Bird Lady of Corpus Christi
Longtime columnist Phyllis Yochem carries on newspaper’s birding legacy.
By Tom Harvey
“Phyllis, guess what I saw? A white-faced ibis in the city!”
Phyllis Yochem turns an eager smile up to the young woman standing before her. Brooke Zimmerman is an energetic home-schooling mom of two, and Yochem beams as Zimmerman tells how she saw the long-billed wading bird not far from her home near Oso Bay.
Zimmerman is one of many people who approach the “bird lady” of Corpus Christi on this late April morning in Blucher Park, a 3.65-acre island of jungly trees and elegant old homes near the city’s downtown.
Yochem is a matriarch of the local birding community, with good reason. Since August 1990, she has written more than 1,100 weekly birding columns for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, making her the longest-running birding newspaper columnist still working in Texas.
“I haven’t missed but two weeks in 23 years,” she says. “Christmas is bird count week — can’t skip that.”
Why does she do it?
“It’s for the birds. That’s what Kay always used to say.”
Phyllis Yochem has been watching and writing about birds for decades
You see, Yochem is by no means the only long-running birding news columnist in our state, nor is she the longest running ever. Since 1999, Gary Clark has written about birds for the Houston Chronicle. Jessie Maye Smith was known as “The Bird Lady of Tarrant County,” with a Fort Worth Star-Telegram birding column that started in 1953 and ran for 22 years. Yochem has them both beat at 23 years and counting. But she has not come close to her mentor, the woman whose mantle she inherited, Kay McCracken.
Karen “Kay” McCracken (1905–92) was one of Texas’ most avid birders. Before Yochem, she wrote the Bird Notes column for the Caller-Times for more than 30 years, ending in 1990. Her more than 1,000 columns were eventually compiled into a book called Birding South Texas, which featured a cover photo shot by Yochem.
“Kay just wore out finally and wasn’t able to write it anymore,” Yochem says. “When I applied, I knew Ed and Janet Harte and they knew me, so they helped me get on. And Kay recommended me, which was kind.”
Indeed, the conservation legacy of the Harte family explains why Corpus has a heritage of wildlife journalism, which continues today with Yochem and the work of Outdoor Editor David Sikes. In 2011, the New York Times reported the passing of Edward H. Harte, “a prominent Texas newspaper executive and an ardent conservationist who played an important role in preserving vast tracts of open space and stretches of seashore in his state.” Ed was a son of Houston Harte, who partnered with Bernard Hanks in 1923 to form what became Harte-Hanks Communications. By 1972, the chain included 19 newspapers, including the Corpus paper.
Yochem graduated from college in 1947 with a degree in cultural anthropology and later joined the Harte-Hanks publishing group. She loved birding, and when McCracken stepped down, she stepped up.
“When I started, it was fun; I loved it. It was already getting to be more than little old ladies in tennis shoes to be a birder. It was getting to be in style to be a birder.”
What’s kept her going all these years?
“I really like birds. They’re interesting. They’re active. And we have a lot of them here. We have several seasons, birds that migrate through and shorebirds and land birds. And the people are nice. Birders are lovely people.”
On this particular April morning in Blucher Park, there are plenty of both: birds and people. And the show is phenomenal. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my Corpus trip had landed me smack in the middle of a record “fallout,” which occurs when birds migrating across the Gulf of Mexico encounter a north wind blowing against them and “fall out” of the sky, exhausted, to refuel on the Texas coast.
Two days earlier, we would later learn, a Cornell University team doing a Big Day in Texas broke the North American record for the most bird species seen in a single day — they identified 294 species in 24 hours.
But that morning we just knew we were seeing a delightful variety of colorful birds, many of them migrants seen only when passing through: a painted bunting, the bird that got me started birding, with all the colors of the rainbow, and five catbirds — count ’em, five — all in one bush at the same time.
“I like catbirds,” Yochem says, then points elsewhere. “There goes the Chuck-will’s-widow.” We (actually they, the good birders) had been hearing this bird for some time. They also see a brown thrasher, and I get up to spot it, a brownish bird with striated speckles and stripes, hopping along the ground. The thrasher’s name is believed to come from the sound it makes digging through leaves and debris for food, or from the sound it makes while smashing insects to eat.
I go back and sit with Yochem and her daughter Madalyn, who took her mother’s arm and helped her walk Blucher’s paths this misty dawn morning. Yochem has settled into a camp chair under the trees. Also along is my dad, DeWitt Harvey, a longtime hunter and birder who introduced me to the outdoors and helped me see that those two pursuits are by no means incompatible.
Another of Yochem’s many old friends, Frank Bachman, sidles up. They hear a great kiskadee, sparking talk about the many changes they’ve seen over the decades.
“There are kiskadees all over town now,” Yochem says, referring to a bird historically confined to the Rio Grande Valley.
“Who would have thought it,” Bachman responds, shaking his head with a smile. Then his mobile phone quacks like a duck (his son-in-law downloaded a bird call ringtone), and he turns away to take the call.
We see a yellow-breasted chat. Like the bunting, it’s a migrant seen here only in spring and fall. The hot birding doesn’t stop at Blucher Park. Later that day at my parents’ home nearby, we saw scores of rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings around their feeders. To my surprise, I saw a Baltimore oriole muscle a swarm of hummingbirds out of the way and stick its big bill into a hole in the feeder to drink nectar. The Texas fallout of April 2013 was truly a spectacle.
In his May 6 outdoor column the next week, Sikes wrote: “Longtime birder Mel Cooksey, author of A Birder’s Guide to the Texas Coast, said this is the most dramatic migration event in the Coastal Bend since at least the mid-1990s.”
In her column on the same day, Yochem wrote: “I am so excited I can barely write. For almost a week, since the little norther blew in, bringing with it (at my house) 4 inches of rain, we have had an old-fashioned fallout of migrating birds. People have called from all over the area.”
And they will continue to call the “bird lady” of Corpus Christi, old friends and excited young birder fledglings, reporting odd sightings and news of the wild, as long as Phyllis Yochem keeps writing.