Our trip to Common Fords Prairie

Photo of the prairie by Joscelyn Moncayo

For our third field trip, twelve of us headed out to Commons Ford Metropolitan Park on a beautiful partly cloudy day. When we arrived, our guide Deb Wallace cheerfully greeted us and shared with us the name of a bird she had just encountered — with the utmost excitement. Although we looked at each other with confusion because none of us knew what kind of bird species that was, this was a precedent for the kind of unique knowledge Deb would so gladly share with us on this trip.

Up until the early 1980s, Commons Ford was a privately owned ranch. The 215 acre land was then acquired by the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department (PARD), making it yet another public park destination in the city. What makes this site particularly interesting, especially for our conservation class, is the highly successful restoration project that took place in a 40-acre tract of its land. The project was led by Ed Fair, a frequent birder and concerned citizen who noticed the abundance of invasive species (which we found out was a combination of Johnson grass, Bermuda grass, and King Ranch Bluestem) that was overpowering the prairie. In an effort to restore that section of land with native species to provide more shelter and food for birds and other wildlife, Ed ultimately had to lead a project at a grassroots level. In 2016, Ed’s group, the Common Ford Prairie Restoration Organization (CFPRO), merged with Travis Audubon Society to ensure long-term sustainability and restoration of the site.

Prescribed burn  – Photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/commonsfordpro/)

As part of the Common Ford Prairie Restoration Project, they worked to designate the site as a Monarch Waystation, and were certified and registered by Monarch Watch. The decline of monarchs is due to the decrease in their host plant, milkweed. The purpose of a “waystation” is to provide habitat for monarchs, pollinators, and other wildlife by restoring milkweed species. To start the project, CFPRO received a grant for milkweed plugs from Monarch Watch in April 2017. They received 500 free antelope horn milkweed plugs, which were planted by the Common Ford Committee members and volunteers in May. The plants thrived due to good rainfall. Dr. Concillo and her class visited Commons Ford around this time last year to learn about the monarch butterfly migration and its habitat. Their blog post can be found at following link: http://commonsfordpro.blogspot.com/.

After years of hard work and assistance in the form of funding, volunteers, equipment, and expert knowledge, the CFPRO has been able to restore this 40-acre prairie, which now supports a diversity of wildlife throughout the year.

After giving us a quick overview of the place and her expertise, Deb led us on a hike through the prairie so that we could see the species diversity first-hand. We took several binoculars with us, while she carried along an impressive spotting scope. Although we came at a bad time, due to the fact that the birds had already started their migrating season and most don’t fly around during the heat of the day, we saw a good number of species!

Jon looking through the spotting scope – Photo by Abril Carranza

Group starting the hike- Photo by Abril Carranza

We started the hike from the top of the prairie and headed down towards the riparian area. It didn’t take long for Deb to spot a bird and set up the scope. The first bird of the hike was a Morning Dove. Through the scope we were able to see a pair sitting sweetly on a branch. Quickly following was a Hummingbird, that we didn’t get to see much of because it flew away. Heading down the trail, we identified some plants species. We were informed that the prairie still had some Bermuda grass in certain areas, and Johnson grass as well. The Johnson grass is considered invasive, however some have considered keeping it there because the birds like to eat it.

Golden-cheeked warbler – Photo by Isaac Sanchez

Eastern Phoebe – Photo by Isaac Sanchez

As we got down deeper into the trail, we were surrounded by enormous Pecan Trees. Many pecan seedlings were growing in the understory, but we were told that they would not thrive due to how closely they were to each other. During the hike we weren’t able to spot as many birds, but we were able to hear their songs. Deb spotted the song of a Female Carolina Wren. She was so amazing with knowing which birds sang which songs, and being able to tell the difference between turkey vultures and hawks based on the way their wings were shaped when flying. She is an expert birder. The one rule of bird watching is to be extra quiet! As a class, we missed that rule. As we approached the river we didn’t realize how loud we were being, and ended up startling a Blue Heron. None of us had noticed that it was perched in the branch by the water, and when it flew off the branches it looked so majestic flying away. After the river,  the hike was coming to an end. Deb took us through a path that would “lead us to a whole other ecosystem”. Through this path you could see the transition of the plant species from a riparian zone to the prairie, and the ground went from mud to dirt.

Group Photo by Aileen Brom

The hike allowed us to view all the new wildlife and gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of all the work it took to restore the prairie.

Restored prairie – Photo by  Lee Wallace

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