Tag Archives: Austin

B. astutus

At first I thought it was another raccoon… then a cat. But as I slowed to pass the crushed body alongside the Capitol of Texas 360 Highway, I realized it was something in between: a ringtail cat. It was the first I’d ever seen. It was dead; blood oozing from crushed eyes, guts splayed on the asphalt.

By now other drivers honked and cursed and glared through their glass domes since I’d slowed to near halt in the busy traffic. I glanced around for pigs, and seeing none, I pulled over into the gravelly shoulder with my flashers on and ratched up my e-brake. For show I propped open my hood then set out back down the median amid knee-high bobbing flowerheads of indian blankets and mexican hats towards the mangled corpse.

My heart sank as my gullet flamed in stifled rage. Sure enough it was a ringtail cat. Sick bastard probably had to swerve to hit it there. Shaky, I knelt, tears welling despite awareness of my spectacle. It needs a proper burial I thought and started back to my car for a plastic grocery bag.

I looked to my right across the street into the thick forest from whence it must’ve crossed, cursing its stupid carelessness while simultaneously regretting the curse. I imagined its mate and brethren looking back from the forest’s edge at that spot. But this vision was real. I halted in vertigo and stared back, finally moving my head and eyes slightly side to side to look at them with my peripheral vision, as if it were night and I couldn’t make out my center view as well. They turned and tucked singlefile under the barbed wire, disappearing into the underbrush.

I nearly ran into traffic then thought of the 17 year old boy from my highschool killed near this same spot a few years back chasing his basketball unthinking into the street, a scene I always associated with a watermelon dropped onto pavement. After that they closed the de facto trailhead to a popular swimming hole here. I waved frantically, instinctively gesticulating my loss of some object from my car on the other side that I was trying to retrieve.

Finally cars slowed enough to let me sprint across towards where the ringtails ducked under. The brush was too thick for me there so I hopped the fence a few yards down and thrashed towards their path. This is crazy, people saw me, even if I did see that they’re long gone now I thought.

Still I kept scrambling low under the snapping dead juniper branches and hit a deer trail. Too dry for tracks. I followed it anyway, already envisioning pigs dismayfully sauntering about my car. Doubtfully I pressed on down the widening path as the junipers made way for live oaks.

Then I came upon an Oak Lord I knew, as always pausing to look upon its magnificence. And there they were. In the canopy, together, as if in conference, looking down upon me.

ringtail looks down

Two burst off in opposite directions, nimbly scampering through the treetips, then gone. The last warily climbed down and when it hopped to the ground it glanced in my eyes, then continued down the same deer trail at a gallop.

Wait, I breathed. Hands and knees I scampered after it through the low brush, just glimpsing the swish of its fine brush. The forest soon opened up into a small grotto with smooth-trunked sycamores and little black walnut treelets wading on thin sandbars amid limestone flags awash with clear springwater. On the other side was an overhang where under thick moss mats and dripping maidenhair boughs glassy black eyes just barely shone.

I crossed the waters with the ninja stealth of a juvenile delinquent with creaky floors in his parents house. It watched. As I neared, it silently turned into the blackness with that provocative tail swish. I pulled out my lighter and flicked it on. There was only one place it could’ve gone; a small hole at the far end of the overhang, where chalky dust caking the floor teemed with various tracks, including fresh ringtail tracks marching straight into the hole.

Even if I could fit through there its gonna bite me when I do I thought. Or something will. Cautiously I brought the flame closer while inspecting the darkness. It went deep, maybe even opened up back there. Thousands of harvestmen pulsed as one above me. It’s spring; it must have come back here worried about its kits or whatever you call baby ringtail cats.

Ringtail cat kit
Ringtail cat kit

I found myself seemingly pulled magnetically into the earth, only realizing my depth when almost fully swallowed. Claustrophobia gripped my heart and throat with cold panic. My head bashed against the hard, cold, wet rock and clay roof. My body length was fully enclosed in the narrow cold stone artery. I was afraid and urged to run but a faint chittering beckoned me irresistibly. My hands pulled me forward, arms straight out, feet and toes pushing.

Then the chamber suddenly widened and I pulled into a small domed room. There was no ringtail cat, or kits, or exit. Some dead juniper branches lay against one wall. Ringtail tracks and sign of other animals were everywhere. Surely somewhere is its flush hole or something, these caves don’t end like this I thought. I frantically scoured the walls, black dread gripping me anew.

Someone has graffitied even here I noticed. But the markings were in no script nor stylistic scribbling recognizable to my eye. Nor were they like those red ochre rock pictographs. Someone had faintly scratched symbols or perhaps diagrams into the soft wet limestone. They appeared fresh.

I stepped back and tried to make sense of the scene, flame flickering the roughness shadows as I traced it along the walls in a search pattern. It was a mural of sorts. A large circle about four feet diameter spanning the dome was punctuated with three smaller circles each about one foot diameter, which if connected with lines would form a triangle. Inside each of these smaller circles were a similar crude drawing of a man and woman. In one, the couple were inside a square, and the line forming the side of the square below their feet extended outward to connect with the edge of the circle. The next circle was the same, except the side of the square above their heads was missing. In the final (or first depending how you saw it) circle, the figures were surrounded by myriad fractal designs.

I stayed there until I had absorbed the design, then caterpillared my way out, barely squeezing through the narrow exit. I retraced my steps, returned to my car, got the plastic bag, and picked up the dead ringtail, I’m sure to the horror of passers-by. I took it to the Oak Lord, and buried it (without the plastic bag) at her feet, covering its grave with a choice limestone flag, whereupon I burned some dead leaves, inhaling it with the trees. Then I left, returned to my car, and drove off.




