Connecting People with Nature

Dirt, water and gravity.  Backslope, outslope, brushing, grade reversals, and tread.  McLeods, picks and Pulaskis.  
When you are hiking a trail, how much attention do you pay to the actual trail?  If a trail is well built, the engineering of the trail likely never crosses your mind.  As it should be. The purpose of a trail is to allow people to be in natural surroundings, soothing their psyches, stimulating their senses and challenging their bodies.  If the trail is poorly designed or if you have experience building a trail, the engineering of the trail may very likely be foremost on your mind.

Building a trail requires training, surveying, planning, mapping and lots of physical effort to achieve the goal of keeping water off the tread and people on the tread.  This is where the Central Texas Trail Tamers come in. Since 1993, the Trail Tamers have worked with public and private non-profit groups on hundreds of projects both large and small to plan, build and maintain sustainable trails to ensure that current and future generations will have access to nature. 

Recently, the Trail Tamers (TT) teamed up with Ecology Action to build a new trail in Ecology Action’s Circle Acres Preserve.  The TT taught an introductory class covering the basics of trail building and safety and took the class out to apply the principles in the field.  Circle Acres is ten acres of former landfill that has been successfully restored as one of the most diverse wildlife habitats in the City. Circle Acres is surrounded by Roy G. Guerrero Park and backs up to the Montopolis neighborhood. The Montopolis neighborhood, while rich in history, is now isolated, under-served and socioeconomically disadvantaged. 

The new trail, built on January 11-12, 2020, allows residents of the neighborhood to directly access the park.  It reduces walking time to the park by 25 minutes. The trail building efforts met with challenges. When I-35 was constructed, the cement from the demolished East Avenue was moved to make an enormous pile on the edge of what would become the preserve. Sand was dumped on top of the detritus and plant life grew up among the debris. Over the years, this land was used as a quarry, then as a landfill by the City of Austin and later, when the landfill was decommissioned, it was used as an illegal dump site.  When Ecology Action acquired the site they removed over a four-foot deep layer of garbage from the hillside on which the trail was built. Remnants of an old social/game trail existed but it was seriously degraded and long closed off for safety reasons. The steep hillside and the unstable soil allowed the group to practice many principles of sustainable trail building. The trail still needs some finishing touches but residents of the neighborhood are already using it and giving the trail a thumbs-up.

The motto of the Trail Tamers is “Get Dirty, Build Trails and Have Fun!” They are currently seeking people to join them on their next mission to the Nature Conservancy’s 33,075-acre Davis Mountains Preserve. They will perform maintenance on the Madera Canyon and Tobe Canyon Trails which they built and which are very popular among hikers.  No experience necessary as training will be conducted for persons new to the business of trail work. The trip will run from 4/19/2020 to 4/25/2020 and the TT are seeking both trail builders and support staff for the event. For more information or to register, click here.

Urban Birding at Stormwater Ponds in Austin

As part of the Central Flyway, Texas will be the wintering home for over 90% of the ducks that use the this flyway1.  While a majority of the waterfowl, including the endangered Whooping Crane, will head for the Gulf Coast Wetlands, several species will make Austin their winter home.  Hornsby Bend is the most popular waterfowl viewing area in the Central Texas region, but I personally have a fond spot in my heart for bird watching in the lowly and regularly forgotten urban retention ponds.

Retention ponds, also known as detention or stormwater ponds, are build in urban areas to help reduce flooding during heavy rain events, reduce pollutant loads and allow for increased groundwater recharge in certain areas.  All new developments within cities in Texas have to build stormwater management systems, with the size and type of system defined by the local ecology/geology, city regulations and expected water issues.   Of the seven different types of stormwater management new developments can use, this article will center on “wet ponds,” which are permanent to semi-permanent pools of water.  Most of these features have the additional purpose of providing wildlife habitat for local animals and migrating birds2.  All wet or retention ponds within a city limit are inspected, and in the City of Austin there are more than 850 residential areas ponds and over 6300 privately maintained commercial area ponds3.  The City of Austin maintains a open data portal of all the retention ponds in the Austin and surrounding areas at https://data.austintexas.gov/Locations-and-Maps/Stormwater-Ponds/fckq-xnpy.

