America’s foremost bird watcher Victor Emanuel, BA ’62, recalls when his love of wildlife first took flight.
Few lands have gone unseen by Victor Emanuel. Though the 76-year-old naturalist and bird expert says he rarely left Texas the first 30 years of his life, that all changed when he started Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) in 1976. Since then, he has traveled to every continent and takes around 10 trips a year to exotic locations where the ecosystem is rich with wildlife and bird watching possibilities, like Madagascar and Peru. With a yearning to document a career chock-full of birding adventures, Emanuel enlisted the help of Austin-based author S. Kirk Walsh to write One More Warbler: A Life with Birds. In anticipation of the book’s release in May from UT Press, Emanuel told the Alcalde what it is about birds that makes him sing.
Alcalde: You started venturing outside your Houston home regularly as an 8-year-old. What first piqued your interests in nature?
Victor Emanuel: Many people who get interested in nature do so because a relative or a teacher is interested. But it just came out of my being, my soul. From very early on, I was interested in whatever was alive, whether it was a flower, an insect, a bird, a turtle, or a snake.
What’s the most beautiful bird you’ve seen?
Hands down, the splendid quetzal. It is the sacred bird of the Maya. It is the bird whose feathers from its lower back were used by Montezuma in his magnificent headdress. I’ve probably seen quetzals 30 or 40 times and every time it’s like the first time. If you’re lucky, you’ll see one flying across a clearing in the morning with its effervescent tail, several feet long, undulating behind it, and its bright red breast, calling as it flies across the clearing. The color is this beautiful green painted with iridescent gold and if the light changes, all of a sudden the bird is blue. It’s unbelievable.
You write “There’s something about warblers—the way they move, the lightness and intensity of life that they embody.” Why did you focus on this bird?
My good friend suggested it because it captured my personality. The chapter titled “My True Obsession” captures the intensity I feel about nature, but particularly about warblers. I’m always wanting to see more each time I go out. I love the richness and the intensity of life that all animals have, whether a deer or a bird, but warblers more than any seem to exhibit that intensity.
What’s one of the greatest lengths you’ve gone to see a bird?
On an island in New Zealand, there’s the largest type of sea lion in the world. This small group and I were there there to look for a flightless duck, the Auckland Island teal. On the way, this sea lion came out of the water and came charging after us—after me. I was backing away but there was a rock behind me and I stumbled and almost fell. But one of the other bird experts had diverted the attention to him. All of us started running. We got across the water, but the sea lion kept coming. We went into the forest, the sea lion followed us. We kept going and the sea lion kept coming. We would stop and breathe thinking it was gone, but then there it came like a creature from the black lagoon. It wouldn’t stop until finally we had gone far enough. It was absolutely terrifying.
Do you ever get bored on long bird watches?
That to me is impossible. There’s always something to see and always something to enjoy. You notice things you haven’t noticed before. Just the other day I was leading a bird walk in Travis Heights and one of the people pointed out a spider web I hadn’t noticed. I looked at it with my binoculars and a slice of the web was iridescent. The sun was hitting it from behind and the spider web became a rainbow. There’s always more beauty if you’re open to it.
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