Remembering John Kelly

John Kelly, long-time birder and volunteer in Austin, passed away on March 11, 2019.

John was very well-regarded in the birding community. He was the president of Travis Audubon from 1994 to 1996. He served on the Travis Audubon Bird Records Committee for fifteen years at least, and volunteered many hours at the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge (BCNWR.)

These memories from fellow birders speak for John and his love of birds:

From Chuck Sexton, Retired Biologist:

“John was a great friend and a long-time, dedicated, reliable volunteer at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. He accomplished breeding bird surveys at a set of 100+ points on the Refuge for a decade, compiling an invaluable data set that has been used in *training sessions* at the Fish and Wildlife Services academy at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in West Virginia. He was not only a tremendous birder (with a great ear) but also an accomplished botanist, adding many species to the Refuge list in the early years.

John was as friendly, humorous, and kind as any person I’ve met. His intellect was boundless and the source of amazement to those around him. As I recall, he was a 4-day Jeopardy champion, having missed the opportunity to make it a full week of victories by a single Final Jeopardy question on which he made a tiny error that cost him the game. He laughed about that years later; I wish I could remember the question he flubbed; he frequently told that story on himself.

It can truly be said that our knowledge base for BCNWR would not be where it is today without the dedicated tireless efforts of John Kelly.”

From Deborah Holle, retired Balcones Canyonlands NWR Manager:

“John donated at least 10,000 hours to the Refuge, many of which were spent helping establish the Refuge, working with TAS to develop a relationship between the two of us. John helped establish the Songbird Festival at the Refuge and was the organizer for many years when the Lago Vista Chamber was the sponsor. John got a grant from National Audubon to help fund the Shin Oak Observation Deck and also worked with TAS to secure funding for other Refuge projects including the Songbird Festival. The best gift that John gave was the close and enduring relationship between Balcones Canyonlands NWR and Travis Audubon Society and what they can do together for the wildlife and natural resources of the Texas Hill Country.”

Deborah recounted a story illustrating John’s wit:

“One dreary wet day in February in the early 90’s, I got a call from a lady with 10,000 Friends, a group I was unfamiliar with. She was helping a Russian scientist who was attending a Toxicology Conference at UT and was a bird watcher. He wanted to go bird watching so she called the Refuge. This was when the Refuge was brand new and I had no staff. I called John in a panic since I was not a birder and definitely didn’t know sparrows well enough to take someone birding. John agreed and we took the Russian on a tour. The weather deteriorated with a light mist and got colder. We saw very few birds, mockingbirds, grackles, the sparrows jumped up and then went back down in the grass. It was terrible bird watching. Then we saw a Northern Cardinal. Our visitor was so excited. Apparently, they didn’t have many red birds where he was from. We found several more and he was very pleased based on the huge smile on his face. Later, on the way home, John in his quiet subtle way said, I guess they don’t have Cardinals in Russia. I laughed so hard. John had such a dry sense of humor.”

From long-time biologist Brush Freeman, co-author of The TOS Handbook of Texas Birds:

“John was a very intelligent man…We once shared several activities involving TAS. We went way back to those Ed Kutac days…I probably met him sometime between 1973 and 1975. John was one of the early “Ed” bunch guys, along with Jean Nance, Pat Osborne, John White, Jack Sunder, Barbara and John Ribble, Fred Webster, Bob Hill and several others. John was very active in helping collect that data on the record committees in those days and he always had “his” chair at that table.”

From Cecilia Riley, who led the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory for 20 years:

“John was an awesome birder, perpetual educator and so knowledgeable in so many areas. He has been missed in the birding community for a long time. Now he can rest in peace surrounded by the birds he loved so much.”

Other birders remembered John’s impact on them, including Joe Holton, who said John got him started in birding (read his tribute on his website , and Lee Hoy, who remembered how John really helped him when he was involved in Travis Audubon.

If you would like to share a memory with the family, please visit

The service for John will be at Hope Presbyterian Church, 11512 Olson Dr., Austin, TX 78750, on Sunday, Mar. 31 at 3:30.

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