What Makes a Birder? Jeffrey Jackson: No Turning Back

By John Bloomfield

Some travel the world and amass huge life lists. Others travel as far as their backyard and may not list at all. Some bird with expensive optics and big camera lenses. Others use modest bins and maybe a point-and-shoot. Some hike miles in search of a rarity. Some take pleasant walks and just enjoy whatever they see.  Some bird from a wheelchair or walker. Others enjoy birdsong from an open window.

Birders. They come in more flavors than an ice cream store. Yet they share one thing in common: an unabashed love for all things birds.

In this new series we explore the diversity of our local birding community. We wanted to know what ignited their interest and what keeps them going. We call it: “What Makes a Birder?”

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Jeffrey Jackson hasn’t spent a lifetime birding, but he birds with the ease and confidence of someone born with binoculars in hand.

It all started on a family vacation to Rocky Mountain National Park in 2012. While others in his family were focused on four-legged species, Jeffrey’s eye caught a Great Horned Owl with some beginner binoculars bought at the park’s visitor center. There was no turning back.

At a discount bookstore, he bought a half-priced National Geographic field guide, and he started soaking up as much information as he could about birds. Soon it was eBird, and then a camera to document his sightings – a Canon 70D with a 100-400 mm zoom. Its speed makes it a favorite of many birders. It was his college graduation gift.

He also records bird songs and calls using his smart phone, which helps him review and remember. The best ones he posts to eBird.

We caught up with Jeffrey at Mills Pond, Austin’s favorite migrant trap, in early May. He had just finished a Loggerhead Shrike survey in Williamson County for Texas Parks and Wildlife.

“Like many birders, I’m at Mills Pond a lot at this time of year,” he said. “I’m always happy when I see my first Mourning Warbler. For me, that’s a sure sign of spring.”

It was an overcast afternoon with a light rain, but the birds were moving all the same. During our time together we saw eight warbler species including a beautiful male Chestnut-sided Warbler (pictured above) we found directly over our heads where Jeffrey had been helping two other birders locate a Northern Waterthrush. Dutifully, the Chestnut-sided paused for photos.

“Birding brings me closer to nature and has renewed my love for the outdoors,” Jeffrey told us. “My wife and I have always enjoyed traveling and we love that birding lets us visit amazing new places while doing what we love.”

Since 2012, he has logged 558 birds in North America, including 487 in Texas and 350 in Travis County.

While Jeffrey is focused on birds, his wife Kimberly, a Natural Resources Specialist for the state, has been helping him get better at identifying trees and native plants. She also took the lead in creating a bird-friendly backyard at their South Austin home.

“Trees are great clues to bird habitat,” he said. “Plus, when you’re leading a birding trip, it helps to be able to point out a specific tree where the bird is perched – it’s much better than saying, ‘up there!’”

When not birding for pleasure, Jeffrey works for Travis County Parks at Hamilton Pool Preserve and Reimers Ranch Park. Before the pandemic, he was leading bird walks at Reimers Ranch, which he hopes to be able to restart soon.

“Reimers Ranch and Hamilton Pool are such amazing places,” he said. “I remember a couple of years ago at Hamilton Pool seeing what I thought was an Eastern Phoebe a couple of feet in front of me. Well, it turned out to be a Black Phoebe, which became my favorite bird. It returned every year for three years, and last year, there were two successful nests. Unfortunately, I don’t think they survived the winter storm this year.”

What keeps Jeffrey going? First is an absolute love of birds. Next are his birding goals.

“I’m close to 500 species in Texas and I hope to get there in the next year or two. Another goal I have is to see 100 species in all 254 Texas counties. I still have a long way to go – I only have 100 in 32 counties.”

That’s still an impressive feat, and it will keep Jeffrey Jackson in the field for a long time to come.