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June 2009 cover image loblolly pines at Sam Rayburn

A Birder Like No Other

Victor Emanuel’s passion for learning (and teaching) has helped inspire thousands of lifelong birders.

By Carol Flake Chapman

Birders often refer to each other as the particular birds they’ve become identified with over the years. So if you were a legendary birder, perhaps the world’s best-known birder, you might expect a nom de plume, so to speak, that suggests a noble, rare or exotic bird. Golden eagle, perhaps. Or, say, the resplendent quetzal, a famous dazzler. But Victor Emanuel, who doesn’t really want to declare a favorite bird, says that he doesn’t mind his moniker as the hooded warbler. If you’re not a birder, or if you haven’t met Victor Emanuel, you might not understand the subtle mystique of a small yellow bird sporting bold black markings that suggest a feathered balaclava.

Emanuel has led birding groups in remote and exotic places on every continent, including Antarctica. But he has a soft spot for the hooded warbler, he says, because it reminds him of his childhood in Houston, when he was just a kid in love with nature, scouting around his neighborhood near Hermann Park, looking for any kind of wildlife to spy on, including crawfish and snakes. Emanuel, who now runs the world’s largest and best-known birding-tour company, got his start as a professional naturalist with a collection of snakes he collected from around the neighborhood and charged curious friends a nickel to view. Early on, he combined an entrepreneurial spirit with a deep and fearless appreciation for the wild.

Emanuel also had an ability early on to infect others with his enthusiasm and convince them to tag along on his adventures. He was only 16 when he started the now-famous Freeport Christmas bird count on the advice of a mentor. A born organizer, Emanuel convinced nine other people to join him on the count in 1956.

“I kept building it every year,” he recalls, “and in 1971, all the conditions were right.” The Freeport Count set the new all-time record that year for the number of species counted in the 24-hour period allotted for the Christmas counts: 226. The Freeport Count remained at or near the top of the Christmas counts for the next few decades.

However, it was a single species he spotted back in 1959 that had already begun to build Emanuel’s reputation as a star birder. Two friends and fellow members of the Texas Ornithological Society sighted a bird on Galveston Island that astounded them because they thought it might be a species that was thought to be extinct: the Eskimo curlew. Like the passenger pigeon, this once plentiful shore bird had been decimated by illegal hunting back in the 1800s and hadn’t recovered.

“It was like discovering an ivory-billed woodpecker,” another legendary species thought to be extinct, recalls Emanuel, who observed the bird at different spots on Galveston that spring and wrote about its behavior and markings, to the astonishment of the birding world.

In 1972, writer George Plimpton joined Emanuel on the Freeport Christmas Count and wrote about it for Audubon magazine. “I am in awe of Emanuel,” recounted Plimpton. “Just a flash of wing, or the mildest of sounds, and he has himself an identification.” It was the first time a “birding activity” had been written about in a national magazine with a substantial circulation, says Emanuel. Plimpton had enjoyed himself so much that he became a lifelong birder and joined Emanuel on tours when he put together his birding tour company, now called VENT, or Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, operating out of his living room.

Victor Emanuel

Emanuel convinced Plimpton’s friend Peter Matthiessen, the award-winning writer, to co-lead a tour with him in South Texas. This was just after Matthiessen’s book The Snow Leopard, about tracking the elusive big cat in Nepal, had been published, and Emanuel asked Matthiessen to read from the book to the birding group. “It was a memorable experience,” Emanuel recalls, “with everyone crowded into a room in a little hotel in Mission, listening to Peter set the stage” for that extraordinary adventure.

Matthiessen, too, became a dedicated birder, and he and Emanuel have been close friends ever since. “We’ve birded on every continent,” says Matthiessen, “and it has been a real addition to my life.” When he first met Emanuel, he says, he found the intensity of his interest in birds to be “almost eccentric.” But that “intense passion,” he says, is highly infectious. Accounts of birding trips with Emanuel have appeared in several of Matthiessen’s books, including his account of two trips to Antarctica with Emanuel in End of the Earth.

“I call him the Zen master of birds,” says Matthiessen. “He’s a wonderful teacher, and he has converted a lot of people to birding.” Says Matthiessen, every time Emanuel sees a bird, it’s as though it’s the very first time. Even if the bird is a common backyard bird like the cardinal, when Emanuel sees it, it becomes special. “It’s that cardinal on that day at that moment.”

Emanuel has a particular fondness, in fact, for beginning birders, he says, because they “appreciate every bird.” One of his proudest accomplishments has been the establishment of summer camps for young birders. Over the years, those camps have produced a network of naturalists around the country, including researchers and teachers as well as tour leaders who are now working with Emanuel at VENT.

“Think how many people have never seen a warbler,” says Emanuel. “Or seen how the drops of water in a spiderweb act as a prism. Or noticed the color and shape of clouds.” It’s important, he says, for kids to find a connection to the natural world. “People interested in birds and nature,” he says, “get grounded — in the way that native people were aware of what was around them.”

Cullen Hanks, who now works in the wildlife diversity program at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, with a special focus on endangered species, attended several of Emanuel’s youth birding camps. He had welcomed finding a group of teens who were as interested in nature as he was, and discovering that birding wasn’t limited to an older demographic.

“When you’re a teenager, it’s a time when your peer group might not be that supportive,” he says ruefully, “and they might look at you like a freak if you say you’re a birder.” Hanks still goes birding with friends from those camps, he says, and he’s always encountering a fellow camper who is now engaged in research in ornithology. “Victor has been a pioneer in birding,” he says. “It’s amazing how many people’s lives have been affected by Victor’s enthusiasm for birds and his ability to share that passion with other people.”

Peter English, who teaches the biology of birds at the University of Texas at Austin, was a counselor at one of Emanuel’s first birding camps. It’s no surprise, he says, that he wound up studying bird flocks in Ecuador for his Ph.D. and that he is now teaching students at UT how to birdwatch. He still invites Emanuel along on the first birding sessions for his classes.

“Victor knows so much,” he says, “and he’s good at showing you what he knows.” But just as important, he says, are the efforts Emanuel has made in international conservation. Emanuel serves on the boards of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the Texas Audubon Society, as well as the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History, and his company donates a percentage of profits for conservation. “You’d be amazed how many places around the world have benefited from Victor’s gifts,” says English.

In 2004, Emanuel received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association and the Arthur A. Allen Award from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. In awarding the prize from Cornell, lab director John Fitzpatrick lauded Emanuel’s “enormous and varied” contributions to the world of birds.

“He has introduced the beauty, mystery and importance of birds to tens of thousands of people by providing access to and knowledge of some of the world’s most important and threatened avifauna, in places such as the Galapagos Islands, the rainforests of Central and South America, and richly diverse habitats of the African continent,” said Fitzpatrick. “Moreover, his company has consistently led the way in engaging scientifically trained individuals as tour leaders.”

Victor Emanuel “revolutionized the industry,” says Peter English. “He’s very responsible for what birding has become.” It’s all about the birds, says English, but it’s also about the people who get hooked on the birds. He recalls leading tours with Emanuel in South Texas well before the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail was established. In fact, he says, that trail is basically a VENT tour from those early days.

“Even then, people would recognize Victor, and we’d have 25 cars behind us, going wherever we went.” And undoubtedly, as long as Emanuel is looking for birds, he will always have someone following him, eager to see just what he sees — a certain way of fluttering, a certain streak of color, a sound like no other. And they might even catch a glimpse of that elusive hooded warbler, flying on to yet another perch.

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