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 Perhaps they have a mention in a newspaper article or historical documents.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s hard to say what I like most about camping. Exploring a new place. Walking peacefully down a wooded trail. Sitting around the campfire with my husband and dogs. All are pieces of the whole.
Just being in nature is perhaps the best part. While our home is our own natural oasis, it is still surrounded by one of the fastest growing cities in America. The more the city grinds forward, urbanizing the fields, woods, creeks and hills that I knew as a child- the more I crave my nature fixes.
Our latest camping adventure takes us to Meridian State Park. The park was established in 1934 and is a great display of Civilian Conservation Corps craftsmanship. The old pavilion over looks the 70-acre, limestone rimmed lake.
There are several short walking trails, including an easy 2.5-mile trail that circles the lake. The lake trail meanders through cedar breaks, limestone bluffs and hardwood groves along Bee Creek. On this visit the trees are filled with hundreds of Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Yellow- Rumped Warblers and other small birds. The bird’s chirps and songs, mix with the wind in the trees to bring music to the day.
The park has only a few campsites and screened shelters, so it area isn’t crowded with people. On the trail we met an enthusiastic millennial man who declared Meridian was his favorite park. When I asked him why, he responded, “cause its peaceful.” He smiled and looked up at the trees towering overhead as he thoughtfully replied.
We took a little afternoon trip into town to see the historic courthouse and slipped into a little antique shop. The woman there knew all about the Sweet Heart Dance that the park was set to host that evening. She explained in her thick Texas accent that dances had been a tradition at the park, but they had not had one in a long while. The restoration of a tradition seemed to please her.
Back at the campsite, we lounged with our pack of four dogs. We named our RV- Camp Lazy Paws- and the name certainly fits the activity of the afternoon. It is unseasonably warm at 86 degrees in February. But there is a soft breeze, and plenty of shade under our giant awning and young live oak trees.
The park is beautiful today. But I can see how it would be a total oasis in the hot summer with the cool lake and shaded campsites. Motored boats are not allowed on the lake, but the park does rent kayaks to get out on the water. The park store also has a tackle loaner program for those that want to fish. There’s even a fishing pier that looks pretty new and was filled with people when we stopped by on our morning walk.
After sunset we wandered down to the Sweetheart Dance at the Refectory. A large group of people gathered on the veranda to listen to the band and dance under the full moon. Kids ran past with flashlights while older folks shared stories of the dances of their youth.
Back at the campsite we enjoyed an hour laughing and reflecting on what an amazing day we had enjoyed. We finally decided to turn in when nature gave us one last gift. A screech owl bid us goodnight.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
During the summer of 1977 most little girls were asking for a new Malibu Barbie for their birthdays. I liked Barbie too, but what I really wanted was a living, breathing pony. Not just any pony either. I wanted Squaw.
Squaw was a Pony of America with a nasty reputation for being willful, stubborn, a little too fearless, an escape artist, and full of boundless energy. In short, she was just like me. At the young age of 6 years old, I didn’t see her traits as bad or nasty, I only saw a beautiful pony that wasn’t afraid or too conditioned to try new things. I saw a friend.
Most parents living in suburban America at the time would not have succumbed to the pleadings of a 6 year old to get a pony for their birthday, but mine did. My mother had a horse growing up in rural east Texas and it was something she wanted to pass along to me. Like millions of people of her age in the 1970’s, she and my father were only one or two generations off the farm and still held tightly to some of the ideas of rural life.
We lived in Austin, TX that was also at the crossroads between rural and urban life. This short moment in time was the perfect mix for my pony and me to explore our world together. Our adventures took us far and wide as we road through the rugged woods of Westlake Hills before it was developed. Many times my mother would hike with through the Wild Basis Nature Preserve (which was not yet established) and at the end of the hike I was allowed to gallop all the way back to the barn which was miles away. I can still feel the thrill of charging through the woods, leaping over creeks, darting under trees and scrambling up the steep limestone slopes.
Riding on the trails was often the reward for making it through tedious lessons and shows. Riding in general became a common bribe for my parents to get me to do my homework or snap me out of one of my more stubborn moments.
Our times in the woods are some of the best memories of my life. Often, I would pretend I was a Comanche warrior and search the ground below for wildlife tracks. I even made a bow and arrows to sling on my back to complete the look. Like a good warrior’s pony, Squaw would even swim with me. I would glide along in the water hanging on to her mane, then drift onto her back just before she launched out of the river or pond.
My friends still tease me about how I could spring off a hay bail, fly across the back of Squaw, land just at her withers, and then go charging off with just a halter and a lead rope. Sometimes, during the charge I would fall off. Squaw would patiently wait for me to get back up and if she determined that I was okay, and if she was done with our games, she would prance off to the barn. Other times she would let me catch her and we would continue on.
