PARKING LOT BIRDING

I’m very pleased to announce that Parking Lot Birding: A Fun Guide to Discovering Birds in Texas will be shipping out in April, just in time for the spring bird migration. Due to the Covid-19 safety measures many of the April events have been canceled. If you were planning on attending an April event and would still like a signed copy, you can now order books directly from me, just click on the link here and follow the instructions. Please note that if you would like an inscription in the book, please use the contact page to send me an email with what you would like in the book(s) you have purchased. 

You can also order from A&M University PressBarnes and Nobles, or Book People

I hope you will get out and enjoy birding this spring. But please remember to keep an Eagle’s wingspan between you and other people to safely social distance while discovering the birds in Texas. 

My Big Covid- 19 Lockdown Promotion

I’m so pleased to announce I have just been promoted. I’ve been working at the Nilles- Bristol Resort Living Community since 2009. It started as a part-time side gig as I was working full-time at another establishment. I would help out in the evenings and weekends as best I could. Last Summer I went full-time and started in the housekeeping and landscaping division. The staff and residents are amazing here. I have some language barriers with a few of the residents, but we seem to get our thoughts across. 

Cachina at the spa

 This week my boss made it official that I am the new Activities and Catering Manager. It is such an honor. I’ve really wanted this position and the prestigious title that comes with it but never thought I could had the skills required. He said the residents are really happy with the meals I’ve been preparing, and they find my activities to be engaging and sometimes even challenging. I think the mud-spa treatment that I arranged for one of the older residents really sealed the deal. 

My mind is racing with new types of games and exercise programs that I can now offer the residents. Tonight, I have planned a special meal/ activity for the VIP resident. We will start with an easy walk with the other live-ins, then he will be treated to a cocktail and snacks in the west facing porch, followed by a light meal on the covered deck, and finally an after-diner drink on the sky-viewing patio. The other residents will have their standard meal and can join in the festivities on the sky-viewing patio after their 6:30 pm nap. I will admit since most of the residents nap most of the day, the work load is fairly light. One of the more senior residents spends most of her time watching the TV window.

Resident, Chuck, enjoying a Cactus Swirl cocktail

The only downside is my boss mentioned that because of the uncertainty in the Covid-19 world right now, I won’t see an increase in pay, and I will have to continue with my housekeeping and landscaping duties. However, if I exceed during this quarter, I am eligible for a bonus. Oh, and he mentioned that I qualify for a comped meal and cocktail on the weekends. I really feel like I am in a supportive work/ life environment and if I continue to apply myself, I’m certain that I can continue to elevate myself and the Nilles-Bristol Resort Living Community. 

I never thought I could turn my part-time side gig into such a meaningful career. It just goes to show that with hard work, and a positive attitude, anything is possible. Well no time to waste, I’m off to tackle the laundry, attend to the landscaping duties, and two residents have requested massages this afternoon. At least I think that’s what they’ve asked for; as I mentioned sometimes there are language barriers. 

Meet the Residents: Chuck, Chief, Coburg, Cachina, Casino

Resources for Birding with Kids

With everyone sheltering in place and schools closed during the Corvid-19 epidemic I thought I might create a quick catalog of resources for birding with kids. The spring migration is a great time to introduce kids to the wonder of birds as they move from South and Central America to North America. During the spring migration they are dressed in their most colorful breeding plumage and easier to see than in the fall. If you can’t get out to a park or nature center to bird, consider setting a bird feeder at your home or apartment and keep a journal of what birds arrive throughout the year. I also highly recommend introducing young kids to birding through story books, coloring pages and games. Below is a list of some of my favorite books as well as places to find bird feeders and seed that are safe and healthy for the birds.

Books:

Am I Like You? by Authors: Brian Scott Sockin & Laura Erickson Illustrated by: Anna Rettberg is one of my favorite birding books for kids.

Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas  (Author), The Dalai Lama (Afterword), Wangari Maathai (Contributor)

Common Backyard Birds by Doris Dumrauf is a good starter book for identifying common birds.

