At the 2010 Santee Birding and Nature Festival, the woods were full of enraptured people, gazing in awe, mouths half open, binoculars in one hand, field guides in the other. Unhurried and attentive, people whispered and stepped carefully. Rather than jarring or disrupting the landscape, these wanderers fit right in, enthralled and richly rewarded, finally at home in the wild.
The festival opened eyes and hearts to a new way of seeing and being in nature. On a Birding 101 walk in the Santee National Wildlife Refuge, a small group trembled with excitement as a painted bunting danced in the dogwood trees directly overhead, perching to sing and pose. A few yards further, a great crested fly-catcher chirped high in a live oak, spotted first by a boy with sharp eyes and a curious mind. A little later, while the group watched bobolinks in a field, the boy came running breathless from further up the trail, bringing news of a barred owl in full glory, perched on a nearby tree.
Refuge Ranger Susie Heisey guided the group on the Wright's Bluff trail and interpreted nature's subtle antics, revealing butterfly larvae on sassafras leaves, pointing out the difference between vultures and raptors in flight, and giving gentle tips for directing another person's eyes to elusive small birds high up in the canopy. Butterflies joined birds in the airy space just out of reach and other groups sought out these mercurial, silent wonders on the Cuddo Unit at the Refuge.
At the celebratory birding countdown, enthusiastic naturalists gathered over snacks to compare notes. Over 100 different species were seen and heard. Among these were the coveted painted bunting, the bald eagle, the prothonotary warbler, the American redstart and the tiny bold ruby-crowned kinglet.
So often, the news is bad: habitat destruction, pollution, extinction. The festival educated participants about all these, and then offered a panacea for this tension between humans and nature by reintroducing humans to the wilderness. Rather than tactics of guilt and shame, festival organizers acted as good ambassadors, welcoming humans back to their rightful place within the natural world. All humans really need to do is stand and gawk at the owl, the painted bunting, the corn snake, and become spellbound by a magic that heals the world and its inhabitants.
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