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Winnie Burkett

INTERVIEWEE: Winnie Burkett (WB)
DATE: October 14, 1999
LOCATION: Smith Point, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2062 and 2063

Please note that videos include roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” typically refers to miscellaneous off-camera conversations or background noise.

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s October 14, 1999 and we are in Smith Point, Texas at the Hawk Watch Tower and we’ve got the good luck to be visiting with Winnie Burkett who is the Houston Audubon Warden here, and…
0:01:43 – 2062
WB: Actually I’m Houston Audubon Sanctuary Manager. Here I’m just a volunteer for the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory.
DT: Well, she’s obviously of many talents and many jobs and many hats. And thanks for wedging us in between all those obligations. I’d like to start by talking to you about your childhood and maybe you could tell us about any earlier influences, parents, teachers, friends, that may have inspired you to be interested in the outdoors and conservation.
0:02:18 – 2062
WB: Well, I was always interested in the out-of-doors. I was one of those kids that grew up in a mud puddle, kind of, catching turtles and, you know, playing with Honeysuckle. I don’t know if you’ve ever played with Honeysuckle. But we used to do that a lot, make caves and stuff out of it. And, my grandmother was a bird watcher in New York state, where I spent my very youngest years. And she said I started being a bird watcher when I was four. But I don’t remember. I just always remember being interested in the out-of-doors and always remember being interested in birds and turtles and frogs and things. So we moved to Florida in 1950 and that was when Florida was just—we always say we had the best part of Florida. Because it was accessible and it was just full of wildlife. And that—as I grew up in Florida and watched it all go away I got more and more concerned about, you know, who’s going to take care of it. And the fact that, in Florida, for a long time, there were not environmentalists. And it was, you know, nobody wanted to hear about it. So, my father was involved in starting a nature center down there. And that’s basically how I learned about environmentalism and getting involved trying to see if we couldn’t change things. With—which, at that time in Florida, you could not change anything. Nobody wanted to hear about it. The whole economy was—was dedicated to development. So it was—that’s basically what formed me into a conservationist, I guess.
DT: Well, you talked about what formed you. It sounds like it was a few people that had a major impact. Could you talk about your grandmother and what you remember about her and her interest in the outdoors?
0:04:00 – 2062
WB: Well, my grandmother was—was the original little old lady in tennis shoes kind of bird watcher. She used to go on a lot of birding trips with her friends. And sometimes would take me bird watching, but never on birding trips because they didn’t want children. But they moved to Florida eventually and so she would—she and I did a lot of roaming around together, early because she needed company and later because I was the person who could drive when she no longer felt real comfortable driving. So we used to do a lot of birding—bird watching together.
DT: Can you describe some of the places that she used to like going birding in New York state and elsewhere?
0:04:42 – 2062
WB: Well, she lived on Long Island and one of the main places was going to places like Jamaica Bay. You know, that’s right near John F. Kennedy Airport. And places like Jones Beach, I don’t know if you know Jones Beach. That’s one other place that she did a lot of birding in the winter. All those beach areas. Let me think of some of the other places we used to go. I don’t know they—we used to go to the beach alot. And she and my mother did a—when they were doing some of the early work on migration—they used to do—put telescopes on the moon, you know, and watch the—the birds fly across the moon at night. And they did counts on how many birds were migrating on any particular night. She and my mother did that on the beach one night and almost got arrested. Because the police wouldn’t believe that, that’s what they were really and truly what they were doing. So…
DT: Did you grandmother talk much about it being sort of a solitary pursuit, a pursuit that at least some people, such as the police, didn’t understand?
0:05:46 – 2062
WB: She don’t—I don’t remember her talking about it very much. It was just one of the things that she did. And you know, when that happened it was one of the—they—they laughed about it. I never remember, until I got older, thinking about it as something peculiar. It was, you know, unless you’re around peers who look at those things and judge them peculiar, they’re just things that go on in your family.
DT: Speaking of your family, could you tell us about your father and his interest in conservation?
0:06:15 – 2062
WB: Well, my father was a—a plumbing contractor. And he never looked at birds, growing up, because his mother did. And, you know, mostly you don’t do the things that your mother does. In fact you look down on the things your mother does. But, my father liked renting a boat. And when we were in Florida we had a little skiff. And he used to run around and take us fishing and go to the beach, at the areas where, you know, you could only get by boat. And so my grandmother was involved in a research project that—the Dry Tortugas. They take groups—they used to take groups of people down there to band Sooty Terms. They started doing that in the 40s and it was stopped by World War II. But, then they came back and started doing it again in the 60s, I think it was. They needed somebody to run the boat down there. So dad went down to run the boat. Well, here were all these scientists interested in all these things. And my father’s very intelligent. And—and he would get into discussions. And this one guy, Ralph Schreiber, I don’t know if you’ve every heard of Ralph Schreiber, he was a really famous ornithologist, did a lot of work on Pelican populations and also on Christmas Island out in the Pacific. Well, Ralph started asking dad, well what was happening to Pelicans in South Florida and what did he know about this and what did he know about that. So dad went back home, which was Naples, Florida then, that’s where I spent most of my growing up time, with assignments. You know, count Pelicans once a week. Do this, do that. And that got him kind of hooked in—on birding. And his—what evolved out of that was he started censusing projects then. First just on Pelicans, but then he figured as long as he was counting Pelicans, he should be counting everything else he—he saw. So, he started doing beach counts of things like Sanderlings and Willets and Terns and stuff. And then he got more involved with Audubon and the guy that was a part-time Warden in that area had a heart attack. And dad applied for the job and didn’t get it that time. But they had hired somebody else I think who turned out to be an alcoholic, and he didn’t last long. So, the next time around dad got that job, part-time. And what he would do is go out to the colonial water bird islands and check and make sure things were all right and doing that kind of thing. And, then eventually what he wound up doing was doing that job full-time and—and retiring from plumbing.
DT: Was his interest academic or was it out of some sort of concern for the changes affecting these birds?
0:08:50 – 2062
WB: Well, he saw the changes affecting South Florida. I mean we c—it was very easy to see the changes affecting South Florida, because it—Naples went from being a little tiny town to this, to, you know, huge subdivision after huge subdivision after huge subdivision. And he saw the fact that—that birds would be a good environmental indicator of what was happening. And, of course, at the same time the Everglades were dying. You know, we had that big—the big problem with the Everglades. Well, between 1950 and 1975 or 80, 90% of the wading birds in the Everglades disappeared. Because of the change in water regimes, you know, they put the big flood control things and water control things in and put big ditches. And what they would do is—is, the Everglades used to be flooded in the—in the summer and then in the winter it would dry down. Well, the birds had adapted to breeding during this dry down-time. And what that means is that the food sources are con—are concentrated. Instead of the whole Everglades being all covered with water, like it is in the summer, it’s areas that have water in them. And all the fish that were everywhere concentrate in those areas. And that was the way the birds could breed was that that would concentrate enough fish so they could feed their young. So when the Army Corps of Engineers and the Flood Control District started managing that water, and flooding at the wrong times, the birds weren’t successful breeding anymore. And so he—he’s been counting, doing censuses for twenty-five years. He got—my dad gets into things. He gets really deep into it. But he started doing the censuses and trying to tell what was happening, how you could judge what was happening by what the birds were doing. And you can—really kind of shows a lot of interesting information. And he was on the—the County Conservation Commission. You know how a lot of counties have conservation commissions. But this county, Collier County never listened to their conservation commission. So after like ten years on it he got off. He said it just wasn’t worth it any more. But, what he’s mainly—he says now he’s—he’s documenting the decline of birds in Florida. So that’s what he’s been doing.
DT: So he continues to see a decline?
0:11:14 – 2062
WB: Oh yeah. Well, particularly on the—on the west coast because of the continued development. And there’s—even though they’re trying to change what they’re doing in the Everglades, on the west coast they’re still developing. Which means more drainage ditches taking water away faster. Which means that the mangrove swamps aren’t—the salinity’s changed so the crabs have changed, the shrimp have changed, the fish have changed. And all those things really affect everything. You know, they affect the bird population, they affect the fish population.
DT: I understand that as you grew up you went on to college and majored in Biology, with a concentration in Ornithology. What caused you to choose that area of study?
0:12:03 – 2062
WB: Well, I always wanted to do field work in the tropics. I was going to go work in the—in the rain forests. I didn’t think I’d ever get married so, ‘cause I didn’t date much in high school, ‘cause I was pretty weird, you know, there’s not too many—too many girls that want to be out wandering around swamps and things. So, I wanted to be a field research person. And so I did major in Orn—I majored in—in Biology with a—a specialization in Ornithology. But I met this guy and didn’t—didn’t do that.
DT: I understand that you moved to New York, is that right?
0:12:43 – 2062
WB: Well, no, my husband was in petroleum, so we, first, we moved to Louisiana, yeah. We lived in Lafayette, Louisiana. And I continued to do—my Ornithology Professor from Florida State had—was doing work on trans-Gulf migration. And he wanted censuses done along the coast, as close to the coast as you could get in Spring and Fall. You had to spent like ten hours a week in the field. And so I put my kid in the back of the—I had a baby then—I put my kid in the back of the car and we went off and counted birds. And that was real interesting because it makes you get to know areas better. And, we did move a lot. We went from—from Louisiana to California to Hou—back to Houston, we came to Houston in the 70s. And then we lived in New England for about fifteen years, in Connecticut. But I…
DT: Can you describe some of the areas that you’ve birded in Louisiana?
