May Chapter Meeting: The Houston Toad

by Sue Ann Kendall

We had our first online Chapter Meeting last week, and while it wasn’t totally hitch-free, it went well enough that everyone enjoyed the advanced training and meeting, I think. We had nearly 30 attendees, which is a reasonable number for our chapter at any time!

Our speakers were Dr. Paul Crump (Herpetologist) and Dr. Elizabeth Bates (Conservation Initiatives Specialist) from Texas Parks and Wildlife. They graciously provided the WebEx link for the meeting, since we didn’t have our shiny new Zoom account yet (we do now, thanks to Mike Conner).

Throughout our state the habitats for many species are dwindling.  @cameronrainer via Twenty20

Conservation of Rare Species

The first part of the session was about programs that exist in the US and Texas to protect endangered and rare species. It gets pretty complicated, since species can be listed as being of greatest conservation need at the federal level, state level, or both levels.

One thing that Dr. Bates stressed was the need to be pro-active about protecting these plants and animals. She encouraged landowners to take advantage of programs, such as Safe Harbor Agreements, to protect and enhance dwindling habitats. Something easy and rewarding that any of us can do is log sightings of rare and endangered species in iNaturalist. That way, researchers can see if they are increasing, decreasing, or staying the same.

You can find more information on this topic at the Texas Parks and Wildlife department site.

The Houston Toad

For the second part of the presentation, Dr. Crump, who has worked with the Houston toad (Bufo houstonensis) for many years, provided an example of the work that’s been done to protect and expand the range of this Texas native. The Houston toad took quite a hit when one of its primary sanctuaries, the Lost Pines area near Bastrop, burned so badly.

Historic range of Houston toad (from presentation)

Crump shared maps of where the toad used to be found and its current range (which does NOT include Houston), which includes parts of Milam County. Later he did say that only five have been found here. The Houston toad is the only toad that’s found only in Texas, by the way. There are eight other toads found in this state, but the one we usually see is the Gulf coast toad.

We learned that these toads like to breed in bodies of water that aren’t permanent, perhaps because they are less likely to hold fish and turtles that would eat their eggs and developing tadpoles. They’ve bred in many ponds and such, though. Their most sensitve time is right after they crawl out of the water, because they need leaf litter to hide in, and they are easy to squish. Eventually they head out to sandy soil where they can hide by burying themselves.

The smaller males tend to live a year, while females take two years to mature, due to their size. Most only breed once. We are lucky that there has been some success breeding them in captivity and setting the little ones in ponds (it’s way too expensive to feed them to maturity; it requires mega-large amounts of crickets.

Male calling for a mate. From presentation.

It’s easy to tell a Houston toad from a Gulf coast toad if you know where to look. Houston toads have more freckles on their bellies and are quite green where their neck balloons out while they call. Gulf coast toads have a large cranial ridge that the Houston toad lacks, too. Their calls are really different, with the Houston toad being much higher in pitch. Basically, you’ve probably never seen or heard one.

But don’t let that stop you from looking, because the researchers need data on where they have been sighted! Crump and his colleagues would also love to have more participants in the Houston Toad Safe Harbor Agreement, which is a way for landowners to agree to protect their toad habitat.

If this doesn’t satisfy your curiosity, the slide deck from Crump’s presentation is available on our website, and there’s great information on the TPWD website as well.

Amazing Nature Walk for 2020 Class

Yesterday was the first field trip for our 2020 class and some tag-along Chapter members. We literally visited a field! What a beautiful field it was, however, and we are grateful to Nancy Webber for inviting us to share the property she has been managing as a wildscape for over a decade.

Heading out for the walk, Nancy explains how she manages her property.

After a bit of gawking at the beautiful off-grid home on the property, complete with huge cistern, solar panels, and blazing wood stove, Nancy led the class through the riparian area and meadows in her property, somewhere between Davilla and Bartlett. She presented so much information about her property, how they manage it, and what they do with it.

We had fun spotting prickly pear that they dug up and hung from trees to propagate no more, and marveled at how few mesquite there were. On the other hand, the possumhaw was glorious, and everywhere!

Not my best possumhaw photo, but you get the idea.

We saw and heard many birds, which was great fun to the birders among us. A ladderback woodpecker and American robins were highlights, though there were many more. We knew there were also plenty of raptors around by the evidence of many former mourning doves.

Former dove.

We had fun finding dens of some of the local mammals (one of which had an interesting musky smell), spider webs in trees and on top of holes, and even a grasshopper and a sulphur butterfly.

The spider just left before I could take the picture!

Another fun activity was spotting the cool things the property owners had done to honor the nature in the area, such as decorated trees, a “portal,” and an entire area featuring various bones hanging from the trees. It’s a great place to play “guess the carcass!”

The two hours flew by, since the weather was pleasantly cool and the mud wasn’t bad at all. A couple of us lagged behind as we got all involved in plant identification and taking photos for iNaturalist. We just can’t help it, plus one was a new one to us (fringed puccoon, pictured below). I think Ann Collins and I may have hooked one of our class members on our hobby!

I wish we could tour more property of our members, to see how they differ. Hope you enjoy my photos. I am sparing you most of my iNaturalist photos!

We all had a great time on our field trip!

February Chapter Meeting Draws a Big Crowd

The El Camino Real Chapter Meeting on February 13 really filled our meeting space. It was great to have to go upstairs and fetch more chairs for all the members, 2020 class students, and guests that came to hear Dr. Alston Thoms talk about the indigenous people who lived in the Milam County area from the time of the Mastodons until the present.

The Hermit Haus was filled with so many guests and members! Dr. Thoms is sitting by the center post.

