Saturday, December 14, 2013

Commons Ford Prairie in 2014

We have some great news to report - Austin Parks Foundation has once again stepped up and awarded us a grant for 2014.  This grant will allow us to continue our efforts to push back the remaining invasives in the tract.  The grant will also allow us to plant a significant amount of new native wildflower and grass seeds in the prairie in 2014.  We will be discussing the new seed mix (which may include some of the more unique natives) in the next few weeks.  

We engaged Native American Seed Company to conduct a spot herbicide treatment recently to combat some of the invasive species that have persisted despite previous efforts.  We will continue to monitor the impact of that treatment as well as other aspects of the project and we will make an assessment shortly after the first of the year regarding next steps and timing.

 In another week or so, we will be scheduling our winter prairie bird surveys.  These survey results should be very interesting given that we are only a few months out from the burn.  We will be looking for volunteers - if you are interested in assisting us with these important surveys please contact us at

Given the burn and the decent rains over the past few months, the prairie looks like it is setting up very well for a vibrant spring growth.  Late-spring should be a great time to visit the park for both birds and wildflowers!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

September Bird Walk at Commons Ford

On August 25, the monthly Commons Ford Prairie bird walk was led by Sheila Hargis and Laurie Foss of the Travis Audubon Society. The walk occurred just 6 days after the prescribed burn (which occurred on August 19, 2013). Walk attendees and leaders were anxious to see what effect the burn had on the bird community.

August is not typically a very exciting month in the birding world. It is too soon for migrants, and many summer breeders have already started making their way south. So it was much to the birders delight to find that the Commons Ford Prairie was still rich in bird species diversity. Laurie and Sheila recorded 34 species, including a Green Kingfisher, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (a population which was found in the actual prairie and not in surrounding trees, as is more typical of the species), and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.

Bird enthusiast and blogger Sherry Singson documented the walk on her blog. Check out her amazing photos here.

Here is a complete list of species seen during the walk:

Wood Duck 4
Great Blue Heron 1
Black Vulture 2
Turkey Vulture 3
Cooper's Hawk 1
Red-shouldered Hawk 1
White-winged Dove 20
Mourning Dove 4
Chimney Swift 17
Ruby-throated/Black-chinned Hummingbird 5
Green Kingfisher 1
Ladder-backed Woodpecker 2
Downy Woodpecker 2
Least Flycatcher 1
Eastern Phoebe 10
Western Kingbird 1
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher 10
White-eyed Vireo 6
Blue Jay 1
Purple Martin 1
Barn Swallow 5
Cliff/Cave Swallow 4
Carolina Chickadee 4
Tufted x Black-crested Titmouse (hybrid) 9
Bewick's Wren 1
Carolina Wren 3
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 10
Northern Mockingbird 14
Black-and-white Warbler 4
Nashville Warbler 1 In a feeding flock with BAWWs, white eye ring, grayish head, yellow body, top of sycamore tree
Lark Sparrow 6
Summer Tanager 3
Northern Cardinal 8
Dickcissel 2
Great-tailed Grackle 16
Orchard Oriole 1
Lesser Goldfinch 15

Friday, September 6, 2013

Commons Ford Prairie Prescribed Burn August 2013

For two years, the Common’s Ford Prairie Organization has been working on scheduling a prescribed burn for the prairie. Due to unusually hot and dry weather conditions during the summers of 2011 and 2012, it was not possible to schedule a burn. However, the much cooler and wetter (comparatively) weather conditions of August 2013 made it the ideal time to conduct a prescribed burn.

Fire has always played an important role in the health of maintenance of prairie ecology. Prairie grasses have evolved with fire, and thus fire plays an important role in their life cycle. Fire also keeps woody species at bay. Most of the biomass of grass lies underground, so they are not killed by fire. Woody and deciduous species, such as mesquite and juniper, are more vulnerable to fire. Thus, fire suppresses woody species allowing grasses to flourish.

A summer burn was planned due to recent research that has indicated that native species benefit more compared to exotic species by being burned in summer versus winter. Native species have been shown to regenerate faster during a summer burn compared to exotic species. A summer burn allows natives to regenerate quickly, giving them the opportunity to out compete exotic species.

