Artist in Residence // 5 min Read

Birds of a Feather

Written by Palmetto Bluff

May 07, 2024

Photographs by Cacky Rivers and Cameron Wilder

It is a sunny, cold December morning when we meet in the Conservancy classroom in Moreland Village. Everyone is well-equipped with binoculars and all manner of cameras and giant lenses. Cacky arrives last, in a rush of cold air and excitement. She has just been scouting this morning’s path and has come across a pair of pileated woodpeckers. Her enthusiasm is infectious. We gather our things and head out, falling into step and easy conversation as Cacky leads us to the River Road Preserve.

Cacky Rivers never meant to be a birder. This was the life love of her late father, Dr. Tommy Rivers. An OB-GYN and beloved pillar of the community, Dr. Rivers had been an avid birder since childhood. He found immense joy in walking the woods with his binoculars. When he became sick in 2017, Cacky headed out on his beat. She was his boots on the ground, so to speak, and brought the birds home to him in stories and photos. Over time, she got better at taking photos and bought a more serious camera. “He’d watched birds fly his whole life,” she says. “But suddenly I was stopping them in motion for him. He thought that was brilliant.” Their text exchanges during these excursions laid the groundwork for Cacky’s first book. And after his death in 2020, Cacky kept going. It was part of her DNA, a way to commune with her dad.

Cacky stops the group at the trailhead. “Let’s listen and see who is here,” she says quietly. “But do your own thing, find your own groove.” And as we turn into the path, the group falls silent, watchful. Many have their phones out, using the Cornell University Merlin Bird ID app to record and identify bird calls. The low December sun throws deep shadows in the maritime forest. Everywhere there is the rustle of leaves, of robins, wrens, and chickadees chirping and trilling as they forage in the understory.

In 2021 Cacky published her first book, Grounded in Flight. The book was a culmination of those first years in the field, an homage to her late father. This past fall, she published her second book, Born & Raised, an “egg to fledge” chronicle of her favorite birds, from ospreys to oystercatchers. Her passion and commitment has grown immensely in recent years. What started as an ode to her father and an accidental hobby has become her life’s work. This transformation is evident in her most recent book. “I dove deeper. I researched, I studied, I did my homework,” she explains. “I sat for months and watched the same birds. So Born & Raised is richer, more educational.” In the last year, Cacky has been pulled in by local conservationists and bird enthusiasts working for a larger vision. She is now in constant conversation with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and organizations like Audubon South Carolina and Charleston’s Center for Birds of Prey. She has a voice in the birding and conservation community now. “I’m on a journey of discovery,” Cacky says thoughtfully. “All the windows and doors are open now.”

We take a left onto the Flatwoods loop. The forest is a dense mix of loblolly pine, oak, sweet gum, and wax myrtle. The path narrows, the pine needles soft underfoot. We stop and fall silent, listening to a white-eyed vireo in a small, scrubby oak just off the trail. We walk in pairs and talk in low tones as the trail turns right along the inland waterway. The group gathers to watch a cormorant on a snag just a few yards away. “Cormorants catch a fish, throw it in the air, and eat it,” she whispers. “It’s such a tough action shot to get.” All around us little kinglets and chickadees rustle in dense wax myrtle. “You hear that? These bushes are full of birds.” Through Cacky’s eyes, the forest around us feels so alive.

Cacky’s runaway success led her here, to The Arts Initiative at Palmetto Bluff’s Artist in Residence. During her four-day stay, Cacky hosted a book talk and lead several excursions into the wilds of the Lowcountry. “This Artist in Residence program at Palmetto Bluff is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” she says. “I love what I do so much that I forget it’s my work. It is so fun to be here and share it with people.” And Cacky has taken full advantage of her time. She has been on long bike rides, meandered in the woods, and already photographed a loggerhead shrike, which was a “lifer.” “I didn’t want to just sit in the gallery and sign books; I wanted to go on an adventure!” she says.

After lunch at the Canteen in Moreland Village, the group piles into the back of the Conservancy truck. Aaron Palmieri, Palmetto Bluff Conservancy educator and proclaimed bird nerd, takes us behind the gates and along dirt roads to the very southern end of the property. We pile in and out of the truck bed several times; Cacky and Aaron lead on practiced intuition. We flush a pair of northern harriers, spot a bald eagle and a red-tailed hawk. Walking on the sandy roads that crisscross through Anson, someone spots the perfect tracks of a female bobcat. By the time we reach the southern end of the property, the air has warmed in the afternoon sun and there is a light breeze off the May River. Standing against the marsh in the slanted December sun, we can see all the way to Savannah’s skyline.

We are headed back to Moreland and chatting in the back of the truck when Cacky shouts, Stop! Someone bangs on the cab and Aaron screeches to a halt. A pair of red-tailed hawks are perched just off the road in plain view. One of them has a squirrel in its talons and is hunched over it, wings hanging. Small tufts of sand-colored fur drift slowly to the ground. Each member of the group quietly adjusts, attunes, and sets up. The only sound for a long while is the occasional click of our shutters. The hawks are magnificent, massive, and powerful. Through the binoculars, the details of the birds’ beaks, their eyes, and the rich plumage are a sight to behold.

There is a sparkle in Cacky’s eyes as we load back into the truck. These moments are life-affirming for her, a point of connection to the mysteries of nature. Birds are an everlasting link to her beloved father.

“My dad said over and over: Always look up.” Cacky smiles. “I’m just getting started.”

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