On April 22 (Earth Day, a super-holiday for conservationists), I had the chance to travel east to the Caddo Lakes region of Texas – nearly Louisiana – and meet up with some of the Texas Master Naturalists in the Cypress Basin Chapter. Their event – the 5th Annual Flotilla held in Uncertain, TX – raises money for their conservation efforts within the lake region, and consists of charity food sales, a silent auction, a scavenger hunt, and a chance to explore their work in maintaining the paddling trails in the lake and bayous surrounding it. I got to paddle around some of the extensive trails through the magical forest, try some local mayhaw jelly, and brought home a gorgeous coneflower grown by a member and sold at the auction for $7 – a bargain for a healthy, 5-gallon plant grown with Master Naturalist love and care.
On Wednesday night, CAMN member and recent Master’s degree recipient, Beth Crouchet, presented her research at our monthly public meeting. She outlined her methods of collecting field data over two years from 64 sites spread across Texas, focusing eventually on mostly Central Texas and o 9 tree species, including live oak (Quercus fusiformis), yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei), Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana), and others. Beth was interested in discovering some answers to what specific site factors affected trees when they encountered the intense Texas drought in 2011. Some of those site conditions include soil type, soil depth, slope, aspect, exposure, and site-specific weather data.
In her research, Beth defined some basics, such as what actually constitutes a dead tree – how much of the crown must be dead? Does a re-sprouted tree count? And how recently can it have died? With extensive data mining derived from her data set, Beth was able to demonstrate that certain species, for example ashe juniper, showed more likelihood to die back during extended hot drought – periods not only of little precipitation, but ongoing high temperatures. While this was an expected outcome, her data revealed a few interesting conclusions. Some species, including yaupon holly, showed a striking ability to thrive over extended hot drought conditions, while others were not as noticeably impacted.
In some ways, Beth’s talk and her research opened many questions, inviting audience members to wonder what trees might fare better in intentional landscape conditions, or what ongoing drought might mean for future forest species diversity.
While the work outlined in the talk covered a somewhat specific look into tree mortality – Beth purposefully stayed away from aggravating factors linked to insects, fire, lightning, etc. – a parallel view of her presentation might reveal the process behind field research and deriving meaning. Not just the glimpse of what kills trees, but the work it takes to turn a big question into answers. One gets a sense of the painstaking work… the parameters to be defined, second-guessed, re-defined, the amount of time spent in hiking boots on Texas hillsides and plains, the statistical analyses done late at night while the kids sleep, the singular devotion to following something to a conclusion at the expense of many of life’s other demands and desires.
Coincidentally, it turns out, Beth’s not the only one looking at similar factors. The day after the meeting, NPR posted a story about the canopy-swinging biologists – and their drones – researching how certain giant sequoias are surviving California’s hot drought. Read more about it here.
Grass seed collecting at an Austin Water Water Quality Protection Land preserve yielded a nice collection of Silver Bluestem, Tridens, and Sideoats Gamma. Eleven volunteers, with some representing the Capital Area and Hays County Master Naturalists chapters, worked two hours on a sunny mid-day. Volunteers are trained to collect ripe seed from native forbs and grasses. The seed is cleaned, stored and eventually used to replant areas nearby that have been managed with prescribed fire.
Using seed collected close to where it will be replanted not only helps ensure optimal conditions for its regrowth, but saves quite a bit of money, too. Devin Grobert, a City of Austin biologist who oversees the seed collection efforts, estimated the worth of volunteer-collected seed from these workdays at over a thousand dollars, while noting some had limited or no commercial availability.
Some people think I, as president, do nothing in CAMN but send emails and run some meetings. Today I offer a spot of proof to prove otherwise. I was photographed in the wild at a work session on Austin Water/Wildland Conservation Division’s Vireo Preserve at the completion of one of the last steps of finishing our rainwater collection system. This remote-canyon roof structure will help free volunteers from having to haul water a quarter-mile each week over narrow trails to a staging area known as “Terry Town” (after longtime Wildland volunteer, Terry Southwell—also from the CAMN class of 2013.) The water is used, mostly by Terry, to help get newly-planted native forbs, grasses and shrubs established. While the property does feature a spring that runs most of the year, volunteers take great pains to avoid disturbing its natural flow and the plants and wildlife that have become established around them.
Today we completed the pads for the pair of 150-gallon tanks, and attached gutters to the roof. The last remaining step in the all-volunteer construction project will involve running PVC pipes from the downspout to the first tank, adding overflows, and attaching spigots. Then, the process can be turned over to the whims of Central Texas weather. The roof, at 128 square feet, will collect enough water to fill the two tanks after 4 inches of rain.
And, if you’re interested in some of the fun projects Wildland Conservation and Austin Water dream up to help protect critical habitat for endangered species, and the water quality of our local segment of the Edwards Aquifer, please see http://austintexas.gov/department/wildland-conservation-division Members of the public can sign up for guided hikes on protected preserves, or volunteer to help in a wide array of conservation efforts, from public outreach to land stewardship.
