Volunteer Spotlight: Jane Tillman

By Alexis Puchek

A retired dietitian, Jane Tillman taught in Nutritional Sciences at UT Austin for 22 years. Her real passion all along has been nature, especially birds and native plants.  She’s spent her volunteer career giving back to our ecosystem, ever since she took the Capital Area Master Naturalist training back in 2001. She was instrumental in putting on the National Wildlife Federation habitat stewards training with the City of Austin for years. She also helps put on the Native Landscape Certification Program classes through the Native Plant Society of Texas Austin Chapter.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Jane to learn more about her experiences birding and volunteering with Travis Audubon and what keeps her motivated to do so.

When did you first become interested in birding?

When I was growing up, I was an outdoor girl. My mother took us on hikes and I remember seeing my first Red-headed Woodpecker down at Beavers Bend in Oklahoma. My husband and I backpacked and hiked and he gave me my first Sibley guide back in 2001 which got me interested in birds. It was a bit of a progression, and as I took all the Travis Audubon classes, the more interested I got. Later on, there was one field trip that I went on at the home of some Habitat Stewards and this younger birder Jeremy, probably 14 or 15, could identify the birds by song. I was going, “wow, I could do that.” I think that was another one of the reasons I got more interested in birding, since listening to them is pretty cool.

How long have you been volunteering with Travis Audubon?

I really appreciate the things that Travis Audubon does that help people become more aware of the birds out there, so they can identify them. I started volunteering with Travis Audubon when Valerie Staats was Executive Director, around 2006. It’s been a long time. I really enjoy the people aspect of it. I wanted to do more than just bird; educating people is my kind of thing. I really like outreach where you can point out specific birds to people, and say “Stop! Don’t go down there yet, there’s a Black-bellied Plover, a very special bird all dressed up in its breeding finery, and look at those gulls, they’re coming all the way from Chile, through Texas, and up to the Dakotas.” It’s pretty fun to get people excited.

What are the different ways in which you volunteer with Travis Audubon?

I’ve volunteered in a variety of ways for Travis Audubon. I used to write articles for this very same Smoke Signals blog back when it was a paper newsletter. We had an urban habitat committee, and I was involved with that. The committee created the plant list that’s still on the Travis Audubon website for people interested in native plants and hummingbird plants. I really just do what I’m interested in. I taught at UT, so I’m used to putting together PowerPoints which helps since I’ve given a lot of talks. I’m Co-Chair of the Monthly Program Committee and I like to help line up the speakers. I’m on the Education, Advocacy, and Field Trip Committees and help out with the Master Birders classes. I’m just involved.

(Jane also teaches the Beginning Backyard Birding class through Travis Audubon that can teach you a lot about how to make an environment conducive to help birds thrive in your yard.)

Why should someone volunteer with Travis Audubon?

Volunteering can be a great way to make social connections and learn more about all the birds out there. If you’re interested in volunteering with Travis Audubon, it can be a great way to learn and reach others, and there are many different ways you can get involved. Learning by doing is one of the best ways to teach yourself, and along the way you’ll hopefully help educate others. The Travis Audubon mission statement is to conserve, learn, and enjoy birding – and hopefully you want to be a part of that.

Do you have any suggestions for new birders?

A lot of people begin birding by seeing the birds in their backyard. It can be easy to think that feeder birds are the be all end all, and it’s really just a subset of birds. New birders should get the Merlin app and begin listening for birds and watching for motion. It’s important to get a decent pair of binoculars (not the set your grandfather had). She also suggests going on Travis Audubon field trips and attending birding festivals to expand your horizons to a wider perspective of birds (Eastern vs. Western birds, migrants, residents, etc.). The more exposure you get, the more you learn.

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I wanted to end my conversation with Jane to see if she had any suggestions for favorite spots to bird. It seems, it will always depend on what you’re looking for. Windy Point Park, Hornsby Bend, and Milton Reimers Ranch are all some of Jane’s favorite places. Each have a unique habitat that you’ll get something different from. Narrowing your priorities, whether it’s just seeing birds or if you have a target species, will help you pinpoint where you should go.

At the end of the day, it’s important to just get out there and see the great state of Texas.