Category Archives: Field Notes

Lake Fail

Cars cruise in the sky from 183 to Mopac then brakes squeal as commuters try to make the turn for hamburgers. A train roars, its cargo creaking angrily as it disturbs a flock of red-winged blackbirds. A kestrel alights on a telephone wire with a mouse and begins to eat. The nearby pigeons look nervous. Gadwalls quack nervously. There’s a northern harrier lurking nearby, no cause for alarm but certainly says something about the neighborhood. A coot, seeing two humans armed with fishing poles makes for the middle of the pond. Err, lake. The big puddle I’m looking at through my binoculars at the northeast corner of 183 and Mopac is a lake. Lake Fail it’s called on ebird, and it’s my new favorite place to bird in Austin.

I can’t say what made this place come to be, but I am thankful it exists. There are no sidewalks around it save one at its end, but as I clutch my binoculars trying to spot the ruby crown of a kinglet, I realize that the concrete I stand upon was far more likely poured for the convenience of big mechanical earth movers that might need to dredge this place or bulldoze the impressive mass of vegetation at Lake Fail’s southern end. Another square of concrete on the east side of the pond gives us a pretty good view of the area. I have no idea this one concrete’s purpose, but use it to keep clear of fire ants as my friends count gadwalls and I scribble notes.

Lake Fail is a natural place hidden in plain sight. Seen by millions, known only by a select few: the couple fishing, a man grinning shirtless who waves at us, probably happy to see our binoculars point somewhere besides his torso. My wife Raquel and my good friend Tam are here as well, lured here because of promise of a canvasback. Personally I was hoping to see marsh wren that refused to come out into the open last time.

I can’t say who was more out of place in this forgotten pond, the birders, the sunbather, the fishermen, the ducks, but we all came here for more or less the same reason. We came seeking nature, be it the kiss of the sunshine, the nibble of a fish, or the song of bird. Often we plan these wild trips to Bastrop state park, The Guadalupe Mountains, The Grand Canton! But it’s not always that practical, especially with a three month old son. And besides, everyone knows birds can survive in those places, they’re out in nature after all. For me, there’s something special about the surprise of these forgotten places tucked in the corners of the urban sprawl. I relish the least grebes that live in the pond at the triangle, the yellow shafted northern flicker at Laguna Gloria, the ridiculous number of species at Hornsby Bend. I find these creature’s existence despite the rampant urbanization, resilient, brave, arrogant even. They’re here for the same reason I am, all those ‘natural’ places are just too far. More convenient to make do here in the city, in a backyard, a drainage ditch, a swath of forest that’s not worth developing. This is the nature that I am most familiar with, and the nature that surrounds most of us most of the time. It is a nature that, while often lacking the brilliant assortment of species in those Great Natural Places, still holds pleasant reminders that the natural world is not going anywhere. The population of creatures at Lake Fail is thriving because they are forgotten. They need no rules established to protect them, just to left alone.

I will to return to Lake Fail to do science, to study its humble coots and pied-bill grebes, its clandestine marsh wren and harrier. I want to see what sort of creatures survive here, if it’s a long term residence to them or if it serves the same purpose the area does for humans, just a flyover. I want data on the resilience of these birds and thanks to CAMN, I know how to get it for myself. And hey, this second best of all about studying this bizarre urban puddle (the first being the marsh wren) is once I’ve finished with my counts, a hamburger joint is on the other end of the parking lot.

Happy volunteering y’all! And no matter where you go outside, be it your backyard or Big Bend, don’t forget your binoculars.

–JDMitchell

Enhancing Rainwater for Native Plants on an Austin Preserve

Rainwater collection structure above Terry Town on BCP Vireo Preserve
Rainwater collection structure above Terry Town on BCP Vireo Preserve

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.

img_6998Today 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.

For those interested in less-remote rainwater use systems, a good resource for Central Texas is at http://rainwaterharvesting.tamu.edu

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.

Honey Bee Swarms, and Other Stinging Insects

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.