0:13:48 – 2062
WB: Well, we would go down, you know route 87 that goes through the marsh? You go through like Grand Chenier and—and all those kind of places. We—we just—I would go down and I would look for every wood lot I could find. Or any place where there were birds and trees and—and spent time censusing birds in those areas that might be migrants. Also I did shore bird counts. And, for a while, he wanted us to do analysis of Grackle populations. Because Boat-Tailed Grackles in Texas have brown eyes. Boat-Tail Grackles in Florida have yellow eyes. And those two populations meet in Louisiana. But, we found out there were flocks of tens of thousands of Grackles in Louisiana and it was impossible. There was no way you could get a good look at their eyes.
DT: Speaking of Grackles, I’ve heard some people refer to them as trash birds. First of all, would you describe them that way? And if so, can you talk about some of the birds that have become more common, and maybe why that is?
0:14:51 – 2062
WB: It’s real interesting that people tend not to like the birds that are most like people. And Grackles are one of those birds that are very adaptable the way people are. And when they see a good thing, they take advantage of it, just the way people do. And we’ve provided a lot of habitat for Grackles inadvertently. Because these birds like to nest and roost in places that are predator-free. And we’ve put in walls with big parking lots that have nice, shady trees. And these mall parking lots are predator-free areas, because it’s all this open area, right, where the—Raccoons and Possums can’t easily cross it. And there’s no coyotes or—or foxes or anything. So all these Grackles can breed in these parking lots. And we provide McDonalds, so there’s always a food source. So, you know, they’re really smart birds. And the same thing’s happened with crows. Crows are very good at—at taking advantage of people. Starlings are the same way. And any time birds are like this, people don’t like those birds. It’s just like Laughing Gulls. A lot of people don’t like Laughing Gulls. But, they’re smart in the same way. You know, they learned about garbage dumps. They learned about paper bags. You know, if you leave a paper bag on the beach the Grackles—I mean the—the Laughing Gulls will tear into the paper bag because they know that paper bags usually equal food. So, yeah, they’re adaptable, working into niches that no other birds are using. The garbage niches.
DT: Something else that occurs to me is from the time that you spent with you grandmother to work that you did with your father and then some of your adventures in Louisiana, it seems like you’ve had a continuing interest in censusing and looking at migrations. Can you talk about why you had those interests?
0:16:50 – 2062
WB: Well, that—the censusing thing is partly because my father is so intense on censusing. And doing migrations, particularly, was because I had a Professor that was so involved in migration. And, you know, if you’re around people that find something very interesting, often you can start to see the interesting parts of it. And so, that—that’s one of the things that’s just been ongoing. You know, every place in the country you live, it’s different, as far as migration goes.
We also were involved in banding. My grandmother was a bird bander. And so you see—you see seasonal fluctuation with that too. And that’s always pretty neat to see how things change. ‘Cause she doesn’t always, you know, when you’re—when you’re out looking at birds, you don’t always see everything that’s there. If you put a mist net up also, then you get to see a lot more of the birds that are there, because some things are secretive and you don’t see them out.
DT: Could you talk about some of your trips to go and band? How do you do that?
0:18:00 – 2062
WB: The most interesting banding thing I was involved with was I went on the Dry Tortugas trips, one of them. And, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Dry Tortugas, do you know about the Dry Tortugas? Okay, they’re islands off of—coral islands off of Key West, sixty miles west of Key West, and the largest fort—the largest brick fort in the Eastern United States is out there, Fort Jefferson. It was the Civil War fort that they never finished. And, there was a prison for a while too. Doctor Mudd was there after. John Wilkes Booth was—he treated John Wilkes Booth. And—and so, it’s a really fascinating place. So what you do is you go out there with Park Service people, or what we did. We went—went out there. There were about, I guess about fifteen people that went out. And every day you get up really early and they first thing you do in the morning is band chicks. You start at dawn and the—the City Terns nest all over the island. And they nest on the ground, they lay one egg and have one chick. So you go out and you—you capture chicks in one way or the other. Some times we built little fences with corals. And you’d herd the chicks into—into the corals. And sometimes you just pick them up. So that’s what we would do in the morning until 10 o’clock. And then we’d go in and have breakfast. And during the middle of the day you don’t do anything, because if you disturb the birds during the heat of the day, they have the chance of being—becoming overheated and dying. In the evening we’d set up mist nets and catch adults. And that’s how they found out that they live to be a very long t—live—live to be very old. And they don’t start nesting, and the City Terns don’t start nesting until they’re five or six years old. So they’ve—this project they found out a lot of interesting things about the Tern. But, while I was down there we had a hurricane. And that was what made it even more interesting. Hurricane Alma came right over the Tortugas. And the Coast Guard wanted to take us out and take us to—to Key West. But Key West it was all wooden buildings. And here we are and this fort is seven-foot thick walls. We figured, you know, not anyplace you’re going to be safer than a fort with seven foot thick walls. But it was neat, ‘cause we could watch the birds during the storm and see what happened, you know, to all these tens of thousands of birds that were nesting there. So it was pretty fascinating.
DT: And how would you actually go about banding these birds? What would you use and where would you put the bands?
0:20:35 – 2062
WB: Well, you have aluminum bands that you get from the Fish and Wildlife Service. They have a special office that they called the—the Banding Lab. And each one of the bands has an individual number on it. And you take a pair of pliers that have—they have—there are special pliers made just so—for banding birds. And you take a bird in one hand, and you usually take the right leg. And you put the band on the—on the right leg.
DT: What chance to do you have of recovering a bird that has once been banded?
0:21:06 – 62
WB: About one percent. About one percent. Except in a project like this where they’re—the—one of the things dad did when he—he went for many years to the Dry Tortugas, after he got addicted, is that he worked with a hand—a net with a really long handle. It was like, you know, the kind of net that you catch fish in when you—when you reel them in and then you scoop them up in the net. We took a net like that and put it on a very long handle. And he would look for banded birds in the sky. And then he would take the net and catch them. Because after a while the older birds get net-wary, they see the net and they know what it means. So, to get information off the really old birds, which is what you ultimately want, you want to see how long they lived, in what kind of condition they are, how often they’re molting and all those things. You have to figure out a way to catch those older birds. So that’s what he would do is take this long net and “foop” them out of the air.
DT: You mentioned that he went to the Tortugas many times after he got addicted to birding. And I’m curious if you could talk about the compulsion and the conviction that many bird watchers seem to have. It really seems to consume people’s lives and interests. What is it that is so appealing to people, do you think?
0:22:29 – 2062
WB: Well, you know, what is it that—that gets people addicted to golf? And what is it that gets people addicted to sitting in front of a television set and watching somebody with a little football? And, it’s whatever it is that addicts people to different things. Birding’s one of those things. And s—it’s interesting. I always talk about there’s a lot of different ways you play that game, the birding game.
Some people are—are listers. They go out and they want to see as many different kinds of birds as they can see. And, they have their long list. And if somebody reports a Blue Mockingbird in Harlingen, everybody’s gone zooming down—these listers have zoomed down to Harlingen to see the Blue Mockingbird.
But, and then there’s people that are backyard feeder birds, you know, they don’t—they don’t care about going anywhere to see birds. They’re happy just to look out their window and see their Chickadees and Titmice.
Then there’s all kinds of levels in between. There’s the people that—that have lists for their own county. There are people that just use it as an excuse to go from one area to the other, you know, the birding festival kind of thing. The people would go to the Hummerbird Festival. And people would go to—to that tropical festival they have in the Valley. And, so there’s all different, you know, levels of how deeply people get in bird watching.
I never was—I enjoy seeing different birds. But I won’t drive to El Paso to see something, you know. I may go to El Paso and bird, but I won’t—some people will go over and spend a weekend, you know. Drive over one day, drive back the next day. They’ve seen their Tufted Flycatcher and that’s that. But, I really enjoy the whole—the whole—the whole aspect of the life of the bird. You know, the—not as much going out to see how many species you can get. But I get a real kick out of, like, the summer we went to Alaska. And I got to see a lot of the ducks and things we have all summer—all winter, up there with chicks and ducklings and in little ponds and swamps in the places that they live in the summertime. I thought that was really neat.
DT: Have you taken many birding trips?
0:24:42 – 2062
WB: I’ve taken, well, I don’t know what many is. I’ve…
DT: Maybe you could talk about some of the highlights of your birding trips.
0:24:49 – 2062
WB: I’ve taken quite a few trips that have—that we’ve done a lot of birding. I think the only one I ever took that was just only a birding trip was we went to—I went to Costa Rica with Wings, which was one of the, you know, birding tour groups. But, I’ve—I’ve birded in lots of places. We went to Peru on a natural history tour and there were a lot of interesting birds there. In fact, I saw too many churches and not enough birds there. But that was—that was very interesting. I don’t know if you’ve traveled much. There are some countries that—that are hard to travel in and you don’t feel comfortable. And there’s other places like Costa Rica, where you go, and it’s—it’s, you know, people are very welcoming and you don’t feel, you know, in any danger or uncomfortable.
DT: Well, I understand that bird watching and the whole phenomena of “ecotourism” has become a very popular and profitable thing for many communities. Could you discuss the impact on areas in Texas?