Baby Owls by Martin Waddell is beautifully illustrated story about little owls missing their mommy and so happy when she returns.

About Birds: A Guide for Children by  Cathryn Sill, Illustrator – John Sill also has great illustrations and is easy reading for kids 5-8 years old.

Ruby’s Birds by Mya Thompson and Illustrator: Claudia Dávila is a picture book and totally fun for young kids.

The Little Hummingbird By  Michael Yahgulanaas is a wonderful book about hope and overcoming the odds. I’ve used this book a lot with middle school kids.

When it comes to coloring books, Dover is the best place to find quality books for kids and adults.

Bird Feeders:

Finding the right bird feeder isn’t always easy. Thankfully there are feeders now for just about every home from those with large yards to an intimate balcony space at an apartment. One thing to keep in mind when feeding the birds is to only use bird seed or hummingbird nectar that comes from a trust source. Never feed birds bread, it is not a natural food option for them and can be harmful. Also please avoid using hummingbird nectar that has red dye in it. The dye is also harmful to the birds. If you do set out feeders, please make sure they are cleaned regularly and out of reach of cats. House cats are wonderful pets, however, they are also very efficient predators who will snatch a bird if they have the chance.

Wild Birds Unlimited has just about everything you could ever want to attract birds to your yard year round. I also like Wild Bird Centers and my local feed store, Calahans General Store. Most stores have curb side pick up or delivery service during the shelter-in-place order.

Create a Habitat:

Having a bird feeder is great, but supplying birds with native plants is even better. Audubon has made it easy to pick out native plants that are right for your zip code on their new Plant for Birds website. Just type in the zip code you live in and find plants that create food or cover for birds year round. I prefer to go to plant stores that are local and raise their plants locally instead of a big box store that might import their plants from far away places. Invasive plants that come from Asia or other places can be toxic to children and wildlife.

If you live in the Austin area, check out Barton Springs Nursery for the very best of native plants and trees. And it’s located right next to Wild Birds Unlimited. You can even turn your yard into a Certified Wildlife Habitat through the National Wildlife Federation.

Lesson Plans and Educational Materials:

Audubon has tons of lesson plans, activities and other ideas to get kids interested in watching and caring for birds. They have a nice guide on how to make nectar for hummingbirds that I’ve used many times.

When it comes to learning about birds, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is at the very top. Check out their k-12 lessons and learning labs.

Hummingbird feeding on the Red Yucca in my yard.

Parking Lot Birding – the Journey

I’m crazy excited to announce that my very first book will be out this spring and pre-orders can already be made. Parking Lot Birding: A Fun Guide to Discovering Birds in Texas with A&M University Press was a blast to research and write. I had a lot of help while doing the field research as I was joined by my mother, Valarie Bristol, and amazing Husband, Thomas Nilles. Thomas also contributed many of the photos for the “Feather Facts.”

I was introduced to many of the locations and nature centers mentioned in the book while I was the coordinator for the Texas Children in Nature program with Texas Parks and Wildlife. I would try to arrive early or stay a little late after a meeting to walk the campus of the centers and get to know the habitat, trails, bird blinds and other points of interest. I wasn’t always birding, but was always looking for places to recommend to people who were interested in finding meaningful experiences in nature, but didn’t want to travel to some far away place. It’s important to me that people think about nature as the tree out their window, the park down their street or even the campus of their school instead of some far away place like the Rain Forest.

In my early days of birding I made a lot of rookie mistakes. I hiked a lot of miles loaded down with gear. On more than one occasion, I forgot my camera and binoculars at home.  I share my mistakes in Parking Lot Birding in hopes that other can learn from them and avoid unwanted blisters, sunburns, and the frustration of not having a camera ready to photograph the perfect bird.

The book lists ninety individual birding locations around the state that offer easy going birding opportunities for people with all abilities. Because of my past work, I have a special affinity for parents or grandparents who take their kids out birding or just to notice nature in general. It’s easy to get kids interested in birding if they can go somewhere the birds are easy to see, there’s a good variety of them, and they don’t have to travel too far.

