Walking Walnut Creek Metro Park

By: Jennifer L. Bristol 

I hit my Covid- 19 live and work-at-home breaking point at the beginning of September. The swimming pools were closed, the days were miserably hot, and all the normal rituals and routines of the end of the summer seemed swept away by the pandemic. I needed a healthy distraction to refocus my mind and find my balance again. While out for a walk with my dogs at Walnut Creek Metro Park near my home in north Austin, I stumbled upon the solution and challenged myself to walk every trail, about 20 miles, of the 293-acre park in eight days. Challenge accepted!

The next day I woke up at the crack of dawn to beat the heat, laced up my walking shoes, slipped the knee brace on my forty-nine year old knee I affectionately call “tricky” and head out to the park with my Belgium Malinois and spirited Corgi. I packed water for the dogs since the creek levels were low and stagnant- not ideal for the dogs to play in or drink. 

Chuck and I after the first day

I didn’t get very far that first day- a short loop along the Pool Lot Trail to the Service Road. Chuck, the Corgi, is athletic and fully capable of turning in the miles; however, walking with him is like walking with a celebrity. Everyone wants to pet him. Admittedly, he is really cute.  

Day two – I left Chuck at home and wandered into a part of the park I had never ventured to before. With my Belgium Malinois leading the way I plodded along the trails between Tar Branch and Walnut Creeks. I stopped to take a picture of the old rock wall and a grove of large live oak trees before ambling along the loops of the Point Six Trail area. 

That evening I posted some photos from my exploration on social media. That’s when my journey took a dramatic turn. One of my friends, Jenny Cearley Sanders, who lives in east Texas, texted to inform me that her family had operated a farm along Walnut Creek until they sold it to the City of Austin in the 1970s for the purpose of a park. My curiosity was sparked. She told me to contact her grandfather, Allen Cearley, which I promptly did.

My conversation with Mr. Cearley turned out to be a treasure trove of information. The 87-year-old preacher shared he had been born in the family farmhouse that once stood near the present-day park maintenance sheds. His grandfather, James E. Cearley, purchased 400-acers from Wayman Wells in 1854 and he and his wife raised their twelve children on the farm.

I opted not to walk on the days when the heat index hovered around 110 degrees. I used the time to dig into the research and plan my routes based on the information Mr. Cearley shared. 

Tar Branch near Root Drop

One of the stories he recounted came from his Aunt Ruth. During the 1870s the remaining Native Americans were being rounded up in Texas and removed to reservations. James Cearley heard voices down near Walnut Creek and rode out to investigate. A handful of U.S. Army soldiers were trying to pull their starving captives out of the pecan trees. James suggested the soldiers set up camp to feed the band of mostly women and children. The soldiers wanted to press on. James would have none-of-it and demanded they camp while he and his wife fed the Native Americans and the troops. The encampment was located near the present-day power station. 

Day three- I ventured down the Pool Lot Trail to the main Walnut Creek crossing, along Shady Springs Trail, up the Hill of Despair, through the Tangle of Trails Loops, to the Power Line Trail. I stopped to look over the fence at the power station to pay respects to the Tonkawa who once camped there. Central Texas was home to the Tonkawa until Comanches and Europeans drove them out.   

Me and my dog after finishing day 3

Day four– I explored deep into the dogs-on-leash area along the Outer Loop Trail to the endless mountain bike trails of the Log Loops, across the Detention Dam, to the Waterfall Crossing and home along a trail I thought was Shady Springs but turned out to be Endo Valley. It is easy to get lost with so many social trails splintering off into the woods. As I walked, I thought about Mr. Cearley and his brothers hunting and fishing along the creeks and limestone hills. In our conversation he mentioned there were very few trees on the tops of the hills where the cattle grazed. He also included that most of the Ashe juniper dominated forest of today came after the grazing animals were removed. 

Day five– According to the City of Austin archeological study conducted in the 1980s and Mr. Cearley there was an old Spanish road that crossed the matrix of creeks near the Tar Branch. Spanish missionaries, Anglo pioneers, and later Texan travelers would stop along the creek to grease their wagon wheels with the tar like substance (asphaltum) that seeped forth from the banks of the creek. During the 1920s a wildcatter named J. D. Mays drilled for oil along the Tar Branch just west of the park – oil was never discovered. I also never discovered the tar seep even though I explored all along the Tar Branch and Shady Springs Trails. I’m not sure I wanted to let my dog near a tar seep anyway. 

