From the Pen of Carter P. Smith
Good things come in small packages. Chaetura Canyon must be one of them.
To the uninitiated, Chaetura Canyon is a steep, heavily wooded canyon preserve tucked away within a neighborhood just on Austin’s western perimeter. It is one of those rare Hill Country gems one could drive by a million times without even knowing it is there.
Situated within a small watershed that feeds directly into Lake Austin, the picturesque canyon was named by its stewards, Georgean and Paul Kyle, after its signature resident, the chimney swift. Chaetura is the genus for the chimney swift, a member of the needletail swift family whose penchant for settling in chimneys earned it its name. More about them later.
The Kyles settled in the area in the late 1960s, when they began acquiring an assortment of 60-by-120-foot lots that had been carved out of an old Travis County ranch. As they could, they purchased additional lots, eventually realizing ownership of the canyon from rim to rim. They have stewarded it with a passion and vigor that are second to none.
Craftsmen by trade, the Kyles own and operate a specialty Austin store that sells their exquisitely designed, handmade toys, a local favorite for decades. Their other “job” for the last 40 some-odd years has been applying that same, meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail to Chaetura Canyon. Inspired by a desire to tame the cedar that had a stranglehold on the land, the Kyles set out on an ambitious restoration project that is like no other.
As with so many habitat restoration projects in the Hill Country, it began with the deer. There were way too many of them, and anything that wasn’t a cedar was eaten. The Kyles’ solution was an ingenious one. They couldn’t hunt in the neighborhood, so they set out on a different path. As they cleared regrowth cedar by hand, leaving the large, single-trunk trees alone, they used the straight boles and limbs for fence pickets and fashioned a fence that was high enough to keep out the deer and tight enough to keep out a growing population of wayward cats and dogs.
They then went to work with a vengeance, reclaiming those hills with ax, shovel, spade, chainsaw, trowel and any other implement imaginable to prune cedar, to grub out exotic plants like chinaberry and K-R bluestem, and to plant native flowering forbs, shrubs and trees. The diversity is as impressive as any I have seen on a Hill Country property. In particular, the dense stands of red oaks, escarpment cherries and other woody plants that have grown up in small openings cleared by the Kyles and left unmolested by the deer are simply astonishing.
But that’s not the half of it. After hearing about declines in the chimney swift population, the Kyles embarked on a journey to learn everything they could about the swifts. Self-taught naturalists and ornithologists, the Kyles have become nationally recognized experts on the birds. Much of their learning has come from the 15 or so carefully designed chimney swift towers that they meticulously built to meet the bird’s specialized roosting needs. Each one houses a mating pair of swifts, along with hundreds of other nonmating swifts.
The Kyles have studied the swifts intently for decades, including placing live camera feeds in the towers to observe and document the roosting, mating, nest-building and brood-rearing habits of the birds. Thanks to extensive trapping and banding studies, they have tracked generations of swifts that were born on the property and that returned year after year to occupy the towers in which they were born.
Best of all, the Kyles, through a creative partnership with the Travis Audubon Society, have agreed to protect the land after they are gone. In the interim, they have become tireless, working ambassadors for the land, the swifts and the other native wildlife. Through special guided tours, visitors can come see and learn from the fruits of their extensive research and restoration handiwork.
Texas is filled with stewards, of places big and small. We are most grateful that the Kyles are two of them.
Thanks for caring about our wild things and wild places. They need you now more than ever.