Blog of the El Camino Real Chapter, Texas Master Naturalists, Milam County, Texas
Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall
The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog. I work with Hermit Haus Redevelopment to help people quickly sell their houses. I do their social media! I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I'm also a tech writer in Austin, secretly.
This past spring on a cool, clear day, my daughter Rosie and I picked up Master Naturalist Donna Lewis and Danielle Ramos in Milano at dawn. We traveled to Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site for an enjoyable edible plant walk. Master Naturalist Patrick Still and his wife also attended.
Along the way we saw chickens, longhorns, and wildflowers. We then toured the “Birthplace of Texas” where in 1836 Texas declared independence from Mexico to become the Republic of Texas.
After lunch and Jet Fuel coffee to keep us going, we headed to the Antique Rose Emporium in Independence. Donna kept us laughing with her tales. Once she was visiting a nearby farm and a “nice” miniature horse bit her. The children on the tour got scared and ran away!
The Emporium was stunning, and we found our favorite blooming sweet peas. We also found artisan beer, wine and snacks at the new bistro there. While relaxing on a porch surrounded by flowers and wind chimes, we noticed a long black crack on a building which turned out to be a snake! We said nothing so as not to “scare the children”.
As we left, we saw a bride having her picture taken among the roses. We were too tired to stop for dinner, so Donna got home by dark—–a perfect spring day in Texas.
While we aren’t having meetings for a while, we are able to have our own adventures out in nature, or if we’re lucky, nature comes into our homes.
Chapter member Pamela Neeley is well known for having a home that’s welcoming to creatures of nature. People who have been to our meetings may recall that she recently had a skunk that liked to come in and check out her cat food.
It would come in through the pet door and make itself at home. It never sprayed or anything, but was quite clever.
When Pamela tried to block the door, the patient skunk slowly but surely worked out how to remove the barriers, so he or she could search for snacks. Cat food is really delicious, apparently.
I guess the skunk got along well enough with Ruby the dog, though Ruby did alert Pamela to the skunk’s presence.
Skunks CAN make good pets, but that’s not something we Master Naturalists would suggest as an option. Besides, this is a wild one, and fully operational.
About that Snake
Pamela also has cats. They go in and out that same door the skunk used. Sometimes cats bring presents, as cats are known to do. Earlier in the week, the present Apollo brought was long, thin, and not dead.
The snake was first spotted heading into what Pamela calls the “scary room filled with boxes,” from where she had no chance or removing it. Since she’s so used to critters, she went about her business, until yesterday, when she noticed Apollo the cat was stalking the bathroom. Aha!
The snake was taking refuge in a nice, damp place. That can scare the pee out of you!
After taking a bunch of pictures, Pamela contacted her team of friends on a group text for suggestions. And she got dressed. That’s important.
Ideas came quickly from her amazed friends. One idea was flushing, which was immediately rejected. That’s not being kind to our reptile friends!
Other ideas were use a mop, use one of those pick-up sticks that help the elderly, kitchen tongs, a net, and so forth.
Pamela chose the large towel method. She was ready to fling it into the bathtub if it got too wiggly, but it turned out the snake just curled up and she could easily get it in the towel. It was probably relieved.
Pamela took it to the woods a good ways from the house, and everyone was relieved.
What Was It?
Naturally, everyone in the Cameron ladies’ text group wanted to know what kind of snake it was, especially those of us who are Texas Master Naturalists. Pamela knew what to do, and uploaded it to iNaturalist, suggesting it might be a brown snake, judging from the markings she noted.
Soon she got feedback that the snake was a coach-whip snake. Now she’s glad it didn’t do its characteristic whipping action on her. Since the snake may have been in her house as long as a week, she also hopes it ate some scorpions or other annoying creatures while it was a guest in her home.
Share Your Stories!
Now that we are mostly sitting around looking at the nature around our homes, please share what’s going on with you! Maybe it will make up for all the meetings and classes that have been canceled. I already have one to share tomorrow, so stay tuned.
