Monday, April 23, 2007

Trees of Willowbrook Reach

Written by Paul Hagey.

This article is taken from the Nov. 2006 issue of The Flea. Photos in the original were taken by Jack Darby. Photos I include here were taken by Dolly.

I grew up along the stretch of Boggy Creek that is now called the Willowbrook Reach and have enjoyed the dynamism of its ecosystem. After identifying some of the trees on the Reach, I recognized that part of its dynamism is its biodiversity. I was surprised to discover more than 40 species of native and exotic trees on this quarter-mile greenbelt.

Here are 13 that stand out. Walking counter-clockwise from the Cherrywood Road bridge at Sycamore Road.

1. Arborvitae. The small pinelooking tree on the right is a very young version of the coneshaped giants across the creek. They are in the Cypress family.
2. Shumard Oak. The next tree to the right of the path is a Shumard Oak. It is used in lumber and songbirds feed on its fruit. It has reddish-orange to orange fall coloring.

3. American Elm. The next really large tree on the right near the first big pool is an American Elm, a popular shade tree.
4. Black Willow. A little farther on the left of the trail, growing up from the bank, is a Black Willow. It has long slender leaves and is common along creeks. This section of the creek sports several willows, which are likely the source of the street name as well.
5. Cedar Elm. About 50 feet farther just before the sewer pipe, is a Cedar Elm. It has rough small leaves and is fast-growing.

6. Huisache. Another 50 feet ahead, as the creek begins to bend to the left, the trail pivots on a Huisache, or Sweet Acacia tree over 20 feet tall. It has multiple trunks with tiny leaves and small yellow flowers. Notice a Hackberry sprouting out of the trunk of a Mesquite up the hill on the right.

7. Bald Cypress. A ways down the path, past the second sewer pipe, is a fairly mature Bald
Cypress. It has a pine-like presence and is found on many Hill Country riverbanks.
8. Mesquite. About 30 feet farther to the right in front of a wooden fence is a rejuvenating
Mesquite. This new growth from a stump is typical of Mesquites. On the other side of the creek heading towards Cherrywood.
9. Redbud. Almost directly across the creek from the Bald Cypress stands a Redbud, about
12 feet tall with heart-shaped leaves. Flowers are rose-purple color.
10. Plateau Live Oak. Just ahead is a small version of this native. In the yard across the street at 3805 Willowbrook you can see some full-grown examples.

11. Chinese Tallow. About 150 feet down the trail, across the creek from the Huisache, stands a cluster of Chinese Tallows to the right of the trail. They have round, pointed leaves.
12. Sycamore. Along East 40th stand four Sycamores. They are relatively large trees, in the maple family, with grayish, peeling bark.
13. Mulberry/Hackberry. Past a rejuvenating Black Willow just before the bridge is a Mulberry/ Hackberry mixture. The Mulberry has large smooth leaves and produces edible fruit in late spring. The dominant Hackberry has smaller leaves and the trunk has a characteristic wart-like texture.

Friday, April 20, 2007

KAB: Creek Clean-up '07

Keep Austin Beautiful Clean Sweep comes to Willowbrook Reach Saturday at the Reach, 9-11 am. Go Dave!

Sitings: Apr 20

Despite the fact that most of the wildflowers were mown to the ground, there are still some resilient evening primroses blooming along the edge of the Reach (in the area where the Easter Seals folks left the vegetation taller). This morning, I still saw about 4-5 white-lined hawkmoths (at minimum) flitting around the banks. Whew!

Also ran into a yellow-crowned night heron perched on the mid-reach pipe just above a lurking snapping turtle. It swoooshed away and was later heard squawking from the tips of the branches of large elm tree on the south side by the picnic table. (Note, the photo above is not on the Reach...I only wish I could take such photos!)

Some fish are beginning to create breeding territories in The Bathtub - you can see the territories as circles along the creek bottom that are devoid of debris. The males clear these out, defend them, and await for females to choose their circle to lay eggs (well, that's generally how it goes). I don't know which species of fish this is, but I think it may be a type of sunfish.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


All things seem much quieter at the Reach post-mow and minus the colorful flowers. With a fresh cut, the area takes on a much more "Olmstedian" look. Frederick Law Olmsted, famous for his design of New York's Central Park (at right), is considered the father of American landscape architecture. Olmsted drew inspiration from the British "pastoral" style. From the National Association of Olmsted Parks:
The epitome of pastoral landscape was the English deer park, with its sense of extended space and its gracefully modulated ground and smooth, close-cropped turf. This style he [Olmsted] found to be a special antidote to the ill effects of urban life.
Olmsted liked to reign nature in a bit--to reorder it in a way that makes the human experience most profound. I believe that many American parks follow this model, as well as many of our suburbs (including Wilshire Woods).

At any rate, a freshly mown Reach is more expansive, the palette simpler. It draws my attention outward, rather than a wild and woolly Reach that forces me to focus on smaller, hidden treasures.