Now back to the birds. I have my favorite ponds that I like to visit, mainly because there is easy parking, plenty of wildlife to see and fairly easy access to good viewing spots.  I have visited each recently and hope you will also take a minute and stop by.  That is the best part of bird watching in retention ponds, you can just stop by for a few minutes and get some bird watching in as you run around doing chores!  Please forgive this north Austin bias – if you have a favorite retention pond in the South Austin area, please share.

Indian Mound Pond  (30.405635, -97.676654)

This two-pond system is on either side of Indian Mound and can be accessed by parking at either the Frank Fickett Scout Center or behind the Hilton Garden Inn Austin North.   In the past few days, the area has hosted a great blue egret, great white egret, and a mallard duck.   A number of turtles can also be seen regularly sunning on the rocks of the pond.  At one time, a family of beavers lived in the pond and made a dam out of the cattails but were removed several years ago.  Yellow crowned warblers, cedar waxwings and swamp sparrows can also be found in the trees behind the Scout Center during this time of year.   Around 2-4pm is not a good time to visit this pond, in that the local school uses the walking trail around it and most of the birds leave.

McCallen Pass Pond  (30.407139, -97.664741)

Parking for this pond is in the back of the Homewood Suites by Hilton Techridge off of Center Lake Drive.   There is also a new restaurant that has opened overlooking this pond on the other end of Center Lake Drive.  From the Homewood Suites parking area, you can walk along the berm for a better view but going all the way down the water’s edge is not advised.  Being a larger pond, this area annually gets a large number of water fowl including coots, double crested cormorants, ring neck ducks, and canvas back ducks.   Harris hawks are often on the power lines near this pond or flying over the nearly field.  Last week during one visit, I counted 39 ducks (mostly ring neck and canvas backs) and 18 coots around 1pm.  

Mopac Service Road Pond (30.384569, -97.734483)

To access this pond, park behind Mimi’s Café or the Firestone Complete Auto Care.  You can walk along the edge of the parking area, but going down the water’s edge is not advised.  Security vehicles or even the police (only once) will sometimes stop by to see what you are doing, but once you explain your intentions, they either go on about their way or hang out to learn about ducks for a bit.   At this pond I have found coots, northern shovelers, great blue herons, ring neck ducks and loons.  Usually there are around 10-20 waterfowl using this pond any given winter day.

References:

  1. https://www.ducks.org/conservation/where-ducks-unlimited-works/waterfowl-migration-flyways
  2. https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Watershed/field_operations/WQP_Brochure_2015_web.pdf
  3. https://www.austintexas.gov/department/field-operations

Contributed by Jessica Snider, Class of 2014

White Christmas in Austin, Texas

Christmas in Austin came wrapped in fog this year.  Except for a trace of snow in 1939, weather records going back to the 1890s show Austin has never had a White Christmas.  So the combination of humid air, warm daytime temperatures and cool nights that shrouded the city in a gauzy whiteness is the closest we will get to a White Christmas. 
Fog is actually a cloud that touches the ground, formed when water vapor in the air condenses around microscopic dust, salt or other particles and changes into suspended water droplets or ice crystals.  But did you know there are seven different kinds of fog?

Radiation fog occurs as the ground releases thermal energy absorbed during the day into the cooling night-air causing water vapor in the air to condense.  It produces the fog that made Christmas spooky.

Advection fog is produced when warm moist air blows over a cool surface, usually water.  This process produces San Francisco’s famously foggy weather.

Upslope or hill fog occurs when winds blow warm moist air up a slope.  As the air expands adiabatically it cools and its moisture condenses. This process produces the spring and winter fogs on the Rocky and Appalachian Mountain ranges.

Freezing fog occurs when the water droplets in fog freezes and ices the surface of everything it touches.  It typically occurs at night; people wake up to a “Winter Wonderland.” Beautiful views but dangerous driving conditions!

Frozen fog is different from freezing fog.  Frozen fog occurs when the water droplets in fog are super-cooled below the liquid state and the ice crystals are suspended in the air.  You will need to go to northern Alaska to see this type of fog in the USA.

