Connie Hagar’s work lives on today as birdwatchers continue to flock to the local area.
Who was Connie Hagar?
By Hannah Hawes and Vickie Moon Merchant
Friends of the History Center for Aransas County
If you live in Rockport - or for that matter, the Coastal Bend - you have heard of Connie Hagar, often referred to as “The Bird Lady” or seen “The Connie Hagar Bird Sanctuary” sign in Little Bay, and wondered who was this woman.
A self-taught ornithologist, Hagar should be credited as the catalyst for Rockport’s birding acclaim. Long before the HummerBird Celebration, Connie Hagar documented Rockport’s diverse avifauna. Word spread about the tiny Texan lady, who claimed to have documented the diversity of nongame birds previously unheard of in the Rockport area as well as migratory patterns of birds. Hagar’s seemingly exaggerated observations attracted many doubting ornithologists, including Dr. Harry Oberholser.
However, upon arrival and discussing her observations, the “experts” soon realized Hagar’s sightings were, in fact, correct. Thus began Connie’s celebrated Rockport birding career. In 1956, Life Magazine called to ask if they might include her in a feature segment on famous amateur naturalists. A photograph of Hagar, taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt, noted photographer, was included in the Sept. 10, 1956 edition.
This is the Connie Hagar most of know, but other facts about her life are also intriguing. Martha Conger Neblett, also known as “The Bird Lady of Texas,” was born June 14, 1886, into the Corsicana “aristocracy” as the daughter of Robert Scott and Mattie Yeater Neblett.
Bob Neblett was mayor of Corsicana during Connie’s youth and later became a judge. At an early age, Connie was fascinated by the natural sciences much to the chagrin of her genteel mother, who wanted Connie to learn to embroidery and accomplish other skills young women were expected to do. Yet, her father encouraged her to explore her interests and seek an education. He would often take his daughter on excursions around the yard securely perched on his back. It was during one of these expeditions Connie spotted what would forever be her favorite bird. Bathing in one of the birdbaths was, as Bob described, “the scissortail.” It is the Texas Bird of Paradise. He introduced her to other birds including, “the Texas mockingbird, the greatest singer in the world,” “the mourning dove, [who] gets its name from its sad call,” and “the blue jay, [who] is a cocky fellow. Some people do not like his thieving, arrogant ways, but he wears a handsome coat” (McKracken, p. 7). While these early experiences instilled an interest in bird watching, Connie did not seriously pursue this pastime until 1935.
As an accomplished student, the youthful Connie was defined by her love of music. While attending Forest Park College in St. Louis, MO, she earned a degree in voice and piano. Her musical talents continued to shine during her time in Rockport where she was known to sing and play frequently. She also was well versed in literature and poetry and was known to recite snippets of poems and prose on the spot.
To all who met the small spark of a woman, she inspired awe. It’s little wonder her legacy endures through the continued support of birding in this area. Birders from all over the world will attend the HummerBird Celebration, held in Rockport to observe the hummingbirds that migrate through the area every September. Connie discovered this pattern years before the first HummerBird Celebration. Her dedication to the art of birdwatching led to the addition of over twenty species to Texas’ avifauna list and the discovery of numerous migratory patterns previously unobserved.
Connie Hagar deserves to be remembered as more than just a name or a name on a sign posted in Little Bay. Learn more about Hagar at the History Center for Aransas County, 801 E. Cedar St., at the exhibit, “Connie Hagar: The First Lady of Texas Birders,” which runs Aug. 22, through Oct. 31, 2015. The Center is open Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. The History Center is a venue of Aransas Pathways. For more information: www.aransashistorycenter.org.