A well worn social trail

Day six– I was limited on time, so I picked the Windy Loops, which cut close to North Lamar. I had asked Mr. Cearley to describe his memory of Lamar (the old Dallas- Austin Highway). He recalled it was a narrow, two-lane road with little motor courts, a few dance halls and bars, and the Walnut Creek Baptist Church. The church, located just south of the park, is the oldest continuously operating one in Travis County. Founded by the Cearley’s and other local families in 1856, it is reported that the outlaw Sam Bass stashed some of his stolen loot in the church walls. The thick walls of the original structure were made of large pine timbers from Bastrop and local limestone rock. 

Day seven- Having wandered along most of the trails south of the pool parking lot, I journeyed north to check out the BMX trails. Because of the number of cyclists on this section of trail, I left my dogs at home. The endless loops flow next to the Thein Hau Temple which now occupies the grounds of the old Coxville Zoo. Mr. Cearley worked at the zoo when he was in high school and remembers it fondly- he shared that he liked the monkeys the best. The zoo sprawled out over several acres with a menagerie of animals and was part of the Cox Filling Station, established in 1939. Additionally, there was a motor court and swimming hole that cost a $1.00 to swim in. Under pressure from the Human Society and the City of Austin, the zoo closed in the 1970s. 

Day eight– I needed one more day to check off the Sever Consequences Loops. With that last section completed, I added up my daily totals and had explored 22.3 miles in eight days. In order to get to all the trails, I had to cross several tracks more than once as I started all my adventures from the parking area near the swimming pool and sports fields.

A nice shady trail

Most importantly I learned about the history and heritage of the land and the people who have lived here way before I showed up. Covid-19 has been hard on all of us. Being able to explore the nature that is just down the street from my home has been a bright spot during these anxious times. I’m grateful the City of Austin purchased the land from the Cearley family in the 1970s and slowly turned it into one of the crown jewels of the park system. What I also learned on my journey is – we need more parks to accommodate our growing population. 

Fall Time Flutters

The fall migration starts in August for the birds with waves of Purple Martins, swallows, and song birds passing through. September we see an influx of hummingbirds; both the Ruby-throated and Black-chinned pass through Central Texas on their way to Central and South America. The bats head south in September and October after spending their spring and summer under the Ann Richard’s Memorial Bridge over Lady Bird Lake and north in Round Rock along I-35 or in caves in the hill country.

October normally ushers in waves of various butterflies and moths, and that is true for this year as well. What was special about this year is we were treated to an unusually large explosion of American Snout Butterflies. I’m not a butterfly expert by any account; however, I do enjoy learning about the nature that surrounds us. According to the website Texas Entomology by Mike Quinn, “Mass movement of snout butterflies are spectacular for their density, duration and geographical extent. Periodic snout outbreaks are one of the most phenomimal reoccurring south Texas entomological events. In late September of 1921 an estimated 6 billion butterflies passed over a 250 mile front over 18 days.”

American Snout Butterfly: photo Jennifer L. Bristol

The American Snouts lay their eggs on Hackberry trees- Spiny Hackberries are their favorite. As young leafs bud out the larva feeds on them with a high success rate for reaching adulthood. While at Choke Canyon State Park on October 9 -11, I experienced millions of these butterflies filling the air as they fluttered south on their journey. Days before going to South Texas, I noticed the butterflies increasing in their norther range around Austin. I felt guilty for striking so many with my car as I drove the backroads to South Texas from Austin. While the bulk of the mass migration is over, several will remain in the area for the next few weeks.

Sulphur Butterfly: Photo Jennifer L. Bristol

Other October pollinators that pass through at this time are the Sulphur and Red Admiral Butterflies, Pipevine Swallowtails and other swallow tails and of course the star of the butterfly / moth migration the Monarch Butterfly. The Monarch populations have greatly diminished in the past few decades due to the use of harmful agricultural and home use pesticides and weed killers such as Round-up. Habitat loss and an increase of extreme weather also play a major roll in the reduction of these iconic butterflies. You can help these lovely creatures by planting native plants that flower in April and October. Lantana, Turk’s Cap, Golden Eye Daisies and Frost Weed are some of the fall favorites of all passing butterflies and moths and local honey bees. The Queen Butterfly is also a orange and black butterfly that looks much like the Monarch and passes through at the same time as the Monarchs. Queens love the native blue mist flowers. For more about Monarchs check out my blog post Memories of Monarch Butterflies.

