Cowgirl Notes


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...


I have had a lot of questions about why birds aren’t coming to feeders this spring. The simple answer is – it’s spring. As insects emerge our resident birds begin feeding on the bugs as they prepare to breed and raise their chicks. Some species, such as Blue Jays and White-winged Doves might still mix their protein rich insect diet with seeds, but for the most part they will happily eat the bugs we find annoying. As for the songbirds on the spring migrations- they pretty much only dine on insects as the protein fuels their long distant flights. In short, it is okay to take down your feeders during the spring and put them back out in August when the breeding season is over, and the insect population is not as robust.

The same is true for hummingbirds. Black-chinned and Ruby-throated pass through our area to points north. Some Ruby-throats will nest in the area and people are generally surprised to learn that they eat millions of tiny insects every spring. If you want to put out a hummingbird feeder the best time to do so is mid to late summer. What’s even better...

Coburg and Jen Bristol

I hit my Covid- 19 live and work-at-home breaking point at the beginning of September. The swimming pools were closed, the days were miserably hot, and all the normal rituals and routines of the end of the summer seemed swept away by the pandemic. I needed a healthy distraction to refocus my mind and find my balance again. While out for a walk with my dogs at Walnut Creek Metro Park near my home in north Austin, I stumbled upon the solution and challenged myself to walk every trail, about 20 miles, of the 293-acre park in eight days. Challenge accepted!

The next day I woke up at the crack of dawn to beat the heat, laced up my walking shoes, slipped the knee brace on my forty-nine year old knee I affectionately call “tricky” and head out to the park with my Belgium Malinois and spirited Corgi. I packed water for the dogs since the creek levels were low and stagnant- not ideal for the dogs to play in or drink.

I didn’t get very far that first day- a short loop along the Pool Lot Trail to the Service Road. Chuck, the Corgi, is athletic and fully capable of turning in...


One step, two step, three step- into the clouds we go. The draw of the long, breathtakingly beautiful hike along the Garden Wall, is a calling I feel year after year. I cannot heed the call every summer, but I do as often as I can. I never grow tiered of seeing the familiar rocks that pass below my feet and tower over my head. They were laid down millions of years ago, and tossed around by glaciers as they ebbed and flowed, but for me, in my tiny time on earth they are concrete reminders that time can stand still when we let the beauty of nature surround us, and calm us.

This year I hiked the 16 mile trail with my husband and oldest brother who are both stronger and faster hikers than me. As the elements pounded at my thin rain jacket and obscured my views, I steadily walked on knowing that the only way I was going to reach my destination was to carefully put one foot in front of the other. The clouds boiled up from the valley below and slowly curled upward along the Garden Wall and with them came more rain, and a visibility of only about 15 feet. But when the cloud finally...


Perhaps the signs were right there in front of us the entire time. From an early age it was clear that Chuck simply was not an outdoor dog. He preferred luxury and comfort, and enjoyed the fast, hard city life. He filled his days with lounging and his nights with fancy swirled drinks and belly rubs.

Chuck on the town

City life for a dog only 13 inches from floor to shoulder can be rough. He recruited security, and trained with dogs ten times his size.

Chuck’s personal body guard- Casino

Then the signs really started showing up and patterns of reckless behavior increased. He started sleeping on the furniture, shredded stuffed toys, stole socks and underwear from the laundry, and on more than one occasion stalked and killed a bug. The cruel world of nature dealt him one last final blow when he was stung in the nose by a bee. This rejection from nature thrust him only deeper into the sinister indoor and urban world.

Chuck- rushed to the vet after bee sting

Determined to be an indoor high roller, he flew with his people to Minneapolis and...


At 7,000 feet, it’s hard to say what burned more, my legs or my lungs. But my eyes and mind were rewarded with the vistas of majestic snow dusted peaks, big horn sheep, mountain goats and the turquois pools of glacier fed lakes. At the end of the 3.8 mile journey up the side of the mountain lies Grinnell, Salamander and Gem Glaciers. For most of the hike Salamander and Gem Glaciers can be seen and add to the drama of the peaks. However, Grinnell Glacier now rests in a bowl or hanging garden that can only be seen by hiking to the very end of the steep, rocky trail.

The first time I hiked to this amazing place was in 1981 when I was 10 years old. I sat on the glacier and shivered in my thin cotton t-shirt and jeans. At that time you could still hike out on the glacier and it was about 20% larger than what it is today. As the human population continues to expand, so does our impact on all aspects of the natural world; glaciers are part of that. Between 1966 and 2006, Grinnell Glacier has shrank 40% from what it was in...


“The reason I pulled you over today mam is because you were going 38 miles per hour on a 25 mile per hour road,” stated the kind, nice looking police officer that pulled me over in Whitefish, MT. (I did not get a ticket- thankfully)

Montana has a reputation that people can drive as fast as they want, anywhere they want. That might be true as long as their desired speed is 25 miles per hour or less. Some roads post a speed limit of 45, or even 70, but that’s only meant for a few days in August when the driving conditions are perfect. The rest of the time the weather can slow things to a crawl with; howling winds, fog as thick and white as Santa’s beard, ice, snow, rain, freezing rain, sleet, and my favorite- freezing fog.

