Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge – The Adventure Begins

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Wow, I am really behind! The next several paragraphs were written within a week of our arrival at Balcones. I had held up publishing this article while trying to get permission to use photos of a volunteer family with minor children. By the time I got the mother’s permission we were several weeks into our stay. Then I just got overwhelmed with all that we were doing and all the fun we have been having. Now, I am going to try to get caught up. The previous was written a long time ago. I will now revise and hopefully publish within the next 24 hours.

We arrived at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge on February 3, for what was to be a near four month stent for us.

Balcones Canyonlands NWR exists for the purpose of protecting two rare bird species, the Golden Cheeked Warbler and the Black Capped Vireo. In effecting this purpose the agency is in the business of protecting and improving the habitat which supports these two very different bird species. In fact the environmental requirements for each species are really quite different. However both habitats exist naturally in the area.

Connie and I were brought on as volunteers for two very different purposes. Connie was to work education programs while I was to work in maintenance. While the details of Connie’s position were pretty well understood when we interviewed for the positions, my job description remained pretty much a mystery until our arrival.

During our initial orientation session with our supervisor, Rob Iski, we were informed that we would both be working in education programs as a couple who was to return for the season had to cancel, thereby leaving a whole in the education staff of volunteers.

However, Rob and I very quickly came to the realization that it could be very difficult for Connie and me to achieve the required 24 hours per week of volunteer hours without some additional tasking beyond education programs. Within our responsibilities as educators we need to know the refuge property and its varying habitats as well as where the target birds are to be found once they returned to the area to nest late in February for the Golden-cheeked Warbler and early in March for the Black-capped Vireo. In order for us to gain that knowledge we had to explore the refuge acre by acre, trail by trail. A big part of what we did during our first month here was just that, explore the refuge.

We were the two driving around to various access points, driving along the roads studying the habitat and watching for whatever birds may be present. Or we were walking the various trails again with an eye for the habitat and for what birds may be present. We carried binoculars, cameras, trash bags and a picker to pick-up the trash and debris we encountered. In other words were doing what we would do were we merely visitors to the refuge. What a deal.

We were also assigned to clean-out the bluebird boxes at the refuge headquarters with a twist. The twist was that we were to train a mother and her three children ranging in age from fifteen to four. We had never cleaned bluebird boxes before, but the refuge has a great booklet that has been made available to the public and of course us volunteers. Connie and I spent a few minutes each reading through the booklet to learn what needed to be done. Then we chose one box and performed the cleaning and maintenance steps while we were waiting for these young volunteers to arrive. Over the next few hours we trained the family and completed the task. The family returns on a weekly basis during the nesting season and performs the monitoring of the boxes to determine which are used by the birds this spring and to what success. They seemed pretty enthusiastic about their responsibilities. Connie and I were quite impressed with their eagerness to reach into the boxes to remove the remains from last season. I took a few photos of these young volunteers in training performing the clean out of one of the boxes. You can see some of those photos in the web album associated with this article.

While the weather in Central Texas was not real great in our first few weeks we made the best of things and learned our way around the area fairly quickly. We quickly realized we are going to enjoy this assignment regardless of what our job description really was.

We had a pretty deep cold snap the first two nights we were here. The second night was so much warmer than the first night that we failed to drip our water and woke up the next morning to a frozen freshwater supply hose. After several minutes of applying heat with a hair dryer I was able to restore flow. By the time I got back inside to the relative warmth Connie told me she thought the toilet was leaking. When I checked it out I saw that the vacuum breaker assembly was cracked at a glued seam. Every time we flushed the toilet water sprayed out in a fan shaped stream from the crack. I disassembled the assembly from the toilet and the supply line and attempted to take it apart. However, the crack covered less than fifty percent of the device and I could not get it to come apart to clean and re-glue. I had some emergency epoxy clay that comes in a cylindrical shape with one part forming a wrap around the other part. To use it you simply cut off the required length and then knead the two parts together until a uniform color is achieved. Then you form the epoxy around the affected piece and let is setup for an hour.

I had never used this product before, but it looked to be our only chance of having a working toilet anytime soon, so I gave it a try. To my surprise and glee, it worked and worked really quite well. However, I don’t know how long it will last and I don’t want to take any chances since there are no other options for toilets when the refuge is closed. That said, we made a call to Camping World which is probably some 60 miles away and stock checked the part number. As luck would have it they had the part, so on Super Bowl Sunday we made a dash down there to pick it up and of course a whole bunch of other stuff we probably didn’t really need.

I got pretty busy following Super Bowl Sunday and the new vacuum breaker assembly never got installed. The repaired part is working just fine. I will keep the new one as a spare or install it in some needy person’s rig when necessary.

