Mr. Audubon, Mr. Beach and 'Bird Banks'

Black skimmers skim their bottom beaks along the water to catch food at Deveaux Bank. (File)

Wildlife artist John James Audubon used a shotgun, wires and paint to capture the essence of South Carolina shorebirds in his illustrious "Birds of America" series. Today - more than 180 years later - coastal conservationist Dana Beach uses a digital camera, words and printer's ink to do the same in his stunning new book "Deveaux." And both did their best work on the "Bird Banks" near Charleston.

Consider Audubon's plate 231 (Havell) of two long-billed curlews with the Charleston skyline in the background. The curlews were specimens Mr. Audubon observed on Bird Key (Skimmer Flats), a sand island at Stono Inlet between Folly Beach and Kiawah Island.

He described an overnight trip to Cole's Island with the Rev. John Bachman of St. John's Lutheran Church when he saw curlews feeding along the shore near the camp.

At dusk the men rowed across Stono Inlet to what they called the Bird Banks, (Bird Key) where curlews gathered by the thousands.

"The moment we landed ... the birds rose at once, performed a few revolutions in perfect silence, and re-alighted as if with one accord on the extreme margins of the sand bank close to tremendous breakers."

Mr. Audubon immortalized his curlews in a scene that includes marsh grass just behind the birds as if they're on the east Cooper River shore. The Charleston skyline in the distance is the work of his assistant George Lehman. London engraver Robert Havell added the blue, white and pink sky.

Ornithologists at that time hired gunners to shoot birds, stuff each with frayed rope for drying and mail them to be measured and drawn. But Mr. Audubon did his own hunting, and used wire pins to pose the dead birds on boards while he painted them on canvas.

Charlestonians liked Mr. Audubon, and the feeling was mutual. He left the city by schooner for St. Augustine in November 1831 with his beloved black-and-white Newfoundland retriever named Plato at his side.

The dog was a gift from Dr. Samuel Wilson, a hunting companion from Charleston. "I met more kindness in this place than anywhere in the United States," the artist wrote.

The fact that South Carolinians were among the first to purchase subscriptions for Mr. Audubon's "Birds of America" is a tribute to the high intellect and foresight of its citizens.

Now consider the high intellect and foresight of Charleston's Dana Beach, founder and executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.

His impressive new coffee-table book features the birds of Deveaux Bank, a 215-acre sand island at the mouth of the North Edisto River between Seabrook and Botany Bay islands. Deveaux Bank is one of six S.C. nesting islands for pelicans, terns, gulls, herons, egrets, black skimmers, oystercatchers, plovers and willets. Mr. Beach's words and color photographs express the grace and plight of these remarkable birds along with dowitchers, wimbrels, sanderlings, sandpipers, godwits, dunlins, ruddy turnstones and red knots.

"I have considered Deveaux for more than 25 years. It has a hypnotic magnetism ... the screams of gulls and screeches of terns, the grunts of pelicans and barks of skimmers; the aerial ballet against water and sky; the smells of birth and life and growth." The birds choose these small, ephemeral islands as a safeguard from raccoons and other four-legged predators, although nuisance people and their dogs - which arrive by boat - are a growing threat.

In Audubon's day, Deveaux Bank was a shifting sandbar with a narrow channel engulfed by roiling surf that only an experienced pilot would attempt to navigate a vessel through into the North Edisto. But that's what somebody did in 1779 when an 8,500-man British invasion force in 140 transport ships landed on lower Seabrook (then called Simmons) before crossing Johns and James islands to capture Charleston.

Why the shoal was named Deveaux Bank is uncertain, but probably has something to do with the bravado of Andrew Deveaux, Beaufort's infamous Tory militiaman. He was an accomplished pilot who knew the Bird Banks well. Britain's Lord Cornwallis promoted Deveaux, 23, to the rank of major for his service before, during and after the Siege of Charleston.

Another 180 years later, Deveaux Bank was to be used as a U.S. military bombing range. Alexander Sprunt Jr. - a local ornithologist, writer and Audubon Society director - often visited the island to study birds, and led a successful effort to stop the bombing plan. Deveaux Bank was subsequently designated a seabird sanctuary in honor of him. The island was obliterated by storms in 1980, reappeared three years later and now thrives as a nesting area but still vulnerable to a rising sea.

In the conclusion to his book, Mr. Beach asks rhetorically, why worry about the shifting sands and nests of the Bird Banks when ultimately it might not matter?

"Allowing any one of these places to be degraded or destroyed on the grounds that the birds can always nest somewhere else would be the ultimate expression of ignorance and irresponsibility," he explains, adding that most humans possess an innate capacity to love and care for other animals. "This strikes me as enough - that we celebrate the beauty of these transient places, recognize the threats they face ... and commit ourselves to doing whatever we can to protect them. It's hard to imagine visiting Deveaux Bank without coming to this conclusion."

Mr. Audubon and Mr. Beach would enjoy visiting the Bird Banks together.

But Mr. Beach surely would ask Mr. Audubon to leave his shotgun and his dog in the boat.

John M. Burbage is a writer, editor and publisher who lives in Charleston and owns a farm in Hampton County. He may be reached at