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I try to weave in the history or other interesting facts about the location, while also summarizing what birds someone might find there and what season they occur in. At the closing of each location’s description, I include a Feather Fact that highlights a bird that might be found at that location. There are ninety Feather Facts and around forty other colorful photos to help folks identify and learn about our feathered friends.

For me, writing the book was the trifecta of what I love in life- Nature, Travel, History- all packaged up in my home state of Texas. Plus- I was lucky enough to research it with people I love- my husband, mother, friends, co-workers, and sometimes total strangers that dazzled me with their knowledge.

People ask me how long it took to write. From the time I started the manuscript to the time I turned in the first full draft was eighteen months. Then there was another eighteen months of editing copy and photos to get it ready for production. The team at A&M University Press has been amazingly kind to help me through the process and get to the better version. I will add that the research took several years. I was doing the research before I even had the book idea in mind.

The idea came to me when we were on one of the Great Texas Birding Classic competitions and started joking about how the birds always seemed to be located near the parking lot, nature center campus, bird blind, or boardwalk. Right then and there I pulled out my notebook and sketched out the idea at lunch with my husband and mother. We laughed our faces off about the concept, but my mind was already at work on how it could all flow together.

Once I started writing, I worked on it in the evenings after work, in hotel rooms after conferences, on airplanes, and even while camping. Actually, I spent a lot of time in the RV writing in between walks, swims, birding, and laughing around the campfire with Thomas and our five dogs.

All this is to say, if you’ve ever wanted to write a book- just do it. A wise woman at the Texas Writer’s League once said, “if you write a page a day, you’ll be done in a year.” I believed her and that became my goal even while working full-time and trying to keep up with everything else.

I’m excited that the book will be published this spring, just in time for the migration. I’m also grateful that Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and Our Wild Calling, contributed the forward for the book. I think the hardest part was editing the manuscript, reading about the birds and not be out there birding. Luckly, my next book project is about birding as well and I’m having a blast doing the research.

Order your copy of Parking Lot Birding at https://www.tamupress.com/book/9781623498511/parking-lot-birding/

Patterns in Nature

I’m fascinated by how wildlife adapts their feathers, fur or skin to display certain patterns or colors to camouflage them from predators or attract a mate. Perhaps no other category of wildlife has more patterns or color than birds. It wasn’t until my husband gave me a good camera lens that I started to really appreciate the intricacy of these adaptations.

American Bittern standing like a reed
American Bittern, photo by Jennifer Bristol

Sometimes I will be marveling at a splendidly colored bird and then poof, it disappears into the lush canopy of green. Despite the fact it is bright orange or yellow, it can fold into the hues and go unnoticed by my human eye. And of course nothing can hide like the American Bittern who is not only colored and patterned like the reeds of the marshes it lives in; it can also stand with its head up and look like a reed.

Then there are some birds, like the male Northern Cardinal that don’t seem interested in blending into any setting. They maintain their brilliant red year round and are often a welcome flash of color on a grey winter day.

But it’s more than just the color that I marvel at, the patterns are of equal interest. Some times it is the pattern on their wings; other times it is how the water beads up and rolls of the back of water fowl. Their feet also hold a house of mystery with various adaptations and designs.

The Green Heron looks like each of its green wing feathers are outlined in gold. No matter what the bird, there is something captivating once we take the time to look closer and see them for what they really are.

 

 

Feeling Birdy

It’s almost October and still 100 degrees in Central Texas. But with the arrival of a Baltimore Oriole in our yard this week, I know the fall migration is in full swing even it fall isn’t.IMG_7370

The Ruby Throated Hummingbirds have been hanging out for weeks, and the Chimney Swifts are still circling overhead in the evenings. The Purple Martins left for South America in August, and most of the Common Nighthawks left soon after. Each species has a timed migration pattern that is perfectly orchestrated to other parts of nature. When humans alter nature, they deprive birds the right to a safe and healthy migration with their families and flocks.

