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Texas Trailblazers

East Texas Lovebirds


He’s everyone’s favorite bird guy, with two decades as resident ornithologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. She protects iconic Texas landscapes for the Conservation Fund and just won a Terry Hershey Award.

Married 22 years, Cliff and Julie Shackelford are a conservation power couple in a peaceful small town in East Texas.

“We kept hearing about each other,” the two recall about their love-before-first-sight relationship. “Hey, I know this fantastic young lady you need to meet. And, hey, I know this really cool guy you should meet.”

So, when their paths crossed on the steps of his Nacogdoches office building, bolstered by the urging of friends and family, they looked at each other and thought, “Well, there you are.”

The first date, a personal “owl prowl,” sealed the deal. They sat together on a bridge in the dark; Cliff pulled out the wine and cheese.

“When I called in a barred owl and put a spotlight on it, it was magical,” Cliff recalls, with a smile that says he still feels it. “It was really nice; we could have sat there a long time.”

Julie’s eyes sparkle at the memory as well.

“I was pretty impressed! It was adorable,” she says.

He followed it up with morning birding dates with thoughtful breakfast goodies. Who could resist?

“We both had the foundation of loving the outdoors in common; I think that was critical,” Cliff says.

Small-town life with two kids now keeps them focused on spending family time together rather than commuting; vacations lead to wildlife paradises instead of theme parks.

Cliff and Julie are able to collaborate, not compete, in their professions. She edits his magazine articles; he provides bird data on land she’s trying to save.

“The circles aren’t identical; they just overlap in such a way that we can talk shop and help each other out,” Cliff says. “It’s very fun.”

For all the fun and companionship, these two are serious about their work. Cliff talks about the need for large amounts of private funds. Then Julie leans in.

“There needs to be a philosophical shift in how people think about the natural world and what it contributes to our quality of life,” she says. “It’s not a luxury, it’s an essential. How many more times can we split the resource? It’s so fragmented already. We’re going to start losing things we love.”

Cliff laughs and looks at her admiringly, again.

“Her answer’s better than mine.”

 Earl Nottingham | TPWD

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