Volunteer Spotlight: Dennis Palafox

By Alexis Puchek

Dennis is on the Travis Audubon Board and was Chair of the Field Trip Committee for about 5 years before stepping down last month.  He also serves on the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access (IDEA) Committee.

He hails from El Paso and speaks fondly of his time with his family on their vacations, camping and going out to the western states like New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California when he was growing up.  Though he admits he didn’t really know how much he appreciated these family vacations in his youth, its impact on him now is palpable. His interest started showing up in high school when he read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and continued into higher education on his path toward ecology and a degree in biology.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Dennis to learn more about his experience volunteering with Travis Audubon and how he celebrates and fosters diversity, dignity, and respect in the committees he’s a part of.

How did you get into birding?

Using his degree in biology, Dennis did a lot of work with Texas Parks and Wildlife, understanding and interpreting water quality, pollution complaints, and contaminants. He started working with the Lower Colorado River Authority in Austin, and that’s when he began to foster an interest in birding. Growing up in El Paso, Dennis thought the only birds might have been Mockingbirds, Sparrows, and Doves. In the uplands in Austin, he was able to see Black-capped Vireos and Golden-cheeked Warblers. He received a bird feeder as a wedding present and saw Chickadees, Titmice, and Cardinals. What started as a casual interest grew into a desire to learn more about the impacts from development on birds in Central Texas, the variety of species we have here, and that’s when he started to get involved with Travis Audubon.

Why is diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility so important?

Dennis talks about how Travis Audubon can be made so much more rich by including a lot of different people with different ideas, all contributing to conservation through birding. It’s important for organizations to reflect the diversity of the state and communities they serve. “This is an organization that I’ve gotten so much from. We have great classes, field trips, all sorts of different opportunities, and it’s volunteer driven. People can give so much that they can get burned out so it’s important to have other folks step in to bring new ideas and replace those folks who have contributed so much.” While Dennis realizes we might not be able to solve all the problems of the world, he knows that Travis Audubon has an opportunity to connect more closely with this niche of a birding community and bring people together.

Has volunteering taught you anything about yourself?

Volunteering has been a great contributing factor to Dennis’ personal growth process. Volunteering has helped teach Dennis that he didn’t have to be an expert birder to lead field trips and that it’s ok to make mistakes – they’re going to happen, it’s impossible to know everything, and you can’t control how the day is going to go. It’s helped Dennis realize that doing his best while he provides this service to interested birders is what’s going to connect and engage with those individuals more than having all the right answers.

What advice would you give to someone who is new to birding?

“Remember that you started for some reason.” It’s important to continue to learn along the way and to continue to enjoy the day, the environment, the people, the experience as much as the identification of the birds themselves. When you look at what’s available to you in our local area, take advantage of those opportunities to learn about birds, and take classes, and go on field trips. There are a lot of birds out there, and there are plenty of opportunities and information to keep you busy and build your expertise. Birding can have a competitive aspect as you gain more experience, but don’t forget to enjoy the process, have a good time, and have fun.


I wanted to end my conversation with Dennis to see if he had a favorite bird. It’s a question that’s asked often as an ice breaker for new birders, and I thought it’d be interesting to see how Dennis interpreted it. I love his response. Dennis truly appreciates the diversity in the nuances of different birds. Yes, you can get caught up in the flashier aspects of birds, as he mentions, Painted Buntings are magnificent birds and he really likes Yellow-throated Warblers. And then he tells this perspective of a Carolina wren, a relatively common bird, and how it just tilts its head back and belts out this loud song. And Dennis can see how proud that little bird is, and he really gets a kick out of it.

Dennis leaves me with a great consideration: that we can become desensitized to some of our common birds and take them for granted, but they are still magnificent in how they show up in the world, how they can connect us to one another, and how we might be reminded that what’s familiar and common to us could be a lifer or first-time experience for others.