Pipevine Swallowtail: Photo Jennifer L. Bristol

In November we should see the return of certain small birds that winter in central Texas such as: Cedar Waxwings, Yellow-crowned Warblers, Yellow-rump Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and American Goldfinches. These birds don’t often come to feeders unless you have a mix that includes berries. However, they all need water and will come to bird baths frequently. Having a good mix of native plants and trees will also increase your chances of seeing these wintering birds. For more about places to see birds and learn about birds check out my new book, Parking Lot Birding: A Fun Guide to Discovering Birds in Texas.

I hope you have a safe and healthy fall and will take the time to go outside and notice the nature that surrounds us each and everyday. We do not have the dramatic seasons of the norther states, however, we are front and center for some of the best bird, bat, and butterfly migration in the country. For additional information about butterflies and moths see my earlier post Nature Near Me.

Black Witch Moth: Photo Jennifer L. Bristol
Queen Butterfly: Photo by Jennifer L. Bristol

Hummingbirds: Jewels of the Sky

Hummingbirds just make me smile. They are so tiny, yet so tough. I would even put them in the “bossy bird” category. I would also place them in the dazzling category. 

Texas can boast having 17 species that either live or pass through the state with the Trans-Pecos region supporting the most amount of species. The two most common species that occur in Texas are the Ruby-throated (central and east Texas) and Black-chinned Hummingbirds (central and west Texas). Both arrive in the state in March and April, and then head south between mid-August to the end of September. As they migrate south it is vital that they have enough food to fuel them along the thousands of miles they journey. You can provide food and water for these avian friends by planting native plants that flower in the fall or place a hummingbird feeder out starting in early August. Here are some tips on maintain a healthy feeding station for the hummers. 

  1. Create the mix with ¼ cup of REFINED white sugar and 1 cup of boiling water. The sugar must be refined. Mix the two together, stir until clear, pour into feeder, wipe the feeder down, and hang outside. 
  2. Make sure your feeder stays clean. If the hummingbird mix starts looking cloudy or has been out in the heat for a few days, replace the liquid. 
  3. Wiping the feeder clean of sugar-water from the outside will help reduce the number of bees that come to the feeder. 
  4. Make sure the feeder is hung out of reach of cats.  
  5. If you hang a feeder out, be sure to be consistent with it from year to year as a hummingbird will remember where it found a good food source from season to season. 
  6. Please DO NOT use feeder mix that has red dye in it.

I have my hummingbird feeder hung outside my office window so I can enjoy seeing them while I work. The feeder in my front yard is near other flowering native plants so the tiny birds have a variety of feeding options. 

The Lady Bird Wildflower Center has a special Hummingbird Collection on their website which lists lots of great plant ideas to attract and feed our feathered friends. I also highly recommend picking up a copy of Hummingbirds of Texas to learn about the birds and what plants attract them. The information and photos in the book are excellent. 

One of the best places to see the hummingbirds is in the Davis Mountains in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas. Several species breed in the area during the summer, while others filter back through on their migration south for the winter. Each year (canceled in 2020 for Covid) a group of dedicated volunteers puts on the Davis Mountains Hummingbird Festival to celebrate the tiny, dazzling birds. I have to admit the mix of the starkness of the desert mountains, the flowering cactus and other plants and the jewel tones of the Hummers is a magical sight to witness. The festival is canceled for 2020, but hopefully will resume in 2021. 

Rufous Hummingbird- Davis Mountains. Photo: Jennifer Bristol

The other place to see the hummers, is along the Texas coast as the Ruby-throats congregate before making their leap of faith across the Gulf of Mexico to their wintering grounds in Central and South America. Other hummingbirds travel overland into Mexico and points south. Some species such as the Buff-bellied Hummingbird can be found year-round in the Rio Grande Valley. 

If you can’t leave your house but need a Hummer fix, have a look at the Cornell Lab or Ornithology’s- Feeder Watch– on their website. 

No matter what part of Texas you live in, there are likely hummingbirds passing through your area during August and September so consider hanging out a feeder and planting native plants to enjoy these jewels of the sky. 