I suppose that driving slow along the mountain roads is a good thing. It makes everyone slow down and take notice of the vistas and the amazing nature that the state has to offer. It’s safer for the millions of senior citizens that visit Glacier National Park and...


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

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...


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

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.

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...

Coke Classic from 1989. Discovered in pantry 2014.

I feel like I am making really good choices today and that feels great. For example, I chose not to make a sandwich with the 10-day-old lunchmeat. I also chose to put the lunchmeat in the trash instead of back in the fridge, and that felt like a good choice as well.

Coke Classic from 1989. Discovered in pantry 2014.

But these choices do not come without a flicker of guilt. I was raised in a home where sciences experiments were commonplace when it came to food. Blame cannot be placed on any one person, for the list of ancestors who helped our family arrive at this disposition is too long to list. My mother simply held dearly her Scottish / American upbringing and believed in the values of statements such as, “waste not, want not” and “a penny saved, is a penny earned.”

But is old Mayonnaise saved, Mayonnaise earned? What about Folgers coffee cans filled with bacon grease? How does that apply to the savings factor? If the grease is used, I guess it could save money from buying lard-...


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.

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...


A year ago, my husband and I moved around the corner from our old house into the home we are in now. One of the main reasons we moved was because the property of our new house is buffered on 2 sides by greenbelt with a little wet weather creek and thick woods. Even though we are in the City of Austin, we feel like we are in the country within the confines of our little sanctuary.

In January we decided to document the wildlife that lives in the small greenbelt that buffers the neighborhood and connects up with Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park. We installed a game camera on a tree that was near the little path that the animals made in the woods.

Grey Fox walking through the woods at night.

In the first two days we found that the woods have a ton of wildlife. The first photo was of an armadillo, then a fox, possum, deer, feral cat, squirrel, birds, a big buck, mouse, and finally kids playing in the woods.

Since then we have moved the camera to several different spots to see if we...


The fall migration starts in August for the birds with waves of Purple Martins, swallows, and song birds passing through. September we see an influx of hummingbirds; both the Ruby-throated and Black-chinned pass through Central Texas on their way to Central and South America. The bats head south in September and October after spending their spring and summer under the Ann Richard's Memorial Bridge over Lady Bird Lake and north in Round Rock along I-35 or in caves in the hill country.

October normally ushers in waves of various butterflies and moths, and that is true for this year as well. What was special about this year is we were treated to an unusually large explosion of American Snout Butterflies. I'm not a butterfly expert by any account; however, I do enjoy learning about the nature that surrounds us. According to the website Texas Entomology by Mike Quinn, "Mass movement of snout butterflies are spectacular for their density, duration and geographical extent. Periodic...


I’ve never been one to want to spend my time in the saddle just going in circles around a dusty arena. As a kid I did my time in lessons and horse shows, but it was never where I wanted to be. I’m happiest while riding when I’m on a trail, enjoying nature.

When I was six I got my first pony for my birthday. Squaw (she came pre-named) was a fearless Pony of America that would do anything and looked great while doing it. My mom would hike along with us and we would ride from the corner of Loop 360 and Bee Caves Road down into the Wild Basin Nature Preserve and be gone all day. Loop 360 was just being built back in the 1970’s so the cars, houses and businesses had not yet filled the wooded hills of Westlake. I loved those early days of walking slowly along the loosely defined footpaths and game trails- exploring what seemed at the time to be an endless forested world.

As I got a little older, the freedom of riding was even more desirable. In those hard early teen years when nothing else seemed to make since- being on a horse’s back, riding in the woods offered...

Black and White butterfly

It gives me a thrill to look at the photos from the wildlife camera we have set up just outside the fence behind out house. I love seeing the types of wildlife we share this small space with, what time they are active, and even knowing the temperature. On some days I can remember what I was doing, or how the dogs reacted to something.

For example on this last reel of photos a random chicken shows up, then five days later a coyote enters the frame. The coyote looks thin and thirsty which is not surprising since we are now in the driest July on record. We had a very wet spring, but July has been dry and hot. The coyote also might have been attracted to the feral cats that frequently cruise through. (I secretly hope the coyote eats the cats since they are not a native species to North America. And they kill millions of birds each year.)

I made a short slideshow with the images from the camera as it was fixed in one location from April to mid-July. Activity speeds up as the summer gets drier and I toss a watermelon on the ground. A very industry raccoon snacks on the...


Sociology in a Sauna

On occasion I make it to the gym to swim or work out if the weather is nasty, but I prefer to exercise outside. Last week I ventured to the Gold’s Gym at prime-time after work to try to shake off a long day with a few laps in the pool.

After my swim I decided to sit in the dry sauna to warm up and dry off. My eyes where still adjusting from taking off my goggles when I opened the door to the small sauna- only to find it was packed with about 15 people. I squeezed into the top corner and could not have predicted what was about to happen.

Maybe I’m old school, but I don’t think the crazy hot sauna is really a hospitable environment for electronics. The other 15 people would not agree with that statement. Each person had a device and was listening to music, checking emails, Facebook and even taking pictures- I’ll get to that in a minute.

The woman next to me was decked out in a trash bag looking space suite that I thought they quit making in the...


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.

In the past we have witnessed around 250-275 species of birds per trip. Texas has amazing birding and the spring...