0:26:05 – 2062
WB: Well, the—it’s—I think that probably the ecotourism has been very important for these communities for a long while. And it’s just been in the last couple of years that people have tried to show the communities how important it is. That, you know, the Bolivar Peninsula where our sanctuaries are, High Island and Bolivar Flats have always had a lot of birders in the spring. And, but I don’t think they ever thought about the real economic impact. I mean, of course, they—everybody knows there’s more money. And the motel owner, of course, would know that it made an economic impact. But, the—the government officials in Galveston County wouldn’t recognize that it made an important impact. So part of the big thing has—push has been to make government officials aware, and chambers of commerce aware that these communities have these resources. And so consequently, not only are they making the money that they used to make, but some of them are starting to advertise. Like Port Arthur has a big billboards now about birding Port Arthur. And, good Lord, I don’t know why anybody’d want to. But—but, at least they’re trying to bring people into their community to do other things besides, you know, the standard tourist kind of things.
DT: When you talk about ecotourism in a popular place like High Island, or in the Valley, are you talking about hundreds of people, thousands of people? Are we talking about thousands of dollars, millions of dollars?
0:27:38 – 2062
WB: We’re talking about millions of dollars. And, places like the Valley, I think they’ve figured out the impact of one rare bird down there. And it’s interesting, like in Galveston, there was a Kelp Gull, and that’s a South American bird. And one woman who lives in Galveston kept a guest book, kind of. She would drive down there to the beach where the Gull was to get people to sign this book, every day, to find out how many people had come. Well, she had, I think it was two or three thousand sign the book. But how many people came when she wasn’t there, we don’t know. But the local state representatives said to me at a meeting, she said, “I just wish we could find more of them—them Gulls like that, that bring all those people. It’s sure easier than trying to do any other economic development.” So, they do become aware of it. And when you start to talk about, you know, people coming to Galveston to see a bird, talking about three meals and a motel and, you know, rented cars and motel and—and airlines and just, people really do come from a long ways away. So, in a place like the Valley which has so many unusual birds, it’s millions and millions of dollars. And they’re capitalizing on that. You probably know about the—the World Birding Center that they’re going to put down there. And all kinds of facilities to try to attract more people and also to try to raise the community’s awareness. Because ultimately ecotourism is wonderful, but the great thing about ecotourism is that you make a community aware of the fact that their community, as it is, with its natural attributes, not with malls, not with, you know, fancy roads, not with big movie theatres, the community with trees and grass and shrubs, that’s the valuable part. And that’s the only way we’re going to get habitats saved in a lot of these areas, is for them to realize that—that the natural things are important to—to bring money into a community.
DT: I noticed that you had been a gardener for part of your career. Are there things an individual can do if they realize that their community benefits from ecotourism that will support birds and butterflies?
0:30:06 – 2062
WB: (talking over David) Well, Rockport. Rockport’s a perfect example of what the community, you know, the people in the community have done doing Hummingbird gardens. And the—the reason Rockport always had so many Hummingbirds was they used to have fields and fields and fields of wildflowers. I mean, we would all have fields of wildflowers if people didn’t mow. And, in the Fall the Hummingbirds would come through and they feel they concentrate in Rockport because they jump across the Gulf that little ways from Rockport to s—to Mexico. So, as they developed Rockport, of course, they took the fields of flowers away. So people have compensated for that by putting in big Hummingbird gardens in their yards and lots of feeders. So they have all these Hummingbirds, you know, and then they have their Hummingbird Festival, which brings in millions of dollars to the community. So, there are things that individuals can do, you know, even in their own yards to help.
DT: Can you describe your own yard and what you’ve done there for wildscaping?
0:31:03 – 2062
WB: Well, it depends on which yard, you see. We have—we live in Friendswood, in a regular subdivision so the front yard’s kind of tame and the back yard’s pretty wild. I’ve just let things—I planted a—it was all St. Augustine grass and I planted a lot of native trees and shrubs and—and let the—the Swamp Sunflowers and the Ragweed and stuff go ahead and grow because that’s all things that supply food for birds. Also, we put a little pond in, but unfortunately, summers like this it doesn’t stay wet, you can’t afford to keep it full. But—but we have a beach house on the Bolivar Peninsula. And, I don’t understand people with beach houses. Everybody in our neighborhood, we have a unrestricted neighborhood there. It’s not like Friendswood where you have to keep your front lawn, you know, a certain length. Everybody there doesn’t have to do that. They don’t have to do anything. But they mow and keep their yards just like town, except for us. And my yard, we mow once a year. And by doing that we keep the grass and the stuff down enough that the yard’s just wildflowers, all year long. Gaillardia. Right now it’s the Lazy Daisy, the tall native sunflower that’s, it’s just solid flowers.
DT: And this attracts birds, butterflies, Hummingbirds?
0:32:24 – 2062
WB: (talking over David) Oh, yup, yup. Hummingbirds and butterflies. I have lots of butterflies.
DT: What do your neighbors think?
0:32:34 – 2062
WB: I don’t ask them.
DT: Let’s go back to Rockport and their experience with the Hummer Festival. Can you talk about how some of these birding and ecotourism festivals got started?
0:32:51 – 2062
WB: Well, a lot of them were started by individual people. I think that the Hummingbird Festival, which was Texas’ first festival, bird festival, was started by Jesse Grantham. Did—did you know Jesse? And—and he had the idea that since the community had so many Hummingbirds and people liked Hummingbirds, that they ought to have some of a festival. It started off as just 250 people and I think they now get 5000 people. And, so it’s just people with ideas. Jesse was really good for seeing how we can do things that engage ordinary people. Because that’s what we have to do to succeed in conservation. I mean, those of us that are interested in birds, per se, are only a small drop in the bucket. And the people we need to engage in—in—in understanding the plight of birds and the plight of—of the natural world is all those other people. You know, that—that like Hummingbirds, they’re not going to be bird watchers, but they sure like Hummingbirds. And if you can just let them know, you know, what a Hummingbird has to go through to survive, that they go from here to Mexico and back and they need plants and everything all along the way. Those people will be, if they like Hummingbirds and want to see them in their yards, will tend to—to lean more towards doing stuff in their yards and in their communities that will help continue Hummingbird’s journeys.
DT: I’d like to ask you another question about ecotourism, if you don’t mind. There seem to be a lot of advantages to it, trying to educate people about the natural world and ways to protect it. But, like a lot of things, it seems like you can over-do it. And I wonder if you can see any potential down-side to development that would take advantage of natural resources. I give, as an example, the controversy over building a conservation lodge on Matagorda Island. Could you tell us what you think about that, and that sort of issue?
0:35:02 – 2062
WB: Well, that definitely has a—it can—it could go the wrong way. And that’s one of the things they’ve been worrying about is—is that it, you know, too much development of eco-tourist facilities will harm places. And I think the thing about the Matagorda Island Conservation Lodge was that they were going to need to do a lot of stuff, and put a lot more people out there and wanted to be able to take more vehicles and more, I mean, it was just going to take away from that being such a special place. And, I think there were other things involved. I don’t remember. I was—that was—somebody else was fighting that battle. I didn’t get into it.
But, we definitely have got to think about the resources. And, you know, a lot of organizations like Nature Conservancy has really important properties in Arizona that they limit the number of people that can come. They have—allow a certain number of people on the trails at a time. You get a pass, you know, your little ticket and you have to turn—turn it in when you get back off the trail. Just so that there’s not so many people in there that they’re disturbing the wildlife or making too big an impact on things. And a lot of us are going to have to think about that. We’re going to have to—we may have to cross that eventually at High Island. Because we get a lot of people there and—and our whole goal in developing the sanctuaries the way we’ve developed them is that we’re trying to make it so that we can put people in there and they can see birds, and they don’t disturb the birds too much. And that’s got to be all of our goal. I mean, people get mad at me because I got rid of their favorite trail. But, you know, if you have—the woods are all full of trails. And there’s no way for the birds to get away from you and have some place quiet to eat and drink. And basically if they’re coming back from going across the Gulf of Mexico, that’s what they need most is some place to—to quietly eat and drink. So…
DT: You mentioned High Island. Can you talk about some of the sanctuaries that you’re managing?
0:37:08 – 2062
WB: Well, High Island’s a really interesting story in that most Audubon Chapters don’t get involved in land ownership. And, they just don’t have the resources. And there’s—and in Audubon Chapters there’s not always the continuity of people that they feel that they can—can have sanctuaries. So, in the 80s Houston Audubon was concerned about what would happen to High Island because it was such a good place to see birds. And, Louis Smith, who owned a four-acre tract there was selling his property. And Houston Audubon purchased it and took a mortgage out. And, oh, there was so much controversy. The Board ha—passed resolutions that they couldn’t use any of the organization’s money to buy this land. They had to raise separate funds. And so they had, you know, cake sales and they had various and sundry things. But no—nothing raised a whole lot of money. And they had paid way too much money for this piece of property, is what I think anyway. But, so they started charging admission. And that was a very novel idea at the time. In fact, a lot of people objected to that. But, that’s the way that they paid the mortgage off. And the money that we still make from admissions has enabled us to do a lot of other things. And, in the late 80s, we had a Board member named Steve Gast. And Steve was a “wheeler-dealer” from Phillips. And we had—someone had donated a piece of property and then had decided that they didn’t—not on High Island, but north of Houston, but this—they decided they didn’t want to—they wanted the piece of property back. So they gave us a $100,000 for the piece of property. And Steve knew enough about matching grants and all this other stuff, that he put together what’s called the High Island Initiative. And what that was, was an initiative had a three part, if I remember correctly, three goals, it was to increase the Audubon holdings in High Island, it was to develop those holdings, and it was to create the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. So Steve approached Amoco, who owned a lot of property in High Island about there—the property that they didn’t want anymore. And Amoco agreed to donate, at that time, about 140 acres. This—and we also, at that time, purchased the rest of Smith Oaks. We had just started purchasing Smith Oaks, which is an 11.5-acre tract that was all hundred year old, plus Oak Trees. So, he put together this package where we purchased the rest of Smith Oaks. We got this land from Amoco. We got grants from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. And we got grants form Fish and Wildlife Service. And we got grants from Texas Parks and Wildlife. And those were all grants to either enhance the property or found the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory – start-up money. So we were able to take this lan—all of the sudden we went from four acres to 150 acres. And we had money to put in boardwalks. We had money to build fences, so we could keep cows out of sensitive habitat, because all the area had been grazed. We had money to enhance habitat, which meant we planted trees in places that needed trees. And we did some
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prairie restoration projects. And we put signs up. And we built a kiosk so we could get our visi—our volunteers who take the money in for—for the admissions, out of the rain. We just—we had the—the ability to get a lot of things done, you know, right—right away, which really made it quite a big complex, you know, for a little community. ‘Cause High Island’s what a mile—about a—about a square mile.
