For Shanae Dana, Mitchell Lake isn’t simply a body of water or even a nationally recognized bird sanctuary. It’s a “little slice of heaven.” 

After a promotion last year, Dana is one of the key employees running Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, a 600-acre bird paradise on San Antonio’s South Side. Having lived her entire life within a five-minute drive of the center, Dana has come to appreciate all that makes that part of town special, even with its challenges and the historical lack of investment in its neighborhoods.

“I think everyone kind of thinks the South Side is dirty and doesn’t have much to offer,” Dana said. “But I think what people don’t realize is that we really do have a lot to offer because we are a mixing pot of different people, different cultures, different religions, and I feel like we all come together with one sole purpose of making the South Side better.”

That passion drives her work at Mitchell Lake, itself an example of making an asset out of an eyesore – or, more accurately, a nose-sore. Before the advent of modern wastewater treatment, the wetlands were for generations a dumping ground for the sewage sludge generated by a growing San Antonio. 

Since sludge dumping ceased in 1987, the San Antonio Water System, which owns the site, has worked to improve the water quality and clean up contamination. SAWS leases the property to the National Audubon Society, which has worked with the utility to turn the wetlands into a birding hotspot. Birders from all over the world stop by on their tours of South Texas. 

While Mitchell Lake is well-known to birdwatchers, it’s often overlooked by local families, something Dana would like to see change. Despite growing up in the neighborhood, she had never heard of Mitchell Lake until she took a field trip there in high school. She started working at the center in 2018 as an intern while getting her undergraduate degree in psychology at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. 

“When I started here, I knew nothing about birds,” Dana said. “Not one thing.”

Fast-forward a year and a half, and Dana can identify many bird species, even without binoculars. Asked about a species of duck dabbling around one of the ponds, she was quick to identify it as a northern shoveler

Her two favorite birds are known for their bright pops of color. One is the Audubon’s oriole, a black-headed, yellow-bodied songbird. Although its typical habitat includes the Rio Grande Valley, Dana recently snapped a photo of seven frolicking in a birdbath at Michell Lake. Another favorite is the painted bunting, whose males are draped in hues of yellow, purple, blue, and green. 

“What I like about birding so much is when someone reports a rare bird and you spend all that time looking for it, and then you finally see it,” Dana said. “That satisfaction is the best feeling in the world.” 

A birdwatcher scans his surroundings at Mitchell Lake. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Dana started at the center as an educator, teaching elementary through high school students about nature and now manages its educational programs. As part of Mitchell Lake’s programming, students learn to pull tiny bugs and crustaceans from the wetlands and use them to assess the quality of the water. They learn about how birds’ beaks evolved to crack seeds, snag insects, or catch fish, allowing them to fill different ecological niches. 

Dana’s own environmental consciousness extends to global issues such as climate change and the extinction crisis. She pointed to a recent Audubon report that states that two-thirds of bird species in the U.S. are threatened with extinction from climate change. 

In addition to her educational role, Dana is responsible for handling many of the day-to-day tasks needed to keep the center running. At that level, it’s easier to make a tangible difference in improving the world around her.

When lizards chew through wires near the center’s headquarters and set off the security system, she gets the call. She coordinates with a hog trapper whose job it is to remove the feral pigs that dig up the property and cause erosion. If a piece of equipment breaks, she’ll work with SAWS to fix it.

“She’s completely focused and organized, and I admire that about her,” said John Powers, a SAWS superintendent who works with the center’s staff on Mitchell Lake.

Dana also is concerned about people dumping trash and littering around Mitchell Lake, where bottles, bags, and cans pile up. Sometimes, people jump the fence to dispose of trash in the center’s bins. They’ll often mix trash with recycling, leading to extra fees from the center’s waste hauler. That’s why, when Dana drives the center’s van past a new, high wooden fence built around the bins, she gets excited about it. 

Dana drives to her favorite spot to sit at the lake. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Her duties add up to heap of responsibility for a 25-year-old, but Dana feels supported by the center’s director, Sara Beesley, whom she considers a role model.

“She is always willing to put in the effort to help me, and I’m so grateful,” Dana said. 

Dana is one of three full-time staff at the center, along with two part-time employees and a rotating set of interns from Texas A&M-San Antonio and Alamo Colleges. When Mitchell Lake’s staff members joined other National Audubon Society employees from around Texas at a recent retreat, the mostly Latina contingent stood out in a group that was predominantly white, Dana said. 

However, she praised Audubon as a whole for its efforts to examine its own diversity, or lack thereof. 

“Audubon is working on being very diverse in every aspect, not just race,” Dana said. “I think that’s great that they know that this is something that needs to be worked on. … We’re trying to figure out why is it predominantly white people, and why are the executives predominately male?” 

Overall, she hopes her work at the center can help the people who live nearby appreciate the wild spaces in their own backyards. She can’t imagine doing anything else. 

“It’s never felt like a job,” Dana said. “It’s always felt like I just come hang out with my friends and we make this place great.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.