Our little two acre homestead in North Austin is a safe haven for birds year round. We have carefully begun the process of removing the thousands of invasive plants that took over the forest and we started cultivating plants that are native to this area. Additionally, we also do not spray pesticides or use chemicals on the lawn. It’s a lot of physical labor, but worth the effort when a species of bird arrives that I have not yet seen in the area.

On September 23 a massive flock of Common Grackles showed up and continues to grow larger as their friends arrive. They differ from the Great-Tailed Grackle that hangs out in Austin year round in that they have smaller tails, smaller bodies, and the males looked like they dipped their head in an oil slick.

Great Tailed Grackel
Great-tailed Grackle, Photo- Jennifer L. Bristol

My favorite bird that lives in our woods are the Carolina Chickadees. Now that their babies are fledged and fully grown, the parents are less frantic and more social. When they see me out watering the flowers they start filling the hackberry trees on the edge of the yard. I spray the trees for a few minutes and they flitter about bathing, drinking, and catching the bugs the water brings out. Soon they are joined by the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and the Northern Cardinals; all chattering to each other and to me.

Research shows that people who live in a richer biodiversity have better health than those that live in areas with fewer species of plants and animals. By removing the mono-forest of invasive plants and encouraging a grander scale of native plants, insects, birds and other wildlife to return I am investing in my own health as well as theirs.

Five things you can do to have a bird friendly yard:

  1. Have a birdbath with clean water that is out of reach from house cats
  2. Set up bird feeders that are out of reach of cats and other pets
  3. Plant native plants that produce seeds, berries, or flowers
  4. Reduce any use of chemicals, especially pesticides
  5. Keep your house cats indoors

For a little more wildlife- check out this short video. We are truly lucky to share this forest with so many birds, butterflies, and other animals large and small. Please note that we feed the birds, but we do not feed the other wildlife. During the droughts, after the creeks dry up we do put out buckets of water for them.

 

 

Memories of the Monarch Butterfly

When I was a child my parents subscribed to National Geographic and I always looked forward every month to see what new wonders of the world they would surprise and delight us with in their latest issue. We kept those magazines for years and used them for all sorts of homework and art projects. There was one issue in particular that was my favorite and I still have it; August, 1976. That month featured a beautiful photo of a woman surrounded by monarch butterflies in their secret wintering haven in Mexico.

Growing up in Central Texas, I’ve always had a special admiration for the monarch butterfly. Each April and October they flutter along ancient migration routes that carry them through Texas. When I was at college at Texas State University, I would linger in the library on campus to watch the butterflies float along, catching the updrafts of the building as they journey to and from Mexico. On days when I felt like there was no possible way that I could continue on with working full time and go to school full time; I would watch those little creatures and be inspired to keep going.

On November 22, 2013 the New York Times published an article titled “The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear.” The article summarized that the monarchs have dropped to record lows and explained all the many factors for their demise; pesticides, loss of habitat, loss of milkweed and native plants, and an increase in extreme weather patterns. Fewer than 3 million butterflies reached their wintering grounds in Mexico tin 2013 compared to 60 million in 2012.

The impact of the loss of such an iconic and important member of North American wildlife opens my heart to many questions. I work daily to connect children and families to nature so that they can have a healthier, happier and smarter future. But it concerns me that we are reaching a point when the natural world that kids today are discovering, is so dramatically different than the one that I enjoyed just a few decades ago. I have to wonder if my generation is going to be the one that doesn’t just see the loss of most of the world’s important mega fauna and now the bees and butterflies; but we let it happen.

It makes me want to do more. It makes me want to double my efforts to not just connect children with nature, but make sure that they have access to all the biodiversity that I had as a child. It makes me want to educate others about the harm that Nicotine-based pesticides have on our insect, bird and bat populations. It makes me want to join in the growing chorus of voices that are demanding that we stop importing invasive plants into our country. It makes me want to educate others about land fragmentation and loss of habitat. And it makes me want to ask each of you to think about what more can you do in your daily life to ensure that we have a healthy, robust natural world to connect children with.