PARKING LOT BIRDING

I’m very pleased to announce that Parking Lot Birding: A Fun Guide to Discovering Birds in Texas will be shipping out in April, just in time for the spring bird migration. Due to the Covid-19 safety measures many of the April events have been canceled. If you were planning on attending an April event and would still like a signed copy, you can now order books directly from me, just click on the link here and follow the instructions. Please note that if you would like an inscription in the book, please use the contact page to send me an email with what you would like in the book(s) you have purchased. 

You can also order from A&M University PressBarnes and Nobles, or Book People

I hope you will get out and enjoy birding this spring. But please remember to keep an Eagle’s wingspan between you and other people to safely social distance while discovering the birds in Texas. 

My Big Covid- 19 Lockdown Promotion

I’m so pleased to announce I have just been promoted. I’ve been working at the Nilles- Bristol Resort Living Community since 2009. It started as a part-time side gig as I was working full-time at another establishment. I would help out in the evenings and weekends as best I could. Last Summer I went full-time and started in the housekeeping and landscaping division. The staff and residents are amazing here. I have some language barriers with a few of the residents, but we seem to get our thoughts across. 

Cachina at the spa

 This week my boss made it official that I am the new Activities and Catering Manager. It is such an honor. I’ve really wanted this position and the prestigious title that comes with it but never thought I had the skills required. He said the residents are really happy with the meals I’ve been preparing, and they find my activities to be engaging and sometimes even challenging. I think the mud-spa treatment that I arranged for one of the older residents really sealed the deal. 

My mind is racing with new types of games and exercise programs that I can now offer the residents. Tonight, I have planned a special meal/ activity for the VIP resident. We will start with an easy walk with the other live-ins, then he will be treated to a cocktail and snacks in the west facing porch, followed by a light meal on the covered deck, and finally an after-diner drink on the sky-viewing patio. The other residents will have their standard meal and can join in the festivities on the sky-viewing patio after their 6:30 pm nap. I will admit since most of the residents nap most of the day, the work load is fairly light. One of the more senior residents spends most of her time watching the TV window.

Resident, Chuck, enjoying a Cactus Swirl cocktail

The only downside is my boss mentioned that because of the uncertainty in the Covid-19 world right now, I won’t see an increase in pay, and I will have to continue with my housekeeping and landscaping duties. However, if I exceed during this quarter, I am eligible for a bonus. Oh, and he mentioned that I qualify for a comped meal and cocktail on the weekends. I really feel like I am in a supportive work/ life environment and if I continue to apply myself, I’m certain that I can continue to elevate myself and the Nilles-Bristol Resort Living Community. 

I never thought I could turn my part-time side gig into such a meaningful career. It just goes to show that with hard work, and a positive attitude, anything is possible. Well no time to waste, I’m off to tackle the laundry, attend to the landscaping duties, and two residents have requested massages this afternoon. At least I think that’s what they’ve asked for; as I mentioned sometimes there are language barriers. 

Meet the Residents: Chuck, Chief, Coburg, Cachina, Casino

Resources for Birding with Kids

With everyone sheltering in place and schools closed during the Corvid-19 epidemic I thought I might create a quick catalog of resources for birding with kids. The spring migration is a great time to introduce kids to the wonder of birds as they move from South and Central America to North America. During the spring migration they are dressed in their most colorful breeding plumage and easier to see than in the fall. If you can’t get out to a park or nature center to bird, consider setting a bird feeder at your home or apartment and keep a journal of what birds arrive throughout the year. I also highly recommend introducing young kids to birding through story books, coloring pages and games. Below is a list of some of my favorite books as well as places to find bird feeders and seed that are safe and healthy for the birds.

Books:

Am I Like You? by Authors: Brian Scott Sockin & Laura Erickson Illustrated by: Anna Rettberg is one of my favorite birding books for kids.

Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas  (Author), The Dalai Lama (Afterword), Wangari Maathai (Contributor)

Common Backyard Birds by Doris Dumrauf is a good starter book for identifying common birds.

Baby Owls by Martin Waddell is beautifully illustrated story about little owls missing their mommy and so happy when she returns.

About Birds: A Guide for Children by  Cathryn Sill, Illustrator – John Sill also has great illustrations and is easy reading for kids 5-8 years old.