Steam fog or sea smoke occurs when cool air moves over water that is still warm from the summer.  Most often seen in fall and winter, another name for it is evaporation fog because water evaporates from the water body into the cooler air and condenses.

Valley fog occurs as air from higher elevations cools.  The air becomes denser as it cools and flows down a slope where it is trapped in lower elevations under a layer of lighter, warmer air.  Most common in fall and spring and densest in the early morning, this fog may last for days.

Information courtesy of the US Weather Service.

Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count

A popular Christmas Day tradition in the late 1800’s was the competitive “Side Hunt.”  The “side” of sport hunters that amassed the largest pile of dead birds at the end of the day won.  The conservation movement was young then but early conservationists and scientists were becoming concerned by the decline in bird populations as a result of the lucrative millinery trade and unrestricted hunting.

On Christmas Day, 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an officer in the recently formed Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition:  the Christmas Bird Census.  The first Christmas Bird Census was conducted by 27 birders at 25 different sites.  The birders counted 18,500 individuals from 89 species.   Last year’s Christmas Bird Count consisted of 79,425 volunteer birders at 2615 birding circles (sites) who observed 48,678,334 individual birds from 2638 species.  

Now in its 120th year, the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), is the longest running citizen-science project in North America.  A century of collected data helps researchers assess the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.  This data, combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, shows changes in bird populations and provides a perspective for conservationists to use to identify environmental issues and propose strategies to protect birds, their habitat and their role in the larger ecosystem.

The annual CBC runs from December 14th through January 5th.  Birders of all levels are welcome and, as novice birders are partnered with experienced birders, the CBC is a good way to develop and improve birding skills.  It is not too late to join the 2020 Christmas Bird Count; ten Central Texas groups will conduct their CBC between now and January 5th.  

  • Balcones Canyonlands NWR (TXBC) | Monday, December 16, 2019
  • Westcave Preserve (TXWP) | Tuesday, December 17, 2019
  • Love Creek, Bandera County (TXLC) | Wednesday, December 18, 2019
  • Kerrville (TXKV) | Saturday, December 28, 2019
  • Lost Pines, Bastrop Area (TXLP) | Saturday, December 28, 2019
  • Round Rock (New Count) | Saturday, December 28, 2019
  • NewBraunfels (TXNB) | Sunday, December 29, 2019
  • West Kerr County (TXWK) | Monday, December 30, 2019
  • Bastrop-Buescher State Park (TXBB) | Wednesday, January 1, 2020
  • Burnet County (TXBN) | Friday, January 3, 2020

A list of CBC’s in other parts of Texas and additional  details of individual Central Texas CBCs including contact and registration information may be found here
VMS Category:  FR, Field Research

The Brackenridge Field Laboratory


George Washington Brackenridge had big plans for the 500-acres of Colorado Riverfront property he purchased.  It was downriver from the future site of the Austin Dam; the Austin Dam which would be built with stone quarried from his property and that was expected to generate the power needed to jumpstart industrial development in Austin.  Brackenridge planned to sell sites along the river to the cotton mills that were sure to come. But the Colorado River never provided the steady power needed to light the growing city of Austin, much less drive mills. Then in 1900 the dam spectacularly broke and attempts to rebuild it failed twice.  So Brackenridge, a regent at the University of Texas, donated the tract to the University in 1910 with the hope of moving the campus there where it would become known as “The University on the Lake.” Again his hopes were dashed when his longtime rival, George Littlefield, donated a million dollars to the University with the stipulation that the campus never be moved.

Amazingly, Brackenridge’s tract of now extremely-valuable riverfront property is still owned by UT. Most of the land was used for housing but in 1966, a biological field station was established on 82 acres of the land.  It was named the Brackenridge Field Lab (BFL). Fast forward to the present: for fifty years, data has been continuously collected on the BFL’s four main habitats: the Upper Terrace, the Old Quarry, the Pasture and the River Terrace.  There have been 1200 species of Lepidoptera, over 160 species of birds, 370 species of plants and 200 species of native bees documented on the BFL.  More than 500 students take courses every year at BFL and do research in its 18,000 square-foot laboratory. Research conducted at BFL has led to successful biocontrol measures against invasive fire ants (RIFA) with phorid flies and against Arundo donax with wasps. 

