If you’ve visited any of the High Island Sanctuaries or Bolivar Flats in the past year, you may have run across our Coastal Sanctuaries Conservation Specialist, Wyatt Egelhoff. Wyatt started working for Houston Audubon as a Conservation Technician in December 2021 and then transitioned to doing beach-nesting bird stewardship in March 2022. He was hired as a full-time member of the Houston Audubon team in August 2022. His day-to-day tasks range from species monitoring, habitat restoration, visitor services, and educational outreach. Prior to Houston Audubon, Wyatt found work monitoring arctic-breeding shorebirds in both Alaska and Chukotka, surveying grassland birds in the breeding and non-breeding season throughout the Southern Great Plains, and as an agronomist at a premier golf course in the desert southwest. A birder from a young age, Wyatt is always excited to share timely bird sightings and expertise with visitors to our Coastal Sanctuaries!
For those who haven’t yet met Wyatt (and those who have), he answered a few questions to get to know him better.
1. What is your favorite aspect of your career?
All the eclectic places I’ve been able to travel to and call home! Getting to see birds and experience places I otherwise may not have been able to visit (or at the very least, visit for as long as I did) has always been one of my favorite aspects of working as a field biologist. Travel and remote fieldwork often means enduring a lot of “type 2” fun, but in hindsight those jobs and trips have always been the most memorable.
2. What’s the most interesting thing you can see out your office window?
Living and working in High Island has allowed me to study migration on the Gulf Coast in a way I never thought I’d have a chance to. There is nothing quite like stepping out onto the front porch after dark during the spring and hearing a cacophony of chip notes as unseen nocturnal migrants pass overhead. Even during the summer doldrums there’s interesting things to find. So far, the coolest bird I’ve observed from my desk was a singing Yellow-green Vireo in July 2022.
3. What’s your favorite mammal?
For me, any day I get to see a Nine-banded Armadillo is a pretty good day. I find them unique, endearing, and can sympathize with their near-sightedness. I’ve enjoyed visiting with a particularly friendly Armadillo that likes to root along the levee trail at Smith Oaks.
4. What’s the longest you’ve gone without sleep (and why)?
I believe the longest I’ve been continuously awake has been 42 hours while twitching a Common Scoter in Lincoln City, OR in Nov. 2016 and then separately when twitching a Ross’s Gull in Half Moon Bay, CA in Jan. 2017. I departed the latter site just an hour before the gull was predated by an infamous duo of Peregrine Falcons. Honorable mentions in the 40-hour range would be my twitches for Collared Plover (Aug. 2015 Hargill, TX), Amazon Kingfisher (TX) & Snow Bunting (NM) (Dec. 2017), Green-breasted Mango (Dec. 2018 McAllen, TX; dipped), and Red-flanked Bluetail (Jan. 2019 Los Angeles, CA). Ironically, I was never one to pull all-nighters in college, but I do have a weird enjoyment in driving through the night and finding myself in a different place/habitat come sunrise.
5. Who is your favorite author?
In the realm of non-fiction, it would have to be David Qaummen. The Song of the Dodo is probably my favorite book of all-time, and was a major influence on my decision to pursue bird monitoring and conservation a career rather than sticking with birding as a hobby. As for fiction, the authors I come back to the most are Michael Crichton and Tony Hillerman. Hillerman’s depictions of the places and landscapes where I grew-up in Northern New Mexico really encapsulate what I love most about the natural beauty of the Land of Enchantment.
6. If you had to describe yourself as an animal, which one would it be?
My family has likened me to a Burrowing Owl. I’m not sure if I deserve the connotations of wisdom that comparison suggests, but it’s certainly something to aspire to! Despite my willingness to drive all night, I’m not much of a nocturnal person and tend to be somewhat solitary aside for close family/friends. I’m also evidently known for being “calm, complicated, a strong internal compass, and having a brown-and-gray clothing color palette,” so I guess it’s a good match!
7. Where is your happy place?
Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. I’m completely enamored with shorebirds, and Bolivar Flats is one of the best places to be among them. Watching the dynamics of 20-25 shorebird species interacting with one another, hearing their contact calls, and the chaotic energy of thousands of individuals foraging, loafing, and moving about on the landscape is hard to beat. Seeing the mixing of the long-distance, medium, and short-distance migrants all in the same space is pretty cool. There are few places where you can experience the pleasant musty aroma of several thousand American Avocets as they forage in the surf like you can at Bolivar Flats.
8. Where is the coolest place you’ve gotten to travel for work?
I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have spent a summer field season working in the village of Meinypil’gyno, Chukotka, RU in 2019. This remote field site in the Russian Far East has the largest known population of breeding Spoon-billed Sandpipers in the world (20-23 pairs). Holding a Spoonie was the most surreal experience of my life, and I can only hope that the valiant work of that project and my international colleagues ensures the species doesn’t go extinct in my lifetime. Finding the first Chukotka records of Middendorf’s Grasshopper-Warbler and Great Black-backed Gull, plus vagrant Ivory Gull and Spotted Redshank (among other East Asian goodies) were definite highlights of a stellar field season.
9. What’s the scariest situation you’ve found yourself in?
That’s a toss-up between having a funnel-cloud develop overhead while surveying for breeding grassland birds in the Texas panhandle (Cottle County), and having a surprise Polar Bear pop up fifty yards away from me near the Utqiagvik (Barrow) landfill while nest-searching for shorebirds. The bear was particularly unexpected as they don’t typically wander onto the tundra in the summer. Fortunately, it was well-fed and far more interested in scraps of seal meat than me.
10. Which 4 individuals (alive or dead) would you want to share dinner with?
I’d love to get George Carlin, Raymond Manzarek, and Ted Parker III in a room together with my good friend Roger Clark for a few hours. All three were visionaries in their respective fields and it’d be a treat to gather all that madness in a single room and get caught up in it.
Be sure to say hello to Wyatt next time you’re at one of Houston Audubon’s coastal sanctuaries!