There are many reasons why an individual might have trouble understanding the importance of protecting an endangered species, especially if it’s a cave-dwelling invertebrate no bigger than a grain of rice. For one, humans are nowhere near endangered. There are more than 7 billion humans on this planet that all require a certain amount of resources in order to survive. While that already poses a threat for the life here on Earth, our growing separation from the natural systems we’ve evolved from results in a population that is largely unaware of how much of an impact we actually have. Some might be aware, but our idea of “growth” leaves them apathetic towards anything that doesn’t have a quantitative extrinsic value. Humans might be popping out babies like PEZ dispensers, but the ones that can truly see the intrinsic value of the natural world are a rare commodity. However, they do exist. One of them is named Jim O’Donnell.
Since the early 80’s, Jim has been heavily involved in restoration work and the preservation of endangered species, specializing in the research of the endangered songbird, the Golden-cheeked warbler. He is currently a biologist for the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve(BCP) and is responsible for the preservation, restoration, and wildlife management at Vireo Preserve. Last Friday, the ENSP crew had the wonderful opportunity to visit this preserve and meet up with Jim, where he spent the morning discussing how he acquired the land, how it became a part of the BCP, his management practices, ecological concerns, and the 2 songbirds of interest: the Black-capped vireo and the Golden-cheeked warbler.
Vireo Preserve is a 212 acre plot of land north of Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve, which, at one time, had one of the largest concentrations of breeding Black-capped vireos in Texas. Vireo Preserve was originally set aside for future development by Davenport Ranch until the Black-capped vireo was added to the endangered species list in 1987. Shortly after, Jim made the discovery that the land was also a popular breeding space for Golden-cheeked warblers. They were not listed as endangered at the time, but their population had been declining dramatically enough for him to contact Davenport and urge them not to develop on the land. They initially offered to give up the land for $10 million, but reduced to $2 million after implementing a new design technique called cluster development. This enabled them to build more homes on a smaller plot of land, so more land could be set aside for conservation. Vireo Preserve officially became a protected land owned by the Parks & Rec. department in 1989. It is currently owned by the City of Austin, a part of the BCP, and managed by Jim.
Vireo Preserve is one of the many preserves that collectively form the BCP, which was officially initiated in 1996 to preserve habitat for 8 endangered species and 26 species of concern. However, there were organizations pushing local government to set aside land for conservation several years before the BCP. The time period between the initiation of the Habitat Conservation Plan(HCP) in 1982 and the formation of the BCP in 1996 was an especially important time period. The Golden-cheeked warbler was listed as endangered in 1990 when their population was dangerously low. Awareness of the need for habitat preservation was becoming increasingly prevalent among citizens, city officials, and conservationists alike. During this period much the 30,000 acres of land currently a part of the BCP, was already set aside. While this acreage is better than nothing, the endangered Black-capped vireo and Golden-cheeked warbler populations are continuing to suffer due to the “edge effect” from agricultural and urban development. These two songbirds are especially vulnerable to edge-dwelling predators, such as snakes and coyotes. That is why 125,000 acres was initially asked to be set aside. At the same time, if this land was not set aside during this time period when land was relatively affordable, the BCP would never have acquired the 30,000 acres in the first place. We are incredibly lucky that so many people cared enough to take these early steps into the preservation of our wildlife.
As Jim gave us a tour of the area, we learned that Vireo Preserve is not very big and is surrounded by urban edge, which is not entirely suitable for a large B.C. vireo and G.C. warbler population. However, there is still a large concentration of G.C. warblers because of the tall, old Ashe juniper trees in the area, which are their ideal habitat. Elsewhere, extensive clear cutting of these trees have displaced a lot of these birds, which is why more keep coming to Vireo Preserve. During the golden-cheek warbler mating season, Jim spends most of the time observing, individually banding, and naming as many birds as he can before they migrate to Central America. It is important to individually mark and name each bird, so they can be easily identified and followed to observe their behavior and keep track of the ones that return after migration. Jim has many great stories about the individual birds he keeps track of. One of them involves a 2ndteir Golden-cheeked warbler named Red Pants, who has an incomplete song, but is determined to find a mate. He has been singing for 2 years, but has not had any luck yet. He had even started chasing Green warblers, but his incomplete song deemed him unsuccessful. Successful male G.C. warblers typically nest 2-3 times a year and each nest contains 4 eggs. Less successful birds usually do not sing because they are invading a dominant male’s territory. Luckily the females make a chirping noise, so males can find them. The whole ENSP team is rooting for Red Pants’ return next year with a complete song and finally be able to produce an offspring.
The Black-capped vireo have not been mating within the preserve for a couple years now. However, it is managed by Jim to conduct research on habitat restoration, educational outreach through guided tours and volunteering, and population surveys of the Warbler. One of preserve’s major focuses is to promote native Texas plant life to thrive in the park. This management is accomplished in a number of ways. Jim and his volunteers regularly seed the area with Texas wildflowers. They also hand-pull all the invasive plants that are found in the preserve. Invasives that are removed include one of Texas’s greatest grassland threat, King Ranch Bluestem, which can completely wipe out biodiversity in the area and destroy the soil biome. They will also be transplanting drought resistant plants in the preserve to increase resilience for native plant growth.
All of these restoration practices are equally important and work together. The soil lays the foundation for native plants to grow. And once a bio diverse plant ecosystem is attained, the symbiotic relationships between plants and the soil’s micro biome help sustain the soil health, prevent erosion and run-off pollution, and provide a suitable habitat for the species that Jim and everyone else with the BCP is focused on protecting.
We are all incredibly thankful that Jim was kind enough to give us a tour of Vireo Preserve, along with helping us understand the history and significance of conservation in Central Texas. The BCP is the result of such a vast array of people and organizations coming together with the intent to set aside land to provide a home for endangered wildlife. Plus, the BCP isn’t alone. There are several other programs, such as their sister program, Water Quality and Protection Lands (WQPL), coordinating to address and educate others on different issues related to our environmental impact in Texas. All of these rely heavily on volunteers too. Vireo Preserve offers volunteer opportunities every Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Friday from 10am to noon. It is a great way to gain experience in the field and to learn about the importance of conservation and restoration. Maybe environmental stewardship is not as rare as we originally thought. As a species, we have certainly damaged our environment quite a bit—to the point where it is probably not 100% reversible. But through meeting people like Jim and learning about all of the individuals who share an intrinsic love for our planet, we find hope, inspiration, and most importantly, gratitude for the things we all take for granted.
Written by Jack Rippel and Conlon McOsker