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.