Symposium will study work of 1700s naturalist

A drawing of the extinct Carolina parakeet by 18th century Lowcountry naturalist Mark Catesby.

KIAWAH ISLAND — The white crowned pigeon flew faster than a motorboat runs. It feasted in the fruit trees of the Lowcountry.

It used to be a common sight along the coast. Now it’s all but extinct, just like the ivory billed woodpecker or the Carolina parakeet.

And that’s the importance of Mark Catesby, the Lowcountry’s forgotten naturalist: the reminder in paintings he left of its disappearing or vanished birds.

“The loss of species continues today and we need to increase our efforts in conservation and environmental protection,” Sir Ghillean Prance — a distinguished English botanist, ecologist and former director of the Kew Gardens — said via email.

Prance will be the keynote speaker at the Mark Catesby Tercentennial Symposium taking place here and in Virginia in early November.

Catesby roamed the coast and much of the state in the early 1700s, when the place still was wilderness, looking to find and paint new animals and plants.

He is the forgotten first “birder” of the Americas, obscured by later names such as Michaux, Noisette and Audubon.

But his work was trailblazing enough to draw some of the leading names in today’s field to the symposium, among them Prance and Jonathan Alderfer, the illustrator for the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America and editor for the newly released Bird Watcher’s Bible.

Alderfer — who has birded across the country for 40 years including the Southeast coast — will lead tours on Kiawah and the wetlands delta ACE Basin. Oddly enough, he’s never been to either place, although he’s familiar with the birds he expects to find.

“It’s a journey of discovery for me,” he said.

He’s looking forward to seeing iconic Lowcountry birds like wood storks — the elegant, tall waders first documented by Catesby. Today, they too are an endangered species.

Alderfer brings a broader, national perspective on migrating species that winter here and a sense of how natural history study has evolved since Catesby, he said.

The symposium is a presentation by Catesby Commemorative Trust, a coterie of devotees that includes prominent Charleston names.

David Elliott of Kiawah Island is the executive director.

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