Birding enthusiasts seek close encounters of the feathered kind
BIRDS OF A FEATHER
Don Wilkerson and Sharon Duray camp, hike, kayak and garden. And since they retired to Galveston four years ago, they have become immersed in the world of birding.
“The beauty of birding is that it’s a simple hobby, a lifelong hobby and a meditation,” Duray said. “You use your senses and it keeps your mind sharp. It’s not our only interest, but it is a terrific addition that we both enjoy.”
Their favorite birds include the warblers when they migrate in the spring, especially the hooded warbler and the golden cheek, and all the tanagers. Lafitte’s Cove, Sportsman Road and 8 Mile Road on Galveston’s West End are the birding spots they favor.
The variety of birds in Galveston is an interesting aspect of living here, Wilkerson said.
“As you become more informed, birding is intertwined with everything you do,” he said.
“If we go to Kroger, we see and hear birds; if we’re out walking, we have our binoculars.”
It was a Texas Master Naturalist field trip to Bolivar Peninsula that introduced the pair to the area’s rich birding opportunities.
“We traveled to High Island and saw the Rookery, a nesting ground, and Boy Scout Woods,” Duray said. “It was our first time to witness anything like that. It was a wonderland.”
Duray participated in the 14-week Texas Master Naturalist class, a serious time commitment.
“I didn’t go with her, but I was soon sorry, and I took the class the next year, and enjoyed every minute of it,” Wilkerson said.
As Master Naturalists, they are able to volunteer for activities maintaining habitat, monitoring coastal species and helping educate others about the importance of the ecosystem.
“In Galveston, it’s very social,” Duray said. “We have met the most amazing people. It’s something you can do at any age. We do go birding by ourselves, but we often go with groups.”
Birding is not entirely new to the couple. They had a backyard feeder when they lived in Bryan College Station during their years working for Texas A&M University’s horticulture department. They enjoyed their morning coffee watching the birds.
Recently, they were visiting their granddaughters in Arkansas and the 5-year-old pointed skyward and said: “There’s a blue bird.”
They couldn’t have been prouder.
Growing up in rural West Texas, Sam Steph learned to spot and identify birds when he was hunting with his father. He had pocket field guides to identify snakes, fish and birds.
One year, a Baltimore oriole built a nest in his family’s backyard mesquite tree using tinsel from a neighbor’s discarded Christmas tree to weave silvery threads among the grass and twigs. It made a big impression.
Now, Steph works as a contractor, specializing in building closet systems, and as an artist with a studio at Sawyer Yards in Houston. He works in mixed media and wood.
Birding is his favorite leisure activity, he said.
“For me, being outside is the best part,” he said. “It feels good; it fills my need for nature. There is also a social aspect that I enjoy. I like the people. Birders are generally interesting and share an appreciation for nature. When you’re outside observing, it takes patience. There’s time for conversation.”
Steph left home in the late 1970s to study architecture at Texas Tech University. While he was there, he was recruited to work as a model for Calvin Klein, Lands’ End and others. That’s what brought him to Houston initially, and he fell in love with the area, he said.
“When you’re from a small town in Texas and someone offers you an opportunity, you take it,” he said.
For decades, he worked in New York, Paris, Milan and Tokyo, living and learning about the cities and the cultures. He traveled all over the world and eventually made his way back to Houston.
The beauty of the birds he sees gives him a deep sense of peace, he said.
A few years ago, he was driving home to see his parents and on a country road near Temple, Texas, he heard familiar bird calls. He pulled off the road, and near a body of water, he saw thousands of sandhill cranes that were migrating through.
“It was an amazing sight,” he said. “Birds are free. You never know where you are going to see them.”
With more than 100 birds on his life list, a way for birders to keep track of species they’ve seen, Steph still considers himself a novice. He has many favorites.
“The Northern mocking bird is a common bird, but it’s still my most favorite,” he said. “The mocking bird’s song takes me back to when I was young and sitting in my tree house listening to a mocking bird sing his heart out. It’s such a happy song that it makes me feel happy, too.”
He also enjoys the white-tailed kite.
“When you see it up close, it’s such a handsome bird,” Steph said. “It does this behavior of hovering in one place over the ground. Some birds fly or flit or soar, but the kite just hovers.”
And there are the elusive ones.
For years, he wanted to see a painted bunting and finally, three years ago at the Corps Woods Nature Sanctuary in Galveston, there it was. The bird did not disappoint, he said.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said. “It looked like something an artist had painted that came to life.”
Now, the bird he most wants to see is the vermilion flycatcher, he said. He’s hoping to see one during this year’s spring migration, he said.
PREPARING TO TAKE FLIGHT
Emmalie Hazen is 14 years old and already has 145 birds on her life list.
It grows on every family camping trip — including a recent one to Big Bend in West Texas — where she saw aplomado falcons, green jays and American goldfinches.
She converses easily with Master Naturalists and has an appetite for learning and seeing all she can.
“I love being outside in nature,” Hazen said. “I got interested in birding when I was 7 years old because my mom and I would take walks together.”
They started taking photographs of interesting birds, and then at home, they would look each one up in the field guide.
“Bald eagles are my favorite because they are fierce and graceful in flight, wonderful to watch,” she said.
A close second are her osprey “buddies,” which she sees when they migrate near her home in Taylor Lake Village on the mainland.
“One thing about birding is you can do it almost anywhere,” she said. “You can be out for a walk, on a camping trip or even in your own backyard. I saw a Montezuma quail with chicks when I was riding in the car.”
Learning to identify birds has taken time, research and guidance from experienced birders, she said.