Ruby’s Birds by Mya Thompson and Illustrator: Claudia Dávila is a picture book and totally fun for young kids.

The Little Hummingbird By  Michael Yahgulanaas is a wonderful book about hope and overcoming the odds. I’ve used this book a lot with middle school kids.

When it comes to coloring books, Dover is the best place to find quality books for kids and adults.

Bird Feeders:

Finding the right bird feeder isn’t always easy. Thankfully there are feeders now for just about every home from those with large yards to an intimate balcony space at an apartment. One thing to keep in mind when feeding the birds is to only use bird seed or hummingbird nectar that comes from a trust source. Never feed birds bread, it is not a natural food option for them and can be harmful. Also please avoid using hummingbird nectar that has red dye in it. The dye is also harmful to the birds. If you do set out feeders, please make sure they are cleaned regularly and out of reach of cats. House cats are wonderful pets, however, they are also very efficient predators who will snatch a bird if they have the chance.

Wild Birds Unlimited has just about everything you could ever want to attract birds to your yard year round. I also like Wild Bird Centers and my local feed store, Calahans General Store. Most stores have curb side pick up or delivery service during the shelter-in-place order.

Create a Habitat:

Having a bird feeder is great, but supplying birds with native plants is even better. Audubon has made it easy to pick out native plants that are right for your zip code on their new Plant for Birds website. Just type in the zip code you live in and find plants that create food or cover for birds year round. I prefer to go to plant stores that are local and raise their plants locally instead of a big box store that might import their plants from far away places. Invasive plants that come from Asia or other places can be toxic to children and wildlife.

If you live in the Austin area, check out Barton Springs Nursery for the very best of native plants and trees. And it’s located right next to Wild Birds Unlimited. You can even turn your yard into a Certified Wildlife Habitat through the National Wildlife Federation.

Lesson Plans and Educational Materials:

Audubon has tons of lesson plans, activities and other ideas to get kids interested in watching and caring for birds. They have a nice guide on how to make nectar for hummingbirds that I’ve used many times.

When it comes to learning about birds, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is at the very top. Check out their k-12 lessons and learning labs.

Hummingbird feeding on the Red Yucca in my yard.

Parking Lot Birding – the Journey

I’m crazy excited to announce that my very first book will be out this spring and pre-orders can already be made. Parking Lot Birding: A Fun Guide to Discovering Birds in Texas with A&M University Press was a blast to research and write. I had a lot of help while doing the field research as I was joined by my mother, Valarie Bristol, and amazing Husband, Thomas Nilles. Thomas also contributed many of the photos for the “Feather Facts.”

I was introduced to many of the locations and nature centers mentioned in the book while I was the coordinator for the Texas Children in Nature program with Texas Parks and Wildlife. I would try to arrive early or stay a little late after a meeting to walk the campus of the centers and get to know the habitat, trails, bird blinds and other points of interest. I wasn’t always birding, but was always looking for places to recommend to people who were interested in finding meaningful experiences in nature, but didn’t want to travel to some far away place. It’s important to me that people think about nature as the tree out their window, the park down their street or even the campus of their school instead of some far away place like the Rain Forest.

In my early days of birding I made a lot of rookie mistakes. I hiked a lot of miles loaded down with gear. On more than one occasion, I forgot my camera and binoculars at home.  I share my mistakes in Parking Lot Birding in hopes that other can learn from them and avoid unwanted blisters, sunburns, and the frustration of not having a camera ready to photograph the perfect bird.

The book lists ninety individual birding locations around the state that offer easy going birding opportunities for people with all abilities. Because of my past work, I have a special affinity for parents or grandparents who take their kids out birding or just to notice nature in general. It’s easy to get kids interested in birding if they can go somewhere the birds are easy to see, there’s a good variety of them, and they don’t have to travel too far.

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I try to weave in the history or other interesting facts about the location, while also summarizing what birds someone might find there and what season they occur in. At the closing of each location’s description, I include a Feather Fact that highlights a bird that might be found at that location. There are ninety Feather Facts and around forty other colorful photos to help folks identify and learn about our feathered friends.

For me, writing the book was the trifecta of what I love in life- Nature, Travel, History- all packaged up in my home state of Texas. Plus- I was lucky enough to research it with people I love- my husband, mother, friends, co-workers, and sometimes total strangers that dazzled me with their knowledge.