I'm preferential to something in between. Simple and clean is good for the human psyche, but so is wild and woolly (not to mention that the latter is also better for the plants and the critters).

Friday, April 13, 2007

Mowing Day

Today is a mowing day.

I saw the crew getting started as a peddled away to work. Goodbye sweet wildflowers. Many of them, including the bluebonnets, haven’t yet had an opportunity to set seed. (Mowing dates, times and places is something we seriously need to work out with the city.)

Without any flowers to gather nectar from, we can probably wave good-bye to the hawkmoths as well…

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Zoom-Zoom-Zoom: Hawkmoths on the Banks

Every morning on my walk with Libby (around 7:30 am) for the past few weeks, I’ve been seeing these hawkmoths. (I’m pretty sure they are the White-lined Sphinx, Hyles lineata, also captured in the photo at my porch light.) They zoom around the banks of the Reach, sipping nectar from the abundant pink evening primrose. I think they may also be hitting up the newly blooming gaura.

Hawkmoths are my favorite insect. Also called hummingbird moths for their habit of hovering in front of flowers with wings beating a mile-a-minute, there are about 77 species in Texas alone. A common one that many gardeners know well is the “tomato or tobacco hornworm,” Manduca sexta. Older caterpillars of this moth will munch down a tomato plant in an afternoon.

Many hawkmoths are nocturnal, and flowers they pollinate are generally white and sweetly smelling, like our native Datura. Others are active in the evenings or morning, when light is lower. Some of those active in the day have evolved to look like bumblebees, which may protect them from predators.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Bird sitings

These, like the wildflowers, are lumped into one, since I just started this blog thingie.

What I’ve seen or heard this Spring (from memory): Great Blue Heron, pairs of Wood Ducks, woodpeckers (not id'ed yet), yellow-crowned night herons (they like to nest in the tall beautiful trees around our neighborhood), some various species of hawks, an owl or two, green heron, cedar waxwings, ruby-crowned kinglet, tufted titmouse, cardinals, starlings*, great-tailed grackles, rock pigeons, mourning doves, and white-winged doves.

*I’ve noticed that the starlings may be competing with the woodpeckers for their nesting holes. The woodpeckers clear out their holes (by the way, this is a GOOD reason to keep some trees and branches around that are standing dead) and then the starlings take over. In fact, I saw some starlings harassing one of the woodpeckers on the large elm tree (with several holes) and now I see starlings exiting that very hole. Some others have found that the starlings displace woodpeckers and other cavity nesters.

Other wildlife - The snapping turtles are back, and I saw a juvenile Texas rat snake in my front yard (Go get those damn rats, Mr. Snake!).

Spring Wildflowers 2007

This isn’t exactly an accurate record of wildflower phenology on the Reach, as I’m lumping these photos all together in one date. (Hey, I just started this blog, okay?!). Actually, this is my first Spring on the Reach, so I also have nothing to compare it to. But the mowers haven’t been around in a while and so the flowers keep a bloomin’.


Prairie verbena

Greenthread (Thelesperma filifolium)

Cutleaf daisy


Sensitive briar

Unknown (and bad picture)

Not pictured here are others that are still blooming: Pink evening primrose, huisache

Friday, April 6, 2007

FLWR meeting: April 3

We had our first meeting last night for the newly invigorated FLWR. Girard Kinney, Priscilla and Dave Boston, Dolly and Dave and John Stott were in attendance. First and foremost we added the 'L' for 'Lovers' to the old name, Friends of Willowbrook Reach. As an acronym, FLWR has super fun potential.

Here are a few other things we talked about:
  • Erosion control - this is going to be an ongoing issue in an urban creek system confined to a small space by houses and roads. Creeks and rivers are born to meander--to change their paths by miles at a time. It’s a natural process, but if we let it happen in the city, the creeks and rivers would gulp houses and roads up into its gullet. So, we need to prepare.
  • More native plants - We’d like to plant more native trees, shrubs and wildflowers to attract butterflies and birds. This will also help with erosion
  • Mowing - we need to work with the city to come up with a good maintenance schedule. Mowing is important, as it helps keep back some of the nasties like poison ivy and Johnson grass.
  • Monarch Waystation - Dolly threw out the idea of a monarch waystation, which I think is a fabulous idea. Once we get some more flowering native plants in the ground, I think we can easily apply to become a waystation.
  • Martin house - the Reach is ripe for purple martin houses
  • Bridge - a longer term goal is to get a bridge mid-Reach.
  • More garbage cans and doggie bags - Enough said.
  • Master plan - We desperately need a master plan to guide everything we do on the Reach. It will not only help us develop, maintain and foster the Reach in a cohesive and appropriate way, but it will help our communications with the City of Austin and other stakeholders.
In the end, we quickly applied for an Keep Austin Beautiful grant to get us started.