Th Journey of Writing from the Heart

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 had hoped 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 that hiking deep into the hinterlands. The miles of conservation lands are necessary for conservation, they are often difficult to access and often the birds are not in some far away place, but instead are just beyond the parking lot.

Bird Blinds Ahead

The bird blind at South Llano River State Park

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 Guide for the Curious Birder 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 200 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.


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.




Birding By The Numbers

In it to win it with the trifecta.  The 2016 teams that I was on came in 1st place for the Big Sit with the TPWD staff- Tweeting Chats, 2nd Place Week Long Tournament, 3rd Place for the Texas-2-Stop.


In for the win.

There is a lot more than just birds to count while  competing in the Week Long Tournament of the Great Texas Bird Classic. This year my husband, mother and myself set off on our fourth journey to identify as many species of birds as possible in 6 days from April 15-20. On the quest for the most birds, we racked up some other impressive numbers as well.

Our adventure took us from Austin, TX to the edge of the state in the Rio Grande Valley, and back through the rugged hill country. This year we added a second GTBC category to part of the 6-day trip called the,Texas-2-Stop, so my uncle and his friend could join us for 2 days of birding shenanigans. We also birded one day for the Travis Audubon Bird-a-thon to raise money for bird conservation and education in Travis, Co.

We traveled in the Ford f-150 a total of 1,227 miles with the vehicle running for 35 hours and we used 65.5 gallons of gas. The truck is good for comfort, but doesn’t get the best gas mileage. With gas costing an average of $2 per gallon, we spend about $131 on fuel.

We walked about 32.5 miles to identify 240 species (including 2 that are endangered) of birds across 26 counties of the state. While walking, my husband acquired 10 mosquito bites, and I racked up 3 ticks. We also spotted 5 feral hogs, 2 snakes, tons of turtles, 5 rabbits, 3 white tailed deer, 2 dolphins and a handful of lizards.


The Scott Free Family Birders at the Hawk Watch Tower

We stopped at 3 National Wildlife Refuges, 7 State Parks, 4 waste water treatment plants, 10 city parks, 2 nature centers and 1 Audubon Center. At each stop we met so many nice people who also shared our passion for birding. We even ran into 3 other teams participating or preparing for their GTBC day

Surprisingly, we did not stop at a single Dairy Queen this year. However, we did stop at 7 local eating establishments and only 1 chain restaurant. We also took our own food for the first few days and enjoyed 3 picnics along the way.

We stayed in 4 motels, including a brand- spanking -new La Quinta that had only been open for 2 days when we arrived in McAllen, TX. Only one of the lodges had an onsite bar, which we were happy to find after spending over 14 hours in and out of the car birding from Mission, to San Antonio, by way of Laredo.


Last day, just spotted the endangered Golden Cheeked Warbler

For the most part we avoided the severe weather that plagued the rest of the state. Some areas, like Houston, received 17 inches of rain in under 48 hours. Because we were down stream of much of the flooding we could see the effects as we crossed 7 of the state’s major rivers and 2 lagoons. Most parts of the Rio Grande Valley remained desperately dry.

All-in-all the Scott Free Family Birders had one hell -of- a -time enjoying the journey around this great state.

Counties Visited: Travis, Bastrop Fayette, Lavaca, Victoria, Refugio, Arkansas, San Patricio, Nueces, Kleberg, Kennedy, Willacy, Zapata, Webb, Dimmit, Maverick, Zavala, Frio, Atascosa, Bexar, Comal, Hays, Blanco, Burnet.

National Wildlife Refuges: Laguna Atascosa, Lower Rio Grande Valley, Aransas

State Parks: Bastrop, Buescher, Goose Island, Falcon Lake, Llano Estero, Rio Bentsen, Pedernales Falls

Local Parks or Land Trusts: Lady Bird Lake- Austin, Webberville Park- Travis Co., Laguna Gloria- Austin, Red Bud Island- Austin, Mueller neighborhood park- Austin, Charlie’s Pasture- Port Aransas, Paradise Pond- Port Aransas, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center- Port Aransas, Port Aransas City Park, Lockport City Park, South Padre Island Birding Center, South Padre Island Convention Center, Sheep’s Head Valley Land Trust- SPI, Roma Bluffs City Park, Salineño, San Ygnacio Bird Sanctuary & Riverfront


A little magnolia mud on the last day at Magnolia Cafe

Restaurants: Magnolia Café- Austin, Shells- Port Aransas, Texas Café- Rio Grande City, Los Comales- Lockport, Sea Ranch Bar and Grill- South Padre Island, P. F. Changs- McAllen

Lodging: Days Inn- Port Aransas, La Quinta- McAllen, Inn on Padre Island, Holiday Inn Express- San Antonio




Yard Make Over at 20 Paws Ranch


20 Paws Ranch

20 Paws Ranch

When we moved into our house the yard was filled with non-native plants, grass and some amazing trees. None of the plants bloomed and few offered any resources for wildlife. Over the past year and ½ I have systematically removed all the invasive and non-native plants (accept the grass.) This summer I decided to start replacing the plants with native plants that bloom and offer a food source to birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.                                                                                                                                It hasn’t been easy! Removing invasive plants is a lot of work. More often than not they come back unless they are sprayed and I don’t like to use herbicide. So I have to hack at them several times or totally remove their roots. But it’s totally worth it- I love Texas and I only want Texas plants in my yard!

This summer I ordered 1 ton of limestone and 2 yards of pea gravel to complete my flowerbeds. This afternoon I completed the second flowerbed. It has lots of native plants that will grow into the space, a place for me to coil up my water hose (finally!) and I installed a birdbath with a drip.

The birdbath with a drip is key to attracting birds in the front yard. It sits on a rock pile that I built to cover an old tree stump. The layered rocks provide places for toad and lizards to live- which in turn cuts down on insects.

The before photo- big hedges and no flowers

The before photo- big hedges and no flowers

I also have started mowing the large lawn in sections to the fireflies have habitat.  They love longer, moist grasses and plants. The results of that experiment have been amazing.  We have tons of fireflies every night. Oh- and another thing I did for the fireflies was eliminate all outdoor lighting.  The outdoor lights now only come on when someone passes by instead of always flooding the property.

In May I certified our yard as a Wildlife Habitat and Bird Habitat with National Wildlife Federation. The certification means that our yard has the following elements:

Water– we have 2 birdbaths and now a drip, plus a wet weather creek.

Food– we have large trees that produce acorns, pecans, and seeds, plus we now have a variety of native plants that provide nectar and seeds. We have bird feeders with seed and hummingbird feeders.

Birdbath, rock pile and gnom

Birdbath, rock pile and gnom

Shelter– we have large trees, log pile and rock piles.

Chemicals– we don’t use any chemicals on the lawn.

I purchase all my plants at Barton Creek Nursery – locally owned and locally grown.

The birdbath and other bird feeders come from Wild Birds Unlimited– also locally owned.

We also added gutters and rain barrels this spring to capture the water to use on the yard and plants.  They’ve been a big help this year.


Rain Barrel

Rain Barrel

Installing the plants, rock and gravel

Installing the plants, rock and gravel

I Like Lists

Looking into Mexico from Texas.

Looking into Mexico from Texas.

What can I say? I like lists. I like lists so much that I take a vacation every spring with my family to make lists of the birds we see. But even before we step foot out the door or pack a bag, I make lists of where we will go, what we might see and how long it will take to drive there.

Birding is about observation, tracking and cataloging as much as it is about getting into nature. The Greater Texas Birding Classic gives my husband, mother and myself a reason to make a crazy run around the state to count as many birds as we can see in 6 days.

This year we are planning on increasing our reach by heading out to Big Bend National Park to start our listing of birds. Big Bend is known for a few types of birds that can only be found in the strange and wonderful ecosystems of the park. From there we will journey to the Rio Grande Valley, up the coast, then inland to our home in Austin.


List From Smith Point

In the past we have witnessed around 250-275 species of birds per trip. Texas has amazing birding and the spring migration is where its at if you are an avid birder. The migratory birds journey up from Central and South America on their way to points north and Texas is smack dab in the middle of three major flyways.

The other benefit of this mad dash around Texas is it takes me to places I’ve never seen and would never normally travel to unless I was looking for birds. Last year we touched the very tip of Texas at Boca Chico at the mouth of the Rio Grande River and the Gulf of Mexico. This year I’m hoping to visit 3 state parks I’ve never been to before so I can get a little closer to having visited all 92 state parks in Texas.

Sable Palms Birding Center south of the boarder fence between Texas and Mexico.

Sable Palms Birding Center south of the boarder fence between Texas and Mexico.

The other thing I like about our journey is it blends together my love of Texas history, sociology, travel and nature.  We get to see so many great historical sites and some wonderful snapshots into the human activities of small town life, the oil boom of south Texas, campers at parks, and other birders who are on their own quest.