DT: What was it about High Island and Smith Oaks that was so appealing to the Houston Audubon Society?
0:41:21 – 2062
WB: Well, High Island is a migrant trap in the spring. And what that means is that after these birds cross the Gulf, and what they do in the springtime is a lot of the small birds migrate at night. And they start—they leave Yucatan about—just about dark, about a half an hour after sunset, they think. And it takes ‘em eighteen hours to cross the Gulf of Mexico. Now, most these birds have no trouble flying those eighteen hours. In fact, they go ahead and they fly ‘till dark, usually. They—they cross the—they cross the coast at—at around noon or one o’clock. And, about dark they reach the Big Thicket area, where that’s the best feeding, you know, ‘cause it’s continuous woods. Well, some of the birds don’t have the resources, haven’t stored up enough fat, ‘cause that’s what migrants do, they double their weight and fat on under their skin and they metabolize that fat while they’re flying, into energy. So, those birds need some place to stop along the coast. And they use the Sanctuary. But, even more important is that there are times when—when the birds leave the Yucatan, they want to come with a tail wind. They want it—the weather to be nice. Sometimes they don’t know there’s a cold front coming, there’s a thunderstorm coming. So they hit inclement weather and then they struggle. Because they don’t have enough energy to make it across the Gulf. When they do get to the shore, they’re very, very tired. And they literally fall out of the air. And wind up in places like High Island, tens of thousands of birds, sometimes. And, those places become vitally important to great number of birds because they need a place to stop and feed and rest and get a drink. Because fresh water is just as important to them as food. After they’ve been out over the Gulf all these hours, they’ve got salt spray on their feathers. The salt accumulates, need to wash it off. A bath’s an important thing. So, that’s why Houston Audubon was interested in protecting property there.
DT: Could you tell us about some of the threats to High Island that made the Houston Audubon Society want to quickly buy it and protect it?
0:43:52 – 2062
WB: Well, I think the major threat was just the fact that someone would buy it and put houses there. When Amoco started to divest themselves of un-economical property, then they had opened up the—the process that people in the community could have bought property. But, people in High Island don’t have very much money, so they didn’t. But, there was always the potential that outsiders could come in and see that, you know, this little town that’s right next to the Gulf that’s 32 feet above sea level is unique. And, it could be developed into something really profitable. So that’s one of the reasons that we decided to look at how we could—could put together significant pieces of habitat. There’s still pieces of habitat there we’d like. But, not everybody wants to sell. And, so we’re always looking. But that was the main thing, was just trying to protect the habitat. But the neat thing that’s ha—enabled us to do, is that, because we make money we have seed money to do other projects. And, one of our big projects recently, and ongoing, is protecting Bolivar Flats. And Bolivar Flats is—is unique in that it’s a—a mud flat, salt marsh complex that was created by the building of the—of the North Jetty. And, it’s a totally contained…
DT: …the North Jetty on the north side of Bolivar Road?
0:45:20 – 2062
WB: (talking over David) Yup. Yup. ‘Cause the, you know, the long shore current goes south there. And so when the long shore current hits the jetty, it stops and that eddies the water and the water drops its sediments. And that jetty was built a hundred years ago. And so, for a hundred years the sediments have been dropping. And, you know about all that beach erosion on the Bolivar Peninsula. Well all the eroded dirt comes down to Bolivar Flats. So it just keeps growing and growing and growing. And it supports hundreds of thousands of birds, plus makes lots of shrimp and crabs and little fish. And, in the last couple of years, some of the property adjacent to this salt marsh, mud flat area, have gone up—come up for sale. And, we’ve used money from High Island’s admissions as seed money to get a project going to purchase those pieces of property. We purchased 178 acres. And when we were working on that, the guy from Nature Conservancy who was helping me, had somebody come to him wanting to donate 4/7ths undivided interest and 550 acres across the street, which is just all beautiful coast prairie and marsh. This is all tied in to the Bolivar Flat system. So, instead of Nature Conservancy taking that property, we took the property. And now we’re working on the last piece that’s adjacent to the flats which is an 800-acre tract that the—the owners had been trying to sell 2400 acres all together. But, we didn’t want the whole 2400. We just wanted this chunk. And they finally agreed to—to subdivide their property and cut that chunk out. So, now we just have to figure out how do we get money to—to buy, you know, 800 acres. But, our goal has been to try to get every piece of property we can around Bolivar Flats. Then we don’t have a filling station going in where somebody’s dumping, you know, antifreeze or oil or whatever, into the wetlands that drain into the marshes that ultimately feed all these birds. So…
DT: What kind of birds do you see in the Flats?
0:47:28 – 2062
WB: Well the Flats support a tremendous numbers of shore birds, things like Sandpipers and Plovers. There’s probably—most of the winter there’s eight to ten thousand shore birds there. Gulls and Terns use the Flats a lot. They use it as a—a resting—roosting area and a place where they can park their chicks while they feed out in the Gulf. Ducks use it. A lot of ducks feed there in the winter-time. I’ve seen between 600 and a thousand ducks in there. Birds like Clapper Rails and Seaside Sparrows and Night Hawks and Wilson’s Plovers and Least Terns all nest there. So it’s a—a very important piece of property to many, many thou—hundreds of thousands of birds.
DT: Once you’re able to secure the land, how do you protect these birds that roost there or have rookeries there?
0:48:23 – 2062
WB: Well, what we’ve done is we’ve gotten part of the beach declared a no-vehicle area. And that’s helped a lot. I mean it’s—it’s almost impossible to keep Texans off parts of the beach. They don’t believe in signs. They believe it’s their God-given right to take their pickup truck everywhere and anywhere. But—but we’ve cut down a lot of the traffic on the part of the beach that the birds use the most, which has been a real plus. And, aside from that, there’s not much more we need to do. I mean, the system runs itself very well. The—we’ll, you know, get rid of Tallow Trees and—and probably burn occasionally to keep the grass in good shape. But other than that, the system works. And we just want to let it keep working. We want to cut down the disturbance the birds have as much as possible, but we still want people to be able to use it. Because it’s—it’s—it’s a good place for Texans to learn about how wonderful Texas is.
DT: You mentioned the threat of Tallow Trees. Can you explain what your concern is?
0:49:22 – 2062
WB: Well, in wet areas, coastal areas, areas like this—we’re kind of coastal here—Tallow, which in—is an invasive exotic, it came from China many, many years ago, will just take over the area. And the birds carry the seeds around and the—the trees are related to Milk Weed, so they have poisonous sap. So, insects don’t use the trees. So they don’t supply food that way for birds or other wildlife. When the leaves fall on the ground and they fall in ponds and things, they make the ponds very acidic. And they make it so that invertebrates can’t grow in the ponds. So, they—they take good habitat and make it into almost unusable habitat. And they’re—the Tallows are taking over a lot of the wet prairies all over this part of Texas, which is very sad. Because wet prairies were very important to a lot of species.
DT: You also mentioned that you’re planning on burning some of the coastal prairies adjacent to Bolivar Flats. How can that benefit the prairie?
0:50:26 – 2062
WB: Well, it keeps down, like, Chinese Tallows. And it—all these areas burned periodically, naturally. And, the thing we try to do with burning is to kind of create a natural situation. You know, man doesn’t like anything to burn. Unfortunately we got—have Smokey the Bear as an emblem. And we don’t want forest fires or prairie fires, unless we learn about it. And then we find out that that’s always been a very important method of—of keeping habitat healthy, is that burning, periodically.
DT: You’ve told us a little bit about the High Island Sanctuaries that you set up for neo-tropical migrants and the Bolivar Flats that help some of the coastal shore birds. I understand that right here, where we are at Smith Point, you’ve got another sort of sanctuary and observatory for raptures. Can you tell about this Smith Point site?
