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

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 communications@camn.org.

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.

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