First Lady of Texas Birders
Connie Hagar pioneered scientific observation in ‘birdy’ Rockport.
By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers
In her time, amateur ornithologist Connie Hagar — the “Bird Lady of Rockport” — fielded hundreds of questions about her work in the field. Known for her patience, the tiny wisp of a woman never grew tired of one oft-repeated query: “Why bird-watch?”
“Ye have eyes and see not,” she’d eloquently quote. Then Hagar — always impeccably dressed in a skirt and coordinating jewelry — would continue. “Looking on beauty brings tranquility, and knowing precisely what you see demands discipline, utmost concentration and determination.”
Case in point: The late Ed Syers, a columnist for the Victoria Advocate, would just as soon call any black bird he saw a crow. Or maybe a raven. Who cared? Then he met Hagar while on a mission in February 1964 to view his first whooping cranes.
“I want to know the first bird you positively identify,” she told him. Oh, Syers promised, he’d bring her his “whole list” that evening. Easy! Then off he drove to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, confidently armed with binoculars and a field guide.
However, the dizzying array of birds soon overwhelmed him.
“For the first time, wings have intricate marks: bars, bands, splashes, fringes,” Syers lamented in his column. “You’re not sure of gull or tern now or whether that distant one is hawk or owl.”
Some time after dark, he trudged back to Hagar with only one positive ID — a great blue heron. Frustrations aside, though, the day converted Syers into a bird lover.
Connie Hagar devoted her attention to the birds of Rockport.
Her own passion for birds and nature blossomed early for Hagar, born Martha Conger Neblett in 1886 in Corsicana. By age 6, she could point out mockingbirds, bluejays, scissortails and mourning doves to her father on afternoon strolls through the family’s large yard. Reared as genteel ladies, Connie and her younger sister Bert sang, played the piano, recited poetry and studied the constellations.
Rare for the era, she attended a women’s college in St. Louis and earned a diploma in voice. Subsequently, she turned down several professional singing jobs because “ladies did not sing commercially.” Instead, she married a childhood sweetheart who’d joined the Navy.
The marriage lasted 14 years. His love for the sea came first. At 35, she boarded a train and returned to Corsicana to care for her invalid mother. At the station, loaded down with her few belongings, she set out after dark for home. In front of a cafe, an older, handsome stranger offered to help. For five years, Jack Hagar, an oilman from Boston, wooed the divorcee. On April 2, 1926, the couple married.
In the meantime, Connie and Bert studied and kept lists of the birds, butterflies, wildflowers, shrubs and trees of Navarro County. On nice days, Jack drove Connie around the countryside so she could bird-watch. In 1923, the sisters organized the Nature Club. With enthusiasm, they banded birds as volunteers for the U.S. Biological Survey. Once, brother Robert photographed his sisters — outfitted in boots and baggy jeans — banding Carolina chickadees. Upon seeing the snapshots, Connie never wore trousers again.
In January 1928, she penned the first entry in what would become a long series of Nature Calendars. The 35-plus years of journals — recorded in pocket-sized appointment books — noted bird sightings and behavior, migration patterns, population numbers and other nature-related information. For years, ornithologists would mine her treasure trove of notations.
Two wildlife preserves were established in Hagar's honor in Rockport.
While in their 40s, Connie and Bert suffered from painful arthritis. Saltwater baths would help, their doctor advised. So in July 1933, the sisters vacationed at a Rockport tourist court. Enthralled with the shorebirds, Hagar learned more than a dozen new species. The siblings returned often to the coast, always staying at the Rockport Cottages on Church Street.
“I would like to live in Rockport,” she told her husband one day. “I want to study birds.”
Jack, though not a birder, agreed. To keep him busy, the couple purchased the eight-unit Rockport Cottages and moved in January 1935. From then on, Connie studied the resident and migratory birds of Aransas County and beyond. Save for lunch breaks with Jack, she spent her days patrolling shorelines, fishing piers, bay fronts, oak groves and unfenced pastures. Her remarkable memory recorded behaviors, distinguishing marks and nest construction of the countless birds she observed: horned larks, Inca doves, red-winged blackbirds, black-chinned hummingbirds, least terns, black skimmers and more.
“I don’t feel that I know a bird until I know it in any plumage and the way it acts,” she said. “I cannot understand how some people are satisfied to have a bird pointed out to them, then just put it down on a list and go away without studying it.”
Hagar’s published articles and migration reports soon drew the attention of Harry Oberholser, a research biologist compiling a massive book on Texas birds. His skepticism of her accounts rankled Hagar, but she continued to send him reports. In August 1937, the orthnithologist stayed at the cottages and grilled Hagar to exhaustion. After two days, Oberholser left, satisfied that her birding skills and records were indeed reliable.
The next week, Edgar Kincaid Jr. — who later edited Oberholser’s two-volume The Bird Life of Texas — arrived to learn about the shorebirds. In the coming years, he would return, as would many elite birders and naturalists of the time, including Roy Bedichek and Roger Tory Peterson. Often doubtful at first, the pros always left in awe of Hagar’s astounding mastery of the birds.
So well did she know them, in fact, that visitors could specify a species, and Hagar would guide them to their quarry.
“Your knowing where to go has saved me many hours of searching,” one grateful photographer told her. Even when her sight began to fail, Hagar could still identify birds by their flight and behavior.
In 1962, Jack, 86, died of a massive stroke. Thereafter, Connie kept up her daily birding rounds until her final two years when health issues got in the way. On Nov. 24, 1973, Rockport’s “first lady of ornithology in Texas” and “world champion bird watcher” died in a nursing home at the age of 87.
Hagar was “the kind of birder that contributes the most to man’s knowledge of birds” with her year-in-year-out studies, a columnist wrote in a January 1974 issue of the Victoria Advocate. “Her pioneer studies on the Texas coast added at least 25 new species to the state list.”
No doubt, Connie Hagar added so immeasurably to the avian field that her accomplishments can only be lightly highlighted. She discovered nine hummingbird species that migrated through Rockport. Three times in 1952, she observed an Eskimo curlew, a shorebird species then thought (and now feared) to be extinct. She and birder Clarence Brown broke the Big Day record with 204 species in April 1953.
Today in Rockport, members of the Friends of Connie Hagar Inc. tend two nature preserves in her honor. In 1943, the state Legislature designated Little Bay as the Connie Hagar Wildlife Sanctuary. At the six-acre Connie Hagar Cottage Sanctuary (site of the long-gone Hagar resort), a birding trail winds through oak mottes, wetlands and coastal prairies.
Thanks to Hagar, bird watchers from nearly every state and from around the world visited Rockport to see birds. One was naturalist/author Edwin Teale, who once told Hagar, “The beauty of Rockport is that here you have enough birds.”
Her swift reply: “Are there ever enough birds?”