Shortly after purchasing Cedar Hill Ranch in 2013, we started learning about how much a controlled burn would help to reduce the thick Yaupon understory from much of our forested area (mainly from Billy Lambert, Tim Siegmund, and Bobby Allcorn – TPWD). A reduced brush understory would allow surface plants to take hold, leading to much more productive land for feeding and sheltering the native wildlife, and improving the soils. As managers of our wildlife land, we looked forward to the time when a controlled burn could be conducted safely and productively. But the land was too dense in the first years and we had difficulty getting the surface clear for grasses – there was too much forested land and we could not manage to get enough of it ready for a controlled “grass” burn. So, Mike and family members spent years reducing Yaupon and Eastern Red Juniper by chemical and mechanical means. In more recent years, we started hearing about a “forest” burn solution.
The day finally arrived for our first forest burn on Thursday, February 27, 2020. But it did not come without many hours of preparation, both on the part of Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel and us landowners. Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel must be trained as fire specialists – to understand and monitor winds and humidity, understory leaf and grass litter, snags and overhanging branches, safety zones, water and fire supply equipment, clothing and on-ground equipment, team management, safety of all people involved – the list is lengthy but necessary to ensure safety of participants and neighboring households, animals, land, and structures. Finally, they had to notify EMS and Fire Station personnel about the burn. The landowners worked with TPWD biologists to identify the acreage to be burned, called the burn unit. Bobby Alcorn then developed a detailed and comprehensive burn plan. This plan described the area to be burned, the type of burn to be conducted, and the weather conditions necessary, and it gave a comprehensive analysis of the safety issues surrounding this particular burn unit. In late 2019 Mike Conner cleared a 10-foot bare sand firebreak and also cut down dead trees from the edge of the burn unit and moved them 30 feet into the interior of the unit. Toni Aguilar, TPWD Regional Controlled Burn Coordinator, and Bobby Allcorn, local TPWD Biologist, visited the site several times to monitor and approve Mike’s progress. Mike then notified and invited all the surrounding neighbors and also members of El Camino Real Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists to attend.
On Thursday morning 7 Master Naturalists, one neighboring landowner, one Native Plants Society of Texas member, and 6 Texas Parks and Wildlife fire brigade personnel (a total of 15 individuals) arrived.
Everyone was given a map of the rectangular 50-acre tract that was to be burned so that everyone was familiar with the area. We volunteers were then given specific explanations and instructions about our activity and duties by Edwin Bowman, burn leader-in-training.
And then our wait began. A burn in a forested area with a mostly closed canopy or dense brushy understory needs a brisk wind, low humidity, and dry conditions. As the optimum weather circumstances neared, we moved to “Corner A” where we were given more instructions and then split into teams. Mason Conley’s team would work from Corner A and move south, Tim Siegmund’s team was to work from Corner A and move west. Since the team moving south was supposed to have less smoke, all of the women volunteers chose that team, leaving all of the men to face the worst smoke. (As it turned out, the smoke had a mind of its own and did just the opposite!) Each team had at least one walkie-talkie.
As each team started, Toni headed to the interior. We could see her occasionally and the fire that followed her path. (She was joined by different staff members at different times.) Bobby was in charge of watching the wind and humidity with his special equipment. He was in constant communication with all of the other leaders. A quick change in wind or sudden drop in humidity could cause unexpected movement of the fire, so this was a crucial task.
Surprisingly, the filled fire torches were heavy to carry in one hand (about 8 pounds). Once lit, the fire starter would “drag” the torch behind them, dripping the liquid flame in the leaf litter. This could be dangerous if you did not keep moving ahead of the flames now burning right behind your feet, or if you became distracted and turned, creating a circle around your feet of flame! Another danger could be created when you “tossed” the flames into the woods at various locations. As we volunteers waited for our turns to carry the torch, Bobby reminded us to also check across the safety zone for embers – a sign that the fire had jumped the barrier and could go rogue. This was difficult to do because the fire within the burn zone was mesmerizing! Luckily, we had Jay Whiteside (TPWD) driving one of the water trucks along the perimeter as he constantly watched for any potential problem.