We got back from our Camping World run in time to attend a Super Bowl Party sponsored by the Volunteer Coordinator and President of the Friends of Balcones NWR, Dub Lyon. The party gave us an opportunity to meet and get to know our fellow RV volunteers. There were three couples of us when we arrived. One couple would leave within a month of our arrival. The other couple was to leave not long after that. However, Bev, the she of the couple fell and broke her arm. The bones had to be put back together with plates and screws. During the same time period, Henry, the he of the couple lost control of his fifth wheel puller and wound up in the ditch. It would take several weeks to get the rig fixed. While that was bad, it gave us plenty more time together. Bev had a near complete recovery from her injury before they left, and of course they contributed several more valuable hours to the refuge in exchange for a place to stay. We enjoyed our time together with Bev and Henry. They tend to live the same way we do. So we shared a good number of dining experiences.

We also got to watch the Super Bowl on a larger TV than ours. Since I have been a long time fan of the Green Bay Packers, I was pretty happy with the outcome of the game. I wouldn’t have been completely disappointed had Pittsburgh won since we have so many family members living there (sorry Patty). We really enjoyed the game and the gathering. Did I mention the food? I will just say that customary as it seems to be at Super Bowl parties, I ate too much. All was good and some was even almost healthy.

Well, that was what I had been prepared to publish a good long while ago. Here is what has gone on since.

We had a great time getting to know much of the refuge while awaiting the arrival of the Golden-cheeked Warblers. We kept an eye on TEXBIRDS to track their northward migration. We were fortunate enough to have been the first two people to sight their arrival to the refuge. Since then we have seen several of these beautiful creatures. One particularly neat sighting came the day after a prescribed burn was conducted by the refuge fire crew. Connie and I were asked to go onto the tract that had been burned and determine whether there were any Golden-cheeked Warblers in the canyons that had purposely been spared from the fire. We parked our truck at the edge of the burn area and began hiking along the edge and eventually up the canyon wall all the time watching and listening for the birds. We eventually found two males singing there little hearts out trying to attract females who had not yet arrived in the area. Unfortunately, these two birds were in areas not easily accessible and therefore not appropriate for taking guests of the refuge on birdwalks to see them. It was a great hike for us, though. We learned very quickly the value of carrying a good GPS while conducting these searches as there are no trails and since much of the walking is done in dense forest it would be very difficult to find one’s way back to the starting point without the aid of technology. Our GPS performed wonderfully for this task. We were also able to record the positions of the two birds we found with the simple push of a button creating a waypoint in the GPS. We would later learn a lot more about using this technology for other assignments from the staff biologists.

Eventually we would find Golden-cheeked Warblers on a tract where the refuge’s 15 passenger van can get into quite easily. That gave us an appropriate place to take visitors on our walks.

The Black-capped Vireos arrive later in the season than the warblers, but this year they were even later than usual, probably due to the cold weather. Our first birdwalk occurred before any of these evasive creatures had been seen anywhere in the area. By this time Connie and I were not the only people on the refuge looking for them. There were three graduate students from Texas State University who came to the refuge to study the birds. They couldn’t find any either. That made Connie and me feel much better. We were afraid we were not finding the birds because our level of expertise was not up to the task. When the “pros” couldn’t find any a great deal of pressure was taken off our shoulders. However, that fact didn’t make that first walk any easier to execute. The visitors were a group from nearby Georgetown, Texas. They were all members of the Georgetown Natural History Club. Many of them could have written some of that history from personal experience, if you get my drift. Our walks were advertised as being challenging. Getting into and out of the van was a pretty good challenge for some of these folks, so we had to be careful where we took them. For the warbler we decided to take them to an area accessible to the public because it has good trails and we had seen the birds along the easier parts of the trail. That was a good idea, but it didn’t go quite as planned. First we heard only one bird and he was a long way away. Second, there were two groups of runners using the trail at the same time causing our elder guests some concerns. One of the gentlemen fell over backwards narrowly avoiding smacking his head on a rock. He was only a few feet in front of me, but his wife was between us and she just froze making it impossible for me to step up and break his fall. As it turned out, he was not injured beyond his pride and we were able to get him back on his feet with just a little effort. Too close a call as far as I was concerned.

We were not able to spot any warblers for this wonderful group of people and for that we felt bad. However, they seemed to not care too much. They had a wonderful outing and took Connie and me to lunch as a thank you for our efforts.

