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News from the Vireo Preserve 2/3/17

Even with a small crew, we got a lot done this morning:

  • Took the temperature of the compost piles. One was cooking at 150 degrees!
  • Built up another compost pile with leaves, coffee grounds, and water.
  • Spread dirt in another space for wildflower seeds.
  • Gathered dormant hardwood cuttings of escarpment black cherry to root for the Vireo Preserve Nursery.
  • Planted a donated red buckeye in a newly cleared area down in the canyon.
  • Added to a brush berm that Jim is building halfway down the hillside to slow the water flow during rain events.
  • Dug a hole to plant a madrone seedling another day.

You can find more information about how to participate in activities at the Vireo Preserve in the Weekly Reader.


History of the Kent Butler Ecological Reserve

In 2011, the Kent Butler Ecological Reserve was named in honor of Dr. Kent Butler, a prominent environmental advocate in Central Texas. The Reserve, 942 acres between 2222 and the top of Jester Boulevard in northwest Austin, has some of the best golden-cheeked warbler habitat within the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve system, due partly to the gentle use of the land since settlers came into the area that was to become Austin.

Continue reading History of the Kent Butler Ecological Reserve

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

Footsteps Through Time

into the woodsOn March 5, Austin Water Utility’s Wildland Conservation Division volunteers Lila, Gloria, Chris, and Audrey led a group on a hike in the Butler Ecological Preserve, an area at the end of Jester Boulevard that is otherwise closed to the public. The beginning of the hike is down a wagon trail through shrubby live oak and evergreen sumac under power lines, suitable habitat for black-capped vireo. Lila stops to tell about the brown-headed cowbird trap before guiding us off the trail and through the woods. She notes that we are now walking through golden-cheeked warbler habitat, mature juniper and oak woodland, pausing on a rocky slope that is in fact a field of cretaceous era fossils. At the bottom of the slope is a running creek, and from the side of the creek bubbles Tenacio Spring, named for the previous caretaker of the land. The base of a tree trunk forms a fiercely guarding gargoyle above the spring. Then back up the trail, past a deep ravine we come to Kiki’s Spring, named for Kent Butler’s childhood moniker.

To register to go on this and other hikes, visit Wildland Conservation Division’s online calendar of events at


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.

At the Vireo Preserve

The Vireo Preserve, on the east side of Loop 360 at the intersection of Pascal Lane, is a great place to volunteer. This 212-acre tract of land, just north of Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve, is part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP) that is managed by the City of Austin Wildland Conservation Division.

Jim O’Donnell, who works and volunteers for the City of Austin, regularly organizes volunteer workdays at the Vireo Preserve on Sundays and Tuesdays. On these days, volunteers help build trails through the wooded areas and revitalize the habitat that was devastated by years of goat grazing before it became part of BCP. Volunteers have planted natives that are beneficial to wildlife, for example Carolina Buckthorn, Chile Pequin, and Gregg’s Blue Mistflower. Some of the transplants, Big Red Sage, Canyon Mock Orange, and Sycamore-leaf Snowbell for example, are rare. All of the new transplants are protected with wire cages to give them a start in life before they are “released” to fend for themselves against the deer that forage through the land. Volunteers create swales and berms to retain rainfall, allowing it to infiltrate or channel into karst features to replenish the aquifer. Terry Southwell, our own superstar Master Naturalist, noted that partly due to good land management, the stream that runs through the preserve did not go dry all summer. One day we removed patches of King Ranch Bluestem, an invasive grass, and another day we collected seeds of liatris and senna that grow there to sow on the newly created berms and in bare patches in the preserve. As we work we hear the chips and calls of cardinals, and occasionally see a flash of red in the evergreen sumac.
Every workday is also an occasion to learn more about the habitat. Jim took us on a walk through the woods, naming various plant species—Texas Red Oak, Escarpment Black Cherry, Flame-leaf Sumac, Silktassel—and describing the barren state of the hillsides before he and other volunteers created the many berms and swales that now host a great variety of flourishing natives. He showed us the structure that was used to catch the cowbirds that were causing a sharp decline in the vireo population and explained how the cowbirds were caught. A story in itself.

The Vireo Preserve and the company are always delightful, and no two workdays are the same. To learn more about BCP, see a video of Jim O’Donnell telling about banding Golden-cheeked Warblers, and register to volunteer at the Vireo Preserve, visit the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve webpage at

Hope to see you there in 2016.