The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) may not be a species endemic to Central Texas, but there is no disputing the powerhouse role they play in pollinating our native flora and our agricultural crops. It’s no wonder seeing them in action is quite fascinating to many naturalists, be they curious adults or schoolchildren. As such, the Austin Nature and Science Center has long kept a demonstration hive just inside its main building where visitors can see the inner workings through its plexiglass walls.
(Adapted from our internal newsletter for members.)
CAMN is an incredibly diverse group, with not only a lot of moving organizational parts, but dedicated people who take on many tasks to help run our business. Some of them serve on the board. But many without recognized titles quietly help with organizational tasks like reviewing applications, coordinating classes, and setting up or taking down our meetings and events. While much of this is not the field work or natural interpretation work we love – because who loves a good meeting more than a hike in the woods?? – the work should nonetheless fulfill a personal sense of mission and pride at whatever level we choose to engage. And because no one—not me, not the board, not another member—commands anyone else to do anything, we each serve doing what we can as best we can. When we have exquisite successes, we sometimes may only get modest outside recognition. When we don’t always follow through with certain tasks, we should never beat ourselves up too much. This is first-and-foremost a labor of love and not something we’re chained to.
On one particular 209-acre preserve in West Austin – one that abuts the well-known Wild Basin Preserve – a City of Austin biologist, Jim O’Donnell, has been leading almost-weekly volunteer work groups to restore natural areas that had been historically mismanaged by clear-cutting and scorching fires that damaged the soils.
Jim has been following the principles laid out in Paul Stamet’s work Mycelium Running to rebuild the mycorrhizal networks that are increasingly understood to be the backbone not only of healthy ecosystems, but of plant communication and survival, as well. Through application of compost, compost tea, sheet mulching, berms and swales, and mass plantings of seedings of native forb, grass, shrub and tree species, the preserve has undergone a remarkable transformation in a relatively short period of time. Volunteers – many of them CAMN or other Texas Master Naturalist members – haul water for the newly-placed plants, help build restoration trails, and will shortly begin constructing a rainwater collection system to aid in getting water down into the canyons. One of the more intriguing experiments at the preserve has shown some vibrant results. The logs taken from cut invasive ligustrum trees were drilled and inoculated with the spores of the turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor). Placed in the woods along the restoration trails, these logs have sprouted some of the colorful fruiting bodies of these fungi.
If you spend any time reading about mycelial networks, and then wander through a healthy forest, it can be a little mind-boggling to imagine the vast and complex interchanges between plants that are taking place right below your feet, aided by fungal networks. Much of this wasn’t even known until about 20 years ago, and even now, we’re only beginning to understand the magnitude of these networks and their impact on ecosystems. If you’re wanting to get a good glimpse into some of the science, there are many resources available – from books to TED Talks to articles in popular journals. One of the most accessible, however, might be from the science-reporting superheroes at Radiolab. Catch their podcast From Tree to Shining Tree… good for an inspiring morning run or commute.
Want to be a Texas Master Naturalist in the Austin area? Capital Area Master Naturalist (CAMN) volunteers learn from experts in the natural sciences – including Texas Parks and Wildlife natural resource scientists, City of Austin hydrologists, University of Texas mammalogists, and NOAA meteorologists – about the unique characteristics of the Central Texas ecoregion and how to give back to their community through public outreach and the stewardship of our natural surroundings. Crawl through caves, sample river water quality, hike preserves restored by prescribed fire, learn plant identification, or document your findings through photography and journaling… all while sharing with a like-minded group who often go on to become life-long friends.
Applications for the Capital Area Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalist program open August 1, 2016 for the orientation and training classes that begin in November. Our 2017 class will run on ten selected Saturdays through April, 2017. Successful trainees give back to their community by completing at least 48 hours of volunteer service and continuing education each year to receive their certification as a Texas Master Naturalist.
To learn more, or to apply after August 1, visit CAMN on the web at camn.org. No previous experience is required other than a passion to learn and a commitment to volunteering.
CAMN is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, and is a chapter of the Texas Master Naturalist program, a partnership of Texas Parks and Wildlife and Texas A&M Agrilife Extension. Our mission is to develop a corps of well-informed volunteers to provide education, outreach, and service dedicated to the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within their communities. Since our foundation in 1998, we have trained nearly 600 volunteers who have provided around 120,000 hours of service in the Austin area.
Sharlene Leurig, Director, Texas Environmental Flows, brought a compelling story of Texas water to our Monthly Meeting last night, documented beautifully in the multimedia project, Our Desired Future. The rich photography, deep fact-based writing, familiar locations, original charts and graphs, animations, and movies tell the story of our water from deep underground to its life at the surface. Stories of use, overuse, demise, compromise, regulation, new ideas, conservation, and human impact at all levels make this a must-explore site, and a fount (pardon the pun!) of knowledge for any Texan concerned about our most critical resource.