The stray dog was emaciated, as scrawny as the cypress knees where she perched teetering, swamped in the waters of the Black River with nowhere to go.

Land protection

Conservation easements and purchases that Maria Whitehead has been instrumental in getting in the Winyah Bay and Pee Dee River basin area with The Nature Conservancy since 2007:

Easements: 7,086 acres

Purchases: 5,389 acres.

The kayak wouldn't quite fit in between the knees, so the balance would be tricky if the dog was grabbed. The frightened dog might bite. And Maria Whitehead had a tour group to lead. But she coaxed the hound to the boat and cradled her. A week later, "River" is Whitehead's family dog.

This is the woman to whom the heart of the Black River belongs.

"Once I got my eyes locked on (the dog) it seemed she was a gentle soul, and she was so terrified," Whitehead said.

Whitehead, 40, is The Nature Conservancy's soft-spoken and insuppressible project director for the Winyah Bay and Pee Dee River basin, essentially the whole north coast of South Carolina as far inland as Florence. Her job is a handful: identifying and prioritizing key privately owned tracts to try to win conservation easements, or buy outright and raising the money to pay for it. She takes part in multi-group conservation task forces. She oversees the scientific research needed. Oh, and she also heads up an ocean and coast conservation initiative for the conservancy's chapter here.

The old growth cypress bottoms found along the Black River are the heart of the ecosystem, home to any number of wildlife species, including innumerable birds such as the rare and graceful swallow-tailed kite, that are native to the Lowcountry. The bottoms are one of the most important forest habitats to the region, and after centuries of timbering, there's not a lot of old growth left.

They are Whitehead's stomping ground and her job, literally, is to save what she can.

For the love of birds

She was born to this. Whitehead grew up on a 200-year-old family farm in the Back Swamp community outside Florence, the sort of rural place where nobody really bothers about whether to spell "back swamp" as one word or two. Maria, pronounced like Mariah, is a family name; she is the seventh in the family to have it.

This is the sort of family that found an orphaned great horned owlet when Whitehead was 7 years old and raised it, first in a baby's playpen in the kitchen then in a screened sand pile in the yard. The bird would perch on the shoulder, gracefully keeping the talons retracted. The family later released the bird.

Whitehead fell in love with birds. She went to Davidson College to study field biology, then Australia to intern doing avian research. She got a job at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources counting wading bird colonies in the swamps. The team built their own float shoes out of Styrofoam, put clickers on their belts and walked on the water of Sparkleberry Swamp. She earned her master's degree at the University of Georgia, her Ph.D. at Clemson University.

"What can I say? She's dedicated and passionate about birds," said ornithologist Sid Gauthreaux of Edisto Island, who taught Whitehead at Clemson and has followed her career. "When she was a student, I could tell she was going to make a difference."

As Whitehead graduated, she came across a newsletter advertising avian research jobs literally across the world and said, "Wow."

Next thing she knew, she was in a Maui forest in Hawaii studying species behavior. She took a job teaching biology at The Citadel, worked with birds for The Charleston Museum, and became research director at the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw.

The more Whitehead studied birds, the more she realized that wasn't the answer, with species disappearing in the Lowcountry and worldwide.

"If your passion is avian conservation, then land protection is one of the ways you can promote the most change," she said.

Protective instinct

In 2007, conservancy staffers asked her about taking over the basin conservation work. It didn't take much coaxing. Her dad, Alva Whitehead, earlier had placed the Back Swamp farm into a conservation easement to protect the family legacy.

"To get to work in a place where your family has been for 200 years, a place your family holds sacred, it's a 'once-in-a-lifetime,' " she said.

Whitehead spends a lot of time in meetings, a lot of time poring over paperwork, more time than she would wish providing "ecosystem services," helping people who didn't grow up like she did understand why conservation is valuable and how to protect land.

"The payoff is that joy of being out there and to have a part in trying to protect and restore it. Helping birds just makes it that much more important," Whitehead said.

She is married and commutes from the mountains where she moved when her husband, Ryan Olson, took a job there. She is the mother of two, a kayaker, a runner, novice mountain biker, and now the best friend of a gentle, shy hound dog mix who still retreats to her kennel when she's nervous but whose nose comes alive when she's out in the mountain forest.

"And always I yearn for more quiet times outdoors," Whitehead said. She orients where she is by the bird calls she hears. When she's out, she's listening.

At times, she retreats to her family's cabin on Black Mingo Creek near the Black River, where she stares across the water at 200,000 acres of timberland that has just been sold and in today's market might not stay timberland much longer.

"It keeps me up at night," she said. "Just the instability and change of ownership in all our industrial forests presents a threat and an opportunity."

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