Experiencing the Balcones Canyonland Preserve

balcones
This lush, moist, fern-covered scene is typical in the preserve.

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).

jared
This is Jared. He learned about nature from his grandfather, who shared his Cameron property with him.

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.

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Karst Preserve Bonus Field Trip

karst
My exploring companions!

While we were exploring the Avery Ranch cave, I remembered where I’d seen other caves in the neighborhood over from the one we were in, Oak Brook. I suggested that, if anyone wanted to go look at other local caves, I’d take them there. Unfortunately, my memory issues made giving directions stink, and since I didn’t remember the name of the place we could not look it up. So, only one carload made it.

karst2
Typical karst pools that form in wet periods. I need to go back in spring to figure out what kind of little plants bloom here. They have yellow flowers and may be lichen.

However, we had a great time at the Oak Brook Karst Preserve once we found it. I have some bittersweet memories of this spot, because I used to go over there long ago, when I was sad about marital issues, to be sad where my kids couldn’t see me. I gave my troubles to Mother Earth, I guess. On a happier note, my traveling companions liked it for more Master Naturalist reasons—flora and fauna!

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Caving in the Old ‘Hood

cave1
I had always known the mysterious fenced off areas in the middle of the neighborhoods, and some of the seemingly random “parks” were really where developers were hesitant to put houses because of caves.

My bucket list is one item smaller. Ever since I saw sealed over cave openings in my old neighborhood (the Brushy Creek/Cat Hollow/Avery Ranch area in Williamson County), I wanted to see what was under the neighborhood. The area is in a limestone karst formation (quite near many limestone quarriees). After a cave collapsed pretty near my old house last year, I REALLY wanted to go in, so when I saw a session at the Texas Master Naturalist Conference on “Caving in Avery Ranch” I signed up.

cave4
The mysterious entry, and all the caving equipment. Note helmets!

We carpooled over to the Avery Ranch Cave Preserve,* which is always fun (we learn so much from each other). Sure enough, there, right across from a park and another fenced in patch of land (hmm, wonder why?) is this little preserve. In it, was a locked metal door. Mysterious!

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Get Ready for a Lot of Posts!

group
Here are twelve of our group, looking happy (many of us are hiding our wine glasses behind us, so we were happy).

While you haven’t heard from me in a while, you will now. I wasn’t posting about nature, because I was out in nature having experiences, as well as learning new things, at the Texas Master Naturalist Conference over the weekend. I haven’t had so much fun in a long time.

Before sharing all my activities, I wanted to acknowledge our group, the El Camino Real Chapter, who sent 14 or 16 (I forget) people to the conference. That is impressive for a small place like Milam County.

anniv
It’s the 20th anniversary of the whole program, so it’s impressive to see how many are that old!

Our group was acknowledged for ten years of being active. And I learned a lot about those ten years talking with people over the weekend. Sigh. All volunteer organizations have similar issues, but still manage to hang together!

Donna
Only 4 folks got this far this year. Way to go, Donna. In comparison, I have just over 100.

We were all very proud of Donna Lewis, our Vice President, who was one of only three people honored for achieving 5,000 volunteer hours. That is one active volunteer in a place with fewer options than most (we don’t have any state parks, etc., to volunteer at).

Next I’ll share some of my adventures with you. Stay tuned.

Looking Forward to a Master Naturalist Weekend

I’m all a-twitter about getting to go to my first Texas Master Naturalist conference in Georgetown this weekend. I’ll get to spend time with my friends from the El Camino Real chapter, and meet lots of new and interesting folks, I hope.

snail
Hey look, a land snail! I find them fascinating!

I made Anita laugh a lot when I got so excited about an email last night that I had to run downstairs to ACT on it. What was it? Why, it was a notice that a spot had opened up in the session on “The Land Snails of Texas.” I have NO idea why she thought my excitement was sort of hilarious. I really want to know more about those snails I see everywhere, especially on the walls of the Dutchtowne Cafe in Cameron.

Of course, snails aren’t ALL I’m looking forward to. I also get to go look at a cave in the neighborhood where I used to live, the Brushy Creek/Avery Ranch area that straddles Austin, Cedar Park, and Round Rock. We always knew there were caves in the limestone below the area, but when one collapsed recently, it became big news (the article I link to here has lots of cool pictures of the cave before it got all cemented up)! The one we are going to look at is NOT directly under any houses, and is apparently a good size. I love the karst and limestone, I guess because I lived on it for 20 years.

You readers will like that I am going to two sessions on taking better photos of plants and wildlife. I hope to learn some iPhone techniques and to take good notes on what I can do when I get my other camera going.

I’ll share more of what I learn in the coming days.

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It’s dreary in north Austin today, but at least I have my reminders to breathe and exhale. And happy plants.

And as for the weather

It’s all rainy AGAIN. Austin has been under a boil order since Monday, which is a pain, but it’s not like we were hit by a tornado or hurricane or anything. The hope is that clearing will happen for the weekend and all the outdoor activities. There’s a real good chance!

At least it’s cooled off and we’ve enjoyed 50s and 60s outside for the last couple of days. That’s nice. Ahhh.

 

A Grand Welcome Home

cranes
Sandhill cranes, just passing through. Loudly.

We returned to the ranch over the weekend, with zero seconds of downtime, but we jumped right into the swing of things and enjoyed visitors, both human and otherwise.

