It's the doldrums of Summer when bird song is waning and not much is stirring except grasshoppers and dragons. I've spent the time rehabbing from Springtime-inflicted injuries and maladies; I apologize for my absence from our Friends sphere.
One advantage (?) of summertime is the opportunity to catch up on long-ignored Federal paperwork. I settle into the A/C, fire up the old gubmint computer, and make Deborah Holle happy by meeting reporting deadlines to the best of my ability. It is not my lofty goal here to interest you in the array of acronym-heavy* contributions we make in this vein, but one particular reporting task reminded me of a long-overdue topic.
One Congressional requirement of all Refuges is to annually brag about everything we've accomplished in the past fiscal year and everything we hope to accomplish in the coming year in what's called our "Refuge Annual Performance Plan" (this is where I'd normally insert the standard report abbreviation in parentheses...but you get the picture). This year I got particular enjoyment when I compiled a list of all the active research projects that we have hosted on the Refuge--a list that grows longer every year. Elsewhere, I have hinted at some of these but now is the time to give them their bloggable due. We entertained no fewer than 21 diverse field research projects conducted by University faculty and students and other institutions. I cannot adequately explore the wonderful details of each of these efforts in this space but I wanted to give you a sense of all the great work being done by these enthusiastic and energetic folks. So, in no particular order, here are brief overviews of as many of these as I can remember--with apologies to the researchers for any errors or oversimplifications:
The University of Texas
The research interests of Prof. Norma Fowler (Section of Integrative Biology) and her students overlap a great deal with the habitat management and restoration needs of this Refuge. Her doctoral student Christina Andruk is involved in a study of grassland restoration and is also the lead researcher in a Challenge Cost Share study of hardwood regeneration in warbler habitat. Christina and her team have been collecting very detailed vegetation measures in woodlands on two Refuge tracts. In a related spin-off study, Christina's field assistant Kevin Doyle has initiated his own graduate research on fire succession and deer browse effects in juniper-oak woodlands on the Rodgers tract.
We are honored to have the attention of a gaggle of U.T. students lead by Prof. Sahotra Sarkar (Section of Integrative Biology) whose diverse research interests span the world both geographically and taxonomically. Sahotra and his students set up several wildlife cameras along animal trails in remote locations to capture passing critters, including the occasional unwary Refuge biologist. A few outings to do some small mammal trapping by his team have begun to add to our knowledge of rodent distribution. He has also recently increased his research focus on the spread of insect-born diseases such as chagas in Texas and has been sampling ticks and kissing bugs (Triatomines) to monitor potential vectors. Further, we continue to be hopeful that we might uncover a population of spring-dwelling salamanders on the Refuge; Sahotra has been dutifully sampling many of our permanent springs looking for them, thus far without success. His students have also initiated detailed water quality sampling as an adjunct to the salamander hunt. Blake Sissel and Stavana Strutz are among the students spending time in these diverse tasks on the Refuge. A hoped-for inventory of some of our cave fauna has been planned by Prof. Sarkar in conjunction with Kathleen O'Connor of Zara Environmental but other work loads have prevented the initiation of that effort.
Researchers associated with U.T.'s Texas Natural History Collections have recently initiated sampling surveys of various groups of organisms. Curator of Ichthyology Dr. Dean A. Hendrickson and his colleagues are just starting a long-overdue, comprehensive sampling of fish diversity (along with other aquatic vertebrates). Dr. Travis LaDuc, Assistant Curator of Herpetology, will be starting up an analogous sampling effort to better document our amphibians and reptiles, a group which has only received casual attention from Refuge staff to date. Curator of Entomology Dr. John Abbott and our photography pal Greg Lasley have helped us investigate Odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) over the years and stand ready to help us identify new critters in a heartbeat. We've donated a few insect specimens to John's collection at Brackenridge Field Lab, just a drop in that vast invertebrate bucket.
Associate Prof. Joseph White (Dept. of Biology) and his students have been involved for several years on the Refuge studying the fire history and dynamics of our woodlands. Darrel Murray has analyzed historical aerial photography of many Refuge tracts and has also monitored microclimates in and around our shaded fuel breaks. Jon Thomas has collected detailed vegetation data in woodlands which contribute to models of fuel loading, potential fire dynamics, and carbon sequestration. Prof. White, along with Darrel, Jon, and grad student Jian Yao, recently completed and forwarded to us a comprehensive analysis of much of this work entitled "Characterization of Woodland Fuels and Possible Risk to Golden-cheeked Warbler Habitat", one of the most important research contributions to the Refuge to date.
Texas A&M University
Students and field researchers with the Institute of Renewable Natural Resources at TAMU, guided by Prof. Michael Morrison, have been doing statewide monitoring of both Black-capped Vireos and Golden-cheeked Warblers. This year, a TAMU team headed by Melanie Colòn spent long months searching for vireos all over the Refuge, banding many birds, and monitoring nests. The efforts of Melanie's team provided us with critical documentation of our vireo population this year, vastly expanding the limited efforts that Refuge staff could accomplish. (Melanie had the field assistance of David Morgan (Texas State University), whom you'll meet in Part 2 of this series.) Melanie did double duty: She also set up and monitored nest cameras for TAMU grad student Terri Pope who is collecting data on parental behavior at Black-capped Vireo nests at several sites in Central Texas. Yet another team of TAMU students came by briefly to do some censusing of our Golden-cheeks as part of their statewide monitoring effort. They were in and out so fast, I didn't get their names.
Paul Lenhart, a grad student in the Entomology Department at TAMU, has a fascinating project dealing with the dietary niche partitioning of grasshopper communities. Paul is in his second year of field work on the Refuge and has set up some neat field experiments on the Gainer tract. He is also a superb photographer and has uploaded many of his Orthopteran images to BugGuide.net.
Initially introduced to the Refuge by helping Paul with some of his field work, Shawn Hanrahan has recently initiated his own field sampling of Neuropterans (lacewings, ant lions, mantidflies, dobsonflies, etc.) to study "genome size variation" in this set of insects.
Dale Kruse, Curator of the prestigeous Tracy Herbarium at TAMU, more frequently a denizen of the Big Thicket, had just gotten permitted to start looking for bryophytes and other height-challenged plants on Balcones when our weather got hot and dry. We look forward to wetter times with Dale and his colleagues.
*** I'm barely half-way through with this tome on Refuge research! Tune in for Part 2 in a short while.
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Below the Line:
"A good typo is worth a thousand words." You can quote me on that. In preparing an early draft of this post, when describing our report writing duties, I accidentally created this equally descriptive mis-phrase: "the array of acronym-heaving contributions we make." I just thought I'd throw that up for your consideration. So toss me a cookie if you like my new phrase.