People ask me how long it took to write. From the time I started the manuscript to the time I turned in the first full draft was eighteen months. Then there was another eighteen months of editing copy and photos to get it ready for production. The team at A&M University Press has been amazingly kind to help me through the process and get to the better version. I will add that the research took several years. I was doing the research before I even had the book idea in mind.

The idea came to me when we were on one of the Great Texas Birding Classic competitions and started joking about how the birds always seemed to be located near the parking lot, nature center campus, bird blind, or boardwalk. Right then and there I pulled out my notebook and sketched out the idea at lunch with my husband and mother. We laughed our faces off about the concept, but my mind was already at work on how it could all flow together.

Once I started writing, I worked on it in the evenings after work, in hotel rooms after conferences, on airplanes, and even while camping. Actually, I spent a lot of time in the RV writing in between walks, swims, birding, and laughing around the campfire with Thomas and our five dogs.

All this is to say, if you’ve ever wanted to write a book- just do it. A wise woman at the Texas Writer’s League once said, “if you write a page a day, you’ll be done in a year.” I believed her and that became my goal even while working full-time and trying to keep up with everything else.

I’m excited that the book will be published this spring, just in time for the migration. I’m also grateful that Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and Our Wild Calling, contributed the forward for the book. I think the hardest part was editing the manuscript, reading about the birds and not be out there birding. Luckly, my next book project is about birding as well and I’m having a blast doing the research.

Order your copy of Parking Lot Birding at https://www.tamupress.com/book/9781623498511/parking-lot-birding/

Patterns in Nature

I’m fascinated by how wildlife adapts their feathers, fur or skin to display certain patterns or colors to camouflage them from predators or attract a mate. Perhaps no other category of wildlife has more patterns or color than birds. It wasn’t until my husband gave me a good camera lens that I started to really appreciate the intricacy of these adaptations.

American Bittern standing like a reed
American Bittern, photo by Jennifer Bristol

Sometimes I will be marveling at a splendidly colored bird and then poof, it disappears into the lush canopy of green. Despite the fact it is bright orange or yellow, it can fold into the hues and go unnoticed by my human eye. And of course nothing can hide like the American Bittern who is not only colored and patterned like the reeds of the marshes it lives in; it can also stand with its head up and look like a reed.

Then there are some birds, like the male Northern Cardinal that don’t seem interested in blending into any setting. They maintain their brilliant red year round and are often a welcome flash of color on a grey winter day.

But it’s more than just the color that I marvel at, the patterns are of equal interest. Some times it is the pattern on their wings; other times it is how the water beads up and rolls of the back of water fowl. Their feet also hold a house of mystery with various adaptations and designs.

The Green Heron looks like each of its green wing feathers are outlined in gold. No matter what the bird, there is something captivating once we take the time to look closer and see them for what they really are.

 

 

Feeling Birdy

It’s almost October and still 100 degrees in Central Texas. But with the arrival of a Baltimore Oriole in our yard this week, I know the fall migration is in full swing even it fall isn’t.IMG_7370

The Ruby Throated Hummingbirds have been hanging out for weeks, and the Chimney Swifts are still circling overhead in the evenings. The Purple Martins left for South America in August, and most of the Common Nighthawks left soon after. Each species has a timed migration pattern that is perfectly orchestrated to other parts of nature. When humans alter nature, they deprive birds the right to a safe and healthy migration with their families and flocks.

Our little two acre homestead in North Austin is a safe haven for birds year round. We have carefully begun the process of removing the thousands of invasive plants that took over the forest and we started cultivating plants that are native to this area. Additionally, we also do not spray pesticides or use chemicals on the lawn. It’s a lot of physical labor, but worth the effort when a species of bird arrives that I have not yet seen in the area.

On September 23 a massive flock of Common Grackles showed up and continues to grow larger as their friends arrive. They differ from the Great-Tailed Grackle that hangs out in Austin year round in that they have smaller tails, smaller bodies, and the males looked like they dipped their head in an oil slick.

Great Tailed Grackel
Great-tailed Grackle, Photo- Jennifer L. Bristol

My favorite bird that lives in our woods are the Carolina Chickadees. Now that their babies are fledged and fully grown, the parents are less frantic and more social. When they see me out watering the flowers they start filling the hackberry trees on the edge of the yard. I spray the trees for a few minutes and they flitter about bathing, drinking, and catching the bugs the water brings out. Soon they are joined by the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and the Northern Cardinals; all chattering to each other and to me.

