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'Open your eyes, open your ears': Dripping Springs celebrates Texas Bird City designation

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Tom Hausler
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A Golden-cheeked Warbler perches on a tree on Plant Lady Lane, just outside Dripping Springs.

Visit one of Dripping Springs’ many parks or natural areas and you might be greeted by a few year-round locals: the northern cardinal, the Carolina chickadee or, if you’re lucky, the eastern bluebird.

These Central Texas birds call Dripping Springs home. And recently, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Audubon Texas recognized their home as a Bird City Texas Community. The designation is awarded to only seven other cities in the state and recognizes the city for its efforts to protect and celebrate its fluffy-winged neighbors.

“It's a strong commitment,” said Paul Fushille, founder of the Dripping Springs Birding Club. “Getting designated isn't where it ends. That's just where it starts.”

Fushille, who also works as a biologist and serves on Dripping Springs' Parks and Recreation Commission, first approached the city about applying a few years ago. It took two tries before the city was finally accepted to the program.

The rejections were "crushing," he said. But that didn't deter the corps of volunteers, city officials, naturalists and local businesses from trying again.

“It [was] truly a holistic, collaborative effort,” said Kelly Schmidt, who was Dripping Springs' parks and community services director when the designation was awarded.

“Bird watching is a massive hobby that [is] under-appreciated. I think people don't realize how huge it is. It's a massive, massive body of love."
Paul Fushille, founder of the Dripping Springs Birding Club

To receive this designation, cities have to show that they’ve already made significant strides to protect native birds and how they plan to continue that work.

One effort that helped was Lights Out Dripping Springs. Last year, the city asked residents and businesses to shut off outdoor lights during fall and spring bird migrations. Dripping Springs is already an advocate for curbing light pollution as the first certified Dark Sky Community in the state.

It also helps that the still largely rural city, which straddles northern Hays County and western Travis County, is an area that’s still relatively untouched by major highways and big development.

“We're in a good spot for access to some of the best birdwatching areas,” Fushille said.

The Bird City program encourages cities to protect habitats like the ones found in Dripping Springs by creating parks and removing invasive species, for example.

Fushille says the area has long had a "bird-friendly vibe." The new designation, he says, is a natural result of that.

“Birdwatching is a massive hobby that [is] underappreciated. I think people don't realize how huge it is,” Fushille said. “It's a massive, massive body of love.”

It’s a hobby that also brings in big bucks to state and local economies. The state's wildlife viewing industry has an economic impact of around $1.8 billion every year, and there are more than 2.2 million bird watchers in Texas, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

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Tom Hausler
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A northern cardinal sits on a bare tree branch at Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center, which sits close to the border of Travis and Hays counties.

But Fushille said it’s also a fun, low-effort hobby that “opens your eyes to the natural world.”

“It's like a gateway drug to gardening or native plants or butterflies or dragonflies or whatever," he said.

The hobby, he says, is like solving a mystery.

“If you're a beginning birdwatcher, you get a flash of clues,” he said. "You may only see a shape, or a color, or a song, or maybe a mix of colors, or a certain behavior.”

For those just beginning to birdwatch, Fushille’s advice is simple: Start in your own backyard.

“Open your eyes, open your ears,” he said. “It doesn't matter if you're in downtown San Marcos or in rural Dripping Springs. You're going to get birds in your backyard one way or another.”

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Riane Roldan is the Hays County reporter for KUT, focusing on the costs and benefits of suburban growth. Got a tip? Email her at rroldan@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @RianeRoldan.
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