Brandon Fehrenkamp, owner at Austin Bees, has been the manager of that hive for some time. Continue reading Honey Bee Swarms, and Other Stinging Insects

Love Notes: Forest Ridge Land Steward Orientation

On May 14, Cait M and Mark S. who work for City of Austin Wildlands Conservation offered a training for land stewards on the Bull Creek Forest Ridge trail of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP). This training brought into clear focus the delicate balance between the purposes of public trails through protected habitats. The primary purpose of the BCP is to protect the habitat of endangered species. To serve this purpose, ideally, the land would be left entirely undisturbed, isolated from human interaction. Another purpose is to allow recreational use of the trails through the habitat, encouraging people to appreciate this wild space and all that lives here, in the knowledge that people are more likely to value and protect what they know and love, while realizing that every footstep off the trail will be crushing some living thing, altering the natural environment. Volunteer BCP land stewards are needed to help keep the trails safe for visitors, to help keep the visitors on the trail, to watch for things that could negatively impact the preserve, and to share their observations with Cait and Mark.

Removing invasive plant species is one thing stewards can do. Mark pointed out Beggars Lice (Torilis arvensis) and Malta Star Thistle (Centaurea melitensis) at the entryway, saying that it would be appreciated if stewards were to pull these invasive species and put them in the trash if they have seeds.

Along the path, a young cedar was partly leaning into the path. Mark simply pushed it back the other direction, out of the path. Another cedar had fallen across the path, and this one Mark sawed off at the base, first making sure that there were no nests in the branches. Then he laid the branches across the beginnings of an adventitious path to help remind visitors to stay on the marked trails. As stewards, we would not ordinarily be cutting down trees, but part of our job would be to remove obstacles from trails and to discourage creation of unauthorized paths.

Another part of the steward’s job is to check the water bars, long cedar logs laid across the trail to channel water runoff away from the trail and mitigate erosion. Stewards are authorized to dig or scrape away gravel, rocks, and leaves that have accumulated above water bars so that rainwater flow is properly diverted from the trail.
As we cultivated our sense of responsibility, we also enjoyed the sights and sounds. Standing quietly for a moment, we could hear the songs of many birds. Butterflies escorted us all along the trail, and we saw grapes and wildflowers in bloom.

Visit the Wildlands page to learn about future steward training opportunities.

Love Notes: Madrone Canyon Preserve

On April 30, the morning after an overnight rain, the trail is alive with wildflowers, birds, and butterflies. Moments along the trail, still at the rim of the canyon, three mocking birds are having a disagreement about territory, calling threats at each other and chasing from tree to tree. White Barbara’s buttons, lavender Engelmann’s sage, and bright yellow Missouri primrose are among the many wildflowers blooming along the trail. Down onto the old road bed, now a wide path of wildflowers, two buckeye butterflies settle to enjoy a good sip in the mud.

Continue reading Love Notes: Madrone Canyon Preserve

Love Notes: Finding Austin’s Endangered Ones – A BCP Hike

On Sunday, April 24, Austin Water Utility’s Wildland Conservation Division organized a hike on the Aralia trail, part of the Bull Creek parcel of the BCP, especially for the purpose of sighting golden-cheeked warblers. The hike was led by Jonny Scalise, a biologist with the City of Austin, and volunteers Robert Reeves and Gloria Wilson.

Continue reading Love Notes: Finding Austin’s Endangered Ones – A BCP Hike

Love Notes: Hike at the Concordia University Preserve


Saturday morning, April 9th, was a cool and cloudy day with a threat of rain, but Dr. Meissner, our guide through the Concordia University Preserve, made every moment a step into a world apart. He began the hike by pointing out that the hill country terrain of the Balcones Canyonland Preserve has a special feature: small canyons that start out wide and come to a point, providing a special habitat for endangered species such as the Jollyville salamander. He also noted that we would be going through four ecosystems over the course of the next two hours: a slope community, a riparian community, an upland community, and a pond community.

