Sunday, October 29, 2017

Recent Educational Events at CFP: Learning about Monarch Butterflies and the Travis Audubon Master Birders Program

If you have been out on the prairie lately, you may have noticed groups participating in educational opportunities uniquely suited to the native environment established at Commons Ford Prairie. 

On October 13th, one of Dr. Amy Contillo's classes from St. Edwards University visited the prairie to learn about the monarch butterfly migration and its habits from Steven (Chip) Harris, a Commons Ford Prairie Committee member. The monarch butterfly migrates an amazing +2,500 miles from Canada to Central Mexico each fall. The insect passes through Central Texas in mid-October, where it is often witnessed in mass numbers looking for blooming, native wildflowers on which to feed. Chip explained the life-cycle of the butterfly to students, discussed the importance of the plants as a source of fuel, and caught and tagged one insect at the end of the tour. A tagging and tracking system for the monarchs has been in place for many years by Monarch Watch, an organization dedicated to the science behind the monarch life-cycle and migration. If the tagged insect is found later, the number on the tag will be traced back to records showing it was caught, tagged, and recorded at the prairie in October in Central Texas. Monarch Watch can then determine the movements of the butterfly, helping to understand the incredible migratory habits of this insect. 
Steven (Chip) Harris tagging a monarch butterfly. Tags can be obtained through

On October 21, Shelia Hargis and Ed Fair led a field trip for this fall's Travis Audubon Society's Master Birder Program (TAMBP). The Master Birder Program at Travis Audubon Society is designed to help participants increase their understanding of birds and their habitats, while also developing the skills and opportunities for sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm for birds and the natural world with others.

This year's group witnessed a Hepatic Tanger, which has been recently spotted at the prairie. Additionally, an Eastern Phoebe became friendly with one of the participants and Ed was able to photograph the bird in an unusual display of man-bird communion. 
Hepatic Tanger

Eastern Phoebe on a participant's cap

Travis Audubon launched their program in fall 2016. The training, similar to that of the Master Gardener’s Program, includes a series of in-class sessions, study assignments, several field trips, and volunteering and keeping up with continuing education credits for the first three years after completing the curriculum. The instruction is designed to focus on native habitat and vegetation, the distribution of bird species in the area, and conservation issues affecting those communities and species in Central Texas. Participants also receive special instruction on flight and bird behavior, anatomy, and migration.  
Master Birders participate in a recent field trip at CFP

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Commons Ford Prairie Designated as a Monarch Watch “Monarch Waystation”

Commons Ford Prairie was recently designated a “Monarch Waystation” by the organization, Monarch Watch, a nonprofit educational outreach program based at the University of Kansas that focuses on the monarch butterfly, its habitat, and its spectacular fall migration.  Monarch Watch has one of the most widely known and respected “citizen scientist” monarch habitat projects in the U.S., with initiatives directed toward monarch tagging programs to track the insect’s migratory pathway.

The actions at Commons Ford Prairie support the City of Austin’s own initiatives aimed at helping this species in peril. In 2015, Austin signed the Monarch Mayoral Pledge through the National Wildlife Federation and is in the “Leadership Circle.”

Additionally, the City Council passed a resolution in May of 2015 to implement as best as possible plans to increase milkweed, the only plant on which monarch butterflies lay their eggs, on city property.

The reason for the concern about the iconic insect is its decline over the past 20 years. Monarch Joint Venture, another organization devoted to the recovery of the species, provides data each year on the approximate number of the butterflies at their overwintering site in Central Mexico. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is exploring the possibility of listing the species as endangered.
The Commons Ford Prairie Committee is committed to creating and maintaining habitat for native birds as well as other native pollinator species important to the health of the prairie.  

Additionally, in April 2017, Commons Ford Prairie received a grant for free milkweed plugs from Monarch Watch as part of their annual grant program (value of ~$1500 to City of Austin).

