Since Karl Haller began
volunteering at Hagerman
National Wildlife Refuge in Texas,
seven refuge managers have come and
gone. Cedar and locust have invaded
refuge fields, and Dallas has crept
toward the refuge boundary, changing
bucolic to metropolitan. Only Haller
hasnt changedas sure a presence as
the snow geese that fill the refuge every
winter and the songbirds that return
At 97, Haller is still conducting refuge
bird surveys, as hes been doing every
week for 50 years. On Thursdays, he
drives a group of ladies along the same
23mile birdwatching route.
If youre interested in birds or wildlife,
you just have to keep up with it, he says.
You can have a good time out here.
In the process, you can also build a
scientific database thats invaluable for
understanding bird trends in a time of
drought and climate change, says refuge
manager Kathy Whaley.
Thanks to Haller, the refuge knows
spring migration of neotropical
songbirds, shorebirds and waders
begins weeks earlier than it used to. Will
insects that the birds eat keep pace?
No one knows. Haller also has helped
document species never before seen
at the refuge. Last spring, we had a
greentailed towhee herethe first time
ones ever been recorded in the county,
says Whaley. We think the drought
farther west pushed the bird here
looking for food.
Whaley praises Hallers passion for
nature and his social engagement. Most
people I know at age 97 are not out at
a national wildlife refuge birding, she
says. Theyre doing the best they can
to just make it day to day. Karl is active,
engaged, conversational, pleasant to be
around. I admire him very much.
Born in 1916 in Wheeling, WV, Haller
developed an early interest in birds.
When I was eight years old, I heard
somebody say something about a bird
feeder. I found an old box, put it on a
post in my backyard, filled it with a little
bit of scratchyou know, chicken feed
and started getting lots of birds. He
experimented with other feed. I heard
some guy talk about a nuthatch. I didnt
have the slightest idea what it was.
Then I learned. I would take little bits
of English walnut. The birds would pick
them up, carry them to the ground, and
break them up.
He credits the Brooks Bird Club in
Wheeling, where he became a charter
member in 1932, with giving him his
real start in birding. In the late 30s/
early 40s, he received a bachelors
degree in biology and a masters
in zoology, discovered the Suttons
warbler in West Virginia, and collected
natural history museum specimens on
an expedition to Canadas James Bay
region. He served in the Air Force
during World War II before joining the
biology department at Austin College
in Sherman, TX, where he taught field
ornithology and bird taxidermy, and
served as a lab coordinator.
Haller began leading birding trips at
Hagerman Refuge in 1963, compiling
Christmas Bird Counts and mentoring
dozens of budding ornithologists. In 1995
he was the National Wildlife Refuge
Associations Volunteer of the Year.
This spring the refuge honored Haller
for his service. I was never more
surprised in my life, he says of the
small ceremony at which he received
a plaque and friends praised his
knowledge and graciousness.
Ruth Sonnenburg, who birded with
Haller for 20 years, starting in the
1960s, recalls his patience with
beginners. If we saw something, Karl
never said, Oh no. You couldnt have
seen that. He never put us down ... He
was a great teacher and a great person
... and still is.
Susan Morse is a writereditor
in the Refuge System Branch of