We have led five other formal birdwalks and taken some of our friends out with us to scout for birds on other days. We have had several sightings of both target birds, but rarely on the same day with the same group of people. It has been quite frustrating and quite rewarding at the same time. Of course they call these two species rare for good reason. There just aren’t a lot of them to see. This refuge is spread over some eighty thousand acres of which over twenty thousand acres are currently part of the refuge and most of the land supports the appropriate habitat for one or the other of the birds. Therefore, it makes perfectly good sense that not all visitors even when led by experienced guides will see both species in a three hour period which included over an hour of driving. Couple that with the fact that we are doing this for the first time in either our lives and you can remove that “experienced” word from the equation. Our last bird walk was the fullest and we had very good looks at both birds. So, we at least ended on a very positive note.

Scouting for birds and leading birdwalks are not all that we do. A big part of the refuge’s outreach to the public is conducted via elementary school field days to the refuge for one of two environmental education programs Rob has developed. Bridges to Birding offers an eight station program where the students are introduced to bird life. The stations include such topics as What is a Bird, Nesting, Migration, Banding, Refuge Management, Binocular Use, Field Guide Use and Organization and Bird Songs. One of the events that the refuge sponsored and conducted early in our stay was a training session for potential presenters of this program and the sister program Going Buggy. I will have more to say about Going Buggy later. Rob had asked us to get up to speed on the Banding portion of the program when we first arrived, as we would be giving the training on that portion of the program. We would also, as it turned out be assigned to present the Banding station to the elementary school students who were to visit this season. While our presentation at the training session was just so so (there were several reasons, late in the afternoon, truncated presentation due to time constraints, we were doing it for the first time) we got really proficient at our first session with real kids as each station is presented eight times over a two hour period. You either get it right after a few presentations or you just fold and meltdown. Connie and I sort of tag teamed the presentation and we got it pretty much right from the get go. I should note that the majority of the presenters are Master Naturalists who have received hours of training on the subjects they present. Many of these folks are retired school teachers and almost all have children and grandchildren of their own. We have none of those credentials, so we felt we were swimming against the current. Our only bit of credibility entering the program was the knowledge we brought to the table of having worked at a banding station for several seasons while living in Georgia. We got through two days of Bridges to Birding at the public school level and one day with only two home schooled children where we presented two stations each. I had it easy that day as I presented binocular usage and refuge management. The binoculars portion was super easy. The refuge management was after lunch and way too boring for these young souls. Connie did field guides and banding, so she too had a pretty easy day of it. It was really unfortunate that none of the other 11 children and their parents who were signed up made it to the presentation.

Since we were volunteering for bird programs we paid little attention to the Going Buggy portion of the training. We were surprised when Rob told us we were going to present two stations each of the Going Buggy Program to home school children on a Saturday morning. We balked and even went so far as to say we felt he was taking advantage of us because we were living on the refuge. We made it quite clear that we had not signed up for insect programs and worse that we really felt we would be way out of our comfort zone to attempt to present the program. Rob was not moved. However, the United States Congress set us free so to speak. With the threat of a Government shutdown dragging well into the Friday before the scheduled program, the refuge manager with the help of her bosses all the way up to the Secretary of the Interior made the decision to pull the plug on the program Friday afternoon while there was time to contact all who had signed up. As it turned out the government did not shutdown, but it was too late by then. We dodged a bullet for sure. However, the program has been rescheduled to a day in May before we leave. To our surprise, Rob did in fact listen to what we had said and has arranged for other volunteers familiar with the Going Buggy Program to give up a Saturday to help him out.

The season’s first full blown Going Buggy Program was for 120 students. Connie got pressed into doing the station that discusses the study of insects. Of all the insect programs that one is one of the least technical. She did well and got good comments from the kids and teachers. I was the time keeper. I kept people moving every eighteen minutes so that all groups were traveling between stations at the same time. As with the Bridges to Birding Program, the Going Buggy Program has eight stations, What is an Insect, Families of Insects, Social Insects, Insect Senses, Aquatic Insects, Good Insects, Insect Habitats and Studying Insects. Many of these segments are quite technical and way over my head.

Part of our filler work has been to make sure all the station boxes have all the required materials in them for both programs. We learned a lot from doing that work. We have also been doing a good bit of work to upgrade some of the photos used in the presentations. I learned more than I wanted to know about insect families while searching for photos of insects that I could print as 8 by 10 prints so they can be seen easily. That was a challenge, but one that will make the program easier to hold the students’ attention.

