In 1815, John Bachman became the pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Charleston, South Carolina. When not ministering, he consumed himself with exploring, studying and hunting wildlife, collecting plants, and tending his elaborate garden. John Bachman and his family’s contribution to John James Audubon’s Birds of America is so significant that without Bachman there might not have been an Audubon.
Bachman and Audubon spent many hours together wandering the pine forests and marshes around Charleston. As a guest at the Bachman residence on Rutledge Avenue, Audubon completed a number of drawings for Birds of America and gained Bachman’s assistance for the completion of his writings for Birds of America. Bachman even found new species of birds for Audubon’s “Great Work.”
In the spring of 1832, Bachman found “a Fringilla which I had not seen before, and which, on investigation, I found had never been described.” The bird was near the Edisto River just west of Charleston. Bachman found “many” others later in the pine barrens “about six miles north” of Charleston. Bachman describes the bird as “the finest songster of the Sparrow family.”
For the double elephant folio of Birds of America, Audubon names the bird the Bachman’s pinewood-finch. “In honouring so humble an object as this Finch with the name of BACHMAN, my aim is to testify the high regard in which I hold that learned and most estimable individual, to whose friendship I owe more than I can express on this occasion.” The bird’s current common name is Bachman’s sparrow.
To find the best remnant of pine barrens today in the area of Charleston where Bachman encountered Bachman’s sparrow would be at a county park called Wannamaker. 132 species of birds have been reported on Cornell’s e-Bird system at Wannamaker Park. None of them are a Bachman’s sparrow. In all of the state of South Carolina, the highest count of the Bachman’s sparrow is 23.
Rather than a pine tree, Bachman’s wife, Maria, provided the picture of the Fevertree (Pinckneya pubescens) for Audubon’s drawing of the Bachman’s sparrow. The plant is specific to the southeastern United States and grows only in wet ground or ground that is under water for part of the year. It is the very kind of ground that loggers, farmers, and real estate developers have spent incalculable numbers of dollars and time converting into either clear-cuts, cropland, or construction sites.
Bachman finds yet a second new species near the Edisto River in the spring of 1832. When Audubon draws the bird for Birds of America, he names the bird after the English naturalist, William Swainson (1789-1855). Audubon adds the Swainson’s warbler to a Flame azalea. This plant is also drawn by John Bachman’s wife, Maria. A Swainson’s warbler might find an occasion to sing from a Flame azalea, but the more likely spot for a Swainson’s warbler is scurrying through a dense canebrake. But like pine barrens and marsh areas, canebrakes have almost vanished, leaving Swainson’s warblers increasingly scarce. According to Cornell’s e-Bird system, no one has counted more than 15 Swainson’s warblers in South Carolina.
Maria Bachman was John Bachman’s second wife. His first wife was Maria’s sister, Harriet. John Bachman and Harriet had 14 children, eight of whom lived pass infancy. Of those eight, two girls would become the wives of Audubon’s two sons. When Maria drew plants for Audubon’s Birds of America, she frequently added insects. For the drawing of the Swainson’s warbler, Maria added two butterflies. The top-right one has the look of a Common buckeye. The lower-left butterfly is some wondrous lepidopteran that Maria Bachman left for viewers of the drawing to speculate about and debate.
Almost as mysterious as a Maria Bachman butterfly is the Bachman’s warbler and Gordonia pubescens. It is just outside of Charleston that John Bachman finds Bachman’s warbler: “a lively active bird, gliding among the branches of thick bushes, occasionally mounting on the wing and seizing insects in the air in the manner of a Flycatcher. It was an old female that had to all appearance just reared a brood of young.” The last record of a Bachman’s warbler is 1962. Dennis Forsythe sighted the bird in South Carolina’s Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. For Birds of America, Audubon places Bachman’s warbler with Maria Bachman’s drawing of Gordonia pubescens.
Audubon describes Gordonia pubescens as a tree that has a maximum height of about 15 feet and is found in Georgia. “Its leaves are obovato-lanceolate, deep green, downy beneath, and its large white flowers, with their numerous yellow anthers, have a very beautiful appearance.” The tree is no longer found in the wild. All that survive are those that are related to the specimens that William Bartram (1739-1823) collected along the banks of the Altamaha River and cultivated in his garden near Philadelphia. The plant is also known as Franklinia.