Fitz Clarke: 2011 Skidaway Audubon Award Winner

Naturalist and photographer Fitz Clarke is known to many Landings residents as “the butterfly guy.” His closeup photographs of lepidoptera and odonata (butterflies, moths, damselflies and dragonflies) have introduced many of us to the wonders of ovapositing, pupating and nectaring insects. Little did we know, until we saw his work, the small wonders around us. And his photographs of birds, also works of art, include the often heard but rarely seen Chuck-will’s-widow .

Following Navy service, mostly spent in the Caribbean, Fitz joined the FBI and trained at the FBI school of photography at Quantico. He served nearly 27 years, taking aerial and crime scene photos, among his duties as a street criminal agent in urban Detroit, Newark, and Trenton. He and wife Rebecca, whom he had met on St. Simons, were eager to return to Georgia, and he accepted assignment to Savannah in 1981 and built a house on Wilmington Island. In 2003, they moved to The Landings to be nearer their daughter and grandson. And Fitz says, “I fell in love with it.”

From the time he retired in 1996 until 2006, Fitz took no photos. Didn’t own a camera, in fact. But a series of encounters changed all that. He fell in with a group of The Landings expert birders – Pat Wolters, Dot Bambach and Beth Roth. He met Russ Wigh, who was documenting butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies in Chatham County, and who he credits as a mentor. He went on a guided butterfly walk at the Savannah Wildlife Refuge with Dennis Forsyth, who “set the hook.” And two birds, a Ruby Crown Kinglet and a Yellow Crown Kinglet, landed and crested near him in his backyard, asking in their perfect poses to be captured on film.

Fitz bought a 35mm digital camera, his first digital.

He also joined the Sparrow Field Wildlife Conservation area oversight committee. And that is where you can catch him most days, tending the Pollinator Friendly Berm which is planted with natives, or walking the field to see if the wildflowers are out-competing the dog fennel. “I like to think of the berm as a Pony Express station,” he said, delivering just what the migrating butterflies need to go on their way. Fitz just added 45 more milkweed plants to those that survived our cold winter, and awaits the arrival of the monarchs who will lay their eggs on this, their sole host plant.

“The importance of native plants and wildflowers in our environment cannot be overstated,” Fitz said. And he quickly ticks off which plants attract which butterflies.

“On his own, he has made the berm what it is – an environment for butterflies and wasps and other pollinators,” Skidaway Audubon committee member Caryl Warner said.
“He mows; he weeds; he keeps the irrigation system clear of silt; he has built a great relationship with the golf course maintenance staff that tends the course side of the berm at Magnolia 15. He monitors the Purple Martin nests. And he photographs.”

He will also stop his work and talk with those who visit the Sparrow Field, a guided experience that in some ways replicates how he grew up learning about nature in the small town of Whaleyville, Virginia, at the side of a farmer that worked his father’s fields. The man couldn’t read but shared his knowledge of every tree, bird and plant.

Fitz the educator, the photographer, the naturalist and devoted Sparrow Field Pollinator Garden tender is to receive a 2011 Skidaway Audubon Environmental Stewardship Award at the 13th annual Skidaway Audubon Golf Tournanment on Monday, May 9.

If you drop the Sparrow Field for a visit and Fitz is there, in return for a tour, he may engage you to pull a weed or two.

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