Here are some simple tips to get started:

1. Remove the invasive plants from your yard and replace them with native plants that require less water.

2. Don’t use harmful pesticides or fertilizers on your yard. Replace them with organic choices or refrain from using them at all. Never use Roundup or other weed killers.

3. Plant milkweed or other native plants that support the migrating butterflies and birds. (see list below for garden centers that carry milkweed.)

4. Engage with a local school, church or business to influence them to make informed choices that will support local biodiversity.

5. Get outdoors. Caring for nature starts with a connection with nature.

I know that we can do better for our children to give them a natural world that is filled with inspiration and wonder, like the one I discovered on the pages of National Geographic in 1976. National Geographic; August 1976: Discovered: The Monarchs Mexican Haven.

Find milkweed at: Barton Springs Nursery, Countryside Nursery, Garden-Ville, Great Outdoors, It’s About Thyme, Natural Gardener

Find out where to get outdoors at http://www.naturerockstexas.org

New York Time; by Jim Robbins: The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear

This blog was originally posted on Texas Children in Nature and Children & Nature Network. Written by: Jennifer L. Bristol

 

Inspired by Women Who Care

Six years ago my mother approached me with an idea. She wanted to write a book about all the amazing women that had helped shape the conservation movement in Texas. At the time, I was busy with a new job as the director for Texas Children in Nature, but the idea lingered and eventually demanded attention.

Fast forward to spring of 2019 and I stood at a crossroads in my career. Rather than take the safe path that I’d worked hard to create, I took a leap of faith, and dedicated to working on a manuscript with my mother. My first book, Parking Lot Birding: A Fun Guide to Discovering Birds in Texas, A&M Press, comes out in 2020. With that one under my belt I feel naively confident to pull together a second book about at topic close to my heart; celebrating women in conservation.

Just a few month into the research and I can only describe the journey as being like falling into a doctoral program without guidance. But the women are extraordinary and their achievements embody all facets of the conservation movement from advocacy to private land stewardship to funding programs and educating youth.

So many of their stories cannot be found neatly cataloged in books or journals. Perhaps they have a mention in a newspaper article or historical documents. I’ve labored over many a book to understand the details of conservation projects across Texas and time and time again the women are not featured or mentioned as being important players in various projects. This lack is what drives me. I want my niece to know what these women scarified, over came, and found joy in as they strove to protect the land, wildlife and waters they loved.

It turns out my mother is a darn good researcher and doggedly sniffs out the facts to accurately tell each woman’s story with care. A champion of nature in her own right, she can quickly relate to what challenges some of the women faced while trying to over come barriers. She also is well versed in the issues surrounding many of the conservation projects in Texas as she was a part of many of them in her own career.

We’ve both found inspiration in the Terry Hershey, Women in Conservation Awards that Audubon Texas hosts each year to honor women who’ve made a difference. The awards started in 2015 and have honored women across the state as they move the event from city to city. Audubon has been such an important haven for women to safely enjoy and study nature since the turn of the ninetieth century.

The exploration is unique and reminds me how important it is to step-up, take action, and never give up when a cause matters. No matter where the project ends up, the time with my mother is irreplaceable. Meeting and interviewing these women is also something I will cherish for a lifetime.

Scan 13
Valarie Bristol – fighting for parks and open space in Travis County

 

 

Nature in Austin

There are lots of cool places around Austin, TX to find nature, some of the places listed here might be well known, other’s might be a little less so. These are some of my favorite places that I invite you to also explore.

Casino and me walking the new hike and bike trail.
Casino and me walking the new hike and bike trail.

Barton Springs Pool is one the places I love the most in the entire world. I’ve been swimming in it’s cool waters since I was a kids growing up in Austin in the 70’s and have enjoyed it ever since.  For only $5 I can spend the entire day swimming in the 68 degree water or relaxing under the magnificent pecan and cottonwood trees.  The pool is part of the City of Austin Parks that surround Lady Bird Lake and the springs.  Walking the hike and bike trail around the lake is a good 10 miles from the MoPac bridge to the Longhorn Dam and back or you can break the walk up into smaller loops- I’ve only completed the full loop a few times. The trail also connects with the Johnson Creek Green Belt Trail and now Waller Creek Trail.