0:51:27 – 2062
WB: Well, this is Candy Abeshire (?) Wildlife Management Area. And, it’s always been famous for a place to see a lot of raptors. And that’s because Smith Point is a big funnel. And when birds come around the Gulf of Mexico, a lot of these—the raptors migrate in large groups. And they come around the Gulf of Mexico. And, a lot of times, they’re funneled down Smith Point. Most of them don’t like to cross the water. So what they do is they get down there and they have to decide, well is the wind good enough? Am I going to cross? Am I not going to cross? If they don’t cross, they go around. So they come here to the end of the Point and kind of mill around for a while trying to decide. So it makes it a really good place for people to come and watch hawks. It also is a good place to monitor hawk migration and the migration of lots of other birds. Because there’s lots of birds that, you know, they just as soon not fly across a big bodies of water. They will if they have to. But, a lot of things like Swallows and a lot of the new tropic migrants the Gnatcatchers and stuff, the King Birds, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers get—get funneled down here. So it’s a tremendous place to see birds. In 1991 a group of people got together and started a Hawk Watch down here. And what they did is for—for four or five weeks, every day somebody would be out here counting hawks. Well, three years ago the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory got it—got more deeply involved in the Hawk Watch. And, with Hawk Watch International, they started running full-time hawk watches here from August 15th to November 15th. And these are people that are paid to be here, every day, to watch hawks. And it’s very interesting. It’s very educational. And—and this way we can monitor what’s happening with migration.
DT: I understand that some of the hawk watchers were seeing, today, what they call a ‘kettle.’ Can you describe what a kettle is?
0:53:30 – 2062
WB: Well, the way a lot of these birds migrate, particularly broad-wing hawks and vultures and Swainson’s Hawks is that they look for thermals. Thermals are rising columns of air and they take and—what they’re trying to do is use as little energy as possible. So they take and they get into the thermals, and they rise—they go up, up, up in the thermal, to the very top. And then they glide out of the thermal to the next thermal. This way they don’t use any energy at all, they just—the wind takes them. When you get a group of birds, in a thermal like that, going around and around, it’s called a kettle.
DT: What kind of species and how many of them are you seeing?
0:54:10 – 2062
WB: Well, I think so far this year, 40,000 raptors have been seen here, which is not large numbers by Texas standards. But we get—there’s another Hawk Watch in Corpus Christi and they get hundreds of thousands of birds. But they get lots and lots of broad- wing hawks. And there’s about a million broad-wings that probably go around the bay and down through Texas, more than a million. But, the greater portion of those don’t come through this site. But we get more of the smaller hawks, like the accipiters and the falcons. And so, whereas Hazel Baymore, which is the Hawk Watch near Corpus, really gives an idea of timing of broad-wing migration, ‘cause that what they get the majority of. We get lots of—we get the larger numbers of Swallow Tail Kites, and, as I said, the accipiter and the falcons.
DT: I understand that some of the raptors have been pretty sensitive to pesticides and suffered some declines in the past. Is that right and are you seeing any recoveries of those?
0:55:16 – 2062
WB: Well the—all the raptor populations are still recovering from DDT. DDT did a lot of damage to raptors and to a lot of the coastal birds, like Brown Pelicans. Because DDT almost did away with Brown Pelicans in Texas. So that, when they pulled DDT out of the system the hawk population started to rebound. And most of them, I think, probably have rebounded about as much as they can. Now they have problems with habitat availability. And there’s also still some pesticide problems in South America. In fact, there was just a big kill out of Swainson’s Hawks for some—they—in areas in Argentina, I think, where they raise Sunflowers, they use a pesticide in the Sunflowers to kill grasshoppers. And the Swainson’s Hawks were eating the grasshoppers. And large numbers of Swainson Hawks were dying. I mean, they’d find thousands around roosts. But, the—the pesticide company, which is Ciba Geigy, was very responsible and immediately pulled the pesticide. And they re—they replaced it—they—the farmers the pesticides. They replaced it with something that wouldn’t hurt the birds, and, which was very good to see. It’s the kind of responsibility that—it’s—that—voluntary responsibility, which is nice to see chemical companies doing that. Because, at one time, they weren’t—didn’t act responsibly.
DT: Can you give some other examples of some of the partnerships that you’ve been able to create with industry as well as some of the frustrations with industry?
0:56:55 – 2062
WB: Well, we’ve been—at High Island we’ve been partnering with Phillips and Amoco. Because Amoco donated land and they donated money. And Phillips Petroleum has been very supportive of quite a few different environmental projects. And they’ve been good at supporting our projects there with funding. The other kinds of—of partnerships that we’ve been involved with are more agency partners—partnerships, you know, between nonprofits like Houston Audubon or Texas Audubon with the General Land Office or the Texas Parks and Wildlife, Fish and Wildlife Service. And, we need to be able to partner more with industries to try to solve some of the industry-created problems. One of the things that really concerns me is the—the damage to the marshes along the Intracoastal Canal. And, they can address it on the wildlife refuges and they have at Aransas. But, right over here on the Bolivar Peninsula we’re losing tremendous amounts of marsh. And—but some’s private properties and no one’s addressing it, but we need the marshes.
DT: Why are those marshes being lost?
0:58:09 – 2062
WB: What happens is the wakes from the—from the boats and the barges gets pushed up into the marsh and it pulls the mud out. So you know how they’re always having to dredge the Intracoastal Canal? Well, it’s because the—the Intracoastal Canal is—is taking the marsh away. (noise) Do you want to wait for the… It’s the Coast Guard.
0:58:40 – 2062
WB: We were out yesterday and the Coast Guard went back and forth and back and forth. There must be somebody lost.
End tape 62
DT: I understand that one of the partners that you’ve worked with a lot is the General Land Office, which acts as the landlord for a number of the Texas spoil islands off the coast that Audubon manages as rookeries. And I was wondering if you could talk about some of the rookeries in the northern part of the coast that you’re responsible for?
0:02:15 – 2063
WB: Okay. What I do is I’m what they call the Colonial—The Upper Texas Colonial Coast Water Bird Steward. And that means I work with the Wardens who take care of the islands. And I also work with agencies like GLO [General Land Office] or Fish and Wildlife Service to figure out how best to maintain productivity on the island. And, this can—can mean any number of things. In the—I’ll kind of go through the year on—on how we work on the islands.
In the winter-time we have to get out and—and do Fire Ant control and predator control and put signs up. One of the things that really limits Colonial Water Bird productivity is predators, whether it be Fire Ants or Coyotes or Raccoons. Because those predators actually are in higher numbers than they used to be because of not all the natural controls are in there. And they can swim across to a lot of the islands. And so we need to remove those things from the islands. Or when—like with Fire Ants what we do is we spread Fire Ant bait, which is not a pesticide. It’s a hormonal thing that the Fire Ants take down to the Queen and she stops making eggs. But, this is—this is a really important part of what we do to manage the islands is to keep them predator-free. And then we also put signs on the islands because some of the islands we own and some of them we lease, but they’re all protected. And so we put signs up that say “No Trespassing”, “Do not disturb the birds”, “Keep off”, you know, that kind of thing.
And then when the breeding season starts, we have the Wardens, the Galveston Bay Wardens and the Wardens statewide, that go out to the islands at lease once a week, sometimes more often, it all depends on the weather, of course, and check the progress of nesting. You know, is the birds’—are they all producing eggs? Are there any problems? Is there any disturbance?
And, the other thing the Wardens do throughout the season and
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throughout the year is they get to know the fishermen. They get to know the communities. Most of them are residents of the community. Like, at Smith’s Point we have a Warden named Joe Whitehead. Joe Whitehead’s father was a Warden. There wa—used to be a big Colonial Water Bird out—Island out here called Veint’un Island. And they watched that until it went away. Because it went away because of subsidence and erosion. But there’s other islands out here. Smith Point Island and the spoil islands over here and Rollover that Joe takes care of. And since he knows all the locals and the local people all know him, if there are problems or things are happening, he can talk to people and, you know, keep—keep dialogue with the local people about what’s going on. And here we’ve had an interesting project that’s—that’s happened. The—the channel out here that goes into Smith Point, Smith Point’s main industry is oystering, and they—so they have to get the oyster boats in and out. But the channel was silting up. And it needed to be dredged. Well, at first Army Corps of Engineers said they’d never dredge it again. But then the local people got together. And we got together with them and we said, you know, “Well, the channel needs to be—be dredged.” And some of them had political pull and they got—figured out how to get dollars. And—and the big plus was that they could use the dredge spoil or the dredge material to make more islands. And nowadays that’s what we really like to do. We don’t—they used to take dredge spoil and
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just put it out in the bay and it just made lots of sediment in the water. But now they—they need to use the—what they d—what they need to do is called beneficial use of the dredge spoil material. So if they can make islands with it, or they’re making marshes with some of it, then they’re enhancing the bay instead of—instead of damaging the bay. So they’re—they’re—this project was between, you know, all these agency people plus Audubon, plus the local people, that they dredged the channel and they made a bird island. So, it was a good project. And more and more we’re becoming involved in that way. Because people used to look at dredge spoil as a—as a bad thing. We know our state’s economy depends on—a lot on barging. We have to have the channels. But we have to figure out how to minimize the impact of working on the channels. So, if we can use the dredge spoil beneficially, it’s kind of one of those win-win situations. It’s like, you met Chester: he’s the Warden of Sundown Island. And that’s totally a—a dredge spoil island. I mean that’s…
DT: Chester Smith?
0:07:03 – 2063
WB: Chester Smith, yeah. And he’s always, always, you know, working on the Corps and find out when he’s going to get his dredge spoil. And—and then he needed geo-tubes to protect the dredge spoil from being taken away by erosion. So he—he’s finagled to coerce people and get money to put geo-tubes, which are like great big sausages. You fill them up with the—a geo-tube is like a sausage skin that they fill the sausage up with sand, and it makes kind of a wall. So that when the waves come they hit that instead of hitting the island. So…
DT: Can you describe some of these islands and the birds that call it home?