On Friday August 9, 2013, a group of fire fighters from various local precincts gathered to conduct the prescribed burn on the 40 acre restored prairie at Common’s Ford. The day was hot with a slight breeze, perfect weather for a controlled burn. Once the burn was started, it spread quickly and was over in just after two hours.

Just hours after the burn, native bird species were already flocking back to the prairie to look for food (which they apparently found in abundance!) One week after the burn, native grasses were already shooting up. Over the next year, volunteer biologists will continue to monitor the growth of the prairie’s growth. Future burns will continue to be scheduled as they will be necessary in order to maintain the health and diversity of the prairie. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Commons Ford Prairie June 2013 Vegetation Survey

On the morning of Saturday, June 22, a small group of volunteers met out on the Commons Ford Prairie to conduct the annual vegetation survey.  The morning was bright and sunny and a nice cool breeze was blowing, making the survey a joy to conduct.

The prairie was in full bloom. An amazing, colorful array of native grasses and forbs have sprouted this year. While a few invasives were sighted - mainly KR bluestem, Johnson grass and Bermuda grass - the overwhelming majoprity of species were the natives that were planted a year and a half ago. Grass species included big, little and silver bluestem, eastern gamagrass, sideoats gramma, Canada and Virgina Rye. Native forb species included standing cypress, Illinois bundleflower and Maximillian sunflower.

Annual summer vegetation surveys will contniue to be conducted in the years to come as they are essential to monitoring the health of the prairie and for keeping the invasives at bay.

Photo Credit: Chris Coxwell

Friday, June 14, 2013

As you can see, the prairie is looking good in all her fine, summer splendor! Visitors this month are rewarded with a sea of vibrant colors! Plenty of birds are also enjoying the summer prairie. Pollinating insects are attracted to the flowers, and so are the flycatchers that eat them! Thistle loving orioles have also been abundant.

Here are some pictures of the prairie taken earlier this week by Ed Fair.

Black Chinned Hummingbird

Eastern Phoebe

Feeding Hummingbird

Hummingbird dining on Standing Cypress nectar

Thursday, June 13, 2013

June Bird Walk at Commons Ford Praire, June 9, 2013

The prairie has sprung to life this month, thanks to the plentiful spring showers and summer sun. The native grasses and forbs are providing ample forage for birds, and they are taking full advantage of it! On June 9, ten determined birders, led by Craig Rasmussen, braved the summer rain out at Commons Ford Park for the monthly bird walk.  37 species were sighted, with highlights including eastern bluebirds, summer tanagers, blue grosbeaks, ash-throated flycatchers, painted buntings, lesser goldfinches and northern parulas.

Here is a full list of species seen:

6 Wood Ducks
1 Northern Bobwhite
2 Wild Turkey
2 Great Blue Heron
2 Turkey Vulture
1 Red Tailed Hawk
5 White-winged Dove
3 Mourning Dove
3 Yellow-billed Cuckoo
1 Greater Roadrunner
3 Great Horned Owl
6 Chimney Swift
7 Black-chinned Hummingbird
4 Ladder-backed Woodpecker
10 Eastern Phoebe
3 Ash-throated flycatcher
2 Western Kingbird
6 Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
5 White-eyed Vireo
1 Red-eyed Vireo
15 Barn Swallow
6 Carolina Chickadee
10 Black-crested Titmouse
2 Bewick's Wren
5 Carolina Wren
3 Eastern Bluebird
4 Northern Mockingbird
2 Northern Parula
8 Larksparrow
10 Northern Cardinal
2 Blue Grosbeak
7 Painted Bunting
18 Great-tailed Grackle
5 Brown Headed Cowbird
2 Orchard Oriole
2 House Finch
10 Lesser Goldfinch

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Vegetation Surveys at Commons Ford: Assessing the Success of Prairie Restoration

In order to quantify the success of a prairie restoration process, annual vegetation surveys must be conducted. Prior to the restoration process, Commons Ford Prairie Restoration Organization conducted a vegetation survey of the prairie. This information, which was gathered by volunteer biologists and enthusiast, allowed us to quantify the vegetational composition of the prairie prior to restoration.