Central Texas Natural History

Central Texas Natural History

The Edward’s Plateau encompasses the hill country ecoregion of Central Texas. The Balcones escarpment, forming a semicircle from southwest to northeast surrounding central Texas, forms the Edward’s plateau to the west, which ends to the west and north with more uplifted terrain. The limestone bedrock of this plateau was formed in the Cretaceous by shallow sea deposits. The plateau uplifted in the Miocene while the Gulf Coast region to the east subsided. Subsequent erosion formed the karst topography characteristic of the area today, with abundant hills, creeks, springs, and caves. The Edward’s aquifer roughly follows the western border of the Balcones escarpment and several other aquifers are found in the plateau.

aquifers of the Edwards plateau and Balcones escarpment

aquifers of the Edwards plateau and Balcones escarpment

google map of the hill country

google map of the hill country. “A” indicates Austin

The climate is mediterranean, with hot dry summers having mean temperatures around 85 degrees Fahrenheit, cool dry winters having mean temperatures around 50 degrees, and rainy seasons in both the fall and spring, in which rainfall is often intense. Over 30 inches of rain in a day is possible. I’ve read it’s the most rain per unit time for any area in the world! Mean annual rainfall is about 30 inches but often varies interannually as much as ten inches.

Savannas are the natural ecosystems representative of the hill country; a patchwork of forests and grass/scrublands, with the latter dominated by little-bluestem grass, prickly-pear cacti, yucca, mesquite, and other scrub which intergrade with forest dominated by Ashe’s juniper (Juniperus ashei) and oaks. Grass/shrublands of this region were historically maintained by fire, bison herd grazing, anthropogenic burning (including by American Indians for as long as since 15,000 years ago), and recently, cattle grazing. Grasslands form early seral stages that over succession would develop more scrub then a climax forest type dependent on local topography if left undisturbed in 50-100 years, when trees form closed canopies.

The grass/scrubland currently occurs in areas where burning or clearing creates disturbed sites preferred by the pioneer plants. The composition of these plant communities varies with habitat water and nutrient availability, in turn largely defined by the local topography. In general, disturbed hilltops are drier than the low-lying terrain. The steep hillsides have intermediate, but more variable microclimate, depending upon local drainage patterns. In general, cacti and yucca thrive in the drier microclimate, thorny shrubs thrive in the wetter microclimate, and though grass is ubiquitous throughout, grass species composition varies with water availability. In areas of extreme local temperature or water stress, such as steep hillsides or clifftops, this will be the climax seral stage.

Juniper-oak woodlands are the typical climax seral stage, with the species composition of the community of these climax stage species varying by local topography. In general, old-growth hilltops are both drier and hotter than old-growth low-lying terrain. All forests are most dominated by Ashe’s juniper (Juniperus ashei). Hilltop forests are co-dominated by escarpment live oak (Quercus virginiana var. fusiformis) and bastard oak (Quercus sinuata). Hillside forests are co-dominated by escarpment live oak and Texas oak (Quercus texana). Lower slope/creek forests are co-dominated by escarpment live oak, cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia), and Texas oak (Quercus texana). Forest directly beside creeks are dominated by black willow, black walnut, eastern cottonwood, and American sycamore.

Rendering I made of a typical elevational profile from Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve, Austin TX showing tree diversity and biomass increasing from the hill to bottomlands along with the nutrient and water availability

Rendering I made of a typical elevational profile from Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve, Austin TX showing tree diversity and biomass increasing from the hill to bottomlands along with the nutrient and water availability. Names denote select geological formations.

Drawing I made of a typical elevational profile from Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve, Austin TX showing the general ranges of abundant tree and shrub species

Drawing I made of a typical elevational profile from Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve, Austin TX showing the general ranges of abundant tree and shrub species

Plant communities are particularly species rich, with unique combinations of dominant plant species and forms from many ecosystem types since the central Texas ecoregion is at the confluence of five major distinct surrounding ecoregions. For example, pecans and live oaks are dominant in the gulf coast to the east, post oak and junipers are dominant in the post oak savanna to the northeast, grasses are dominant in the prairies to the northwest, yuccas and cacti are dominant in the Chihuahuan desert to the west, and mesquite and other thorny scrub are dominant to the south. As all of these plants can be dominant locally, the flora of central Texas reflects the diversity of the surrounding ecoregions. Similarly, here the fauna is particularly diverse. The abundant caves and springs provide home to many rare and endemic species of animals, from cave spiders to springs salamanders. Bats are common and abundant because of the abundance of caves in which to roost. The historical extirpation or persecution of large predators such as bears, wolves, and pumas, has contributed to ecosystem modification by outbreaks of white-tailed deer overbrowsing.

Fire suppression, bison and American Indian extirpation, and massive decimation of habitats in the region by development and ranching have reduced original savanna to about 2% of the pre-settlement area. Today, protected areas are somewhat distorted representations of the pre-settlement ecosystem since even they do not have fires or bison. The frequency and intensity of droughts have been rising with exponentially increasing human development in the area.

Central Texas is home to the earliest known archeological record of humans in the Americas. Pre-Clovis peoples lived 40 miles northwest of Austin around 15,000 years ago. The area was likely continuously occupied by humans, the last of whom before European settler extirpation, were the Apache and Comanche. These American Indians used burning to improve hunting, thus along with natural fires and bison, encouraged grassland and the savanna matrix rather than forest thickets, common in protected areas today.


A native Texan naturalist (pers. observ.).

Looking north from a hill on Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve

Looking north from a hill on Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve