My next Master Naturalist conference field trip was to see the part of the Balcones Canyonland Preserve that abuts Concordia University, in the beautiful western hills of Austin. This area is full of endangered and rare plants and animals, including the beloved golden-cheeked warbler (who is not here right now). In addition, this series of preserved areas is interesting because it’s administered by multiple agencies, which is unusual. It’s also very big, as you can see from this interesting map.
So, an intrepid group of naturalists took a van over to the beautiful Concordia University campus (it’s beautiful, because they made a ton of money when they sold their very valuable but confining old location and bought this large property with plenty of room to grow).
We were met by the people in charge of the piece of the preserve that we were going to tour, and some really nice student workers who all really seem to love this property and know a lot about it. One student even had roots in good old Cameron, Texas (shout out to the Davenport family). I really enjoyed talking to the young people about their observations of the area. If they keep it up, they will sure have a fun life ahead of them.
We were pretty much blown away by the land we were lucky enough to walk through. We followed a creek in the canyon with a very diverse and unusual collection of plants. There were at least three types of fern that I managed to take pictures of, plus so many types of trees, vines, and mosses.
A highlight of the trip was when one of the biologists who accompanied us spotted chanterelle mushrooms in the woods. Once we found one, we found many, many more. Sadly, you really can’t pick and eat what you find in a nature preserve.
I spent a lot of time transfixed by what I saw. The crystal clear water was just beautiful, and there were so many crawfish and other living things in the creek. A couple of us probably looked at the moving water patterns for five minutes, as everyone else kept going.
The terrain was a bit uneven, which made my ankle unhappy, but I sure didn’t care! I was too busy looking down, up, and around in this sacred place. This was another bucket list item of mine, since I’d last been in the preserve back when I worked at 3M (which is the next property over from Concordia) for a year and would go walk in their trails at lunchtime. This is one amazing place.
We stopped and talked a lot when we got to the good-sized pond on the property. It’s been naturalized so well you’d never know it wasn’t always there. With the leaves beginning to turn, it was worth it to just breathe in the beauty.
Aside: I also took the opportunity to practice the skills I learned in the classroom the day before, about how to do a better job of composing photos with your phone camera. The young man who taught us was contagiously enthusiastic, and shared interesting stories of his photography journey since he was a young man in rural India.
The Tornado Trail
After a break, we next headed out to a different area, one that is open to the public. The students and the Master Naturalist Group that meets at the school have helped develop a new series of trails in the area of the property that is reserved for “future development.” In the meantime, why not make some nice trails and do some work?
Since this area isn’t regulated so much, they are able to plant new plants, and work to improve areas, like the retention pond that currently isn’t all that great looking. They are also removing traces of some softball fields that used to be there when Schlumberger had a plant there.
A wonderful feature of the trail system is an old homestead location. The house is gone, but their patio remains, as well as some heritage live oaks that have an amazing presence. They’ve been finding some artifacts from back when the area was inhabited, and we got to look at those.
If you want to take a look at the Tornado Trail (named for the school mascot), head down 620 to the Concordia entrance, and tell security you want to visit. They’ll direct you. I will be back, for sure!
While I truly enjoyed the nature, I also got a lot out of talking to the professionals and students who accompanied us. I’m in awe of how much some of these folks know. I have come away from the Texas Master Naturalist Conference with an even greater appreciation for the Texas Parks and Wildlife, AgriLife Extension, and university scientists we’ve gotten to meet. They are like rock stars to me (in fact, I ran up to my favorite iNaturalist scientist, Sam, like I was a groupie or something). They sure deserve our respect for all they do on limited budgets. They are also so darn NICE.