I used to like to hike the trails along the Barton Creek Wilderness, but it is so over crowded now. These days I prefer the north Austin option of the miles of trails at the Walnut Creek Metro Park. However, there will always be a special place in my heart for Barton Creek Wilderness as it was such a key part of my childhood and teen years.

When I go birding the best places in town are; Laguna Gloria and Mayfield Park and Hornsby Bend Water Treatment. If I want a simple day trip for birding, I enjoy Pedernales Falls State Park outside of Dripping Springs, Big Webberville Park, and Bastrop State Parks in Bastrop. You can find all the best places in Texas to bird in my new book that is due out in February 2020 called, Parking Lot Birding: A Fun Guide for Discovering Birds in Texas. 

The Ann Richards Bridge on Congress Ave is a nice place to watch the Mexican free tailed bats emerge in the evenings from April to October. But if you like to see things in mass, then check out the Purple Martin Parties hosted by Travis Audubon during July. The Purple Martins gather in July in the trees at dusk around Highland Mall (ACC Campus) or in Round Rock. They call it a “hurricane of birds.”

As the city continues to grow, we must invest in our parks and open spaces where people can play, explore and connect with nature. Families that live in apartments or condos utilize the parks as their back yards where they can socialize, exercise and quietly reflect.

Peacock at Mayfield Park.  Peacocks are not native, but still beautiful.
Peacock at Mayfield Park. Peacocks are not native, but still beautiful.

The Journey of Writing from the Heart

Bird Blinds Ahead
Bird Blind- South Llano River State Park

In 2017 I was standing at the edge of a parking lot at a nature center in the Rio Grande Valley looking at birds with my mother and husband. We had just returned from a hot, dusty 2 mile walk into the thorn scrub of south Texas. Our walk yielded a few species, but the woods around the nature center and parking area were teaming with all the birds we were hoping to find. This moment confirmed an idea that I had been formulating that sometimes it is easier to find the birds near the parking lot, nature center campus, or from the bird blind than hiking deep into the hinterlands. The miles of conservation lands necessary for birds to nest, feed, and raise their young are needed, however, they are often difficult to access. It’s not that they prefer the parking areas, it’s just that the controlled spaces make it easier to peer into their habitat.

And so another journey began. I made some notes about best parking lots to bird, then expanded that to include nature centers, boardwalks, bird blinds, driving tours, and wastewater treatment facilities. From there, Parking Lot Birding, a Fun Guide to Discover Birds in Texas was born.

I pitched the idea to A&M Press here in Texas and they liked the concept, so I buckled down and started writing every week and doing the research on the locations on the weekends. I started writing in April 2017 and sent the first version on the manuscript to A&M Press in June 2018. After a big round of edits, two peer reviews and being voted on by their board, they said yes to publishing it in January 2019.

It took 17 months to write 250 plus pages, edit over 115 photos, and find someone to design the maps. All while working full-time and having a life. I must admit, I enjoyed the pace. I’ve written a novel and that beast has taken forever and I’m still not finished editing, despite renting a cabin in the woods of Montana two summers ago to work on it.

It takes a lot of self- discipline to sit and write when the weather is nice or friends are in town, but that’s the gig. A wise woman told me once if you write a page a day, you’ll be done with a manuscript in a year. I thought that seemed like an ambitious statement, but it really is true especially if you are writing from the heart and about a subject you have particular knowledge about.

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Indigo Bunting on migration through south Texas

Each step is a learning opportunity and I’ve been open to the process wholeheartedly. Now the next leg of the journey begins and that is designing the book, marketing and selling it while also balancing work and life. But if I can inspire at least one person to step out their door to enjoy nature through birding, then I will have met my goal for writing the book.