How Austin became a birder mecca

Birders are as much of an attraction as the birds.


Why do birders flock to Austin?

A good deal of the attraction can be attributed to the city’s birding community, its geography and its love of nature rather than just its warblers, hawks, mockingbirds and, yes, grackles.

With four distinct ecosystems nearby and an active, curious community of people, the Travis Audubon Society is thriving, but any talk of birding in Central Texas almost always loops back to Victor Emanuel, originally a Houstonian who had lived here as a University of Texas student, then returned to settle permanently in Austin.

His company, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, founded in 1976, is widely acknowledged as among the top of its kind in the world. The soft-spoken author of the recent memoir “One More Warbler” also established a camp for young birders, dozens of whom made careers out of birding.

“I met Victor when I was in seventh grade,” says Peter English, a native Austinite who is now a biology lecturer at UT and a dad raising two young birders on the greenbelts around town. “By the end of high school, I was leading Emanuel’s tours, which were among the first commercial birding trips in the country. Victor started the camp, and I was the counselor. There was a year when every birding Ph.D. given out in North America was given to a kid who went to our camp.”

Emanuel remembers those early days fondly but is too busy making new memories to linger on the older ones. At nearly 80, he birds most weeks of the year, including international trips to Greece and Japan and a recent monthlong stay on Bolivar Peninsula.

Both humble and energetic, Emanuel passes on the credit of why birding is so popular here to its geography. Unlike many American cities, Austin is very close to four distinct ecosystems for birding and reasonably close to a fifth.

BIG BIRDER: Victor Emanuel: Back to nature

“Within an hour’s drive, to the east you have post oak savannah and patches of eastern pine forests,” says Emanuel, who has been on a speaking tour around the country since his memoir, “One More Warbler,” was published last year. “To the west, you have the Hill Country, a unique region covered in ashe juniper with limestone ledges and clear streams. To the north, the Great Plains with rolling prairies that are now mostly farmlands, and to the south, what is called the Tamaulipan thorn brush country. And then just three hours away is the Texas coast, one of the richest for birds in the world.”

The Travis Audubon Society gives out the Victor Emanuel Conservation Awards at a luncheon each year. The past winners lend a sense of the community that quietly preserves or revives green spaces or particular species, including J. David Bamberger of the miraculously restored Bamberger Ranch, prairie preserver Mickey Burleson, Shield Ranch founder Bob Ayres, chimney swift saviors Paul and Georgean Kyle and all-round nature hero Andy Sansom.

Travis Audubon also conducts beginner bird walks on the first Saturday of every month, as well as family nature days and numerous field trips. A newer group, Williamson Audubon Group, has more than 700 members through Meetup.com.

In addition to bird-specific groups, the area is blessed with various and sometimes quite effective nonprofits that use compacts with private landowners, among other strategies, to keep bird habitats in place. These include the Nature Conservancy of Texas and Hill Country Conservancy, as well as parks and green space conservancies.

Central Texas doesn’t boast the high Christmas count — an annual tally of bird species by the national Audubon group — of the Texas coast, which sits on a key migratory flyway, or the wealth of neotropical birds found in the Rio Grande Valley. Yet the Hill Country hosts some singular species, such as the golden-cheeked warbler, which breeds only nearby, as well as the black-capped vireo, which spreads out over a much wider range and is scheduled to be removed from the federal endangered species list.

In addition to the year-round bird population, dozens of other species pass through every year in what is called the central flyway, one of several north-south bird “highways.” Sitting under this migratory path along a geographic divide between eastern and western parts of North America, Austin welcomes birds and birders from all over with open arms and binoculars held high.

That itself gives Austin a place in the birding sun.

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