Interview with Owen Moorhead

Common Grackle, Madeline Poster

Travis Audubon Member Sarah Ruiz recently interviewed Owen Moorhead. Owen recently joined Travis Audubon and has already volunteered for several crucial projects. He is also a park ranger for the City of Austin.


Sarah Ruiz: You work as a park ranger for the City of Austin. When did you first become interested in working with nature?
Owen Moorhead: I’ve always had an appreciation for nature, but I didn’t really see it as a viable career path until I was in college. I started meeting people in the field, and that convinced me that it was an option.

SR: You went to Texas State for college. What was it about that experience or about Austin / central Texas that made you want to work in this area?
OM: I was born and raised here, and I have such a sentimental attachment to the landscapes, so I think it was natural that I would want to work in it. I have a lot of memories from childhood all the way through adulthood of amazing experiences outdoors. I attended the Austin Nature Center’s summer camps when I was a kid; that was probably a big part of my appreciation for the environment when I was younger. That was a really good time to be a kid in nature in Austin. Between Save Our Springs and preservation efforts for the golden-cheeked warblers and the salamanders, the 90s was a time when we really started to make a priority of our natural heritage.

SR: How did you get involved with Travis Audubon Society?
OM: In the course of working for the city, I have the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people, like city employees, biologists, scientists, and volunteers who we coordinate with on projects like National Public Lands Day and it’s My Park Day. I’ve always been inspired by the depth and breadth of knowledge these people have. But I didn’t really become interested in birding until a few months ago, when I saw a man named Chris on a hike and bike trail who was photographing a peregrine falcon in the condos on Rainey Street. Raptors are such sensational birds. That was the hook that got me into looking at birds. It snowballed really quickly from there. In the new year, I resolved to be more active in my community and engaged, and this has been a very natural next step.

SR: I didn’t know there was a peregrine falcon living on Rainey Street!
OM: It’s a resident; it lives here year round. If you’re on the hike and bike trail either in the early morning or mid-afternoon, that’s a good time to see it.

SR: How do you decide which bird should be Bird of the Week? I loved your recent choices of ringed kingfisher and loggerhead shrike.
OM: I love the loggerhead shrike! It’s so resourceful and such an intelligent bird, and so cute, too. Its behavior is amazing. It’s kind of macabre. And the ringed kingfisher was on my mind because I recently saw one on the Colorado River. They’re becoming more common on central Texas.

To answer your question: I have a big list of birds, and I’m trying to get through it and let the people who write the Signal Smoke Blog decide which bird is the bird of the week. Since I first started birding in November, I’m more familiar with winter birds than summer or migratory birds, but I may have an unconscious bias toward the ones I’ve seen. The list is hopefully a mix of very rare or interesting birds, and birds we might tend to take for granted. The ruby-crowned kinglet is one of my favorites. They have so much personality. And I’m a big fan of grackles.

SR: I love grackles! I think they get a bad reputation because they steal people’s sandwiches. But they’re beautiful and so smart.
OM: I agree, and that’s a feeling I’ve had for a long time. I think it’s really important that we’re cognizant of species that are really vulnerable to human encroachment, but we also tend to demonize the animals that are adaptable and have thrived on encroachment like grackles, vultures, rats, and roaches. You have to respect their resourcefulness and adaptability, and how they don’t disappear when we come onto the scene. I think grackles are really beautiful birds, and it’s easy to forget that because everywhere you look, you’re liable to see them. There are some in the trees behind me right now. If you see one by itself, you can see how amazing their plumage is and how cool they look.

I went to England when I was 19, and when I told my host I was from Texas, she said, “You must be overjoyed that you get to see grackles every day! They’re my favorite bird!” When she said that, I was sort of nonplussed, thinking, “How can your favorite American bird be the grackle?” But after time, I can understand why it would be someone’s favorite bird.

SR: Do you have a bucket bird, and what is it?
OM: On one hand, I don’t think I’ve been doing this for long enough to have an extensive life list or bucket bird. But off the top of my head, I would say a California condor. When I was younger, not really knowing much about birds, I felt  a very strong affinity for the turkey vulture, and I still do. The turkey vulture still might be my favorite bird. But being able to see a California condor would be really incredible. They’re kind of in the same family, and they’re so magnificent. They’re almost sacred to a lot of the people who lived in that area.

SR: Is there anything else you’d like for Travis Audubon members to know about their city’s parks and natural resources?
OM: I want to publicize a park that I think is very underrated: it’s called Bauerle Ranch. As a park ranger, my job is to visit every park in the City of Austin, and I haven’t done that yet; but I’ve visited most of them, and I can confidently say that Bauerle Ranch is my favorite park. It’s huge, and it’s very wild. I know it’s a fairly new park, and there are trails but very little traffic. Unlike the greenbelt, people haven’t scared off the wildlife that lives there. I go out there once or twice a week, and I’ve never seen more than four or five people at a time. I’ve spent three hours there and not explored the whole park. There are still buildings and fences and remains of its former life as a ranch. It has big beautiful live oak trees, including one of the biggest oak trees I’ve ever seen in my life.

It’s special for me because it’s one of the first places I ever went birding with the intention of birdwatching, not just seeing birds incidentally. I was blown away by how many species I saw there. There’s a pair of crested caracaras, and all sorts of songbirds and raptors. It’s due to the wide range of habitat you find there, everything from open grassland to mesquite savannah, and there’s a big pond — it’s a microcosm of different habitat types in Austin, so you get all the wildlife. I even talked to a professor who said he saw a jaguarundi, and that seemed possible. It definitely speaks to the diversity of life you can find out there.

I really think if you were a experienced birder, it would be an incredible birding spot. It’s really far south and really remote, so I don’t think it’s going to get overrun; but if I had to let the secret out, I’d rather get the word out to Travis Audubon members. It’s so cool. You can get lost in there for hours.

SR: Bauerle Ranch sounds amazing. And thank you so much for taking the time to talk to Signal Smoke today, and thank you for all you do for Austin’s parks and natural habitat!
OM: It’s a labor of love.