Category Archives: Field Trips

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!  

Grass Seed Collecting on WQPL

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.

Photo courtesy of R. Lance JonesHays County Master Naturalists.

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Bull Creek Preserve Permit Hike

On Saturday, February 20 from 10:00 to 1:00, Jim O’Donnell guided a group on a Bull Creek Preserve permit hike. He told us about the history of the preserve and ongoing efforts to maintain and enhance this important habitat for the endangered Golden Cheeked Warbler and Black Capped Vireo, explaining the process of capturing and banding birds to monitor their success and dispersal. He talked about bird, mammal, and invertebrate species that have been observed in the preserve and pointed out many native plant species, telling stories of their historical uses. He also identified invasive non-native species, describing the Sisyphean efforts to keep them under control. He showed us the upturned soil where feral hogs had been rooting. Noting the damage that has been done when people create adventitious trails that exacerbate the erosion problem, Jim observed that “although it looks rugged, this land is really quite fragile.”

To learn more about Bull Creek Preserve and the entry permit, visit the Bull Creek Eco Web.

A day of weather, climate and water birds at Hornsby Bend

The 2016 Trainees completed their second class recently. It was held at Hornsby Bend’s Center for Environmental Research, a department of Austin Water Utility. Dr. Kevin Anderson (director of the CER) lectured on the history of ecology in the U.S. and Texas. Jon W. Zeitler (Science and Operations Officer, National Weather Service, Austin-San Antonio) spoke on the complex topic of what defines weather and climate, while Dr. Ruth Buskirk (University of Texas at Austin) introduced the trainees to taxonomy.

After lunch, Dr. Anderson gave the group a tour of the biosolids composting facilities, and led a hike through a small part of the 1,200 acres of riparian forest habitat at Hornsby. The walk highlights the bird blind built to facilitate watching the spectacular diversity of migrating waterfowl. At another stop, he discusses the progression some of the land made from being accidentally-bulldozed for a parking lot to becoming the mid successional forest that is present today.

Canyon Lake Gorge Advanced Training Trip Recap

Eighteen CAMN’ers and enthusiastic friends and family members had a successful Advanced Training trip to the Canyon Lake Gorge  Saturday, 1/24. We were hosted by the Gorge Preservation Society. Great hike and lecture on the canyon and its geology.

Thanks to Jaynellen Ladd at the Society for helping set this up. And a special shout-out to our excellent volunteer docents… Pete Bryant, Cathy Downs, Gracie Waggener.

Photos and text by Mark Wilson, CAMN Field Trips Co-coordinator.