, Santee State Park, Saluda Shoals Park, Bear Island State Park, Huntington Beach State Park, Donnelley Wildlife Management Area, and Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge. George particularly enjoys the Timmerman Trail along the Congaree River. The greatest threat to birds is the loss of habitat due to development. Plastics, insecticides, and cats — especially feral ones — are also significant bird hazards.
The Carolina wren is a favorite Taylor family bird because of its song and interesting nesting habits. But each birder has a particular favorite and an opinion on the most beautiful bird. Frank enjoys watching kingfishers and hearing them “fuss” at him for invading their territory. He also likes the swallowtail kite, which happens to be Mary’s favorite bird.
A recent thrill for Imtiaz was sighting and photographing a fork-tailed fly catcher. “They’re supposed to be in the tropics, but one showed up in Townville, and I was there. If I hadn’t taken a photo of it, people wouldn’t have believed me!” He also enjoyed seeing a snowy owl in person. While it is difficult for him to name a favorite bird, he is captivated by the harrier hawk. “It flies low over fields. But I have to say the painted bunting is the most beautiful in our state. And the Mandarin duck is the most beautiful bird I’ve seen to date. My dream bird is the resplendent quetzal. But there are almost 10,000 different species across the world, so I have a hobby that will keep me interested for the rest of my life.”
Among all South Carolina birds, George admires the roseate spoonbill; for Mary Beverley it is the black-necked stilt. Edmund, Jr., is adamant about the brown thrasher. “He’s got a great personality and a lovely song.” This month, George is off in Belize hoping to sight the king vulture.
When the Taylor family gathers, they tell one story after another about memorable bird sightings. One that they concur was particularly remarkable involved a great blue heron and a bald eagle fighting over a dead squirrel just behind Mary’s house.
Mary Beverley sums up her family’s enthrallment with birding: “It’s made life interesting. And, we never tire of it.”
Backyard Birding Tips
Mary Beverley Haque, a landscape architect, taught landscape design at Clemson University for 32 years and assisted the South Carolina Wildlife Federation with teaching and promoting backyard habitats. She suggests establishing habitats for birds by providing food, water, cover, and safe nesting places for them to raise young. These habitats can be at home, at schools, on industrial sites, and throughout communities. Some tips:
• set up bird feeders observable from windows and keep them filled and cleaned
• cultivate native plants for food and nesting material
• provide bird baths, fountains, or some other source of clean water
• garden sustainably and avoid killing all insects, which provide protein for baby and migrating birds
• consider leaving at least some dead trees (if it is safe to do so) for birds to eat bugs from and to nest in, or put out boxes for cavity nesting birds such as bluebirds, summer ducks, woodpeckers, and owls.
Learn which area birds might need a box, especially for the winter and for nesting, and research the type and size of the box per each specific bird. Ducks.org attributes man-made boxes with helping protect wood duck populations. Plans and height specifications are available on the website.
George McCoy maintains eight feeders plus a birdbath. He suggests making available a range of feeders to attract various birds: tube feeders, platform feeders, suet feeders, hummingbird feeders. Regarding seed type, he says, “I find sunflower seed attracts a wide variety of birds and the staff at Wild Birds Unlimited is a good source of information on attracting birds.”
Recommended reading and/or for identification: The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds by Richard Crossley, The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley, The Value of Birds by A.W. Diamond, Birding South Carolina by Jeff Mollenhauer, and Living on the Wind by Scott Wieidensaul.
“These are all great gifts, especially for young people, who are the next generations of birders,” says Mary Beverley.
Finally, while you can get involved with diverse birding groups locally, statewide, and nationally, George says Columbia Audubon Society offers a website, monthly meetings, and field trips and is a good source for experienced birders or folks just getting into birding.