Goldfinch

Goldfinch

Goldfinch
Steve Johnson

While John James Audubon might have pioneered the idea of focusing intently on birds, much has changed about bird watching since the early 1900s (when many bird “watchers” were actually more interested in collecting specimens than conservation). One thing that has not changed is the way people feel about these wonderful animals. Audubon once said that about birds that “I felt an intimacy with them…bordering on frenzy [that] must accompany my steps through life.” Some of your neighbors in Allandale have very similar passions about our feathered friends.

Charles on Fairlane
Charles’ interest in birds goes back to growing up in the Rio Grande Valley surrounded by orchards and ranch land, where he’d spend hours observing species like the green jay, as well as various warblers, swallows, sparrows, and doves until the sounding of the ranch bell told him it was time for dinner. He moved to Austin in the mid-80s for high school and college.

While attending college, Charles took an informal introductory birding course taught by former Allandale residents Fred and Maria Webster, which put his childhood interest in birds to a full-fledged passion.

“I’ve met and gotten to know legendary Texas birder Victor Emmanuel and he and his company have really inspired me.” Charles says. “I’ve been a member of the Travis Audubon Society (http://travisaudubon.org/) for more than 17 years and used to lead many walks. I heard they used to have a volunteer lead bird walks in Northwest Park. I hope to be able lead again and restart bird walks in Northwest Park and nearby areas in the very near future.”

Charles’ passion for birds has taken him as far away as Thailand. He and his family usually camp every summer in a different state to view nature. But mostly he stays close to home or to his Rio Grande roots.

High Island near Galveston is a favorite April destination because it’s the first rest stop for a whole host of migratory birds such as the warblers, vireos, tanagers, grosbeaks, buntings, hummingbirds, hawks, and tons of shorebirds.

“So many birds take off from the Yucatan Peninsula in a given night that they can be detected by land based coastal radars as they are approaching the coast the next morning after an all-night flight! Some birds lose half of their body mass in that feat.”

Austin’s winter affair with the goldfinch has just ended, but we have a host of other natives, including lesser goldfinches, house finches, purple martins, Carolina chickadees, black-crested titmice, Carolina wrens, cliff swallows, barn swallows, and flocks of monk parakeets that made the transformers on Koenig Lane their home.

The monk parakeet –also known as the Quaker parrot– started out as pets that escaped their cages and now fly free all over town. They can also be found around the Walgreens at Burnet Road and Koenig up in the cell phone tower.

Unlike their migratory cousins, the house finch is a common sight at Charles’ house; they’re here all year long.

Common-housefinch

House Finch

House Finch

He’s also seen red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern screech and great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, and both Austin hummingbirds: the black-chinned and the ruby-throated.

We can’t forget the blue jay and the doves: white-winged, mourning, and Inca, although they can sometimes be a nuisance (especially to other birds). And finally, arguably Austin’s most famous bird, the golden-cheeked warbler, still on the endangered species list– victims of Texas’ unquenchable desire for housing and businesses, which leads to fragmentation of their breeding habitat.

“Whatever they are, I love them all,” Charles says, and it’s obvious he means it.

Susan Backhaus on Dover Place
Susan was a kindergarten teacher at Gullett Elementary when she was first introduced to the world of birds. Her mentor, Bonnie Turek, and a neighborhood grand-dad, Mr. Martin, inspired her with their wealth of knowledge that she, in turn, taught school children in science class.

Woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker

Susan says, “We had a large aviary, created by our animal-loving principal, Dr. Crowe, right outside our classroom, with peacocks, turkeys, ducks of every variety, and chickens.  The children spent a lot of time with clipboards in hand drawing and observing bird behavior.”

Having retired from full-time teaching, Susan holds bird watching camps during spring break and summer to share her love of birds with neighborhood children. She also puts four kinds of seed out and has bird baths and berry plants to attract as many as possible.

Susan has many bird houses that occasionally bring nesting couples. She says that right now, while the leaves are off the trees, is the best time of year to spot birds.  Susan recommends keeping a bird guide handy to help in identifying those unusual birds that cross your path.

Cedar waxwings in Susan’s back yard

Susan also has a bird call reference. She says, “It’s so fun to see if I can name a bird just by listening!”

Alan Cable from the Great Northern area

Horned-owl

Great Horned Owl

Great horned owl

Alan and his wife have fallen in love with owls (literally) at their house bordering Great Northern.

“We had a family of screech owls living in a dead tree, and one of the babies fell on the ground from about 30 feet up. My wife called Austin Wildlife Rescue, and they said if she could put the owl back in the nest, to try it. The mama owl was not having any of that so my wife took the baby in a shoe box out to them, and they took it.” Later that day, two more babies lay on the ground. The tree was too old, and was falling apart, and any time a strong gust of wind came through, it would shiver the shelter where the mama had nested.

Alan and his wife obtained an owl box from Austin Wildlife Rescue but the tree was too old to hold it so they hung the own box on another tree about five feet away. “The following year, the owls came back, and we got to watch them grow and fly around.  Pretty cool.” Alan says. “But later in the year, a hive of bees moved into the owl box and stung our dog.  So we had to have it removed. We were real worried what would happen this owl mating season. Two weeks ago, my wife saw the mama owl; she had no place in our yard to have her babies.”

Cedar-waxwing

Cedar waxwings

Cedar waxwings in Susan’s backyard

Alan took a gamble and it paid off. He built another owl box in the same location as the previous one and, within two days, the owls were back! They’re looking forward to another family of owls this year and hopefully many years to come.

Sharon on Pinecrest

Susan is like most of us– a bird lover, but no expert. “I can tell a cardinal from a dove and that’s about it,” she says somewhat modestly.

Susan put up a couple of bird feeders in her yard a few years back and it’s been a love affair ever since. “Of course, the squirrels get a lot of the seed,” she chuckles, resigning herself to that fact. Her feeders draw cardinals, blue jays, and many, many doves.

She once watched a couple of screech owls playing in her bird bath, a delightful nighttime sight. One time as she was driving down Airport Boulevard, she noticed people sitting in sling chairs in the Highland Mall parking lot. She stopped and found out that the occasion was the annual purple martin migration.

The annual migration in July through mid-August draws tens to hundreds of thousands of birds every night, estimates the Austin Audubon Society. Apparently there’s a group of trees in the parking lot that draws them, and a lot of curious Austinites as well.

Whether it’s following a winged migration, traveling the world to see them, or simply enjoying them in your back yard, our friends the birds are a welcome part of everyday life in Allandale. Whether you got interested in birds because of children or the influence of a mentor, or maybe because you just like them, it’s a good idea to take a moment and notice their graceful flight and encouraging songs. They’re our neighbors also.