“When you see a bird, you can’t jump to conclusions right away,” she said. “You have to be patient. I once identified a great egret that was actually a snowy egret. To make the right call, you must watch how the bird acts, look closely at its colors and listen to the sounds it makes.”
Hazen recommends an app called Audubon Birds that includes recordings of sounds different species make.
From the time she was small, Hazen has spent a lot of time in nature on family outings and camping trips, her mother, Karen Hazen, said.
“I think she has learned that we are a small part of the natural world with a large role to play in responsible stewardship,” Karen Hazen said.
When Emmalie Hazen grows up, she plans to take to the skies herself, she said.
“It’s my dream to be a pilot,” she said. “I am interested in airplanes, especially how the wings work.”
AT EVERY TERN
Before she discovered birds, Alice Anne O’Donell could walk down the beach and see people in cars, swimmers and fishermen.
After her eyes were opened to the coastal habitat, she saw the world in a different way.
“If I go to East Beach today and walk from one side to the other, I would not be able to tell you how many people I passed, but I could tell you every gull and tern and heron,” she said. “I could rattle off the species. My focus has changed.”
As a highly esteemed, retired physician from the University of Texas Medical Branch, O’Donell is now the self-described elder stateswoman of the Galveston birding community.
She is a bird enthusiast, an activist in protecting coastal habitat and one of the experienced birders who is always willing to teach and inspire newcomers.
“I’ve found that my skills as an educator of medical students and residents can also be applied to teach people about birds and birding,” she said.
For example, she tells birders they have to enjoy going birding, even if they don’t see any birds, she said.
“It’s about being out and looking for them,” she said. “It’s the chase, like a shell collector that’s seeking a certain shell or a shark’s tooth. They may walk for miles and not see anything and then, one day, they find exactly what they were searching for.”
She remembers the day when she became a converted birder.
“I was returning from giving a medical talk in Beaumont about 20 years ago and I decided to stop by Boy Scout Woods on High Island,” she said. “Now, I wasn’t dressed for birding because I was in business attire and I didn’t have the right shoes, but I decided on a whim to stop by.”
Moments after she arrived, there was a fallout.
A bird fallout is the result of a change in the weather that prevents migrating birds from reaching their destination. Because they have traveled a great distance, they don’t have the energy to fly in high winds.
Hundreds and hundreds of migrating birds began “falling” into the trees and brush in the preserve, she said.
“I was new to birding and everywhere I looked, there were birds hopping around,” she said. “It looked like Easter eggs on legs. I couldn’t even identify them, although I remember there were lots of hooded warblers. I was at the perfect place at the perfect time. It was wonderful.”
There were some experienced birders there and she remembers how much they helped her.
“They kindly took me under their wing,” she said.
After that, she was hooked.
O’Donell grew up in Griffithville, Ark., a town of about 200 people. She graduated from medical school in Little Rock in the 1960s and moved to Galveston for a residency in pediatrics.
“I chose Galveston because it seemed more like my home town,” she said. “The people were friendly. There were lots of live oak trees.”
O’Donell stayed at the University of Texas Medical Branch for more than four decades, teaching medical students and practicing medicine.
Eventually, she moved from her historical home in the island’s East End near the medical branch to marsh land on the West End where she has ample opportunity to nourish her own preserve and see birds in her own yard.
O’Donell is the past chairwoman of Galveston County Audubon Group and serves on the boards of Houston Audubon and Galveston Island Tree Conservancy, as well as the East End Lagoon Nature Park and Preserve Advisory Committee.
“As I tell beginning birders, you will never see the birds, if you don’t go,” she said. “The more often you go, the more likely it is that you’ll see the special birds.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Sibley O’Haver, age 7, is a slip of a girl with shining brown eyes, an energetic spirit, a taste for hot cocoa and an eye for colorful birds.
“My most favorite bird is the golden-fronted woodpecker, because he’s red and yellow, and the roseate spoonbill because it’s rosy and has a beak like a long spoon,” she said.
Named after David Sibley, author of the “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” she is most at home in the outdoors playing soccer, looking for seashells and birding with her father, Kyle O’Haver.
O’Haver is the assistant superintendent of Galveston Island State Park, where he manages day-to-day park operations. The family lives inside the state park on Galveston Bay, so there are abundant opportunities to explore the natural world.
“When you are looking for a bird, you look first with your eyes and then with binoculars,” Sibley O’Haver said in the same patient tone her father uses. “If you don’t know what the bird is, you can look it up in the book.”
She attends first grade at Burnet Elementary School.
Her most exciting bird-related experience was a recent one: a baby bird fell out of the tree in their backyard.
“We put it back in the tree so its mother could come and take care of it,” she said. It was a memorable event with a happy ending.
Each year since she and her younger brother, Kaleb, were born, the family competes in the Great Texas Birding Classic.
She also has competed in a Big Sit — a competition during which you stay in one place and identify as many species as you can over a specified period. She was part of a winning team in the Texas Panhandle.
This year, Sibley O’Haver takes birding up a notch. In partnership with her father, she will act as a FeatherFest guide for outings with parents and children.
In addition to watching and identifying birds, she has many favorite activities: art of all kinds, night walks and listening to the hooting of owls.
“When you go walking, you might see a bird or find a shell, or once, we found a turtle,” she said.
Kyle O’Haver is originally from Missouri, where he grew up fishing and hunting, hiking and camping.
A graduate of the University of Missouri, he has worked in park management for more than a decade.
His interest in birding ignited when he worked at the Estero Llano Grande State Park and World Birding Center in the Rio Grande Valley.
His life list includes more than 450 bird species.
“It’s important to me for my children to grow up with an appreciation of nature,” he said.