Flying Friends

The most glorious visitors were just passing through. Many flocks of sandhill cranes flew over. We also saw a few snow geese. I just love the sounds of the cranes!

blue_heron
One of my favorite neighbors.

While I was taking crane pictures, two blue herons squawked, so I got nice close photos of them. Of course, they are blurry iPhone pictures, but some day I’ll get a new battery and learn to use the good camera again!

There have also been a lot of visiting starlings, which we don’t usually have. One thing I’ve noticed about them is that they make lots and lots of noise when they are all lined up on the electric wires, but when they take off as a flock to rearrange themselves, they are totally silent. It’s really eerie when you are standing around in the field listening, and suddenly all you hear are the coyotes.

bluet
These are so delicate.

Most of the dragonflies are gone, but we did see a lovely bluet by the small meadow pond. These sure are pretty. They curve their bodies where you see the stripes.

turtle
Why won’t the turtle play with me? (You can sort of see it in the grass.)

More “Friends”

Because it’s rained so much (have I mentioned that? Lots of flooding while we were gone), animals seem to be wandering around. Yesterday, Carlton the dog found an extra large pond turtle in the middle of the pasture. He was most dismayed that it would not come out and play, so he stood there for 15 minutes and barked at it, poking it with his nose a lot. Treats had to be used to save that poor turtle from the torture.

water snake
This dirty part of the porch is where we harmless snakes like to hang out. I want to date this electric cord.

And later yesterday, I once again spotted a large snake on the front porch, in the icky dirty part, of course. I was pretty convinced it was a water mocassin, but the folks at iNaturalist talked me down, and asssured me it was a water snake trying to look like a poisonous one. I am pretty sure this is the same snake I’ve seen over by the pond. It hisses. We kept the dogs away, and it slowly meandered off.

Our house guest was not thrilled that we didn’t kill it. I repeated a number of times, “I don’t kill snakes.” I do understand many people aren’t good with them. My dad sure wasn’t! He’d kill them 3 or 4 times!

scorpion
It’s a scorpion, all right. Small.

In the early evening, we found our first scorpion at the ranch. It was pre-dead, so we didn’t have to do anything to it. We used to see lots more in our house in the karst area of Williamson County

Not Friends at All

We apparently have a visitor over to the chicken coop who is not our friend. It has killed at least 4 of the chickens (at least two roosters, who were probably trying to defend the flock). It gets them IN the chicken coop. Yet another reason for them not to lay eggs in there!

The Neighbor is sure it’s an owl. I think it might be a bobcat, since both hunt at night. A cat could get in there easily from the tree, then scale the fence to get out.

sheep
Leave us ALONE! We just want to eat grass. And escape from these non-sheepproof fences.

Something also went after the four new sheep the Neighbor brought in, and one of them lost a LOT of wool and some flesh, but seems OK. We are hoping the culprit is not the cabin occupant’s dog, who went after the sheep when he first saw them, so they don’t want to leave the pen to eat in the pasture.

Nice of all these creatures to wait until I got home to show up, isn’t it?

 

Wandering through Bluegrass Country

glory
Every color in the mixed packet of morning glories grew on the roadside around Albemarle, NC.

Continuing on our vacation, we spent time in High Point, NC, where lots of my family and old friends live. It’s a beautiful town, though we avoided most of it, because it was Furniture Market time. The hurricane had made a big mess of the town, but they sure cleaned up quickly!

Heading Out

On our way back to Texas, we took a detour, since we knew that we were in the heart of bluegrass music territory, and we owed my son a steel guitar. My friend, Vicki, had told us of some leads and people she knew in the community when we visited an amazing bluegrass instrument store in Statesville. Lee and I figured the time to buy that 2016 Christmas gift for my son was NOW.

guitar
This instrument has beautiful blue green stained tiger maple that doesn’t show up well in photos. Note it has ten strings.

We did some detective work and found that a reasonably priced guitar on eBay was actually nearby in Albemarle (which promoted my stepmom to list everyone she ever knew who lived there and their addresses, from the 40s). We tracked the guy down, and he invited us to come on by.

What a beautiful drive it was! We really enjoyed the countryside, the amazing morning glories growing everywhere (they look like the kind you buy, not like the ones in Texas).

Finding Mr. Hudson (actually he’s a minister) was not easy, but we got help from some deputy sheriffs and Hudson’s wife, who directed us to a garage. There we found beautiful instruments! There were many pedal steel guitars, and also a resonator built like a steel giutar, so you could sit to play it.

yellow tree
Not the prettiest building, but definitely the prettiest tree in Albemarle.

We agreed on a price for the guitar we wanted, and headed into town for money. What a charming little place. We hope Cameron can look so nice eventually. We even found trees changing color, at last.

Country Beauty

After we paid, we followed Mr. Hudson to his “new” shop. Wow. It was down a long driveway in a gorgeous setting, and consisted of many portable buildings all set up into a series of guitar building rooms. I’ll not invade his privacy to show you the drills, saws, and other equipment, but the place was as spotless as the huge place I saw where they make Taylor guitars in California.

farmland
Beautiful North Carolina farmland.

The luthier says that at sunset you often see dozens of deer and large families of turkeys in the field. That is a great workplace!

sundog
Sundogs just before sunset in Georgia. Heading home.

The way back to the interstate was also a lot of fun. And then we enjoyed a glorious sunset, complete with sundogs!

I guess that’s it for nature viewing until we get back to Texas, but this was certainly a worthwhile detour.