He had a LOT of content to cover, and an hour definitely wasn’t enough to take in all there is to know about this topic. Luckily, the website at Texas Beyond History has lots and lots of additional information.

Dr. Thoms made a great opening slide show wit pictures of us and our meeting building on it!

We learned about the Coahuiltecan, Tonkawa, and Atakapa (Bedi) people who made their lives moving from place to place to follow the food spots they knew of. They primarily ate deer, which have been the primary food source for people in this area since people showed up. They were able to get many types of prey using spears, adl-adl, arrows and such, and they also ate lots of our native plants, even ones we don’t normally eat (like false garlic/crow poison, which is good roasted a long time).

Later on, other groups moved in, but there are still descendants of the Coahuiltecan people in central Texas, after many of them moved to the missions, like the Alamo (bear in mind, its main historical significance is being an early Spanish mission).

Dr. Thoms in May 2018, leaving his talk at our meeting in Milano.

Want to learn a little more? I summarized his previous talk on my personal blog, and we even had a newspaper article on his talk.

At the Chapter Meeting

Lisa Milewski happily gave Donna Lewis her bumblebee pin.

We had a lively Chapter Meeting after the talk. Our first recertification award of 2020 went out to Donna Lewis, who is the first to sport a bumblebee pin on her shirt! Donna does so much work for our chapter, including bringing in our guest speakers and leading meetings when the President is unavailable (like next month, when I have the nerve to have scheduled a vacation at meeting time!).

Liz gets her treasured certification certificate.

Liz Lewis (no relation), a member if the 2018 class, also got an exciting milestone award, as she received her initial certification. She’s now working on setting up the graduation dinner for our 2020 students.

Look at that cool lizard and happy Master Naturalist!

And finally, Linda Jo Conn presented Debbie Harris with the WOW iNaturalist award of the month for her photo of a Texas spiny lizard. Get those photos in, because Linda Jo is watching out for good ones!

We have lots of activities this month, so be on the lookout for more blog posts in the next couple of weeks!

What’s Up with Our Chapter?

Hello! It’s been such a busy time for the El Camino Real Chapter that we haven’t had much time to update you.

Marsha May sharing all her birding information.

First, our 2020 training class has been meeting the past few Thursdays, and it’s going very well! We have over ten class members, and every single one of them is bringing amazing talents and knowledge to our chapter. The classes have been attended by many of our current chapter members, too, because there is so much to learn.

For example, last week we had Marsha May, a renowned birder and former Texas Parks and Wildlife employee, who told us so many things about birds that even the most experienced birders didn’t know. (I learned how their lungs work, where there are two air chambers, so when they breathe out, it’s the air from the previous breath!)

The classes are a great way for current members to get Advanced Training hours and also get to know our new class members.

Coming Up

Next week is our February Chapter Meeting, which will feature one of our favorite speakers, Dr. Alston Thoms. He is an archeologist at Texas A&M University, and he will present a program about the original peoples who occupied the land around the Rancheria Grande here in Milam County. Knowing who lived here before us really puts the area into perspective.

A map of the Rancheria Grande, which was near current Gause, Texas. We have members who own property there. This image is from this Austin American Statesman article. The article would be great to read in preparation for the Chapter Meeting.

On the Saturday after the chapter meeting February 15) will be a wonderful field trip opportunity for our class members and current Chapter members. We will visit the property of one of our members, near Davilla, and get first-hand information on the flora and fauna in our area.

BioBlitz!

Our iNaturalist team (Linda Jo Conn, Ann Collins, and me) has set up the FIRST of our BioBlitzes for February 22. We will announce the location at the Chapter Meeting, and it will appear in our weekly email newsletter, so stay tuned.

What’s a BioBlitz? It’s where a group of people get together and record as many entries into iNaturalist in a set area that they can. We are planning to eventually cover all the parks in Milam County, which is a big job, but will provide wonderful data about our county for researchers. We’re excited!

Art by Sean Wall, on my wall.

Farther in the Future

Carlton climbs a fence.

Our Vice President, Donna Lewis, is working hard scheduling speakers for the 2020 Chapter Meetings. We’re excited to be able to announce that our friend, Sean Wall, will be joining us for the May 14 meeting. He’s an expert on wildcrafting, edible native plants, and using what you find in nature in all aspects of your life. For example, he painted this picture of my dog, Carlton, scaling our fence using pigments he found around him.

The Saturday after the Chapter Meeting, Sean will return to Milam County to lead a nature walk at the Hermits’ Rest Ranch, to see what kind of edible plants are growing in the fields, wetlands, and wooded areas there. The wildflowers should be pretty that time of year, too!

We hope to see you at some of our meetings and events. Our Chapter Meetings are open to the public, by the way!

All Things Wild Holiday Festival

by Catherine Johnson

Last weekend, three members of our Texas Master Naturalist chapter traveled to Williamson County to attend the holiday fundraiser hosted by All Things Wild Rehabilitation organization.

Beautiful new facilities for rehabilitating animals.

We saw beautiful wildlife gifts and sampled baked goods. 

A great horned owl with a broken wing.

Since our last visit, many outdoor shelters have been built, including a huge raptor complex.  A zoologist provided owl programs and tours to view raptors. It was fascinating!

A shelter with one of its residents happily perched.

It’s easy to help out at this valuable organization, which helps so many injured and otherwise needy wild animals. From their website you can sign up for newsletters, get hours of operation, and see lists of needed supplies.  They also provide useful information about what to do if you find a wild animal that may be in need.

Watching a raptor demonstration.

Consider volunteering with All Things Wild. Master Naturalists can earn volunteer hours under the opportunity – Natural Resource Conservation.

Who’s looking at whom?