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!  

The Bracken Bat Brigade

Before my first CAMN field trip, it hadn’t rained for weeks. The ground and grass had long gone dry and crackly. I didn’t even think to check the forecast before leaving the house.

But Texas weather always punishes the complacent and unprepared.

My carpool group arrived early at Bracken Cave. We wanted extra time to chat with fellow CAMNers and eat the dinner and snacks we’d brought. Instead, as soon as we pulled up, it began to pour with raindrops so heavy they sounded like hail on the roof of the car. We waited, and I started to worry we’d miss the bats or the rain would prevent their emergence.

Just as I was pulling up the weather radar on my phone, the rain stopped. We got out of our cars and were met by a volunteer from the Lindheimer Chapter of TxMN. He gave us a quick overview of the bats living in Bracken Cave.

The facts surrounding Bracken Cave are near unbelievable.

Holding up to 20 million bats in the summer months, Bracken Cave contains the world’s highest concentration of mammals. As our guide pointed out, Tokyo and Delhi can’t compare. 500 baby bats can fit in just 1 square foot of ceiling space in the cave. 

So many mammals in one spot creates quite the stink too. Ammonia from the guano wafted up towards our viewing point above. Our guide informed us that over 70 feet of bat droppings filled the bottom of the cave. 

I knew I was about to see A LOT of bats, but knowing is one thing, experiencing the sheer numbers up close and in person is something else. The group grew quiet as the first bats started flickering around the entrance. They swiftly grew into a large, swirling cloud that our guide called a “bat-nado.” The sound of their wings was similar to the sound of a soft, pattering rain.

Dark ribbons of bats formed. They rippled in a drifting stream, which rose above the trees and stretched out towards the horizon. 

It began to rain again, and the bats stopped emerging. However, our guide said this brief (30 minute) interruption had been happening each night even without the rain. We took the intermission to hike to an old guano mine shaft and learn more about the land’s history and Bat Conservation International’s stewardship. 

Eventually we returned to the cave to watch more bats emerge and were told that they would continue to stream out until almost midnight. Our group stayed until lightning lit up distant thunderclouds, and it got too dark to see the bats – although we could still hear their fluttering wings.

Trips to Bracken Cave are limited. One of the best ways to get out there is through an organized CAMN field trip. To find out more about visiting go to Bat Conservation International’s FAQ page.

Meet the Webmasters of CAMN

Every week the members of CAMN volunteer their time in support of the great conservation and education work being done throughout the parks and natural areas of Travis County. The coordination of these efforts is no small feat! There is a team of CAMNers working behind the scenes every week to make sure that all your digital resource and website needs are available and up to date.

When prospective naturalists go through the application process for CAMN, the tech team creates and manages the online application and provides support for applicants. Throughout the training year, the tech team works with the class coordinators to provide an online resource for class schedules and training information.
More recently, the tech team has made a big effort to provide more content for CAMN members on the website through regular blog posts and an up-to-date calendar featuring volunteer and advanced training opportunities.

Of course, there are also a slew of small tech tasks that CAMN needs for day to day management: email aliases, website hosting, all that fun stuff. But don’t be fooled by their technical prowess, the tech team – Dan Galewsky and Leslie Lilly – still prefers to spend most days out in the woods.

To reach them and say “hello” email

Join us at the next Communication Team meeting to learn how you can help with CAMN’s website, social media, and the Reader:

Saturday, September 7th | 3:00pm – 4:30pm @ Cherrywood Coffeehouse

To get involved in other ways behind the scenes with CAMN attend the next Chapter Board meeting (open to all members): 

Thursday, September 12th | 6:30pm – 8:00pm @ the Austin Nature & Science Center

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.

The CAMN Chapter Apparel Shop is Open Again!

The CAMN Chapter Apparel shop is open again!

There are a variety of styles, sizes, and colors available for purchase, including embroidered shirts, vests, caps, hats, patches, and even a soft-side cooler with the CAMN logo! Orders may be placed until 11:59 pm on March 30th, and 15% of net sales are contributed to CAMN to support CAMN programs.

You can place your order here

The CAMN Chapter Apparel shop is open for orders!

The CAMN Chapter Apparel shop is open for orders!

There are a variety of styles, sizes, and colors available for purchase, including embroidered shirts, vests, caps, hats, patches, and even a soft-side cooler with the CAMN logo! Orders may be placed until 11:59 pm on November 30th, and a portion of the sales proceeds will be used to support CAMN programs.

You can place your order here

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