Milkweed is the host plant for monarch butterflies. Part of the reason for the decline of the monarch butterfly is decreasing milkweed habitat and range. There are 36 species of milkweed in Texas (Texas Parks and Wildlife), and four species found in the park.  One species, Asclepias asperula (antelope horns milkweed), is by far the one most suited. The committee applied and received a grant of 500 free antelope horns milkweed plugs. The plants were provided by Monarch Watch through their nation-wide “Bring Back the Monarchs” Program. The mission of this program is to address changes in agricultural practices and development which decimated monarch habitat and to restore habitats for monarchs, pollinators, and other wildlife. The goals of this program are to restore 20 milkweed species, used by monarch caterpillars as food, to their native ranges throughout the United States and to encourage the planting of nectar-producing native flowers that support adult monarchs and other pollinators.

To participate in Monarch Watch’s Milkweed Restoration Program, applicants for restoration must demonstrate that they have a land management plan and that other nectar sources are either pre-existing or are included in the new planting. Commons Ford Prairie is a very good example of the conditions for which the program is looking. For more information on Monarch Watch visit

Two members of the Commons Ford Prairie Committee, as well as one other volunteer, planted the milkweed plugs at several locations in the prairie in May. As a result of good rains in late May and early June, the plugs are thriving.

 In 2016, the Commons Ford Prairie Organization merged with Travis Audubon Society to ensure the prairie’s long-term sustainability.

Today, the 40-acre restored native prairie at Commons Ford Metropolitan Park supports an amazing diversity of wildlife and grassland birds. The prairie explodes in color throughout the spring and early summer and is teeming with hundreds of species of birds, butterflies, insects and other wildlife throughout the year.

Much remains to be done to combat a potential re-infestation of invasive plants, as was the case before restoration, and to augment growth through further native seed plantings. Through its Commons Ford Prairie Committee, Travis Audubon Society conducts bird, plant—and, in future—pollinator events at the prairie on a regular basis. Please consider visiting the prairie and supporting the continuing conservation efforts. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Kids at Commons Ford 
June 2017 | Janice Sturrock

Seventy-five fifth graders from Valley View Elementary attended the “Kids at Commons Ford” pilot program, on May 18, 2017.  The program was developed as an educational outreach effort by the Commons Ford Prairie Committee, associated with the Travis Audubon Society.  Ten volunteers from Capitol Area Master Naturalists, Travis Audubon Society and other groups guided excited students on a day of exploration and discovery at Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park.  The 215 acre park is owned by the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department and provides several diverse habitats for outdoor exploration.  

Using tools like insect nets, bug boxes, binoculars and meter sticks, small groups of 9-10 kids assumed the role of scientists for the day as they hiked around the 40-acre restored prairie while observing and documenting birds, flowers, grasses, butterflies, lizards and more.  In addition to exploring and documenting their discoveries on the prairie, the students hiked through a wooded canyon where they observed tadpoles and black fly larva in the nearby creek.

Volunteer leaders assisted students in comparing the open prairie which consisted of 3-4 foot tall prairie grasses and flowers and very few trees,  with the wooded canyon trail which hosted tall Ashe juniper and live oak trees as well as rocky cliff outcroppings.  

The students from Valley View Elementary, located in the Eanes Independent School District, all live in the neighborhood near Commons Ford Park.  Students and parent chaperones enjoyed learning more about the prairie and the park.  Many students had visited the park before and all were encouraged to come back to the park with family and friends in the future.

The program was developed over the last 2 years and was modeled after the “Kids on the Prairie” program at Tandy Hills Natural Area in Fort Worth.  A colorful field guide was created for the program and provides an outline of content information for volunteer guides and an educational journal for students to record observations, descriptions, thoughts, drawings, time and date and weather conditions.

The purpose of the program was to provide students with an outdoor educational field experience to learn about components of a prairie ecosystem.  Students had fun in the outdoors while exploring and discovering the natural world outside of their classroom.  A poster depicting a prairie grass with underground roots over 12 feet long emphasized the importance of prairies in providing natural erosion control and providing a filter to remove pollutants from rain water as it percolates through the ground to the water table. Hopefully, students and parents will all learn to conserve and preserve that which we come to know and understand.  

The Children in Nature Network, a national organization promoting time in nature for children and families, has conducted research that shows that spending time in nature has positive effects on brain development for both children and adults.

