Category Archives: Field Notes

Caprock Mesas and Desert Canyons

The CAMN Field Trip to Twistflower Ranch

At the end of August, ten Master Naturalists from the Capital Area and Hill Country (Kerrville) Chapters fled the oppressive central Texas humidity and sought refuge and advanced training on the caprock mesas and in the desert canyons of Twistflower Ranch.  The ranch covers nearly six thousand acres on the far western edge of the Edwards Plateau ecoregion.

Mike McCloskey (CAMN class of 1998) and his family purchased the ranch near Iraan in 2000 as a retirement project with the twin goals of restoring habitat that had been overgrazed and creating a destination for urban dwellers to enjoy a remote nature experience.

Creosote and tarbush, while indigenous to desert ecologies, outcompete other plants and had come to dominate the landscape of the ranch.  To restore diversity and habitat, these abundant plants are being removed, allowing the seed bank of native grasses and forbs to germinate.  A wetlands area has been created in the depression of an old windmill.  This consistent source of water in the desert attracts wildlife; multiple generations of birds now know and visit this site.

Ben Skipper, PhD., professor of biology at Angelo State University, has been surveying the bird population at Twistflower Ranch for three years.  He showed the group how to set up mist nets to capture birds visiting the wetland.  A few Master Naturalists accompanied Dr. Skipper in the predawn hours to open the nets. We learned how to band, measure and document the birds that came to the nets.  Species included painted bunting, yellow-breasted chat, brown cowbirds, vermillion flycatcher, Bullock’s orioles, cardinals, pyrrhuloxia, and lark sparrows. 

After a hearty lunch in the main lodge, the group headed out to explore archeological sites with (Mike) Quigg, staff archeologist with the Gault School of Archeological Research.  He led us to large trash middens, grinding holes, hearths and the foundation stones of wickiups.  Quigg demonstrated how the hunters and gatherers who travelled the area in small groups identified and used the resources the land provides and how they prepared their food. The tour also included areas of more recent human activity:  the old ranch houses and out-buildings from the 1930’s.  

The following day, the group hiked to another part of the ranch to view a rock shelter with pictographs.  The pictographs have been dated to the same time as the rock art in the lower Pecos but the symbolism is different indicating that it may be a different group all-together. 

After full days of exploring and learning, evenings were spent on the porch enjoying nature’s light shows.  Friday night it was the stars and the Milky Way that are only visible when the skies are dark.  Saturday night it was an awe-inspiring thunder and lightning storm–the kind for which west Texas is famous.  

If you seek an opportunity to unplug and relax in beautiful accommodations, learn a lot and enjoy some amazing views you won’t want to miss this CAMN field trip the next time it comes around!  

Taking the Pulse of the Colorado River

At 8:00 a.m. on the first Saturday of every month, naturalists, birders, citizen scientists and river-lovers meet at the Hornsby Bend CER. From there, the group caravans to the set-in and take-out points of a selected portion of the 60-mile stretch of the Colorado River between Austin and Bastrop. For thirteen years this group of regular, occasional and new participants have surveyed the flora, fauna and flow of the river to evaluate and document the health of its ecosystem. Over the years, the group has seen the river change. They have identified and mitigated illegal dump sites, unauthorized draining from and discharging into the river, changes in the cut and deposition banks, and have seen native mussels, beavers and otters return to the river.

On July 6th, thirteen adventurers set out to conduct the 158th survey; they traveled an eight mile stretch of the Colorado River from Austin’s Colony to Little Webberville Park. They counted forty-one bird species and saw wildflowers, turtles, butterflies, damselflies and a coyote. They saw evidence of otter and beaver activity but did not see the critters. Maybe next time!

These surveys are conducted by the Austin – Bastrop River Corridor Partnership (ABRCP). This partnership was founded in 2003, understanding that growth would bring development and the demand for land, materials, housing and roadways would threaten the Colorado River. The ABRCP sought to protect the river and its natural and cultural resources through education, public outreach and collaboration to ensure sustainable development and a healthy riparian zone. The ABRCP was awarded the Community Stewardship Award for Raising Public Awareness by Envision Central Texas for its Vision Report titled “Discovering the Colorado.”  The report tells the tale of the Colorado River’s ecology and its history and describes both its current state and the desired future state. Read the report here.

Master Naturalists Abroad

(Or at least outside Austin!)

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.

Continue reading Master Naturalists Abroad

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