0:07:39 – 2063
WB: Well, the islands are all really different. If you go—Chester’s island, which is Sundown, by Port O’Connor—that—that’s the ugliest one I’ve ever seen. I mean, you can’t say this island is pretty. But thousands of birds nest up there. That’s the biggest Pelican colony in the state. That’s—he’s got lots of Spoonbills. He’s got large numbers of large Terns. He’s got lots of Great Blue Herons. And there’s a lot of birds that nest out there. Now we have islands—we have two natural islands in Galveston Bay. One of them is North Deer. That’s the last natural island left. All the other natural islands subsided or eroded away. And you know—you understand what subsidence and erosion are?
DT: Maybe you could explain the problem with both.
0:08:23 – 2063
WB: Okay, when—when they started doing petrochemical production around Galveston Bay, they drilled oil wells. And they pulled the oil up out of the ground. And then they made refineries and they pulled water up out of the ground to use in the refineries. Well, here in this part of Texas we don’t have rocks, we just have sediments. And the sediments are very fine-grained sediments. And when they pull the water or the oil out, these sediments all packed closer and closer together so that the ground sank. Out here, we had—you can see we have all this equipment around Candy Abeshire (?). There were a lot of oil wells. And they pulled a lot of oil out of here. And as they did that, the bay and the marshes started to sink. And Veint’un Island started to sink. Well as the island’s sinking, then water’s hitting places that it never hit before. And it can erode it very rapidly. Because usually, when the water hits the beach there’s all the oyster shell and everything. It’s kind of like armor, that keeps it from eroding the bottom part of islands, usually. But, if the island sinks then it’s just hitting the sand and the silt. And the islands erode very fa—very rapidly. I mean, Galveston Bay, I mean Galveston Bay holds one-third more water now than it did when the Europeans got here. One-third more water. That’s a lot of subsidence. So—so that’s had a big impact on islands. And our islands, like North Deer, is a natural island and has the same kind of native vegetation that all the islands once did. So, that’s a very pretty island. As opposed to Chester’s island, which is exceptionally productive, but not too attractive. So, every island’s different.
DT: While you were talking about islands you also mentioned some of the Wardens that have been responsible for caring for those islands. I was wondering if first, you might be able to talk about their attitudes about the islands? What makes them care about these islands?
0:10:31 – 2063
WB: Well, it’s real interesting. All of our Wardens are hunters and fishermen. And they’re people that have spent their whole life out-of-doors. And they’re people who have been in this—in the areas that they’re in, I mean, Chester grew up in Texas, has been here all his life. Bob Galloway, who’s our Warden for North Deer and—on the other side of the bay, grew up in Texas City, fished and hunted all his life. Joe Whitehead grew up right here on Smith Point, fished and hunted all his life. They really care about the resources. They care about the fish and the shrimp and the birds. And I’m sure all of them—I’m—I’m pretty sure all of them are involved because by being involved with colonial water birds you really feel like you can make a difference. You protect the islands. You get more dredge spoil and make bigger islands, you have more birds. You can see that—that there’s parts that you are protecting. As a fisherman there’s not much you can do, you know, about making sure there’s more fish. And you can go and rant and rave to Texas Parks and Wildlife. Or you can work at getting more marshes set aside or whatever. But when you’re working with colonial water birds you actually can see, you know, that you’re making a difference. And these guys get—those are their birds, you know. Those are their islands. And those are their birds. And they go and they do battle for their birds. It’s just like we were talking about Chester Smith, I mean, he goes to Army Corps meetings. And he’s constantly out there working on getting stuff for his island so his birds are in good shape. And the local Wardens are the—in—in Galveston Bay are—are the same. They’re really, you know, protective of their islands and their birds. And—and that’s what makes them such an asset because they’re a part of the community. They have a conservation ethic because they’ve seen the decline in Texas, and—and the resources, natural resources in Texas. And they—they want to see if they can’t do something.
DT: What sort of long-term changes have they told you about in Texas?
0:12:36 – 2063
WB: (talking over David) Well, when you—Bob grew up—Bob Galloway grew up on the other side of the bay that was all prairies and Prairie Chickens and—and no Tallow Trees and no subdivisions. And, of course, we know that the Prairie Chickens are pretty much gone. And a lot of the prairie’s been subdivided. All the marshes over there are pretty much gone. That side of the bay used to be all gorgeous marshes like Smith Point is. Smith Point has beautiful marshes. All those marshes are gone over there. Over here, there hasn’t been as much change as there is on the other side of the bay. Because the other side of the bay is so much more developed. On this side of the bay, the marshes are starting to erode away. And so that, of course, slows down how much fish are around, how many shrimp are around, how many crabs are around. But the marshes here are still very productive. And they’re much, much more productive than any of the marshes on the other side of the bay. So those are the kind of things that we see happening, is just the gradual, you know, destruction of the resources that the birds and the fish and the shrimp need to survive.
DT: You were talking about some of the changes that some of the existing Wardens have seen. Could you maybe tell us about the history of the Wardens that have worked for Audubon, not just in Texas but elsewhere? I hear it’s pretty colorful.
0:14:05 – 2063
WB: Well, the—the reason, you know, the reason the National Audubon Society was formed was because in the last 1800’s a lot of woman wanted feathers in their hats. They called them plumes. And the way they—they got the feathers was by killing birds during the breeding season. That’s how the feather hunters got the birds. And they killed massive numbers of birds to get feathers. They would go into rookeries and to colonies. And the birds were on nests. A lot of them had eggs. A lot of them had chicks. And they would go through and kill all the adult birds. They’d fall out of the tree and they would pick them up and take them and just leave the baby birds to die. Of course, if you’re taking the adults and you’re taking the chicks, the bird number quickly decline. And that’s what happened, was in Texas, we lost almost all of our Herons. We lost all of our Spoonbills. By the end of the century, a lot of the stuff was gone. If it wasn’t gone by then, it was gone by 1910. And, so the National Audubon Society was formed to try to—to reverse this decline. And they did their first efforts in South Florida. And they had Wardens down there in the early 1900’s. I think the earliest, one of the earliest Wardens was Guy Bradley. And Guy Bradley had been a—a plume hunter. And even after the laws were passed protecting the birds, he still did a lot of poaching. But somehow he was won over to the other side and he became an enforcer, became a Warden. And, he ultimately got killed by some of his friends because he was very committed to enforcing the laws and protecting the birds. And, I’m—I think it was another Warden killed in Florida. The first Wardens in Texas were about 1923. And there was—they found colonies of Spoonbills and Reddish Egrets in the southern part of
the state and hired Warden—a Warden down there.
DT: These are Roseate Spoonbills, not the ducks?
0:16:06 – 2063
WB: Yes. Right. Roseate Spoonbills. And then, in—in—the—in Galveston Bay, it wasn’t too long after that, that they started to have Wardens. And it was, I should have looked up the name, there was a timber baron who put up the money for the Wardens in Galveston Bay. He paid them and got them uniforms and boats and everything. Because he wanted the colonies in the bay protected. He was a real—really interested in Colonial
Water Birds so he put all the money out himself, for Audubon Wardens. And it’s gone on since then. Between Florida—mostly it’s Florida and Texas that have Wardens. And it’s made a big difference because one of the things—like the—with the Brown Pelican, they declined partly in Texas because of DDT. But a big part of the problem in Texas was fishermen. The fishermen used to destroy the nests and kill the chicks and kill the adults when they could. They viewed Pelicans as competition for the fish that they wanted. And it was only after a lot of research and—and a lot of convincing that the fishermen finally realized that they weren’t as much of a—competition as they thought they were initially.
DT: Can you describe some of the threats that you see from people towards the environment?
0:17:39 – 2063
WB: Well, the—the main thing—the main threats that you and I and—and regular people pose to the environment—well we pose a lot of different threats actually, you know, there’s the threat of development. We always have that problem with it even though we’re supposed to have no net loss of wetlands and we’re supposed to have good laws that they’re not very well enforced in Texas. In fact, it’s amazing when people come here and say, “I—I thought we had laws that prevented this.” But in Texas we’re not so good at enforcing those laws well. So complacency is one of the—the problems we have.
DT: Why do you think the laws on the books don’t get enforced?
0:18:18 – 63
WB: Well, that’s a really good question. I think maybe it’s because Texans don’t scream loud enough that they want their natural resources protected. I think partly it’s just letting our legislators know, I mean, all the polls say that the majority of Texans want their natural resources protected. But, our legislators don’t seem to be hearing that. They’re not putting the money into it they need to. And they’re not putting the effort into insisting that it gets done. So, I think that, that—that’s something we all need to do more is let our legislators know that this is a really important thing to us. The, you know, we all want—seem to want to have more things and have bigger houses and have bigger yards and all those—that kind of stuff. And, that’s one of the things we really need to fight is—because, you know, as—as we grow these super huge subdivisions that have big yards, we’re—every bit of it is little bits of habitat here and little bits of habitat there.
