2020 Victor Emanuel Conservation Award Celebration Honors Shelia Hargis

By Heather Valey

Travis Audubon honored Shelia Hargis at the Eleventh Annual Victor Emanuel Conservation Award Celebration this year. This much loved event is put on annually to honor a community member for their outstanding conservation contributions and to raise funds for Travis Audubon for the coming year. Historically, supporters come dressed in their finest to enjoy lunch and celebrate at the Austin Country Club. This is always an exciting event for Travis Audubon members and this year was no exception, except that this year it was virtual! Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Travis Audubon crew had to get creative about how this year’s event was conducted and they hosted it online.

The Lobby

“Doors” opened for the event at 6:00 pm and I could imagine couples filing into the Country Club and finding their seat at a table with their name plates, the air full of chatter. Instead, the virtual chat room was ablaze with folks greeting each other and making small talk, happy to “see” each other. While attendees were chit chatting, we were entertained until the festivities began with a fun slide show full of nature quotes, member photos, great bird photography, silly bird jokes, and tidbits of information about the event.

A screen shot from the pre-event slide show shows a nature quote and logos from sponsors.

The Event Begins!

As the time of the event approached, a countdown began. Once it reached zero, we were treated to a cute video introduction. It went a little like this: Executive Director, Nicole Netherton, is out at Commons Ford birding. Her birding is interrupted by her phone, reminding her to attend the awards ceremony. A puff of smoke appears and Nicole is dressed like a vulture. After a brief stint dressed as a vulture and another magical puff of smoke, she’s dolled up in a swallow print black cocktail dress and polka-dot mask. She walks up in anticipation of the event at the Austin Country Club, only to be confronted with a sign telling her the event is ONLINE this year.  It was a light-hearted and clever way to put the event into context before it began.

TAS Executive Director Nicole Netherton accidentally turns herself into a vulture briefly during the introduction to the 2020 Victor Emanuel Conservation Award Celebration.


The event just wouldn’t seem right without an introduction from author, birder, and conservation legend, Victor Emanuel, the namesake and first recipient of the award. Victor set the stage by introducing himself and kicking off the celebration of Shelia’s accomplishments by introducing Ed Fair.

Victor Emanuel, award namesake and recipient, author, birder, and conservation legend sets the stage for honoring Shelia Hargis.

Introducing Shelia Hargis

Introducing Shelia Hargis was none other than Ed Fair, founder of the Commons Ford Prairie Restoration, avid birder, and Shelia’s long-time friend. He reminisced upon first showing Shelia Commons Ford, and how she immediately got involved in the project. He talked about their 2:30 am trips to Choke Canyon for the annual Christmas Bird Count and then rushing back to Austin to do another count the next day! Jokingly he confessed to the group, “you all know she’s crazy right?!”

For those of you not acquainted with Shelia, she is a birding force! Not only is she an amazing birder, she taught the Birding 101 class for Travis Audubon for many years, and mentored many beginning birders, including myself. Her dry wit, patience, and approachability makes her a very good teacher and field trip leader. Additionally, she participates in countless Christmas Bird Counts and Birdathons which raise money for Travis Audubon.

She was the president of the TAS board in the early 2000s, and was responsible for guiding the group to set up a full-time paid executive team for Travis Audubon. Her conservation work includes acquiring more land for Baker Sanctuary, positioning Commons Ford under Travis Audubon’s management, and bringing Chaetura Canyon (and the Kyles!) under the umbrella of TAS. She was also the president of the Texas Ornithological Society and helped them acquire more land for their Magic Mountain Sanctuary. Here she is below on the left as she chats about her achievements with Valarie Bristol, winner of the Victor Emanuel Conservation Award in 2016:


The fund-a-need portion of the event with auctioneer Gayle Stallings raised over $32,000.00 for Travis Audubon. Folks who donated $250 or more will get a commerative patch to sew on their birding vest or hat that says, “When the going gets tough, the tough go birding!” Paul & Georgean Kyle, who are the stewards of Chaetura Canyon and former owners and operators of Rootin’ Ridge toys, made some gorgeous limited edition wooden bird wall hangings that will be put up as a special auction.

Take Me Home, Birdy Roads

The finale of the show was a hat tip to Shelia and her favorite singer, John Denver.    Previous Victor Emanuel Honoree, Andy Sansom, led us in a fun sing-a-along entitled “Take Me Home Birdy Roads” to the tune of Take Me Home Country Roads.” Everyone’s mics were muted, but I could have sworn I heard everyone sing along.  In spirit they were, at least! The music died down and our host, Nicole, thanked us all for participating in this event. The chat window was still full of chatter as people said their goodbyes much like they might in person at the end of an in-person awards ceremony. The 2020 Virtual Victor Emanuel Conservation Award Celebration was a success!

Congratulations Shelia Hargis and thank you for all of the work you have done for Texas birders and Texas birds!