Monday, April 2, 2007

Return to the Bamberger Ranch

This last Saturday, I returned to the Bamberger Ranch for the first time since catching some of the fall color in November (more on that will have to wait for a future post). It was beautiful as always, but strikingly different from how I've seen it for the last six or so years. When I saw the ranch for the first time about seven years ago, one of the things that struck me most was that everywhere I walked, there was the sound of running water in the background. But then Blanco county went into six years of drought, and even the Bamberger's famously wet ranch began to show signs of strain, the water in the creeks fell below the low water crossings, then were reduced to shallow pools connected by trickles, and the tank and lake levels began to decline. All the while, there was still enough spring water to supply the homes of the ranch staff and then some, and the whole place remained remarkably healthy and a pleasure to see, but it clearly wasn't at its best. On my visit in November, the level of water in some of the tanks was clearly three or four feet below normal. While greatly reduced in size, they were still able to supply the local flora and fauna, but they were obviously shadows of their former selves. Of course, it was a tribute to the ranch's land management practices that conditions weren't a great deal worse.

But all of that is over with for the time being. Rains this winter and spring have brought enough water to the ranch to refill the lakes and tanks, recharge the aquifers, and start all of the innumerable springs flowing again. Every creek rushes with water continuously, roaring at every little fall in their courses, and the low water crossings are impediments to vehicles once more.

After giving Margaret a hand with her Mac, I set off to start photographing the areas of the ranch that weren't reserved for turkey hunters. In view of the return of the water, I asked David whether he happened to have any waterfalls. He does, and I was surprised to have the privilege of a guided tour. We climbed into his truck and drove a short distance to two, separate falls. We parked and walked a few hundred feet to the first one. In the pool at its base, big tadpoles and small fish fled our approach.

I'm not sure I'm satisfied with this panorama, but it does accurately record the scene of that first waterfall, and everything around it. You may notice the wire cages on the bank; those are protecting young Texas madrone trees from the local herbivores. In twenty years, herbivores permitting, that little scene will have been transformed. But it's a beauty, to my eyes, even now.

From there, David took me a short distance back up the road, and we proceeded, with his enthusiastic dog leading the way, into a dense cedar break. David explained that he'd originally decided to leave the cedars there so that he'd be able to show people what the entire ranch looked like when he bought it, before his decades of land restoration work had transformed it. He added that sometime later, endangered golden-cheeked warblers were found to be nesting in it, and that further secured its future. (While every last warbler seems to have been killed-off by an intense hail storm earlier this year, he expects the species to return.)

After what seemed like a half mile, during which we crossed many small springs and seeps, we came to a water fall much larger than the first. It had four-levels, and the pool at its base was too deep for its bottom to be seen; a feature that the schools of small fish and large tadpoles put to good use when they caught sight of us. Cedar hugged its shores and leaned in all around it, but the scene was still an impressive sight, and worth fighting the cedar to see. Of course, these falls fed, and were fed by, a much larger creek than that at the first waterfall.

From there we headed back to his truck and returned to his house where he resumed his usual business, and I got into my truck to drive back to the falls to shoot my panoramas. The first of the falls, shown above, was easy. Finding the second one again, while pushing through the cedar burdened with a large backpack of photo gear, and carrying a tripod, was much more of a problem.

Once I found the falls again, the problem became getting a clear view of them through the cedar. The answer was simple enough, but I won't soon forget setting up my tripod and panoramic rig in chest deep water, with the little waves passing just below the top of the tripod. (Once again, having a waterproof camera backpack proved to be indispensable.) As I worked, the schools of tiny fish returned, and a large dragonfly nymph selected one of the crossbars of the tripod as its new hunting perch. I was surprised and amused by the way this tiny, aquatic nook of the natural world had decided to accept the intrusion of a big, wet monkey and its equipment. Well, most of it did; the tadpoles never did come around. Sensible creatures, frogs.

It remains to be seen how, or even if, that panorama, or any of the others I shot later that day, will turn out, but it was a pleasure and a privilege to see the ranch in this fine state once again, and to make the attempt at capturing it.

The wildflowers are only just getting started out there, by the way. Four-nerve daisies, Hymenoxys scaposa, were putting on most of the display, but there were signs everywhere of the real show that is in the making. I hope to return and capture some of that as this spring progresses.

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