Results of that original survey showed that the 40 acre prairie was dominated by just three invasive, exotic species – Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon), Johnson grass (Sorghum halepense) and King Ranch bluestem (Andropogon ischaemum).  These species are often planted by ranchers as fodder for cattle. However, none of these species has much value for wildlife. In addition, they also tend to out compete native grass and forb species. Before the restoration, the Commons Ford Prairie was a desert of exotic grasses and offered little benefit for native birds and other wildlife.  

Our prairie restoration process was designed by wildlife ecologists in order to eliminate these target species so that native grasses could begin to regain control of the prairie. Our native seed mix included native, fast growing grass species that would quickly germinate and out-compete the invasive species. Our first post restoration vegetation survey was conducted in June of 2013. The results were incredible – a rich variety of grass and forb species had emerged. Along with the native grasses came the wildlife. 

Our first post-restoration bird survey showed a tenfold increase in bird species actively using the 40 acre prairie.However, surveyors also found a high re-emergence of the big three exotics that had been there before. The emergence of the exotics was not entirely unexpected; these aggressive grasses are hard to stop with just one treatment. Consistent monitoring of the prairie is needed in order to create effective management plants for maintaining the prairies health and vitality.

On June 22, volunteers will conduct a third vegetation survey. This survey is crucial to the restoration process. We need to find out what is emerging on the prairie this summer, especially the percentage of re-emerging exotics. This information will allow us to design a follow up treatment for the prairie, so that it will not be once again overtaken by the aggressive exotic grass species.

We could still use some volunteers for the vegetation survey on June 22, 2013. If you would like to volunteer for the survey, please email us at

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Commons Ford Monthly Walk, May 5, 2013

What a perfectly gorgeous spring day we were treated to on the morning of the May monthly walk at the Commons Ford prairie. A full contingent of 15 fun, enthusiastic outdoorists (I just made that word up) joined Diane Sherrill for a walk that was billed as “bird and plant”. We touched on plants and pointed out a few specimens—bright yellow Engelmann daisy in full, glorious bloom; Standing cypress just beginning to tempt with its seductive deep scarlet blossoms; white-flowered Bull nettle that will hurt you for days if you are unlucky enough to contact it directly with your skin. We also took a good look at probably the worst of the non-native invasives we’re fighting out here: Bermudagrass. We discussed the problems with these non-native invaders, which do not sustain native wildlife and also gobble up huge parcels of land to render them sterile and aesthetically boring.

But the plants had to—seemingly—take a back seat to the birds on this day. Here at the height of migration, after a major “fallout” on the coast due to late cold fronts, the diversity and numbers of birds was breathtaking. However, the birds wouldn’t have been tempted to stop here, and wouldn’t be able to be sustained here, if it wasn’t for the restoration efforts going on in the prairie. The diverse native plants feed the native insects, small mammals, and reptiles, and those in turn feed the small birds, who in turn (sorry!) feed the raptors. This project is proof that nature works, and that everything IS connected.

We saw and heard an amazing 64 species of birds in 4 hours. At times there were so many birds we couldn’t hear ourselves think for all the whispers of “there’s a…” or “what is this over here….” Not a bad problem to have when you’re out birding!

We particularly noted a large number (both in diversity and total numbers) of flycatchers, indicating that the prairie is sustaining a good population of insects. Or as I like to call them, “bird food”. There were many species of migrating warblers and vireos, particularly down in the pecan grove.

Highlights were the flycatcher trifecta of Western kingbird, Eastern kingbird, and Scissor-tailed flycatcher all sitting on plant stalks in the prairie within a few feet of each other; a couple of singing Orchard orioles; some very nice warblers, including Black-throated green, Pine ( a bit west of its most preferred range), American redstart, and Northern parula; and some nice sparrows, like a Clay-colored and a  somewhat late Vesper.
Thanks to all the participants who helped make this such a wonderful morning at the Park!

(Photographs by Keri Cooper, 2013)


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Big Day in the Park 2013 - Huge Success!!

