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.




Nature Near Me

I love all things Texas, including the native Texas plants and wildlife.


Eastern Giant Swallowtail on Lantana in October

Slowly I have removed the invasive plants from our yard and replaced them with Texas natives.  It takes time to see the rewards of the change.  But this fall the native plants are in bloom at just the right time for the migrating butterflies, birds, and moths to feed from as they pass through.

On a warm, breezy day in October I decided to document just a few of the things I saw feeding on the plants in the yard.  Trying to catch a good photo of a butterfly is slow work, but worth the effort.  It is easy to get lost in the vibrance of life while watching these tiny creatures flutter from one flower to the next, then be cast away by the breeze. Joining in the mix of butterflies are all sorts of moths, bees, dragonflies and other insects.


Butterfly on Mexican Bush Sage

The native plants are the foundation for creating a space that attracts wildlife.  They feed the insects, and the insects attract the birds, lizards, toads, and mammals. Different plants attract different insects.  For example milkweed attracts monarch butterflies- the state insect.  Monarchs have been in serious decline in part because of a drastic loss of milkweed along its migration routs as it follows the eternal summer from Mexico to Canada.


The tiny Gray Hairstreak on Mexican Bush Sage.

The scarlet salvia attracts the cloudless sulphur butterflies, although they enjoy other flowers too.  Lantana attacks all sorts of pollinators as it blooms in late summer and fall.  The hardy lantana is easy to maintain in yards and gardens of central Texas. The bees seem to prefer the Plateau Golden-eye that came up on its own in the very back part of the yard.

The well timed blooming of the native plants help fuel the migrating insects on their journey south.  Habitat loss is something all species, other than humans, are feeling. Food can often be scares for these tiny travelers.  Especially in times of drought. I invite you to find out more about what native plants would work best in your yard so you can aid them as they pass through.


Gulf Fritillary

I’m not a plant expert, but have found what works for the rocky soil of our yard through trial and error.  A few plants I recommend for north Austin are: Scarlet Salvia, Mexican Bush Sage, Purple Sage, Turks Cap, Plateau Golden-eye, Lantana, Rock Rose.

Some of the flying and crawling things I observed on this day in October are:

Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly, Hummingbird Clearwing Moth, Clouded Skipper Butterfly, Gray Hairstreak Butterfly, Gulf Fritillary, Zebra Longwing, Eastern Giant Swallow Tail, Honey bee, two types of lizards and some dragonflies that I don’t know the names of.


The Hummingbird Clearwing Moth enjoying the Lantana

One of the other fun thing that has occurred since we don’t put herbicides or pesticides on our lawn is that the Fireflies of have come back in droves.  It makes me happy to see them twinkling a dusk from May to September.

All photos were take in my yard in October. I think I was most excited about seeing the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth.  It looks like a bumble bee, but is closer in size to a hummingbird, but has clear wings like a dragonfly.  Very cool species.

I help biologist understand what is in the area by using iNaturalist, eBird and Texas Nature Trackers.



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




Fury Friends of the Forest

My husband loves technology. I love wildlife (and so does he.) So what better way to bring those two things together than a wildlife camera. Last winter I set up the camera and slowly began defining the best place to observe the wildlife that lives in the woods behind our home in Austin, TX.

Bubbles the tailless raccoon

Bubbles the tailless raccoon

This summer the drought returned with a vengeance and the creek behind our house dried up in July. In August I started, on occasion, setting out buckets of water just beyond the fence. The result was fascinating.

I started to not only see animals that I have not seen before, but I started to see some frequent visitors. These frequent visitors are full of personality. Perhaps the most vivacious is a no-tail raccoon that I have named, Bubbles, and her sidekick, Rocky.

They are not the only characters in this documentary. There is Bucky the buck, Foxy the fox, Mitzy the mouse, Peter the possum, Armand the armadillo, Coco the coyote, Kitty the feral cat, Henny the hen and Skeeter the squirrel. Each reveals a little bit more about themselves each time they pass in front of the camera.

Bubbles and Rocky sharing the bucket

Bubbles and Rocky sharing the bucket

Bubbles and Rocky sometimes spend hours just playing in and around the water bucket. Bubbles is clearly older and in addition to her missing tail she also has tattered ears, but she seems as nimble as the younger guy. She even snatched a moth out of the air for a meal, and it’s all caught on camera just before dawn.

Skeeter the squirrel is an obsessive little thing. Every morning at first light he scampers around sniffing the area, seeing who passed by in the night. And Mitzy the mouse seems to always be a few steps ahead of Kitty the feral cat. However, Kitty looks like she is ready to destroy just about anything that slithers, hops, crawls or flies.

When Henny the hen arrived one day out of the blue, it took less than 24 hours for Coco the coyote to pass on through. Coco looks thin and secretly I’m routing for her to catch up with Kitty. Foxy the fox looks a little healthier. But whether they are predator or prey they all look thirsty.

Skeeter the Squirrel getting a drink

Skeeter the Squirrel getting a drink

At first I watered them with rainwater captured in our rain barrels. But then I noticed that had mosquito larva in it so I switched over to watering my plants with that water and setting out fresh water for the wildlife. I only water my yard on the scheduled days the city sets forth in effort to save as much water as possible.

It is a comfort to me to know the wild things that I share this forest with are healthy. I gladly share in the resources that I can acquire during these drought conditions. Some might say that is altering the natural balance of their life. To be honest, that ship has long sailed. The forest we share has been impacted and altered for hundreds of years now and even more so since 1958 when this house was built next to the creek.Doe in drought

Invasive plants have further altered the landscape. They line the creek beds, sucking away the life-giving waters and shading out the native plants. The loss of native vegetation means lack of nutritious food sources for wildlife. The invasive plants also alter the soil, which impacts the grubs, bugs, frogs and bacteria.

But I digress. I’m happy just knowing that the woods are full of creatures both large and small. And I delight in the fact that I can silently observe them with my wildlife camera.

Wildlife observed to date: Raccoon, fox, mouse, skunk, possum, armadillo, coyote, deer, squirrel, anoles lizard, Texas spiny lizard, gulf coast toad, Med. house gecko, tree rat, hognose snake

Birds: Screech owl, great horned owl, common night hawk, chimney swift, blue jay, common grackle, white wing and morning dove, Carolina chickadee, Carolina wren, house sparrow, house finch, lessor gold finch, northern cardinal, northern mocking bird, Baltimore oriel, curved bill thrasher, blue grey gnatcatcher, red bellied wood pecker, turkey and black vultures, coopers hawk, red shoulder hawk, Tennessee warbler, cedar waxwing, Mississippi kite, tufted titmouse, European sterling, great blue heron, painted bunting, ruby throated and black chinned humming birds, ladder backed woodpecker

Other: Feral cats, chickens

Foxy- the Grey fox

Foxy- the Grey fox

Screech owl- Oct. 2015

Screech owl- Oct. 2015