The really fun thing we have gotten involved in is a bird survey of a tract of refuge property that has had no active management since its acquisition. No one is sure what birds use this tract for nesting as it is one of the few tracts that potentially could support either of the rare species we are interested in. It is even possible that it may be a tract that could possibly be managed for both birds. Our assignment was to conduct a formal survey of the entire tract of land for either rare bird and chart our findings. To do this we have to spend at least five continuous hours on the property each week looking and listening for the target birds. When one is spotted its location is annotated on a map using the GPS to pinpoint the location as closely as possible to where the bird is seen. We chart any counter singing between multiple males, note any females seen in the area and if so lucky as to locate a nest, mark its location both on the map and physically with bright colored ribbon. It is real science with real purpose and we are really excited to be doing it. The reality to date has been that the tract is considerably overgrown making it a real physical challenge to move through the property. We have spent four days conducting the survey so far and have sighted only one Golden-cheeked Warbler. We have head others in fairly close proximity to the one we saw. Not finding any birds is not necessarily a bad thing. If the habitat is not appropriate for either bird, then the refuge has a clean slate to work from to determine which direction to go. Of course we would like to find the birds on the property just because it would be exciting to be the first to see them there. Recently the biologist asked if it would be okay if one of his biology technicians spent a day on our tract. We were happy to let someone else live our hell so to speak. The very next day after the tech had spent only three hours on the property while I was in the vicinity of the biologist’s office he jumped up from his desk and came to me to apologize for what we had been going through. It turns out that the tech who has been working another tract for several weeks was just amazed at how difficult our tract is to get around in. By the way, all the other people involved in this project are a whole lot younger than Connie and me. Of course Connie and I had no idea what to expect when we accepted the task. We thought everyone knew what the property looked like. We really didn’t think that much of it except that there must be certain sacrifices in order for good science to emerge. One day we looked over the shoulder of one of the techs as she was entering data in the computer. We were astounded at the number of sightings she had made. Then she told us that she was on a pretty wide open piece of the tract and not only was mobility not an issue, but visibility was to die for. She was seeing two birds counter singing just by turning her head. That was when we sort of got a clue that we were in a much tougher neighborhood. Oh well, we have survived so far and we are collecting data that will be of use to the refuge.

Another of the additional assignments we have received was to work with a native plant landscaper and help plant several native plants around the headquarters area. That project was manned by nearly every volunteer who presented him or herself at the headquarters that day. It was almost a party. It was also pretty hard work. The results seem to be paying off. All the plants seem to be thriving and in time they will certainly add to the beauty of the area and to the education of the many visitors who come by each year. Fortunately, that job was done way back in February while it was still relatively cool.

I cannot leave this without a comment or two about the weather. As I mentioned it was frightfully cold when we first got here. We experienced some of the coldest temperatures we have seen since we started this adventure some five full years ago. Connie was really worried we would burn through all our propane and have to break camp to get refilled. I was much less concerned, because I knew we were in Texas and it just couldn’t stay that cold that long. I now wish I had been just a little wrong. Propane has not been an issue. Instead, we should be concerned about how much time both air conditioners have had to run to keep this place livable. Yes, it has been warm. Some would even say it has been hot. We did have a cool snap several days ago that caused the heat to be turned back on rather than search out the electric heaters that have long since been stowed away. Rain, for us, has been something to watch on TV, as there certainly hasn’t been any around here. Finally, tonight as I have been working on these last few paragraphs we have gotten an honest to gosh gully washer of a thunderstorm complete with a few pea sized balls of hail. We can only hope this helps the struggling vegetation around here. Officially, most of the state of Texas is in a drought. The worst area is just east of here about thirty miles or so. I hate to complain about no rain when the heartland and all along the Mississippi there is too much water for the man-modified nature to handle. If we were really as smart as we think we are, instead of destroying all the natural wetlands we would have designed a system of aqueducts to move excess water from one part of the country to parts in need. I am certain we would have missed that up as well.

Following my rehab from my groin strain I decided I needed a flat surface to run on. Well, in Central Texas those two words don’t seem to fit together very well. So, I joined the local gym and have been doing my running on a treadmill. Since I am paying for it I have also taken advantage of the weight machines. I am closing in on a fifteen pound weight loss. More importantly, I am now more fit than I was for the marathon. I am running 6.2 miles at a time on the treadmill, which has not gotten any easier mentally than it ever was. I do that distance two or three times a week with something in the neighborhood of a 5K on the other visits for the week. I think I have averaged about five days a week since joining the gym.

We took a week off and went to Big Bend for a small Loons and Larks Reunion. I will save that story for another night.

In the time we have left here we will be involved in two or three more environmental education programs, at least two more bird surveys and a special bird walk for one of the strongest supporters of the environmental education program and her group. My fear for that group is the same as for our first group. Where will the birds be? They will have fledged there young and therefore started the dispersing process. And of course the singing will be all but non-existent.

You will have to come back to see how that all works out.

In the mean time, enjoy some of the photos I have taken since we got to this wonderful place. Just click on the photo below.

Our Stay at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Part 1


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