And we really have to make industry be accountable for the damage that they did. I mean, you know, it’s—always—we’re always going to have the problems that—that economic development and industry is going to—going to damage our resources some. But—but, they can also pay for the damages, or compensate for the damages in some
0:19:44 – 63
way. And, one of the things—the unfortunate things we have going on now is we have this thing called mitigation. So, when people damage wetlands they’re supposed to either create new wetlands, or repair wetlands somewhere else to mitigate. But, the Army Corps of Engineers who supervises this at the—doesn’t have enough funding to monitor it in the future. So, a lot of industries aren’t going all the way, or a lot of developers or a lot of people aren’t all the way to do the—the mitigation. So that we—we’re losing double. You know, we’re losing in that, we’re losing the wetlands to begin with. And then we don’t even get—they—they put some money into making more wetlands but nobody keeps up with it to make sure that it really becomes productive wetlands. So, it’s something we all need to be concerned about.
DT: Speaking of that, what do you think of the feasibility of restoring and recreating changed or destroyed habitats? Can these things be rebuilt?
0:20:50 – 2063
WB: I think some of them can and some of them can’t. They—they did this big marsh creation project at Atkinson Island because they wanted to widen and deepen the Ship Channel. And part of their mitigation for widening and deepening the Ship Channel was to make more marshes with the dredge spoil. And they made this marsh, but it doesn’t function. It grows grass. And, so we haven’t yet figured out how to make marshes. We can make a wood lot, you know, and ultimately, if we take an area like this, I mean, these trees did originally grow here, this was all—it used to be prairie. They planted trees because they wanted shade. But, we can make wood lots. We can plant trees. We can make sure there’s an understory. But, wetlands, the—redoing wetlands or creating wetlands is a—is a whole different, because there’s a lot of relationships that go on in the soil and in the plants and stuff that we really don’t understand. And we can’t recreate it very easily. And I don’t know—I don’t even know if research is being done to figure out how to do that. I mean, they know they can grow cord grass, but they can’t get the relationships going with the mussells that grow on the roots of cord grass in—in natural wetlands and natural, you know, salt marshes. So how do we figure out how to get those kind of relationships reestablished? We don’t know that.
DT: It seems like there are a lot of things, like the way a wetland is put together and functions, that we don’t thoroughly understand. Are there other natural mysteries that stump you and leave you curious? You studied migration. Do you have questions about how that works and why?
0:22:41 – 2063
WB: Well, there’s—how do—how do—how do Dragonflies put on fat to migrate? They have big—we have huge migrations of Dragonfly through here. The same species shows up in Mexico, these Green Darners(?), by the millions. We get them here by the millions. How do they do that?
There’s lots of mysteries, you know. The—just—I don’t even know how I can—where to start with that one. But, I mean, the—the, you know, one of the fascinating things is when you think about bird distribution. Now that’s a really fascinating thing. Because—‘cause almost all the neotropical migrants are families that actually originated in the tropics and after the ice ages ended and all this habitat opened up, the venturesome birds like, think about a—think about a Hummingbird, okay? In Central American there’s hundreds of kinds of Hummingbirds. In the eastern United States we have one. What happened was the Ruby Throat, as a species, was much more adventurous. So as they—they feel that as the—the glaciers pulled back, these little Hummingbirds, looking for habitat to use for breeding, moved north. Orioles, the same way. So, how did shore birds develop a migration pattern that takes them from the Arctic to the Antarctic? Where did they breed during the ice ages? I mean, there’s all these kind of questions that are…
DT: I guess, as somebody who has been trained in science and has made nature a good part of your interests, you still seem to have questions about how the natural world works. What sort of response do you get when you talk to people who propose projects who have confidence about impacts and consequences?
0:24:38 – 2063
WB: They have confidence about it?
DT: Yeah.
0:24:41 – 2063
WB: You mean, the—oh, they think they know what they’re doing? Is that what you mean?
DT: Right. And all you can say is that you’re not sure what the impact will be. But you have doubts about how benign the project will be. How do you deal with…?
0:24:58 – 63
WB: (talking over David) You do—you just do what you can and then you go on. You can only say so much. And—and as a person in a nonprofit you don’t have as much impact as a—an agency person does. And there’s a lot of misinformation out there. It’s real interesting. The things that seem like common sense to me don’t—I mean we’re going through a thing right now where Alexander Island, there are Coyotes and the birds stopped nesting on Alexander Island. And we know from other colonies that Coyotes equal no birds. I mean, birds don’t like to nest in places where their chicks are eaten. But, we’re having to go over and over and over this with these people. It’s partly some of the Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, some of the Texas Parks biologists. They say, “No, it’s—the—the—it’s not the Coyotes. There’s something else going on.” And, I mean, it’s—it’s, you can’t—they want to leave the Coyotes there, but they want to have a—a rookery there. And, you know, we say what we can, but, I mean, we’ve had to take Coyotes off of islands in Galveston Bay where the birds disappeared. You get the Coyotes off and two weeks later there are birds there nesting. Come on, this is, you know, this is reality. Birds don’t like Coyotes. But, see a lot of people don’t want to listen. They have their own—figure out their own answer. And, so you can only tell them so much and then they make mistakes. I mean, there’s nothing you can do about it. You just do what you can and go on. ‘Cause if you don’t go on, if you just, you know, it will drive you crazy. Because they’re dealing with a lot of unreality.
DT: So I guess a lot of us learn from trial and error. Are there some mistakes that stand out in your mind that we should learn from?
0:26:44 – 2063
WB: Well, I—I guess part of it is this—this mitigation thing. I don’t think you can mitigate for a lot of the wetlands loss. I think we’ve got to do protection and not mitigation. And people don’t want to listen to that. And the fact that, why should someone be allowed to buy wetlands and then fill it and say they’ll make wetlands over there? Why didn’t they buy over there where there weren’t wetlands to begin with, and not have that problems? There was a judge in Florida, quite a few years ago, that—that decided that a land owner couldn’t do the project he wanted to on his—on the property he had purchased. He told the guy, he said, “If you’ve bought marsh, you must have wanted marsh. You shouldn’t expect to change it.” And it seems so logical, you know, that if you want to build something you should buy a piece of land that you can actually built that on, instead of buying a piece of land that is wetlands habitat and expect to change it. But we don’t see it that way where it often, you know, the—the powers that be don’t see it that way very often.
DT: How do you account for the differences between people who appreciate nature and our normal and integral role in it, and those who don’t? It seems like it’s common sense to you, but for others, it’s not apparent.
0:28:26 – 2063
WB: I—well, you know, we can try to educate those people, but some of them are beyond education. There’s a lot of those people I don’t know that we can do much of anything about. It—I’m sure you come across people that—that they like to go duck hunting, but they don’t see why we should be protecting wetlands. You know, you think, “Wait a minute, if you like to go duck hunting, then why don’t you think wetlands are important?” They don’t ever put that together, that we need the wetlands for the ducks. Or the fishermen that in—in this state there’s a lot of fishermen that don’t advocate for protecting coastal wetlands. They think that stocking Redfish will produce all the fish they need. But—the—where the Redfish—if you put the Redfish in the water, if there’s not habitat there for the Redfish to live in, you don’t have Redfish. You know, so they—even if they can make Redfish in a Redfish farm, we still have to have habitat in places for them to be caught in. But, so why don’t those groups—the fish—why don’t the fishermen push for habitat protection? They don’t. They don’t. So it’s really, you know, it’s that—how do you get those points across to people? Some people are too dense to ever learn it. Some people find the light, you know, goes on. And they understand and they get involved. People like Chester Smith, who, you know, as a fisherman, was real concerned about the quality of the marshes. And he’s now concerned about it for both the fish and his birds, which, for some fishermen, and for some users of the environment, the hunters and stuff, that light never goes on that they have to get involved in habitat protection if they want to continue their sport.
DT: Speaking of continuing things and looking towards the future, what do you think are future challenges and opportunities are for environmental protection?
0:30:22 – 2063
WB: Well, one of the things that’s exciting in Texas that—growing up in Florida and seeing Florida decline and that to get Florida back to being so that the natural resources are in good shape is going to be a very expensive, very hard project. They may never be able to get the Everglades to being back to being what it was. They probably can’t, because there’s too many invasive exotics in there, not only plants but also fish. But, Texas is in pretty good shape. And Texans like the out-of-doors. So, there’s a lot of potential in Texas to protect good habitat and to have good natural resources for the future. And those of us who care about natural resources have got to start screaming louder. Because our representatives aren’t hearing us. And bits and pieces of Texas are disappearing fast and furious. And good habitat’s going away. And, I think the majority of Texans like to use the out—like to be in the out-of-doors. And—and they need places to go to. It’s just like, why does Texas Parks not buy more parks? They buy no land. And, yet there’s more and more Texans every day. I mean, this is an important thing that we have to let the government know, that we want land protected. We want places to go. And we want to be able to fish and hunt and look at birds. So, and the thing is that we still have the resources that we can protect. They’re not gone yet. And so many states, when you talk to people, and I talk to other environmentalists, and here I’m working on the Bolivar Flats project that’s, you know, hundreds and hundreds of wetlands—acres of wetlands, and this gal said, “But I’m working on a quarter of an acre. And that’s all there is in our area.” You know, so we have the resources. We just have to protect them.
DT: Speaking of resources and special places, can you tell us about an actual spot that’s special for you, that you enjoy visiting?
