Nature Notes | Exploring Nature Near at Hand, with “Parking Lot Birding”

Photograph by Jennifer Bristol. A Scott's oriole on an ocotillo, at a parking lot at Big Bend National Park.
Photograph by Jennifer Bristol. A Scott's oriole on an ocotillo, at a parking lot at Big Bend National Park.

Exploring Nature Near at Hand, with “Parking Lot Birding”

By Andrew Stuart

“Without leaving home,” the Tao Te Ching says, “you can know the whole world.” It’s a lesson the covid pandemic has taught many of us, who’ve found our appreciation of the natural phenomena in our immediate surroundings heightened while we’ve had to stay put.

It’s in this spirit of discovering nature near-at-hand that Jennifer Bristol wrote “Parking Lot Birding: A Fun Guide to Discovering Birds in Texas.” The new book, from Texas A&M Press, celebrates the accessibility of thrilling encounters with nature. It’s especially timely right now, when birds are making their fall migrations.

Bristol isn’t a lifelong birder – though she is a long-time naturalist. She had a career with Texas Parks and Wildlife. But her outdoors activities were fast-paced: swimming, horseback riding, “racing headlong down mountain trails,” she writes. Birding seemed a bit… low-key.

But when she was thrown from a mustang and injured, she had to find gentler outdoors activities. Soon, she’d caught the birding bug. She went all in, recruiting her family to compete with her in the Great Texas Birding Classic.

She approached her new passion with a characteristic vigor – but soon made a discovery.

“In the beginning, if there was a trail, we were hiking it,” Bristol said. “We thought, okay, that’s where we need to go to really see the maximum amount of birds. Sometimes that was true. But the majority of times, as we got back closer either to the campus of the nature center, the bird blind, the boardwalk – or the parking lot – we’d start seeing more birds. We started joking: ‘Oh, we must be getting close to the parking lot! We’re seeing more birds!’”

It wasn’t necessarily that there were more birds in these human-modified places. Rather, a parking lot provided a vantage into the woods, grasslands or wetlands.

“I want to make the disclaimer: I in no way advocate for more parking lots,” Bristol said. “It’s just a place that’s easier to see the birds. But it’s all those conservation lands behind the parking lot – at the nature centers, at the parks, the wildlife refuges – that are so important.”

Bristol wrote an outline during a South Texas birding trip, and “Parking Lot Birding” was published this spring.

The book describes 90 birding “hot spots” around Texas, and birds to look for during various seasons. Some spots include short trails, and all were selected to be easy for people with limited mobility, or families with children.

In Midland, there’s the I-20 Wildlife Preserve. Ducks are the stars here, Bristol said. The preserve’s playa lake sustains ruddy ducks, mallards and American coots year-round. Beginning in December, there are wintering wood ducks, cinammon teals, canvasbacks.

In the Trans-Pecos, Bristol’s favorites include spots in Big Bend and the Guadalupes, the Lawrence E. Woods Picnic Area in the Davis Mountains, and Balmorhea Lake – where 300-plus species pass through during the fall migration. Bristol said the Trans-Pecos is distinctive for its quiet – which allows birders to hear the “conversation” of bird calls and songs.

The fall migration in West Texas begins with hummingbirds – who typically pass through in August. They’re followed by swallows, then warblers and orioles, and finally ducks and sandhill cranes.

Migrating birds are dying in large numbers here this fall. Wildfire smoke may be a factor, but it’s likely due to starvation: drought, exacerbated by climate change, has denied birds the bugs they need.

While human actions are having devastating effects, Bristol said we can also lend birds a hand.

“We can set out bird feeders, we can put out water, we can plant native plants, to give them fuel and a resting place,” she said. “All those things are so important. We can either alter our spaces to have a negative impact, or we can alter our spaces to have a positive impact.”

Bristol suggests beginners find a spot they like – and return through the seasons to see how the birds change. Bristol’s next book focuses on cemeteries – the birding in West Texas cemeteries – from Fort Stockton to Terlingua – is “off the charts,” she said.

It’s a reminder – we don’t have to go to the wilderness to experience the wild.

“I’m always blown away by the variety of wildlife that surrounds us, that pre-covid, sometimes we were so busy we forgot to notice,” Bristol said. “Now that we have more time on our hands, it’s easier to reconnect.”

Bristol’s book is available at Front Street Books in Alpine, for order at other West Texas bookstores, and online from A&M University Press.

Nature Notes is supported by the Shield-Ayres Foundation and produced by Marfa Public Radio with the Sibley Nature Center. The program can be heard each Tuesday and Thursday, at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., Central time, on KRTS Marfa, 93.5 FM, and KXWT Odessa/Midland, 91.3 FM. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.