A Day in the Life at Waller Creek

Field trip to Waller Creek, downtown Austin.


Waller Creek is a thin, urban riparian ecosystem that meanders from the northern part of Austin southward through UT campus and along the eastern edge of the downtown area before it meets Lady Bird Lake. The Waller Creek Conservancy, in a unique public-private partnership with the City of Austin, acts as the steward of the Waller Creek by playing a vital role in the preservation, redevelopment and maintenance of the creek’s surrounding parks, nearby businesses, adjoining neighborhoods and community at large.

Not long after arriving, Jimmy, our bird guide, greeted us. He spoke about the species spotted in the area over the past 4-5 years – 160 bird species! “There’s good stuff in urban ecosystems.”

Recently spotted birds: 2 white egrets (snow white and great white). The snow white has yellow feet and grey bill; the great white has grey feet and yellow bill. Hummingbirds were seen abundantly in in the flowers a month ago. “We may see an eastern meadowlark – in the last 10 years it showed up one day”, reported Jimmy.

This is a beautiful spot where the Waller Creek dumps into Lady Bird Lake and into the river. You can see a lot of species within a very short distance “if you have the right birding guide”.

Dr. Amy Belaire – the urban ecologist for the Nature Conservancy in Austin – was our guide for the day. She told us about “Bio Blitz” – and the City Nature Challenge. Does anyone know what Bio Blitz means? (In the discussion you can hear someone say “earth party!”). Within a 2 hour window, citizen scientists from all over the city join forces to log in every plant and animal species that they see within the designated area. “Last year, with 45-50 people, we made over 200 observations in this small stretch and counted around 150 species“,  Dr Belaire told us. This included snakes, fish, and turtles netted out of the creek!

“The natural world there is so much in it, an infinite amount of life.” -Jimmy


Dr. Amy Belaire was our guide on a short walking tour. She spoke of the projects and short-term opportunities, internships available and told us we could get in touch with her later if we had any questions.


Walking tour narrative:

Dr. Belaire started by explaining the Waller Creek watershed. Every piece of land we live in is in a watershed. Where you stand is in a watershed, where you live might be in a different watershed, where you go to school another. Definition of a watershed: every drop of rain that hits in that area drains into the same water body.

Waller Creek is a big watershed that includes most of UT Campus and all the way op to the intersection of 183/35 hwy. It’s mostly impervious surface: driveways, parking lots, road tops. The watershed that drains into Waller Creek is the most urbanized in Austin. A lot of it was developed before we had regulations in place, but that’s a long story.


The section of Waller Creek that we were touring is in the process of undergoing improvements. This includes the Delta – where the creek empties into the lake. It will actually be a chain of parks a mile and a half long, making a nice green belt along the entire riparian corridor. The Waller Creek Conservancy is the group leading the charge on this. In partnership with the Nature Conservancy, they will document the ecological and social outcomes of this improvement project. For example, Dr. Belaire eplains, “we have done tree surveys, floral surveys, bird surveys…We are trying to figure out what’s the current condition in terms of the ecosystem, and how is it benefiting nature and also people. We’re doing surveys so we can understanding of the conditions now and track that over time.”

So it’s pretty fun!

Dr Belaire spoke about the iBird pro APP and how it helps you identify bird species with a few questions. It uses your decisions as well as the input from other scientists like Jimmy and myself adding to the database, and makes the decision for you.

We then walked down to the creek to take a look of where the wildlife cameras are located for a project called Austin Wildlife Watch, that is documenting animals’ use of urban green spaces across the city.

When the rain falls there are huge peak flows in all Waller Creek, which causes flooding downtown. When there is a storm and Waller Creek is running real high, there is a recently constructed tunnel intake structure here that takes all of this water underground and bypasses downtown and outputs it into the lake. (A total of 28 acres is no longer part of the flooding.) The theory is if you capture the water where it falls, you’re preventing or redirecting the urban runoff. The best analogy is it’s acting like a sponge.

Look at the turtle, oh look at the turtles, I love the turtles. I like them too much to make them into soup.” –Luke Markley


Dr Belair explained that the leaf areas of all the trees in this urban green space capture the pollution along the western edge of Waller Creek, and it that reduces the concentration of air pollution along the Creek. In general the effect of vegetation strongly improves the air quality. She measured a difference of 15% in particulate matter from the east side of Waller Creek next to the I-35 highway to the interior.


The work the Dr. Amy Belaire is doing is really important! Within the Nature Conservancy, and most environmental organizations, there has historically been an emphasis on wild places, far from cities. The new position that was created for Dr Belaire as Urban Ecologist  empahsizes the organizations shifting focus. They are now starting to pay more attention to urban green spaces, and recognize the importance of this habitat for wildlife, and for the people that live within the city. Urban ecology is a relatively new field. It is really important that we value these green spaces for human health and for the  habitat they provide for all kinds of species. Dr Belaire and TNC are doing a lot of this work to quantify the value of these systems, and to see how we can best manage them to best ecosystem services and increase urban biodiversity. It’s really an exciting time to be living in cities!” – our fearless field trip leader Dr. Concilio

{Blog post and photos by Luke Markley}


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