Birding has proven to be a popular activity during the COVID-19 outbreak. It's a way to have meaningful interactions with nature while not venturing far from home. Novice and avid birdwatchers alike can participate in a little friendly competition courtesy of the 24th Annual Great Texas Birding Classic, October 1 - 31.
Although typically held in the Spring, the Classic has been moved to October to take advantage of the fall migration. It's also modifying some categories and rules to make participation easier while quarantining or limiting travel.
And you don't have to hike the forests of East Texas or climb jagged Hill Country cliffs to engage in birding and enjoy the great outdoors. As it turns out, you can find these moments in your everyday life, as Jennifer Bristol explains in her new book, Parking Lot Birding.
Bristol takes us to what sounds like the most unlikely of nature spots: the parking lot. Whether you’re a birding beginner or veteran, Bristol’s Parking Lot Birding is not only an entertaining read to discover Texas birds, but it also pushes you to realize sometimes the best birds are just around the corner.
Bristol, former coordinator of the Texas Children in Nature program at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, opens by recounting her unintentional beginnings to birding after a back injury from a bucking mustang. In an attempt to keep Bristol busy during recovery, her husband, Thomas Nilles, took her on photo safaris to photograph nature and historical sites. Eventually, this led to a sparked curiosity for birds.
“(Birding) feeds the soul — I never get tired,” Bristol said. “It’s like a scavenger hunt. Each time you go out, you never know what you’re going to find.”
Her love affair with birding took flight, and she started taking hiking trips to find as many birds as possible, whether it be exploring the Rio Grande Valley, the Lost Pines of Bastrop State Park or other Central Texas spots. They trudged high and low, in dense forests and along rushing rivers, only to realize the best birding often happens in more unlikely places.
“I didn’t want to believe it — my ego wouldn’t allow it,” she writes. “Perhaps due to my competitive nature and my willingness to trapeze up, down, and around any obstacle far away from human-made structures, the parking lot reality offended my sense of awe and wonder for nature.”
The parking lot concept became reality after she and Nilles hiked the five-mile Wolf Mountain Trail at Pedernales Falls State Park in search of a golden-cheeked warbler, only to finally find it at the end of their hike near the parking lot. It became a running joke between her, Nilles and her mother that they only found birds in the parking lot. On a Great Texas Birding Classic trip in 2017, they had the idea for Bristol to write a book about it.
Bristol takes the reader on a journey throughout Texas, covering nine regions stretching from the coastal areas of Corpus Christi to the plains of the Panhandle. She recounts her birding experiences at 90 different sites that are open for birding endeavors, along with species numbers and amenities. She also includes a “feather fact” giving a detailed rundown of a selected bird of that region.
Not all of the book is facts and figures — she also occasionally spices up the descriptions with chuckle-worthy stories of trail encounters and muses over the idea that all birders seem to dress the same (i.e. teasing Nilles to ask the “guy in the tan shirt” about what he’s seeing).
The book is filled with beautiful photographs taken by Bristol and Nilles. Readers can check out birds such as the black-necked stilt, long-billed dowitcher and American bittern as well as the roseate spoonbill, painted bunting and black skimmer.
Bristol hopes readers understand Texas has one of the biggest migrations of any animal in the world.
“A lot of people book birding trips to Belize and Costa Rica, and that’s all great,” Bristol said. “But there’s other people who come from other places in the world to Texas. This is right in our backyard, and we’ve got front row seats to it.”
Bristol’s book is a reminder of the easily accessible doorway to nature — just a stroll to your car or a look out the window to catch a glimpse of the wider world of nature.