The series

This is part of an occasional series looking at how the coast and the ocean are changing and what it means for a region where people have made a life and a living for generations in tune with the sea.

Old rice fields are the stepchildren of the Lowcountry, man-made “pseudo” wetlands that are derided as private duck-hunting preserves and regulated by the state to be left to fall in.

Pam Corwin, 27, had no real interest in them. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist researches shad and similar fish that swim back and forth from the ocean.

All she wanted was a master’s degree. But one day while netting shad on the Santee River, she had looked up to spot a golden eagle and got hooked on birding.

Rice fields, you might not be aware, are full of a lot more birds than just waterfowl.

Corwin’s research is ground-breaking work on the fields, maybe the most under-appreciated — and understudied — environs of the Lowcountry. She documented bird species and diversity in the fields from day to night, season to season, and cycle to cycle in the birds’ lives. Nobody, apparently, has ever done that before. The research by the evening-class graduate student at The Citadel could open the way to better management and protection of the controversial fields.

Why does that matter? Nearly every species of bird that lives in or migrates to the region sooner or later comes down to nest or feed in a rice field. Not to mention fish, reptiles, mammals ... the fields are a singular feature that makes the Lowcountry rich with wildlife like few other places in the world.

“My gosh, this is while working full time and working full time as a graduate student, married, caring for three horses, serving in the National Guard and running distance,” said Paul Nolan, an associate biology professor at The Citadel. “Pamela is a force of nature.”

Native American ways

Corwin was 5 years old, sitting outside in the Upstate, when she looked down to find a huge, ghoulish wolf spider crawling up her clothes. She screamed and swatted, killing it.

Her dad made her eat it.

Dad, Mark Corwin, is Iroquois and Creek, raised on a Navaho reservation. He is a traditional dancer, steeped in native American ways.

“He believes in being holistic toward nature. Don’t kill something if you don’t need to, and if you kill it, eat it,” Corwin said.

She’s not one to claim or take advantage of her tribal heritage. But she has absorbed its natural spirituality in how she views the world.

She studied biology — along with archaeology and chemistry — at the College of Charleston, with no real clue what she would do as a career until as a senior she traveled to the upper Amazon River to study the effects of deforestation. When she arrived, the site already had been logged; she had no “before” to work with as a base line. So she turned to studying hoatzins, an exotic swamp bird that is a cross between a pheasant and a peacock.

Animal life became her passion.

“They play an integral role in our daily lives, whether wild or domesticated. People don’t realize it. Prairie dogs digging, for example, aerate the ground to become grasslands, which become food for buffalo,” she said.

The rice fields

Corwin is a force of nature. She is down to earth, modest and relentless. An honor student, she has that genuine country “horse sense” that seems to come with working with equines.

As part of the Amazon study, she documented the biodiversity on Marjao Island. That’s the experience she brought to the rice fields of Bonneau Ferry Plantation on the Cooper River.

It started as a guided research project. Nolan gave her a few guidelines to study a field that a colleague will attempt to restore to a cypress swamp. Nolan thought it would be interesting to document the bird life out there, then compare it after restoration.

A few weeks later Corwin was back, already having done four times the work expected for the project. So it turned into a thesis.

Over the course of a year, Corwin spent more than 240 hours in the Bonneau Ferry rice fields, watching tanagers, wading birds, catbirds, orioles, bluebirds, hawks and owls and promontory warblers wintering in a place they were supposed to leave when it turned cold. She also watched monarch butterflies glide by, otters play and deer. She stepped around cottonmouths.

Cutting her way through scrub debris on a dike, she heard a sound and stopped. The mound she was about to hack into turned out to be an alligator nest, with young.

“You experience so much. It’s so quiet,” she said. “The number of species, the biodiversity for that small an area, and how it changes throughout the seasons, it was amazing.”

The whole puzzle

The more we learn about rice fields the better. The impoundments originally were walled in Colonial times to grow rice, using the ebb and flow of tides. They now cover nearly 70,000 acres across the state’s coast in patches skirting tidal rivers. Despite the “private” reputation, about half the acreage is publicly owned. And regulators are coming to realize that the fields — man-made or not — now serve a vital role, especially with natural wetlands disappearing to development and rising sea.

“A lot of bird (species) are under stress right now. Nothing supplants natural wetlands; rice fields are not as (bio)diverse,” Nolan said. But “created wetlands are better than nothing.”

A study like Corwin’s lets managers know what birds — including ducks and other waterfowl — use what wetlands when, he said.

Corwin now wants to go on to work in mitigation, protecting or restoring wetlands to compensate for other developed land.

“Birds, fish, reptiles — mammals use wetlands. Then you get insects that pollinate it. I like that aspect of the work. It’s got the whole puzzle,” she said.

“Especially for the next generation, we need to save that for them. We shouldn’t take it away. I can’t imagine someone not knowing what a monarch butterfly looks like.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.