0:32:36 – 2063
WB: Well, I think, probably at this point at—you know, every day your special spots change. I don’t know if they do for you, but they do for me, or wherever you’re living. But, my special spot’s got to be Bolivar Flats. Bolivar Flats is just so productive, and so fascinating, and so constantly full of birds, and so ever changing. And, you know, there’s not any time that you go down there that there’s not a lot of exciting things going on, in—with bird life, but also, you know, you go down there sometimes and—and you learn—it—it made me learn a lot of things about Texas, because I love shore birds to begin with. So when we first moved here, I went to Bolivar Flats a lot. And the—as an example, one time I went down and there were just thousands, hundreds of thousands of little, tiny clam shells. They hadn’t been there a couple weeks before. And I thought, “Oh darn. Somebody dumped some pollutant somewhere and all these clams died.” And I found out that there’s this little, tiny clam that—that floats around in big populations. And Rays follow it around. It’s a—it’s a food source for this one kind of, like a Stingray thing. And so then there’s this periodic die-off when these populations of these things get
0:33:51 – 63
too high. And one time I went down there and there’s—looked liked there were all these Hermit Crab bodies everywhere. And I thought, “Gee…”, you know, the same thing, you always think, right away, pollution, something’s in there. And, but it turns out most Hermit Crabs molt about the same time. So they just all shed their skins and left them around. So, it’s—Bolivar Flats is a really nifty place because there’s all kinds of things going on. And there’s so many birds.
DT: Speaking of birds, I’ve heard that some birders like to characterize themselves as a particular kind of bird. I don’t know if they’re talking about reincarnation or what. But they think that they’re most like a certain kind of bird. Is there a species of bird that you feel especially fond of?
0:34:40 – 2063
WB: I’m fond of a lot of species but I don’t liken myself to any particular species of bird. But I know what you mean. I have a friend whose—whose nickname if Roadrunner, ‘cause he’s always in his car running around looking for birds, so… But, no, I’ve never gotten into that.
DT: Well, let’s talk about species a little closer to our own. You mentioned earlier that you had children. What sort of message do you give them about the future they have and what you’d encourage them to do?
0:35:13 – 2063
WB: (talking over David) I try—I try not to be too depressing. Because I feel like, if we don’t make some major changes we—the things that we love the most are going to go downhill. And I try not to get that message across to my kids too much, because it’s, you know, if—if you think it’s depressing, then you don’t get out and do anything about it. But—but, I do—I have always talked to them about protecting the things that we care about. And my older kids were real intense birders for a long while. And they still—they don’t bird, per se, but they still see things. And they’re still—and they’re concerned about habitat protection. And my younger son, who lives with us here in Texas—my older kids stayed in New England when we moved here—well, he sees me in the middle of it every day. So, he’s—he’s well aware of what’s going on. So, he—he’s—he’s gotten the message.
DT: And do you have a general message for anyone who may see this tape or read this transcript?
0:36:16 – 2063
WB: Well, just the fact that, I mean, here in T—world-wide, it’s pretty challenging thing to do conservation. But in Texas we have so much really neat stuff left, so many systems that work well, that it’s really important to protect it. Because Texas is a pretty special place, and it’s got a lot of natural resources that we all enjoy. That’s the main thing I think. And we’re only going to do it through partnerships and through being reasonable. Ranting and raving doesn’t always work.
DT: Well thanks for partnering with us and…
DW: How do you count—I know downstairs it said, “Counted yesterday: 782 something or other.” How do you know you’re not counting the same one twice, especially if they’re all going around and stuff like that?
0:37:04 – 2063
WB: Well that’s—when you—when you’re down here for a while, you get a feeling for how the birds move. And, so what happens is—is you have a—a kettle of broad-wings that comes down here, and you’ve got a hundred of them, right? And they come over the tower and they go that way. Well, if you have a kettle of broad-wings that comes back this way and it’s a hundred birds, you don’t count them. Because you know, after being down here, that a lot of times what they do is go back and forth and back and forth. But, if you have a hundred go this way, and you have a hundred and fifty come back, what you’ll do is figure they picked up fifty birds down there. So you add fifty. So, I think some of his kettles yesterday were like three hundred and some odd birds. A lot of days the accipiters, the little hawks, come this way. And that’s just the way the wind takes them. And then, as the winds change, you’ll start getting birds filtering back this way. Well, you don’t count them when they come back this way. You assume, and it may not be true, but you have to set li—parameters, you assume that these are the same birds that are coming back that went. But, if a Swallow Tail Kite comes this way and you never had one go that way, count this Swallow Tail Kite coming this way. So that’s the way you, I mean, the—If you double-count anything, there’s probably other things that you didn’t count that kind of make up for it. And if you use the same strategy the whole time, then hopefully you have consistent records. Does that make sense?
DT: Yeah. While you’re talking about doing these bird counts, how do you persuade people to come and do this? I understand most of them are volunteers.
0:38:42 – 2063
WB: Well, we have volunteers. We have a paid person, who’s Kyle, professional hawk watcher, and a volunteer here every day, or try to anyway. And the way you’re persuade—you don’t have to persuade them. There are people who are interested in doing it. With volunteers, if you have to persuade a volunteer to come do something, they won’t be a volunteer for very long.
DT: You don’t have to draft them?
0:39:03 – 2063
WB: No, No. You just ask. You just ask for help.
DT: And what do you think it means to them?
0:90:13 – 2063
WB: Well, I—I think it’s different things to each individual. But, a lot of them enj—just enjoy seeing what’s happening. I know, what I like, if I say I’m going to be here and Friday’s the day I count, I have to come. Well, you can’t do anything else, you got to go. That means I get to spend every Friday watching migration. And out here it’s not only the hawks, which are very interesting and—and very neat, it’s the Swallows. We have hundreds of thousands of Swallows. It’s the Dragonflies. It’s the—all the other little birds that you see go by. It’s the fact that you get to see flocks of Snipe. And who ever thought—I didn’t know S—Snipe came in flocks. You know, it’s all the things you learn just by observing. And you know that you learn a lot more by observing than you do by picking up a book and reading about migration. You know, the—might have slept through the pa—the paragraph that talks about flocks of Snipe. But, when you see the flocks of Snipe go over, it—it imprints in your brain and you understand better what’s going on. So it’s just exciting. I think it’s exciting to be involved with watching migration go on. And probably each individual volunteer gets different things out of it. But I was never a hawk watcher, per se. I was—I mean, some hawk watchers—people that are involved in hawk watches only look at hawks. They don’t look at anything else. They don’t care about anything else. They care about hawks. But, gee, it’s—you know, we had one day where we had two thousand Gnatcatchers in four hours. I—that—two thousand Gnatcatchers is a lot of Gnatcatchers. You know Gnatcatchers don’t you? So, it’s the…
DT: When the hawks are going over, the other raptors, do you ever see them chasing and hunting?
0:41:59 – 2063
WB: (talking over David) Oh yes. Oh yes.
DT: Can you talk about that?
0:41:02 – 2063
WB: Yeah. We’ve had—well, you—you see the—some of the birds have more of an attitude—what—was what we say, than other birds. It’s like, Peregrines. Sometimes we get Peregrines that will dive at everybody and anybody. And, you know, they come down and hit other birds. Or, there’s little altercations in the sky. And—and, like some days Merlins will come through and they catch other birds and eat them. They’ll catch Swallows and sit on a fence post and eat a Swallow, or—or whatever. The Kestrels catch come through and they—and the Mississippi Kites and they’re catching the Dragonflies that are migrating through. And they feel, a lot of the raptor biologists, that the Dragonfly migration coincides, in this part of the world, with the hawk migration. And that they developed—they evolved together. So that for things like Mississippi Kites and some of the smaller hawks, that they have a food source the whole time they’re migrating. Big things like—like broad-wings—broad-wing hawks, their whole evolution of a method of—of migrating that uses very little energy, they can do that. Because, on the breeding grounds they fatten up and they get tremendous layers of fat. A lot of them don’t eat from the time they leave the breeding grounds ‘till they get to northern South America. They don’t eat at all. But they can do that, because they use the thermals. They do a lot of—of soaring and they don’t use energy. If you don’t use energy you don’t have to eat, if you’re a hawk. You know, you and I can not use energy and still want to have dinner, but…
DT: Speaking of dinner and eating…
DT: Do you ever see Pelicans fishing out here in the bay?
0:42:47 – 2063
WB: (talking over David) Oh yeah. Yes.
DT: What does that look like?
0:42:51 – 2063
WB: The Brown Pelicans, they fish right—last week we had lots of schools of fish right out here and they come around—there’s a—they spend the night over here on Hannah’s Reef, about a thousand of them. And then they come over this way, ‘cause the schools of fish have been over this way. And you get them all diving in. We don’t get the long dives like they get in Florida. We just get short dives. I think that’s because our water’s not clear. But, often we have the Pelicans feeding out here. And the—you know Frigate birds, the—that—the man—the magnificent Frigate birds, they—the trout were here feeding one day and knocking small fish up. And you know, Frigate birds can’t dive into the water. They either eat flying fish, or things that jump out of the water, or mostly they pirate from other birds. They make them throw up whatever they ate. But the Frigate birds were out here picking the little fish that were—the big trout were scaring up out of the water. So, you get to see, as I said, lots of other things besides just getting to see hawks migrate. The—one day there were a bunch of dolphins out here and one of them was playing catch with a flounder. They take and knock a flounder out of the air and then jump up and catch it. And then they’d knock the flounder up out of—into the air again and catch it. So, I mean, I—I—I like being out-of-doors and just watching what—what happens. And this is an excellent place to do that. We won’t mention where this is because we don’t want everybody to come down here and watch.
DT: We’ve enjoyed sharing this very special, secret place with you and thanks for spending the time.
0:44:26 – 2063
WB: Oh. You’re welcome.
End tape 2063
End of interview with Winnie Burkett