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.
Within five minutes, we were in a slope community, scaling down the steep, rocky side of the narrow end of a canyon, surrounded by a thick forest of tall trees. Moments later, we reached the spring-fed creek where the water ran filtered and clear. The water flow and temperature are relatively constant in a spring-fed creek, and the creek bed is a series of shallow pools and travertine dams with overhanging ledges. The travertine dams and ledges form when the calcium carbonate that is dissolved in the water crystallizes and combines with biological materials over time. These shallow pools and overhangs provide an ideal habitat and protection for the endangered Jollyville salamander.
Following this spring-fed creek, we see a long series of pools and dams, until we come to an adjoining creek that is mostly formed by rainwater run-off. In this creek, there are no pools and dams. Rather, we see bars of sand and gravel and larger rocks that have been carried downstream by strong rainwater flows.
The canyon widens as we walk down the stream, and in this riparian environment, we see towering sycamore, oak, and walnut, trees, with garlands of muscadine grape, rattan vines, and catbrier. In the understory are box elder, yaupon, wafer ash, Carolina buckthorn, and roughleaf dogwood. The ground is covered with Virginia creeper, cedar sage, Texas columbine, shield fern, maiden hair fern, tick trefoil, and poison ivy.
Then we head up another slope, emerging into an upland community where we are greeting by a riot of color. Blooming in the rocky prairie spaces between the junipers are Drummond phlox, cornsalad, bluebonnets, and stork’s bill.
At the end of the hike, we walk past a man-made pond, which is still and quiet now except for the hawk hovering nearby, though Dr. Meissner says there have been sightings of egrets, kingfishers, and great blue herons here. Arriving at the end of the trail, Dr. Meissner leaves us with a thought of the future, thanking us for our interest in learning about and preserving our natural treasures for ourselves and for generations to come.