A Tale of Two Prairies

By John Bloomfield

Fall mornings are made for this.  The sun burning through the clouds after an evening rain, the wind gently blowing the tall grasses, a Cooper’s Hawk flying past to foretell good things to come.

In late October, a team from Travis Audubon – Executive Director Nicole Netherton plus volunteers John Bloomfield, Bill Reiner and Jane Tillman – were invited by Matt McCaw, Land Management Program Manager, Austin Parks and Recreation Department and Park Ranger Patrick Chaiken to tour the Decker Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and the Louis René Barrera Indiangrass Wildlife Sanctuary.

Both of these sites are located near Walter E. Long Lake and are closed to the public except for special events such as pre-approved birding walks and, at the Indiangrass location, stewardship opportunities such as volunteer workdays.

We were there to discuss potential stewardship opportunities as well as ways to raise awareness of these hidden gems of the Austin parks system.

The sites are very different. Parts of Indiangrass look like pure prairie, rolling grasslands dotted with wildflowers sloping down toward the lake. The preserve was set aside to help preserve and restore Blackland Prairie habitat, and according to Bill, “shows what can happen with some fairly intense management.”

In 2019, Indiangrass was renamed in honor of the late Louis René Barrera, a tireless conservation advocate and former preserve manager for the City of Austin.

Large-scale restoration activities at Decker are just beginning. Poking through overgrowth choked with invasives, Jane pointed out “impressive stands of Tropical Sage and other plants of note, including Maximilian sunflower, frostweed, camphorweed, bluestem and Southwestern bristlegrass” as well pockets of Indiangrass that foreshadow what may be possible with a sustained restoration effort.

“Prairies are one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world,” says Travis Audubon Executive Director Nicole Netherton. “Travis Audubon hopes to partner in future restoration projects at Decker to create another prairie success story in our community.”

Travis Audubon has conducted field trips at the Barrera site in the past. In January 2020, Park Ranger Owen Moorhead led a group in search of wintering sparrows and raptors. On our visit we were enchanted by an unexpected Common Raven as well as Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk and several Crested Caracaras cavorting overhead.

Currently, Austin park rangers are preparing for their annual grassland bird surveys at Barrera and are looking for volunteers to help lead them. The surveys last from 7:45 a.m. until 10:00 or 11:00 and are carried out once a month in December, January, and February. Our first survey was held on December 5.

Experience identifying sparrows and other wintering birds is helpful but definitely not mandatory, according to Owen.

You can read more about the survey protocol here, and you can email Owen at owen.moorhead@austintexas.gov for more information or to sign up.

Photos provided by Bill Reiner.