As a young man in the early 1970s, Michael Francis traveled from Dallas with his father to visit his grandmother, who lived on the lake in Brownwood. One day, a colorful bird flew into the window of the lake house and toppled to the ground, unconscious.
Michael's father, Ken Francis, scooped the bird up into his hands, surprised at the vibrant red and blue hues of the bird's feathers. He never realized that such colorful creatures lived in Texas skies. The bird regained consciousness and flew away, leaving the Francis family wondering what kind of bird they'd just seen.
A short time later, Michael's mother purchased, from a church bazaar, an old field guide with that same beautiful bird right on the cover. The family used it to identify the bird that had flown into the window as a painted bunting.
Ken Francis took a trip to Kmart and picked up a pair of binoculars, and since Michael did everything his father did, he became a birder, too. Forty years later, the two are still birding together.
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These days, Michael Francis organizes birding field trips for the Fort Worth Audubon Society. About once a week, the society sponsors free bird-watching events.
One of FWAS trips is led by Fort Worth schoolteacher Jean Ferguson. The first Saturday of each month, Ferguson leads a birding trip in Fort Worth's Foster Park. She brings extra binoculars for anyone who might need them. And she makes it a point to bring birding into her third-grade classroom at Westcliff Elementary School, too.
Ferguson keeps two birdfeeders outside her classroom window, and when a bird comes by, students can observe their behavior and look them up on www.allaboutbirds.org.
As a special treat, students in Ferguson's classroom join her outside during lunch, while Ferguson points out hawks and cranes.
"Kids can learn to love the outdoors through birding. They are the hope for wildlife," said Ferguson.
Some might think of bird-watching as an activity catering to an older demographic, but it is an excellent activity to enjoy with children, birders say.
"Kids are fascinated with birds. They 'get nature,'" Francis said. "When you get them out of their urban environment, they might act bored at first, but then they start seeing things and experiencing things, and get into it quickly."
Cameron Carver, a contract biologist from Arlington who is now president of the Llano Estacado Audubon Society in Lubbock, likens bird-watching to a sort of scavenger hunt, or a real-life version of "Where's Waldo?"
Cooler temperatures and fall migration make autumn an excellent time for nature-lovers of any age to look for birds.
"Birders usually get excited for spring migration, but fall migration is just as good," Carver said. This is because birds that breed in the North, like ducks and warblers, migrate back to non-breeding ranges this time of year.
What to look for
One of the showiest birds visible this time of year is the scissor-tailed flycatcher. This striking bird is mostly gray with a salmon-pink underbelly, and it is identified by its long tail, which resembles an open pair of scissors during flight.
Wilson's warblers are another species to be on the lookout for this fall.
"These are little yellowish warblers. The male has a black cap on its head like a 'high and tight' haircut," Carver said. He also notes that song and Lincoln's sparrows are good birds to look for at River Legacy Parks in Arlington this time of year.
Francis recommends keeping an eye out for the majestic great blue heron. This bird's expansive wingspan can be seen year-round, often near water.
Vicki Moor of Azle spotted another favorite bird. "We were at Eagle Mountain Lake, and we saw a big dark bird in the tree. We weren't sure what it was, but it turned its head and we saw the bright white head of a bald eagle."
While some hardcore "twitchers" will drop everything to go and chase down a rare bird, even if it was last sighted hundreds of miles away, others are perfectly satisfied watching cardinals and jays enjoying a backyard feeder. Whether it's the thrill of the ID or an escape from the daily grind, birding offers something for just about anyone, birders say.
"For me, I like to be outdoors. It's not the birds -- it's where they take me," Francis said. "We've found beautiful places we'd never known about otherwise."
Birding sometimes takes Francis and his wife to less savory locales. Sometimes, they visit drying beds from a solid wastewater treatment plant to get a good look at shorebirds.
"Birders can end up just about anywhere," he said.
A great way to start birding is to join an experienced birder, who can point out species and offer helpful hints. However, all you really need is a sense of adventure and a little patience.
"Birding can by done by anyone, just about anywhere, at any time," Ferguson said.
It has been 40 years since that painted bunting flew into the window of Michael Francis' grandmother's house. Ken Francis is now 76 years old and living in Farmers Branch, but father and son still make a point to get together for birding several times a year. Sometimes they go on a big trip to a birding destination. More often, they hear a rare bird alert, and if it's a good enough bird, they'll take a road trip together to try and find it.
For families with small kids, birding offers an opportunity to bond and be together without being distracted by electronics and the incessant business of modern life. Parents may be surprised when their children start identifying birds more quickly than they can.
"It can be a source of pride for kids," said Carver.
Carver grew up attending classes at River Legacy and going birding with his family, a tradition they continue today. After birding, the family catches up with each other and winds down after a busy day.
"Just getting outside and looking for birds can be all you need to have fun -- the red flash of a northern cardinal or the wonderful chatter of a wren," said Carver.
He suggests carrying a digital camera to capture images of birds, then posting the photos on social networks where people can help with the ID.
"Most of all," he said, "have fun."