Some may say that the highlight of the day was spotting the great horned owlets in the pecan bottom. Or maybe it was the opportunity to be in the park for the day, or seeing the incredible display of color on the prairie exhibited in wildflowers such as sunflowers, Indian blankets, wine cups and purple thistle; or a chance to see tadpoles in a pool along the creek, or discover black fly larva on the rocks under the flowing water, or the fun of sharing a day with your friends in the great outdoors.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

St Edward’s students learn plant identification skills and the value of native prairies while conducting the annual Commons Ford Prairie vegetation survey

Dr. Amy Concilio of St. Edward’s University has joined the Commons Ford team to take the lead on vegetation surveys.  With a group of  eight undergraduate students and two Master’s students, she spent a week in early May conducting the annual vegetation surveys along nine transects established in 2011.  Most of the undergraduate students had no previous experience identifying plants, so they spent a few days learning about what characteristics are important to make note of when identifying grasses and wildflowers, how to use a dichotomous key, and how to sample vegetation using the transect method. 

It was a fantastic opportunity for them to get hand’s-on experience in ecological field sampling, and several of the students are now considering doing capstone research projects at the site. Most of the students had never been to Commons Ford and were blown away by many different grasses and wildflowers could be found in a native Texas prairie!  The students also had the opportunity to hear from Ed Fair about the history of the site and project. They are inspired and excited to share their new knowledge with friends and family, and hopefully contribute to conservation and restoration efforts of native Texas ecosystems!

Travis Audubon and the Commons Ford Prairie Committee thank Dr. Concilio and her students for completing the survey. We hope the students will continue to visit CFP and become avid birders, plant ecologists, or leaders in conservation for native prairies--or all three!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Travis Audubon Introduction to Birds and Birding class at Commons Ford
March 11 and 12, 2017

Shelia Hargis led the TA Introduction to Birds and Birding Class at Commons Ford Prairie on Saturday and Sunday, March 11th and 12th. Though the weather was less than ideal (cool and raining on Sunday), the group never complained and endured the entire 3+ hour class each day. There were nine students.     

Bird lists from each day follow, along with a photo.

Eastern Bluebird. Photo by Shelia Hargis on March 11.

Saturday's list:
Mallard (Domestic type)
Wild Turkey
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Turkey Vulture
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
30  White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
American Kestrel
Eastern Phoebe
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
2   Loggerhead Shrike
White-eyed Vireo
American Crow
Purple Martin
10  Barn Swallow
25  Cliff/Cave Swallow
6  Carolina Chickadee
7  Tufted x Black-crested Titmouse
Carolina Wren
Bewick's Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
3   Eastern Bluebird
14   American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
22  Cedar Waxwing
Northern Parula
20   Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
27  Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
4   Western/Eastern Meadowlark
Brewer's Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
13  House Finch
3   Lesser Goldfinch
American Goldfinch
Sunday's list:
Great Blue Heron
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Sharp-shinned/Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
30  White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Eastern Phoebe
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Loggerhead Shrike
White-eyed Vireo
American Crow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted x Black-crested Titmouse (hybrid)
Canyon Wren
Carolina Wren
Bewick's Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
40  Cedar Waxwing
Northern Parula
14  Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)
1   Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's)
10  Chipping Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
1   Rufus-crowned Sparrow
13  Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
100  Common Grackle (Bronzed)
House Finch

Sunday, February 12, 2017

February 4, 2017 Field Trip Summary
In spite of the poor weather, 15 people participated in the February 2017 Travis Audubon Monthly field trip at Commons Ford.  The temperatures stayed in the 50s throughout the morning and otherwise the weather alternated between thick fog, to heavy sprinkles to mist.  Needless to say this affected the number of bird species seen. 

Only 36 species were identified by sight or vocalization.  We would expect to get at least 50 species in February.  Highlights included flocks of American Robin and good looks at both Red-bellied and Golden-fronted Woodpecker.  We only had six sparrow species but those included Fox and Harris’s as well as a total of nine Song.  At least five Song Sparrow were out in the open perched together pecking for seed on the ground.  We were also able to see the continuing Sedge Wren(s?) in the prairie.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Commons Ford Prairie is now accepting requests for proposals to conduct vegetation surveys from individuals or groups interested in the study of native prairies, their restoration, and the techniques used to survey vegetation in support of restoration efforts. These entities or individuals must have the capacity to conduct vegetation surveys and record data in May, 2017.

Link to RFP:

For more information, please email:
Shannon Harris: