Austin, Texas Birding Festival Supports Military Earth Day Fund July 11, 2008

Posted by Barry Lyon

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Barry Lyon

Barry Lyon's passion for the outdoors and birding has its roots in his childhood in southern California. During his teenage years, he attended several VENT/ABA youth birdin...

This April 9-13, 2008, VENT's first-ever Austin, Texas Birding and Nature Festival was held to celebrate the arrival of spring in Central Texas. The event marked the first occasion in the 32-year history of our company that VENT travelers visited us in our home city. Unlike a traditional birding tour, the festival was designed to bring together a larger group of people to share and enjoy the pleasures of early spring in a special destination. Daily field trips to three distinct regions were followed each evening by lively social hours and keynote presentations by several featured speakers.

In making the event a reality, we assembled 42 participants and 7 VENT tour leaders, all of whom possessed an impressive range of natural history knowledge, of which birding was but a part. Included were Victor Emanuel, David Wolf, Barry Lyon, Brennan Mulrooney, Michael O'Brien, and Louise Zemaitis. We were especially thrilled to have nationally recognized author and speaker, Kenn Kaufman, join us for the event as a leader and evening presenter. The elegant Hyatt Hotel, situated in downtown Austin on the shores of scenic Lady Bird Lake, served as a comfortable base for the festival and provided commanding views of the city skyline.

As part of the proceedings, support for conservation and environmental awareness was an important festival theme. Of the three field trip destinations selected, Fort Hood north of Austin, was the most significant. The federally endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo occur here through the spring and summer in greater numbers than anywhere else in their restricted breeding ranges. The U.S. Army, acting with the assistance of The Nature Conservancy, actively manages habitat for the continued propagation of both species.

Because Fort Hood is government property, it remains largely off-limits to the general public, as well as to commercial enterprises. This presented a considerable obstacle initially, as we knew that the two birds most people wanted to see were the Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo, and we also realized that Fort Hood offered the best possibilities anywhere around Austin for finding these two special birds. Through the efforts and generosity of military liaison, Gil Eckrich, special access to the fort was granted to our field trip groups.

Out of sincere appreciation to Fort Hood for permitting VENT onto its property, and to pave the way for greater understanding of the ecology of the Texas Hill Country, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours chose to financially support Fort Hood's Earth Day fund. Fort Hood's Earth Day provides activities and awareness that promote the value of nature and a clean environment for military personnel, their families, and residents of the surrounding communities. Many people are not aware that Fort Hood provides more soldiers for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other single military base in the country. Our decision to support the Earth Day fund was an easy one.

As part of the event fee, festival participants contributed $25 per person toward the cause. On the evening of April 11, Mr. Eckrich joined us for dinner and was presented a check for $1,050. Mr. Eckrich delivered a lively speech of thanks in which he offered more detail about the fort's work with the conservation community to ensure the survival of endangered species, and the significance of hosting an Earth Day event. He also brought with him an official sign used by the military to designate the endangered species status of the Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. The sign, and many others like it, is used to inform visitors to the fort that the military actively manages habitat and that special use rules are in effect. On the event's final night, Victor Emanuel auctioned off the sign to festival participants to raise more funds for the Earth Day event. Through his efforts, an additional $290 was collected to increase the final amount donated to the Fort Hood Earth Day fund to $1,340.

As it would turn out, many of our field trip participants regarded the trip to Fort Hood as their favorite festival activity. Characterized by vast open space and some of the finest remaining unspoiled habitat in the Texas Hill Country, just having the opportunity to visit such a lovely natural area was reward in itself. And yes, our efforts paid off handsomely, as radiant Golden-cheeked Warblers were enjoyed by all field trip groups, while the more secretive Black-capped Vireo was seen and studied well by two out of three groups.