City council to hear proposal to survey endangered bird species

The Austin City Council will vote Thursday on a proposal to hire environmental consultants to survey for two endangered bird species on land owned by the Austin Water Utility.

If approved, the city will pay up to approximately $100,000 to hire SWCA Environmental Consultants to check for the presence of golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos on the majority of the Water Quality Protection Lands.

Korzekwa Story #4 InfographicThe Water and Wastewater Commission unanimously recommended the proposal at its meeting March 13. Sarah Faust, the vice chair of the commission, said the surveys are performed every year during the nesting season in order to determine how many warblers are migrating to the preserve lands.

“The golden-cheeked warbler counts are an important part of the management of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve,” she said in an email interview, noting that the preserve makes up a large portion of the protection lands. “These counts help us determine whether the warbler population is growing and whether the habitat is serving its purpose.”

According to the Austin Water website, these lands feed underground water aquifers so the city purchased the areas, starting in the early ‘90s, to have an active role in protecting its drinking water. The lands span the recharge zone from just north of Kyle, Texas to Barton Springs, making up about 26,500 acres, says the website.

The Austin Water Utility works in conjunction with entities such as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to use the lands for public parks and recreational areas, while ensuring no damage is done to the city’s water supply, the website also says.

According to the Parks and Wildlife website, the golden-cheeked warbler has been on the federal endangered species list since 1990, and the black-capped vireo has been on the list since 1987.

The surveys will document any discovered territories of the birds, according to backup information from the Austin City Council, and the results will be used to plan restoration activities and avoid disruption of any endangered species.

According to the Parks and Wildlife website, golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos both call Texas their breeding ground and return here after their winter migration to South America. However, the website says the birds return to find their ideal habitats shrinking, which can negatively affect their population numbers.

The flaky bark of the Ashe juniper tree, also known as mountain cedar, is almost the sole source of material the warbler uses to build its nests, says the TPWD website, and urbanization decreases the number of the trees, which in turn harms the warbler.

As a member of the Texas Audubon Society, Austin biologist Tara Raabe said the importance of these birds is often overlooked, even though they are endangered.

“These birds are also a tourist attraction for birders that come to see these endangered species,” said Raabe, who holds a master’s degree in wildlife biology. “These birds are favored by birders, conservationists, biologists, and the general public because this rare species pretty much calls home right in our backyard.”

Raabe said that all across Texas numerous parks and reserves employ similar techniques to work toward conservation of these bird species, especially since the Hill Country, which contains Ashe juniper and similar trees, is one of the only breeding grounds left for the species.

A video on the Austin Water website describes how biologists survey and study the birds. Along with simply counting the number of birds, the teams catch the birds with nets and place different colored bands on their legs to identify them. This way they can track how many old and new birds migrate back to the specific habitats.

A request for info from the staffer on the project, Gage Loots, did not receive a response by press time.

The consulting firm would be paid through the Texas Multiple Award Schedule, which Faust said is a system the city uses to award contracts to qualified firms on a rotating basis. She said the city staff is responsible for determining the details of the contract and monitoring performance of the companies it hires.

“We don’t have enough staff to do the counts properly so we need to contract with biologists to assist,” Faust said.

In other business the commission also recommended that city council approve contracts with businesses such as American Facility Services, TIBH Industries, Green Constructor Group, and Blastco Texas for repair or maintenance services to Austin Water Utility property.

All agenda items, expect one that was postponed, were approved unanimously with commissioner J. Michael Ohueri absent. The council will also hear these items Thursday.

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