General

Volume 37, Issue 2, 2018

Steward of the Land

From trail maintenance to bird counts, and everything in between, see what it takes to keep this Texas jewel shining


Protecting the ecosystem: Fran Hutchins and volunteers conduct
weekly bird surveys of the Preserve.
Courtesy of Fran Hutchins/BCI

If you’re the Director of Bracken Cave, you should probably be a morning person, because your day is going to start nice and early. Also add to that list a love of the outdoors, interacting with visitors and, of course, bats. These are all key ingredients necessary to keep the Bracken Cave Preserve—nearly 1500 acres of wild Texas Hill Country—thriving. Which begs the question, what does a day in the life of Fran Hutchins, the Director of Bracken Cave, look like?

6:00 a.m. I meet Hutchins at the gate to the Preserve. Overhead, the sky is riddled with bats returning home from a successful night’s hunt. You can barely make out their tiny bodies against the inky pre-dawn sky, but a faint buzzing sound fills the air. Hutchins explains that this sound is from the bats tucking in their wings to divebomb into the entrance of the cave—all in an effort to avoid the nearby hawks who are looking to snag a quick breakfast.

We go over the day’s plan as we drive up the 2 mile-long dirt path to the cave.

Golden-cheaked warbler.
Courtesy of Alan Schmierer

6:15 a.m. We meet with a group of Texas Master Naturalists for the weekly bird inventory. We walk a transect of the property, stopping every 300 feet at a predetermined station to document the birds we observe. For the next two hours, we witness brightly-colored painted buntings, black-crested titmouses and a few wild turkeys. Every time we pass a stand of cedar trees, we keep our eyes peeled for a golden-cheeked warbler, a federally listed endangered species that is known to frequent the property.

8:45 a.m. We conclude the transect. No warbler sightings today, but there is always next week. The volunteers head home.

9:30 a.m. We jump in his truck and drive over to a different section of the property. There, we meet with another group of BCI volunteers and members of a local fire crew. Most of them arrived by ATV from neighboring housing developments. In fact, many of the volunteers come from neighborhoods in the area. They’ve all volunteered to help with some trail maintenance.
“One of the greatest things about this job is the opportunity to share this special place with people,” Hutchins remarks.

“Whether it be a member of a scout troop, community service organization or area fire crew that needs to practice chainsaw skills, there is opportunity to do it here. It’s a rewarding part of the deal—to share this space.”

We head on over to the work sites and begin to clear brush and low hanging branches from cedar trees along the break. Every so often a white-tail deer will dart through the thick cedar. Hutchins tells us to keep our eyes peeled for deer, porcupine, armadillo and even the occasional wild boar. Oh, and not to be alarmed if a 10-inch walking stick drops onto your back when you’re working on a tree. We work for about four hours, and by noon, it’s a toasty 90 degrees out. The small brigade of ATVs takes off, but he notes that we’ll see some of the volunteers again when they return in a few short hours to help with that night’s bat flight.

1:30 p.m. We take a break to prepare for that night’s bat flight. For me, that means catching a quick nap. For Hutchins, that means it’s time to answer email, meet with partners, or head to the Austin office for a few hours.

Fran Hutchins educates visitors about the residents of Bracken Cave.
Courtesy of Jonathan Alonzo

4:45 p.m. Long-time volunteers Don and Edith Bergquist, along with a few volunteers from before, meet us at the cave parking lot. We walk around the viewing area to make sure everything is ready for that night’s emergence, which, he explains, usually means checking the area for rattlesnakes. Since tonight is a camping night, he heads over to the campground to make sure the fire pit is set and ready as well.

5:30 p.m. The BCI members and their guests start arriving. Everyone trickles over to the camping area and sets up their tents.

6:30 p.m. Hutchins begins his talk near the mouth of the sinkhole. Behind him, millions of bats chatter as they slowly move toward the front of the cave. Once in a while, one will dart out of the opening, but the full emergence is still an hour or so away. An observant member spies a 6-foot-long coach whip hanging over the mouth of the cave, readying itself to snag an errant bat.

7:23 p.m. The stars of the show emerge. For the next four hours, nearly 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats will stream out of Bracken Cave. The crowd is nearly silent, save for a few exclamations as nearby hawks swoop into the bat stream in an attempt to grab some dinner.

From bats, boars and coyotes, to even the occasional friendly turkey,
the Bracken Cave Preserve is home to a host of wildlife.
Courtesy of Jonathan Alonzo

8:15 p.m. The sun starts to dip below the horizon. In the distance, you can hear some coyotes call. Some of the guests have walked to the opposite side of the sinkhole for a different view of the emergence. Though the light is fading, the river of bats pouring out of the cave’s mouth is still going strong—and will continue for the next several hours. The fading light drives off the hawks, who have now been replaced by owls.

9:00 p.m. Most of the guests have retreated to the camping area. Hutchins has the fire pit going, and the customary s’mores have already come out. Some of the volunteers head off for the night. Never one to turn down a good s’more, I stick around.

I ask Hutchins if today was typical.

“Part of what makes this job fun is that there is something different every day. When we’re out at the cave you never know if you’re going to see a bobcat, a warbler, a coyote or heck, even a trespasser. It’s one of those jobs where you just can’t believe you get to do this for work.”

I ask him how many pots of coffee he downs a day.

“I don’t drink coffee,” he laughs. I’m shocked.

It’s now pushing 10 p.m. The Bergquists and I say our goodbyes to Hutchins, who is going to spend the night on the property—he wants to make sure guests get up in time to see the bats return at dawn. All in a day’s work.

 

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