Spring is a busy time for migrating birds and Audubon Texas. Hundreds of people flock to Audubon's nature centers in the state to spot the first Painted Buntings of the season. School children visit in groups of sixty or more a day to learn more about birds and nature as the center educators inspire the next generation of biologists and conservationists.

This year, the Texas centers were preparing for another eventful spring and summer—then, the pandemic hit.

In mid-March, Audubon centers throughout the nation closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, rendering them unable to continue in-person programs. Some centers in Texas like the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center were able to keep their trails open for a short time; others, like the Trinity River Audubon Center had to close down completely.

Not knowing when they would return to in-person programming, center staff worked to connect with the public online. Yvette Stewart, Audubon Texas’ community outreach coordinator, recounts how they all felt about this sudden change.

“To lose an entire season of that (in-person interaction) was kind of devastating for a lot of us,” says Stewart. “But then, pretty quickly after that, we switched into high gear and started planning.”

The preparation involved numerous messages through staff chat channels, weekly calls, and with all the centers and Audubon Texas. From virtual field trips to virtual encounters with animals, each of the centers made sure their plans included engaging online content for all ages. 

Pre-pandemic Marcus Cole, seen here at Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center in 2016, would be teaching students face-to-face. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

Trinity River Audubon Center in Dallas focused its efforts on reaching thousands of children who attended their academic program, Eco Investigations. Jacob Poinsett, the center’s academic programs manager, and Trinity River staff launched a pilot program of a virtual field trip filled with learning opportunities via Zoom breakout sessions and nature worksheets. Poinsett says the children were more than happy to engage with birds in a new (and virtual) way.

Thirty miles west, Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center took this time to shine the spotlight on their resident animals—their salamander, turtles, snakes, and birds of prey that live at the center. Staff leaned heavily on social media platforms to reach the public and post on Facebook to share fun facts about these ‘celebrity’ animals. One particular bird caught the eyes of social media: the center’s resident American Kestrel. Julie Collins, the center’s director, was happily surprised by his fame from videos and photos of him.

“He seems to just really touch on people’s favoritism around birds and different species,” says Collins. “It’s amazing to me that this one simple bird is liked around the world.”

And in San Antonio, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center pivoted from their physical workshops to offering webinars for the public. The staff focused on topics that were fitting to people’s interests, including birding by ear, growing native plants, and birding for beginners. Angel Poe, the center’s education specialist, spearheaded these programs and discovered a new online audience to complement the center’s faithful members.

“We’ve been able to reach hundreds of more people that we weren’t able to reach before with these programs, so that’s been extremely exciting,” says Poe. “We’ve had people come from Spain, all over the country, and even people that moved away from San Antonio to reconnect with our center.”

These webinars were also a chance for all of the Texas centers to collaborate, as they hosted a series of virtual events together.

Though center staff eagerly anticipate reopening to the public, the steps they took to connect with their communities while they were closed will be an integral component of their work going forward. They hope to complement their in-person programs with webinars and Facebook Live, especially for those who still cannot make it out to the physical grounds. And with new dedicated audiences that found the centers' programming from online engagement come new opportunities for continued engagement with birds and other animals to even more people than ever before. 

For updates on the centers' re-opening plans, please visit their respective websites  Trinity River Audubon Center, Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center, and Mitchell Lake Audubon Center.

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