The Big Day in Park 2013 was a big success on Sunday, April 7.  Over 200 people participated in the event and we raised over $7,500 for the ongoing prairie restoration efforts.  We had a total of 85 species which smashes the prior single day record for the park of 73 species.  For a complete list of species, click here.  If you click on the link, you will also discover some of the interesting hits and misses of the day.  As you can see from the attached photos (courtesy of Lee Wallace), everyone enjoyed the beautiful day in the park.  We give a huge thank you to all of our sponsors, our volunteers, our field trip leaders, our business and organization supporters, our vendors and booth operators and especially to our donors.  For a complete list of acknowledgements, please click here.  We hope that you will all continue to support the prairie! 

(Photographs by Lee Wallace, 2013)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Big Day in the Park 2013 - New Developments

We are pleased to announce a new walk "BIRD SOUNDS AND BIRD LORE WITH DR. BIRDIE" scheduled at 8:30 AM led by expert birder and sparrow specialist, Dr. Byron Stone.  As Byron describes it:  "We will do our best to appreciate the rich variety of bird sounds that are commonly encountered on the plateau in early April, and I will do a fair amount of pontificating about birds and about why prairie restoration is important at a place like Commons Ford Park.  And of course we will try and see some cool birds!"  If this walk fills, Byron has graciously agreed to schedule a second (and even a third if there is sufficient interest). 

Dr. Birdie served as the inspiration for the Commons Ford Prairie Restoration Project when he accompanied Ed Fair on a birding visit to the park in 2009.  He pointed out that, at the time, the field was full of non-native invasive grass species which were detrimental to upland prairie birds.  He offhandedly commented that if we had a prairie full of native grasses and wildflowers instead, we might see it full of Le Conte's Sparrows.  That started the ball rolling.  

The native seeds were planted on the Commons Ford Prairie last year by Native American Seed Company using a no-till drill planting process.  George Cates from NAS will be bringing a smaller no-till drill to The Big Day to explain how the process works and answer questions about the planting and seed mix.  If you are interested in attracting birds to your yard, NAS will also have available for purchase several seed packets and seed mixes which are proven to do the job.  Profits from the sales of these seeds will be donated by NAS to the restoration project.
Please come see us this Sunday, April 7.  Visit our Big Day 2013 page for more details and to register for walks here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Big Day in the Park 2013

BIG DAY IN THE PARK 2013 IS COMING SUNDAY, April 7, 2013.  For details, to register for any of the walks or make a tax-free pledge click here.  It's all free and you do not even have to register for a walk.  Just come spend a beautiful day in the park with us, visit the booths and vendors or grab a gift certificate.
Thanks to Wild Birds Unlimited, Wing Ding pledges of $50 or more in person on the Big Day will receive a $35 gift card to Wild Birds Unlimited as long as they last.  Thanks to Whole Earth Provision Company www.wholeearthprovision, Wing Ding pledges of $25 or more in person on the Big Day will receive a $10 gift card to Whole Earth.
Commons Ford PRO would also like to thank the following:
Event and Project Sponsor:  They Might Be Monkeys
Event Sponsor:  Barton Springs Nursery
Food Donors:
Bruegger's Bagels
Maudie's Tex-Mex
Special Thanks to Travis Audubon Society
for its promotional support for the Big Day 2013

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Commons Ford Prairie Organization - Big Day in the Park

Mark your calendar for Sunday, April 7, 2013 for the Commons Ford Big Day in the Park 2013 and join us for plenty of birding and nature walks including activities for families and children. We expect to have vendors selling artwork, books, food, beverages and other items. We will also have another Wing Ding where we count all of the birds seen and heard in the park that day. While attendance and all activities are free, The Big Day in the Park will raise funds to continue the Commons Ford Prairie Restoration Project and donations of any amount are encouraged. We are very excited about the results from the first year's planting, but must continue efforts to further remove invasives and replant natives to insure long-term success. Come see the beginning of a beautiful native prairie. More details will follow, but if you have questions now or if you are interested in volunteering to staff information tables, assist with set up, etc. please contact Diane Sherrill at