Volunteer Spotlight: Mark Wilson

By Alexis Puchek

A sixth generation native Texan, Mark was born in Dallas and made his way to Austin via Houston. He grew up hunting and hiking with his outdoorsman father in places like the Big Bend country. Mark noticed a transition in his interest and relationship with the outdoors as he neared his fifties, becoming more focused on nature, conservation, and using his camera. He and his wife Dana took the Habitat Steward training course, and he began leading field hikes out of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, meeting interesting people who kept talking about their experiences as Master Naturalists. This spurred his desire to become a Capital Area Master Naturalist in 2009, allowing him to learn more about birds, ecology, and how everything fits together; ultimately putting him on his current path as a Board Member and volunteer through Travis Audubon.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Mark to learn more about his experience on the Board with Travis Audubon over the last six years and how he contributes to conservation and community engagement through the Blair Woods Nature Preserve.

Why did you get involved with Travis Audubon and what do you do as a Board member?

I have always had a real interest in birds, they’re so accessible. Theyre interesting and it’s a lot of fun to work to identify them. I was in the Master Naturalist Program when I became aware of what an important conservation organization Travis Audubon is. The whole idea of Travis Audubon being a place where we can do conservation and restoration work. And advocacy, which is very important for birds, along with field trips, everything. So, to me, it’s just a great organization.

I was asked to join the board in 2015. I was interested because to me, Travis Audubon was the coming together of a lot of things. My dad was into conservation, and that got me interested in it as well. When I joined the board, I was helping out at Chaetura Canyon for Paul and Georgean Kyle through the Austin Master Naturalist group. We would go out there before COVID and do work projects and workdays helping them spread mulch, repairing trails and fences, or whatever it was they needed. I also helped do some fundraising for Chaetura Canyon. I think some of that is why Travis Audubon asked me to join the board. Travis Audubon has good people dedicated to the mission of birding conservation. I continue to serve on the Management Committee for Chaetura Canyon. When I joined the Board, we needed a member to be part of the activities at Blair Woods and liaison with staff, volunteers, and those interested in the preserve. So that became my main function.

What is Blair Woods Nature Preserve?

I think it’s important that Travis Audubon owns and maintains our preserves, so we show a real commitment to the idea of conserving and restoring habitat. Blair Woods is unique, it was given to us by Dr. W. Frank Blair, an accomplished zoologist and first Director of the Brackenridge Field Lab, and his wife Fern, who was an avid birder. It is an urban preserve, not a wildlands preserve. It is situated in a part of town with a community that is underserved for places to get outdoors and enjoy access to nature.

Blair Woods has a rich history that goes all the way back to the 1830s before Texas became a state. There’s good evidence that a portion of Fort Colorado was located there. Coleman Springs is on the property, still running today. It’s just a small but important piece of Texas history. We’re trying to pull all these threads together of education, advocacy, and conservation on this amazing 10 acres. Before COVID, Blair Woods hosted “back to nature” activities for area school kids and families. That is all planned to resume in the future.

What would you say people can expect from Blair Woods when they go there?

Well, I think they’ll be surprised. When they’re driving down the very busy East Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard and they pull in that old gate and drive down that gravel road, get out of their car and walk about 25 feet into Blair Woods, and they suddenly realize they’re in a little oasis; a little quiet spot. Theyre going to see a lot of interesting plants, birds, dragonflies, butterflies, and mushrooms. I think it’s going to be something that they don’t expect to walk into that close to downtown. We’ve laid down a mulch path throughout Blair Woods, which is made up of the shredded invasive species volunteers have pulled up, so nothing goes to waste. We have a long-term vision to install an ADA accessible trail and build an education center for Travis Audubon.

What do you think is an aspect of your volunteer experience that you’ve really enjoyed?

Definitely the people I’ve been able to work with. I met the most amazing people in the Naturalist program and through Travis Audubon. They’re fun, they’re thoughtful, they work hard. I’ve gotten the most out of the teamwork.

If youre ever interested in volunteering with Travis Audubon, Mark says you dont need to worry too much about having expert ID skills – he is still working on his – those will come and its just one aspect of being involved in the birding world because without conservation and advocacy, we’re not going to have anything to ID. Enroll in a Travis Audubon course about birds and get started. There are many opportunities for you to get involved in different ways!