Research shows that people who live in a richer biodiversity have better health than those that live in areas with fewer species of plants and animals. By removing the mono-forest of invasive plants and encouraging a grander scale of native plants, insects, birds and other wildlife to return I am investing in my own health as well as theirs.

Five things you can do to have a bird friendly yard:

  1. Have a birdbath with clean water that is out of reach from house cats
  2. Set up bird feeders that are out of reach of cats and other pets
  3. Plant native plants that produce seeds, berries, or flowers
  4. Reduce any use of chemicals, especially pesticides
  5. Keep your house cats indoors

For a little more wildlife- check out this short video. We are truly lucky to share this forest with so many birds, butterflies, and other animals large and small. Please note that we feed the birds, but we do not feed the other wildlife. During the droughts, after the creeks dry up we do put out buckets of water for them.

 

 

Memories of the Monarch Butterfly

When I was a child my parents subscribed to National Geographic and I always looked forward every month to see what new wonders of the world they would surprise and delight us with in their latest issue. We kept those magazines for years and used them for all sorts of homework and art projects. There was one issue in particular that was my favorite and I still have it; August, 1976. That month featured a beautiful photo of a woman surrounded by monarch butterflies in their secret wintering haven in Mexico.

Growing up in Central Texas, I’ve always had a special admiration for the monarch butterfly. Each April and October they flutter along ancient migration routes that carry them through Texas. When I was at college at Texas State University, I would linger in the library on campus to watch the butterflies float along, catching the updrafts of the building as they journey to and from Mexico. On days when I felt like there was no possible way that I could continue on with working full time and go to school full time; I would watch those little creatures and be inspired to keep going.

On November 22, 2013 the New York Times published an article titled “The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear.” The article summarized that the monarchs have dropped to record lows and explained all the many factors for their demise; pesticides, loss of habitat, loss of milkweed and native plants, and an increase in extreme weather patterns. Fewer than 3 million butterflies reached their wintering grounds in Mexico tin 2013 compared to 60 million in 2012.

The impact of the loss of such an iconic and important member of North American wildlife opens my heart to many questions. I work daily to connect children and families to nature so that they can have a healthier, happier and smarter future. But it concerns me that we are reaching a point when the natural world that kids today are discovering, is so dramatically different than the one that I enjoyed just a few decades ago. I have to wonder if my generation is going to be the one that doesn’t just see the loss of most of the world’s important mega fauna and now the bees and butterflies; but we let it happen.

It makes me want to do more. It makes me want to double my efforts to not just connect children with nature, but make sure that they have access to all the biodiversity that I had as a child. It makes me want to educate others about the harm that Nicotine-based pesticides have on our insect, bird and bat populations. It makes me want to join in the growing chorus of voices that are demanding that we stop importing invasive plants into our country. It makes me want to educate others about land fragmentation and loss of habitat. And it makes me want to ask each of you to think about what more can you do in your daily life to ensure that we have a healthy, robust natural world to connect children with.

Here are some simple tips to get started:

1. Remove the invasive plants from your yard and replace them with native plants that require less water.

2. Don’t use harmful pesticides or fertilizers on your yard. Replace them with organic choices or refrain from using them at all. Never use Roundup or other weed killers.

3. Plant milkweed or other native plants that support the migrating butterflies and birds. (see list below for garden centers that carry milkweed.)

4. Engage with a local school, church or business to influence them to make informed choices that will support local biodiversity.

5. Get outdoors. Caring for nature starts with a connection with nature.

I know that we can do better for our children to give them a natural world that is filled with inspiration and wonder, like the one I discovered on the pages of National Geographic in 1976. National Geographic; August 1976: Discovered: The Monarchs Mexican Haven.

Find milkweed at: Barton Springs Nursery, Countryside Nursery, Garden-Ville, Great Outdoors, It’s About Thyme, Natural Gardener

Find out where to get outdoors at http://www.naturerockstexas.org

New York Time; by Jim Robbins: The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear

This blog was originally posted on Texas Children in Nature and Children & Nature Network. Written by: Jennifer L. Bristol