On one occasion, I decided it would be fun to show her off to our neighbors. I rang the doorbell, waited for the door to open, then rode my pony straight into the their house. Thankfully our neighbors had a wonderful sense of humor and simply led us back out to the yard. They still enjoy telling that story when we meet from time to time.
Squaw was masterful in the show ring, but it was our time together in nature that meant the most to me. From age 6 to 17 she was my companion for exploration. When I was with her I had nothing to fear and our only boundaries were the limits of my imagination. She taught me what it was to care for another living being. And I came to understand what it meant to have a silent conversation through simply observing animal behavior and patterns.
My senior year of high school I finally out grew her and decided to sell her to our veterinarian who wanted to use her as a lesson pony. About a year later he sent me a letter to let me know he was retiring her early because she simply would not let anyone else ride her. I had to laugh. The man that sold her to my parents told them, “I’ll make you a really good deal. Jennifer is the only one that can ride that little demon.” She lived to be 30 years old and even in her twilight years she dominated the hayrack from the bigger horses.
I’m lucky to still have horses in my life today. I went through a long period with a giant hole in my heart that could only be filled with a connection with a horse. I finally found good matches in a feisty mustang and a laid back Arabian cross. I share my love of horses and nature today by trying to encourage others to ride. When possible I take my niece out on my big grey mare to walk in the fields and forests.
I know that soon the area I ride in will be developed just like the hills of my childhood. I might not be able to do a flying leap onto my horses now, but I am able to explore the woods and quietly observe nature from the unique vantage point of a horse’s back.
A snapshot of Americana Camping. We are currently at Bonito Hollow RV and Camp Ground outside Ruidoso, NM. The weather is perfect, partly cloudy, cool and the air is filled with various scents of BBQ, smoke and pine.
Our neighbors in campsite 10 are about 8 to 10 feet from us with their RV angled just right so that it blocks our view of the majority of their activity. However, we can see that they are setting up a small village between their 2 campsites. They have a full outdoor kitchen including items such as; crockpot, BBQ grill, fan, carpet, flattop griddle, 2 pop-up-tents, chairs, and several coolers. Did I mention the full spice rack / shelving unit that houses a family size bottle of Log Cabin syrup and over 400 paper plates? I’m sure the wildlife in the area has already alerted to their location and are plotting an evening ransack.
Their tribe is very colorful. Some of the women are sporting red and blue hair for the 4th of July holiday. And I can see a parade of colorful footwear appear as I peep through the space under their trailer as they pop in and out of their portable home.
Across the dirt driveway is another couple who is also setting up a small village. They have far less people they are setting up for, but seem to have an equal amount of gear. They’re campsite is a bit more color coordinated with a variety of green and yellow sundries. The wife just popped out of their fifth-wheel to inspect her husband’s work, and she even has a green flyswatter. They are now putting out humming bird feeders in the Pinion Pine.
A family of four just drove past with a pop-up trailer heading for one of the campsites down the hill. Each truck that passes is filled to the brim with chairs, grills, bikes, and other household items to make camping seem just like home.
On the other side of us the father of the family of six camping in a little tent city just popped open his first beer of the day at 3:15 pm and announced his valiant action to the rest of his tribe. Yesterday, their kids where playing with a projectile toy, and it landed on the top of our RV.
In about an hour all 60 plus campsites should be filled with campers, each seeking an outdoor moment on a holiday weekend. With every campsite full, it feels like a makeshift town that has sprung up in a matter of hours rather than an outdoor experience. But we humans are social animals and this is just part of being an American human.
A gentle rain just started, but we are sheltered under our 19 foot awning. Thomas is in is lawn chair and the dogs are all hunkered down around us. We took them for a 4 mile hike this morning and they are in full lazy paws mode. This is also our 14th day of camping so the dogs are seasoned campsite dogs. Casino wishes he had the lady’s flyswatter from campsite 22.
The sound of pounding tent stakes now echoes through the campsite as the tent campers deploy their rain flies.
But the winner of the Great American Campout in Bonito Hollow is up the hill at site number 50 something. The giant fifth-wheel is decorated with red, white and blue bunting, sparking lights, lawn chairs for ever member of their extended family, grills, lanterns, and windsocks. A true patriot decked out in the colors of our flag.
In a frenzy to keep up with the other campers, we deployed all of our outdoor wares. We set out our matching reclining lawn chairs on our large matt, strung the retro RV Christmas lights, and erected our folding table. In a moment of feeling totally outdone by our neighbors, we considered bringing out the standalone ice maker. Then we realized even that was no match for the level of gear the other families brought.
A woman just walked past in high heels carrying a pink clutch purse. Anything goes here at Bonito Hollow, just as anything goes here in the U.S. of A.