Chris DuCharme isn’t so interested in the fiscal hawks who dwell within the Texas Capitol. His passion is the red-tailed variety that lives on the outside of the dome.
The birds of prey that have nested on the Capitol hold an undeniable grace and beauty that has attracted DuCharme, but they also have helped him through some difficult times.
The 64-year-old semiretired carpenter with a ponytail and long gray beard has faced extraordinary difficulty in the past few years. First, his house burned down in the Bastrop fires in 2011. Then, his wife, Caryl Dalton, died of brain cancer the following year. The couple had been together for more than three decades, but they married only three days before Dalton passed.
“The birds have been the things that keep me on track,” DuCharme said recently between upward glances from a patch of grass on the south side of the Capitol. “It was something to focus on.”
DuCharme, who moved to Texas in the 1970s from Detroit, nowadays drives to Austin from Bastrop six days a week, and then gets on a well-used Cannondale to ride all over the city, where he checks on four families of red-tailed hawks and a handful of peregrine falcons that move in and out of the city on a yearly basis.
DuCharme, who is self-taught in photography, always had trouble calling himself a photographer, but his late wife helped him understand that anyone who shoots hundreds of thousands of images — many of them stunning and capturing rare moments, such when a shore bird was blown all the way to Austin during a storm — deserves to call himself a photographer.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, first started seeing DuCharme a few years ago, each time with his camera pointing at the dome.
“He just kind of fascinated me because of his focus on something he obviously cared a lot about,” Watson said.
At one point, Watson teasingly asked DuCharme what he was doing. The conversation led to Watson seeing some of DuCharme’s work, and eventually purchasing a photo, which still is displayed in his Capitol office.
“It was more than art. It was something he did to kind of make him complete,” Watson said. “I clearly got that impression.”
Lee Kinser, owner of Butler Park Pitch and Putt, has known the icy-blue-eyed bird chronicler for six or seven years. He used to spend several hours a day at her golf course, watching a family of red-tailed hawks. But he stopped going by because he feared the female hawk did not like him, Kinser said.
“I think he might be right,” she said, recalling how the hawk would squawk at DuCharme.
DuCharme’s love for the birds is clear, Kinser said, remembering that he was near tears when a chick died a few years ago.
No one should be confused by DuCharme’s scraggly hair, long beard and sun-faded clothes. He is an intelligent, serious and articulate man, Kinser said. He even put on an outdoor, nighttime lesson and slideshow for Kinser and her Zilker neighbor.
“That’s like his life’s work,” she said.
If DuCharme were to change something about his passion, he says it would be to pull back a bit on the zoom on his aging lens in order to gain a greater perspective: “You’ve got to look at things in the big picture.”