By: Michael Barnes
Binoculars hung from Jennifer Bristol’s neck as she stood in the shade a few yards from the mostly empty parking lot.
That’s how I knew who she was.
Me: “What are we looking at today?”
Bristol: “This oak mott is hot right now with migrants. Then we can stroll down to the waterfront. Beyond there’s a meadow and a line of mixed trees.”
I met up with Bristol, a former park ranger and business owner and now author of the delightful new book “Parking Lot Birding: A Fun Guide to Discovering Birds in Texas,” at Devine Lake Park in Leander for a bit of physically accessible birding. This sort of activity — reasonably safe under pandemic directives if done right — can take place at a park or other attraction without hiking deep into nature.
You can do this in part because nature is wherever you are, a liberating observation that Bristol makes periodically and persuasively.
In a mere hour that morning — birding this time of year in Texas is usually best done no later than 9 a.m. — we spotted a summer tanager, crested caracara, Eastern phoebe, barn swallow, Blackburnian warbler, black-throated green warbler, magnolia warbler, northern cardinal, mottled duck, white-winged dove, great-crested flycatcher, blue-gray gnatcatcher, blue jay, great-tailed grackle and turkey vulture as well lots of titmice and chickadees, who were angry at a rat snake that startled both of us.
We heard an eastern bluebird and a yellow-billed cuckoo. Had I seen either, I might have fainted with delight.
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The previous morning at Mills Pond Park in Wells Branch, world-famous birder and nature tour operator Victor Emanuel pointed out — whether I was looking at the right bird at the right moment or not during our two-hour stroll — a Philadelphia vireo, American redstart, Canada warbler, mourning warbler, black and white warbler, catbird, American robin, downy woodpecker, Carolina wren, black vulture, cardinal, blue jay, great blue heron and more.
Other birders we met that morning reported an ovenbird, Kentucky warbler, yellow warbler and, although I remain skeptical, a very rare Sutton’s warbler.
Now, don’t feel overwhelmed by the numbers already. Although I’ve loved birds all my life, I’m still a baby birder next to Emanuel, Bristol or her mother, Valarie Bristol, who is credited with saving the golden-cheeked warbler’s habitat through the Balcones Canyonlands complex of wildlife preserves.
The moment I opened Bristol’s book, I felt at ease. It is extremely well-organized around Texas regions, with helpful breakout boxes that include photos of birds — most of them taken by Bristol or her husband, Thomas Nilles — and helpful “Feather Fact” identification tips.
It should come as no surprise that Bristol is the former coordinator of the Texas Children in Nature at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Her manner is disarming, and our stroll was punctuated by frequent blasts of laughter.
In her former parks and wildlife role, for a systematic study of attitudes, she watched groups of adults and youths from behind a two-way mirror as they discussed their impressions of nature. Some kids in urban centers viewed nature as almost always threatening.
“The thing that struck me the most, though, was that they always referred to nature as far away,” Bristol told me. “Never near them. Never where they were. I want to change that.”
Her book includes a guide to Texas eco-regions, birding terminology, migratory flyways — birding is best done in Texas during spring and fall migrations — tips on how to plan your birding trip, birding by sound and birding with limited mobility.
Each entry includes the address of the described park, what to expect when you get there — “parking lot, short trail” for Devine Lake — as well as species spotted at that location based on the records on the website eBird.com, which is operated by the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The count for Devine Lake, updated since the book went to press: 273 species.
Recently, the American-Statesman ran a very popular story on backyard birding, a safe thing to pursue during lockdown. The count in or over our own South Austin garden so far: 46 species.
Parking lot birding can be done at safe physical distances. And while folks are not generally hitting the road, anytime you happen to be in an area in Texas, whip out Bristol’s book to find places near your community. With 90 locations to choose from, it’s easy to find a location near you.
“Birding has not always been a lifelong passion of mine,” Bristol writes in the book. “In fact, I arrived at the party rather late. And unlike many birders, I was not wowed by the activity right away. For most of my life, I spent my time in nature racing headlong down mountain trails, swimming in every body of water I came across, and riding horses deep into the woods.”
A horseback riding injury made these activities off-limits for a while, leaving her frustrated, impatient and a little down. So her husband, another former park ranger now into tech, in an attempt to cheer Bristol up, took her on a “photo safari” around Austin. Then they took more such trips around Texas.
“My curiosity was sparked,” she writes. “I wanted to know the names of the birds I was seeing. I wanted to hear their songs and understand their habits. Nature was the elixir that I needed to rebound from my physical and mental injury. And I soon craved more. The slow pace of birding didn’t always agree with me, but the immersion in nature did. It wasn’t long before most of our fall and spring trips revolved around birding.”
Just as the coronavirus pandemic has, anecdotally, created more mental space and environmental quiet for backyard birding, it might also lead to a wider embrace of Bristol’s natural elixir that we need to rebound.