I make a lot of lists in my life. Most are for work, some are for daily life tasks, but the ones I make of the birds are purely for me and purely for fun. Well, I guess they aren’t all for me, I load them into eBird to be a citizen scientist to do my part to help better understand the bird populations and migrations. Stay tuned of for updates from the road on The Atomic Cowgirl Facebook page.

Adding to the list on the Texas Coast.

Adding to the list on the Texas Coast.



Multi- Generational Birding

When I was a teen ager I never woke up until my mother made the third trip into my room to give me the final warning. I would lumber out of bed, get dressed, mumble something and get in the car to either go to school or off on an outdoor adventure with my family. Thirty years later, it’s my turn to make the trip down the hall to my mother’s motel room to give her the final call to rise and shine for another day of birding for the week- long event of the Greater Texas Birding Classic.

Family Birding Team

Family Birding Team

My mother is the one that got me and my uncle hooked on birding, and she was thrilled when I married a man that loved to hike, camp and bird as much as we did. When it came time to choose team members for the week-long event of the Greater Texas Birding Classic there was no question in my mind who my first draft picks should be. Even with the handicap of not rising early, my mother is still the prime birder that adheres the rest of us together. She is the president of the Travis Audubon Society and has spent the majority of her career helping set aside land for conservation purposes. My nearly deaf uncle cannot hear the birds, but is an excellent spotter. My husband is a casual birder with a great eye for wildlife photography, excellent at navigation and a champ on adventures. Myself, I’m a fair birder with bird-dog hearing just hoping to learn what I can.   Between us we had at least one set of good eyes, one pair of good ears and one experienced birder.

Our journey took us from Austin, TX to the Rio Grande Valley, along the Texas Coast, through the rolling oaks and finally to the lost pines of Bastrop. We traveled almost 1,000 miles through rain and dust storms to make 22 individual birding stops. We did not consider the addition of the Red Tailed Hawk at the Dairy Queen in Three Rivers an independent birding stop, but it was a good spot none-the-less. At each stop my mother, Valarie Bristol, shared her vast knowledge of how that park or birding center came to be, who purchased or gave the land, what wildlife or resource it was set aside for and what birds we could hope to find there. Each story was shared with great detail and a heap of laughter. But her knowledge didn’t stop there. She also knew where most of the birds we were viewing had come from, where they were going, what plants they liked to eat and how long they would be vacationing in Texas as they migrated through. The few things she did not know, she quickly found in a book or she ask me to look at my “magic phone” to find the answers. Herron at Port Aransas

Birding is an endurance sport with long hours spent in the car traveling from one eco-region to the next to view a different yield of birds. To fill the void, my uncle read to us from the book “Why Stop: A Guide to Texas Historical Marker.” Since my husband is not a native to Texas he isn’t a hundred percent sure why we Texans are so obsessed with our state’s history. However he started to get the picture of why Texas history maters so much to our family as we bumped along HWY 281, just a stones throw away from the boarder, towards the towns of Weslaco and Ed Couch. We regaled him with the tales of our adventuresome great, great uncles that founded the towns. I have to wonder what the bird migrations must have looked like back then when the region was still mostly brush country with dappled resacas laced along the mighty river. After all, the birds that live and travel through Texas are also part of our collective history. Their migration patterns formed thousands of years before the arrival of humans and have stayed consistent despite the many adversities such as; loss of habitat, altered food sources, power lines and an increase in extreme weather.

On Padre Island we experienced a fall out with birds literally sitting on the ground too tired to move after traveling across the Gulf of Mexico. I could hardly keep up with scribbling down the names of the birds as my team members called them out. My husband danced around taking photos, while my uncle gathered information from the local birders. My mother just kept saying, “poor things, they must be starving.” It finally dawned on me, that she was telling me that she was starving since we had not stopped to eat since mid-morning. But we were there to bird, so I kept the team focused until sunset. The rest of the birders moved on, but we lingered in the fading light to watch the heron’s fish in the shallows of the Laguna Madre. The simplicity of the birds fishing was in drastic contrast to the biker rally that raged just a few blocks away. Finally we finished birding to forage for food of our own.

Crested Caracara in the thorn scrub

Crested Caracara in the thorn scrub

Our family birding journey took us through 8 separate eco-regions and 21counties to spot over 170 types of migrating and native birds. As we arrived at Goliad State Park on San Jacinto Day and got ready to settle into another round of Texas history lessons woven through our birding hike- we got a call. My cousin called to say that the newest member of the family was on the way and would we please return my uncle ASAP for the joyous event. Alas, we had to abandon the birds of Goliad for a quick trip back to Austin.