Forest care brings back bird habitat

The Elgin Courier: July 27, 2022

Deep in the thick forests of a nature preserve in northern Bastrop County, a group of dedicated people worked to clear out overgrown vegetation this summer to improve the habitat for native birds.

Yegua Knobbs Preserve is a 302-acre wildlife preserve near McDade managed by Pines & Prairies Land Trust, a Bastrop-based nonprofit that promotes land protection and conservation easements on private land in Bastrop, Caldwell, Fayette, Lee and eastern Travis counties. Yegua Knobbs consists of a diversity of landscapes, from hilly pasture to dense forest.

One of PPLT’s habitat restoration projects underway at Yegua Knobbs is the clearing and thinning of yaupon holly in the forest.

“Yaupon, although it’s native, it tends to invade the understory,” said Melanie Pavlas, the executive director of PPLT. “When it gets thick like it is here, it crowds out other native vegetation and sunlight can’t get to the ground, so it diminishes the biological diversity of the habitat.”

When yaupon pushes out other species, it leads to a monoculture, or the growth of only a single plant in an area.

“If we just have a monoculture of the yaupon, there’s not as much variety for birds to eat, just like we have food deserts, where you have to go a long distance in order to find food,” said Laurie Mason, PPLT’s outreach manager. “By clearing the yaupon and letting the sunlight touch the forest floor, then more diverse species can grow and provide a wider variety of food in different seasons for all of the wildlife … The whole web of biodiversity benefits from it.”

During the last week of June, PPLT hosted a week of work at Yegua Knobbs, inviting volunteers to help the Texas Conservation Corps to hand-clear yaupon on 21 acres of the preserve. This project was funded by a grant from the Cornell Land Trust Small Grant program, which promotes the conservation of birds and their habitats. In April, part of the grant was used to clear firebreaks.

Instead of using machinery to clear out the yaupon, the volunteers and Corps workers used loppers and saws to hand-clear the vegetation, all the while looking out for bird nests containing eggs or baby birds.

Since last month, PPLT has finished the work required for the Cornell grant, thinning the yaupon throughout the 21-acre block.

After the forest understory is thinned out, PPLT will begin a prescribed burn program. Human development interrupts the natural cycles of wildfire, Pavlas said, and even though Yegua Knobbs hasn’t been built on, fire has still been suppressed. Cutting away the yaupon will make the burn safer by removing much of the fuel.

Another current project at Yegua Knobbs, funded through the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s Landowner Incentive Program, supports potential breeding habitats for the endangered Houston toad through thinning yaupon and conducting prescribed burns.

During PPLT’s work days in late June, TPWD herpetologist Paul Crump was also at Yegua Knobbs. The preserve is part of the Houston toad Safe Harbor Agreement, which incentivizes habitat conservation for the endangered toad. The goal is to mitigate the loss of the toad’s habitat, which occurs not only through development but through neglecting to clear out the forest understory and not allowing natural wildfire to manage the ecosystem, Crump said.

“Our goal is to work with private landowners to voluntarily do stuff to help the Houston toad, bring it back from the brink,” he said, “but hopefully eventually down-list it and delist it from the federal endangered species list.”

The work at Yegua Knobbs to support the Houston toad also includes acoustic monitoring, setting up recording devices at the ponds to listen for the toad’s “gorgeous, melodious call,” Crump said. The toads historically inhabited the preserve, but have not been seen for the past couple of decades.

“We’re looking for them here,” Crump said. “We haven’t found them, which is unfortunate, but we have some tools these days that we can use, the captive propagation program, to reintroduce them when the habitat’s going back in the right direction.”

Yegua Knobbs provides a haven for area wildlife, Pavlas said.

“Birds and endangered species are umbrella species, so if you manage habitat for them, you’re managing it for all the wildlife,” she said. “Not only are we providing habitat for rare or endangered species or sensitive species, but it can serve as a haven for other wildlife in the area.”

Additionally, the preserve can serve as an example to other landowners for wildlife management techniques. PPLT uses programs that are open to landowners, and its preserves can show how endangered species can be protected with unrestrictive methods, Pavlas said.

“It’s our mission to do this, but if a landowner sees even one minor change they can make that would be easy for them to do and not that big of a deal, then that’s good,” she said.

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