Continue reading Love Notes: Hike at the Concordia University Preserve

Footsteps Through Time

into the woodsOn March 5, Austin Water Utility’s Wildland Conservation Division volunteers Lila, Gloria, Chris, and Audrey led a group on a hike in the Butler Ecological Preserve, an area at the end of Jester Boulevard that is otherwise closed to the public. The beginning of the hike is down a wagon trail through shrubby live oak and evergreen sumac under power lines, suitable habitat for black-capped vireo. Lila stops to tell about the brown-headed cowbird trap before guiding us off the trail and through the woods. She notes that we are now walking through golden-cheeked warbler habitat, mature juniper and oak woodland, pausing on a rocky slope that is in fact a field of cretaceous era fossils. At the bottom of the slope is a running creek, and from the side of the creek bubbles Tenacio Spring, named for the previous caretaker of the land. The base of a tree trunk forms a fiercely guarding gargoyle above the spring. Then back up the trail, past a deep ravine we come to Kiki’s Spring, named for Kent Butler’s childhood moniker.

To register to go on this and other hikes, visit Wildland Conservation Division’s online calendar of events at http://www.austintexas.gov/department/wildland-conservation-division.

 

Fire in Central Texas

“Prescribed burning will do more to improve habitat for deer and numerous other wildlife than any other practice. Prescribed burning is also considered the ‘cheapest, most effective habitat management technique.’ ” – TPWD website

 

CbcuIrtVAAAF92ZWildfires were once essential to Texas. Grasses and understory plants used to burn at intervals of two to five years. Those fires not only determined the mix of flora and fauna that made up the ecosystem, they also regenerated the land.

When humans with property, houses, and ranches arrived, humans began to suppress any fire that came upon the landscape. They protected their property. Now, a group of Central Texas specialists are bringing fire back. Depending on their mission, they seek to sustain habitat for endangered animals and/or enhance water’s infiltration of the aquifer.

While catastrophic fires cause untold damage to life and property, carefully controlled burns help keep wildfire fuel in check. Different types of prescribed burns are used in Central Texas, depending on what the fire managers want to accomplish. Some of these missions and lands present unique challenges to the fire starters.

I recently spoke with Carl Schwope, the Fire Management Officer at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Located west of Austin, the refuge’s primary purpose is to protect the nesting habitat of two endangered migratory birds — the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo. These birds have two different habitats. Keeping the birds happy with their area of the forest is Schwope’s job.

Continue reading Fire in Central Texas

Jacob’s Well Natural Area

Following my retirement I have been spending most of my time at our family ranch in Fischer, which is ten miles west of Wimberley. While trying to work out how to continue with CAMN volunteer hours I became involved with Jacobs Well Natural Area. Since the property is located in Hays County, and our ranch is located in Comal, that resolved the eligibility status since Hays is contiguous to Travis. In the process I have become intimately involved in a beautiful natural area and have met some dedicated, wonderful people who are passionate about protecting this well, located on Cypress Creek, and the surrounding land.

If you think of a well as a hole in the ground out of which we pump water, we should rightfully call this Jacobs Spring. As a result of geological events during the cretaceous period, land along the creek bed shifted, causing a blockage in the bedrock and forcing water upward, creating an artesian spring. It is sacred to the American Indian; one tribe believes the well is the womb of their birth.

Through a series of economic maneuvers, the property surrounding the well is now owned by Hays County and is their premier natural area. Over-visitation during 2014 created the need for controlled access by the county and there is now a reservation system in place which limits the numbers of swimmers at one time. Fees are charged for swimming during summer months, and reservations are not required October through winter.

Human history at Wimberley has been based on this water source, which is now in danger of being over-pumped. Our mission is to educate visitors in the importance of having the water remain healthy, clean, clear and flowing as it meanders southward into the Gulf of Mexico.

I would like to invite any of you who want to spend a little time in Wimberley, doing something with a purpose, to come join us on the volunteer guide corps. Tours are offered mid morning each Saturday and last about an hour. Training is offered, you will receive volunteers hours for TMN via CAMN, you will work with a very friendly and helpful group of volunteers and your knowledge of the hill country will deepen.. If you want to learn more, go to visitwimberley. org then click on “jacobs well” shown in the menu, or come join us on a Saturday morning to experience the tour first hand. You may also contact me personally and I will be happy to answer any questions.

Oh–did I mention the divers? Described by some as “the most dangerous place in the world” (we assume for diving only!), some divers have lost their lives here in the past. Jacobs Well is the second longest water cave in Texas with over a mile having been explored. Today only teams of certified divers are allowed into the cave thus we we do not encourage that activity but the area is a great place to spend a morning or afternoon in our beautiful fall weather!