CAMN has entered into a partnership with BLF to provide assistance with field research, resource management and public outreach.  CAMN members conduct flora and fauna surveys to document arrivals, departures and behaviors related to seasonal changes. Decades of urban landscaping resulted in significant encroachment of invasive species which CAMN members are helping to mitigate.  CAMN members also plan to develop guided hikes curriculum to introduce the public to the wonders of this hidden urban ecological gem.  
 BFL is a unique site in Texas to study and observe how habitats, plants and animals respond to environmental changes and urban disturbance.  If you would like to be a part of this unique opportunity, check out the volunteer opportunities in the volunteer section. 

PARD Comes to CAMN

Many of the rangers in the Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) are familiar faces to CAMN members who have assisted in restoration and research projects on Austin’s public lands.  The rangers have led projects and shared their extensive knowledge with us but what else do they do, you may wonder.

Casey Carter, PARD Park Ranger, presented at our chapter meeting on October 20.  Those uniformed officials you see as you hike the Greenbelt or walk through Zilker Park have three main divisions: Interpretation, Trailside, and Conservation.  

The Interpretation Rangers are headquartered at the Zilker Caretaker’s cottage adjacent to Barton Springs.  They facilitate educational programs with the public, including the Bark Ranger program (for dogs) and Coffee with a Ranger on Saturday mornings (for humans).  

The Trailside Rangers rotate through the more than 300 parks throughout the City of Austin.  They take advantage of spontaneous teachable moments (like a tarantula on the trail, or a bicycle in a preserve) to help citizens understand how their actions can impact the natural world in positive and negative ways.

Conservation Rangers are based out of the Zilker Clubhouse, and spend much of their time working on trail maintenance, conducting controlled burns, and working with volunteers (like CAMN members) to remove invasive plants from natural areas.  These Rangers will be assisting us next spring when the signage for Zilker Preserve is ready to be installed!  

PARD Rangers are all committed to upholding park and preserve rules and regulations through positive reinforcement (such as conversations and education), rather than law enforcement.  Although they can issue parking tickets, they do not issue any other citations.  There is a Parks Unit of APD officers that work with the Rangers if necessary.  

In total, there are 20 rangers across the three divisions that work every day to keep citizens safe and informed.  They enjoy sharing the intricacies and surprises of nature with anyone they find, much like Master Naturalists!  In fact, two members of the Class of 2020 are Rangers, and we look forward to learning from them about they work they do in our city.  

By Emily Hansen, CAMN Board President, Class of 2018

CAMN Represents at the 2019 TMN Annual Meeting!


(L to R): Angela England, Kat Ross, Becky Patterson, Ann Clift, Justin Bosler and Gary Sertich)

This year’s Texas Master Naturalist Annual Meeting was held in Rockwall from October 17th-20th and it was my third year to attend.  For those that have never attended a meeting, it is a blast!  This year’s meeting had over twenty field trips and training workshops, fantastic seminars, educational displays, a book store and a silent auction!  

“This year’s Texas Master Naturalist Annual Meeting was just as motivating and informative as the others I’ve attended.  From Friday afternoon through Sunday morning I attended nine presentations, and my two favorites could not have been more different. “Conservation Laws and Ethics” presented a historical background of American wildlife laws, and challenged us to ponder and discuss real-life scenarios that demonstrated the murky moral areas where these laws and related ethics sometimes lead us.  And despite its cutesy name, “My Little Chickadee: The Coolest Little Bird Ya Ever Did See” took a deep dive into the amazingly sophisticated language of chickadee calls, making me want to dive into learning it myself!” –Mikael Behrens

Attending an Annual Meeting is a great way to meet, network and share experiences with fellow Master Naturalists from the other forty-two chapters across the state.  And most importantly, it provides an opportunity to recognize and celebrate our hard-working volunteers that give so much to this great State and their communities.   We are thrilled that thirteen CAMN members represented at this year’s conference.  Among them, Gary Sertich (Class of 2019), was recognized for achieving the 250 service hours milestone.  Wow!! Congratulations Gary and thank you for all your hard work! 