Pamela lucked out and was able to experience dripping her fire torch while simultaneously riding in a utv! (Disclaimer – This was done under the supervision of one of the fire specialists.)
When the entire perimeter was torched, we regathered at the parking area for a review of the day. In the end, we learned that we had one more very important thing to do – check the entire perimeter for fire/glowing embers within 40 feet of the firebreak. Everyone decided to stay for this last job, so it was fairly quick work. When an ember or burning log was found, it was tossed farther into the interior. When Mike was told that there was one snag at the farthest corner of the burn unit that had to be taken down, he rushed back to the barn and got his bobcat. If left on its own, the snag could release embers that might travel across the firebreak and ignite a whole new part of the forest – creating a serious fire hazard! At the snag, we watched as Edwin and Mike took turns with the chain saw and the bobcat until the snag fell. Mike then moved the broken snag farther into the burn unit. After hosing down the snag’s embers, the day was now officially over (although Mike and I would need to re-visit the site over the next few days to confirm that all was still well).
We learned a lot about controlled burns that we had not previously learned from several workshops, seminars, and research. We also learned that this first burn was only the beginning. The forest would need to be burned several more times over the next years, as only some of the brushy understory was actually destroyed. Much of the yaupon and junipers will either regrow or will need another fire to finally kill it. Because the temperature, wind, and humidity must be fairly precise, it will always be difficult to plan the exact time and day for this activity. But, at least now, we feel more confident that we are able to perform it.
Below the credits are more of the many pictures taken during the day. Thanks to everyone who supervised and helped!
El Camino Real Texas Master Naturalist Volunteers: Joyce and Mike Conner, Donna Lewis, Liz Lewis, Lisa Milewski, Pamela Neeley, and John Pruett.
Neighbor Volunteer: Fred Russell
NPSOT Volunteer: John Glos
TPWD Staff: Toni Aguilar, Bobby Allcorn, Edwin Bowman, Mason Conley, Tim Siegmund, and Jay Whiteside
This morning, a semi-hardy group of Master Naturalists met at Wilson-Ledbetter Park in Cameron to see if we can actually DO a bioblitz. What’s a bioblitz? It’s when people get together and see how many observations they can make on the iNaturalist citizen science platform in a defined area during a specific time.
Our goal is to have as many observations as possible today, February 22, at the park. That means anyone who observes after our group blitz will also count.
Twelve of us came to the event, which is a great turnout! We gave some handouts to the people who were new to iNaturalist, showed folks how to join the project I’d set up the day before, and set off in groups, where experienced and inexperienced people were together. Our instructions were to take as many pictures as possible of the flora and fauna you encountered.
Different groups did their observations differently, with some people uploading photos as they took them and others choosing to take the pictures on their phones then upload them later. We also had a couple of people using cameras, and a couple of spotters/observers. Below are some action shots and a couple of the photos we took. Thanks to Meghan Land and Dorothy Mayer for sharing their photos.
One thing I discovered is that we have some great nature observers in our new class. One found a domestic cat carcass (no photo available, thankfully) and another found some beautiful eggs in a nest by an oak tree (perhaps from the nearby ducks).
Long-time members shared stories about previous projects our group has done in the park and helped identify some of those pesky forbs that were everywhere. It’s quite a challenge when so little is blooming, and many woody plants have no leaves yet.
After about an hour of photographing, we went back to the warmth of the Hermit Haus and practiced using the iNaturalist app to upload photos. It’s a bit of a learning curve, especially if you have an android phone and all your “experts” have iPhones. But, folks are already adding their observations to the project, and people are out there identifying them.
Just a few hours after the bioblitz started, we have over a hundred observations, and half the team has uploaded content. Not bad at all! Check the project page to see how many more observations have been uploaded. They will be trickling in over the next few days.
Where shall we go for our next bioblitz? Will you join us? Our goal is to visit all the parks in the county, so suggestions are welcome! Remember, Tania Homayoun of Nature Trackers, and our state iNaturalist expert, will be joining us April 18 for a special training with both an indoor and an outdoor component. We will let you know which park we’ll be holding that one at!