Next year’s meeting will be held in Houston!  Hope to see y’all there!

By Kat Ross, CAMN Secretary, Class of 2017

Learning to Tag Austin’s Urban Wildlife

More than a dozen CAMN members met along with members of the Goodwater and Bastrop Master Naturalist Chapters on October 12, 2019 to learn how to identify urban wildlife captured on the cameras stationed throughout Austin by the Urban Wildlife Information Network

The cameras are set up in parks, nature preserves and along creeks that wildlife use as travel corridors. The purpose of the project is to better understand how wildlife is distributed in Austin and how these animals are using our green spaces, said Amy Belaire, an urban ecologist with the Nature Conservancy.  The data also helps with future management decisions for city parks and green spaces, Belaire said.  Organizations participating in the project include the Nature Conservancy, the City of Austin, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, St. Edwards University Wild Basin and BCCP Vireo Preserve.

To entice wildlife to the cameras, a fatty-acid disk lure is placed near the cameras.  This approach is  currently under evaluation as researchers are evaluating a different bait that is less smelly and easier to handle. The cameras are activated four times a year in fall, winter, spring and summer.

Austin is one of twenty-four cities in the Urban Wildlife Information Network; cameras went live in Austin in 2017, starting with fourteen sites.  Other cities in the network include Los Angeles, Fort Collins, Denver, Madison and Chicago.  Austin now has about thirty sites, including ten cameras sat up along Waller Creek. See the camera location map here.

The cameras are activated by movement and take photos every thirty seconds. Some unusual wildlife captured by Austin cameras include ringtail cats and jackrabbits along with the usual suspects,  deer, coyotes, armadillos and even an occasional domestic dog, cat or Homo sapien.

So where do CAMN volunteers fit in? Each camera requires two sets of eyes to tag wildlife captured by photos. These photo tags are then verified by Caitlin Higgins, an Environmental Scientist/Field Technician. 

If you are looking to log some volunteer hours at your computer, especially during Austin’s never-ending summer, this volunteer gig may be just right for you. Belaire and Higgins said if they receive enough interest from other CAMN members, they may schedule another volunteer workshop in the future. If interested, please contact Caitlin Higgins.

By Ramona Nye, Class of 2019

Chapter Meeting Recap: Austin Wildlife Rescue

Cedar waxwings get drunk off berries. Opossums have 50 teeth. Nighthawks aren’t hawks and ringtails aren’t lemurs. These were just a few of the delightful tidbits shared in the recent CAMN Chapter Meeting.

Kathryn Mattison gave a wonderful presentation on the work she does with Austin Wildlife Rescue. She talked to us about the animals AWR tends to handle and the ways CAMN can get involved… 

Through donations: https://www.austinwildliferescue.org/supportus
Through volunteer work: https://www.austinwildliferescue.org/volunteer

If you missed the meeting, no worries! You can watch it on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/capitalareamasternaturalists/videos/2399288217010967/

Thanks to our skilled webmaster, Dan Galewsky, and one of our social media admins, Nautasha Gupta, we were able to provide our first-ever, live video of a CAMN chapter meeting. We are hoping to be able to provide these more reliably in the future. BUT we are still in the beta phases, so no guarantees. 

If you are able to watch the meeting live at the time it is happening, then it will count as an AT hour. Watching the recording later does not count for hours, because there is no chance to interact or question the presenter.

Getting Teens Involved with Nature through Technology!

As a part of the 2019 CAMN training class experience, students participated in a variety of class projects from restoration work at the Vireo Preserve to developing educational materials. One project in particular kicks off this weekend (Sept 29th, 2019) at the Austin Central Library and it aims to connect the teens in out community to the great outdoors! In collaboration with the Austin Central Library Teen Council, CAMN will be hosting an iNaturalist workshop for teens. The group will get a chance to use their phones AND go outside to participate in a nature scavenger hunt. Its like Pokemon-go for the natural world!

Do you know a teen that might like to get involved?

Register Here:
http://library.austintexas.gov/event/youth-programs-workshops/just-teens-inaturalist-workshop-652642

Central Texas volunteers devoted to ecological stewardship, education and outreach.