Lower Lake Travis Water Levels Reveal Secrets and Trash Too

Map of Lake Travis Sometimes Islands and Mansfield Dam (Image credit: LCRA)

Map of Lake Travis Sometimes Islands and Mansfield Dam (Image credit: LCRA)

A few years ago, I created a a video about my journey to the Sometimes Islands on Lake Travis, near Austin, Texas. These islands are only visible when the lake waters are low, such as during the terrible drought that we’ve been having. You shouldn’t be able to walk to these islands from Mansfield Dam Park, but I did.

How has the Lake Travis water level changed?

Lake Travis is considered full at 681 feet above sea level. Here are the historic high and low lake water levels:

  • December 25, 1991, was the historic high at 710.4 feet (+29.4 feet above full)
  • August 14, 1951, was the historic low at 614.2 feet (-66.8 feet below full)

Water level when I made the Terrible Texas Drought Reveals Sometimes Islands on Lake Travis video:

  • November 2011 average was 626.52 feet (-54.48 below full).

Water level today:

  • September 13, 2014, shows a water level of 622.97 feet (-58.03 feet below full)

Wow! The water level is -3.55 feet lower now than when I made my video in the fall of 2011. We rely on Lake Travis for our drinking water in Central Texas, and the lake is only 33% full!

Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup

Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup (Image credit: Keep Austin Beautiful)

Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup (Image credit: Keep Austin Beautiful)

The lower lake levels reveal a lot about Lake Travis, including tree stumps from submerged forests and structures that used to be hidden underwater. I also saw a lot of pioneer plants that started growing on the islands. Unfortunately, I saw a lot of trash too.

Thankfully, the Colorado River Alliance, Keep Austin Beautiful, and Travis County Parks have been organizing volunteers for 20 years to help clean up Lake Travis, both above and below the water.

Their Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup 2014 event is tomorrow, Sunday, September 14, 2014, and there’s still time to register to be an underwater or shoreline volunteer at the Keep Austin Beautiful website.

You’ll make a difference to our native ecosystem (an average of 5 tons of trash are cleaned up each year!) and they have a fantastic Thank You party with free t-shirts, food, and door prizes at the Oasis afterwards. It’s a great event for all ages!

Your friend,
Ben

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Filed under Colorado River Alliance, Keep Austin Beautiful, Lake Travis, Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup, Sometimes Islands, Texas Drought, Travis County Parks

Hot Science and Modern Chemistry in High School

Hooray for Modern Chemistry (and yes, I have a Periodic Table shower curtain)

Hooray for Modern Chemistry (and yes, I have a Periodic Table shower curtain)

I recently started my sophomore year in high school, and my classes have been a lot of fun. As many of you know, I have a great love of biology (and in learning about and battling invasive plant species!), but recently, I found a similar love for chemistry. (I’ll just admit right now that I love science.)

In the first few weeks of my chemistry class, it’s been fascinating learning about the basics of chemistry, including measurements and states of matter.

Volcanoes in Austin, Texas

For our first lab, we mixed acetic acid and sodium bicarbonate and measured the temperature of the mixture. We found that it created an endothermic reaction, which means that the temperature drops as the reaction progresses.

I’ll let you in on a secret. Acetic acid is vinegar, and sodium bicarbonate is baking soda, and this is a common mixture for volcano science fair projects. You just need to add detergent so you can make soap bubbles from the escaping gasses. With a little red food coloring, it looks like lava bubbling!

We’re using a very interesting piece of equipment, the Vernier LabQuest 2. This device is amazing since you can hook up different probes to measure temperature, light, sound, pressure, and even radiation! You can get information on almost everything. It’s a great tool, and one I wish I had at home too.

Modern Chemistry textbook, audiobook, and iBook

Modern Chemistry iBook available from iTunes

Modern Chemistry iBook available from iTunes

We’re using the Modern Chemistry book from Holt, Rinehart and Winston in my class. With my dyslexia, it’s not easy for me to learn from just the printed word. Finding the audio book and iBook for my biology textbook helped me out during my high school freshman year.

I was also able to find the audio version of my current Modern Chemistry book from Learning Ally and a newer version of the Modern Chemistry iBook from iTunes. With Learning Ally, a human reader reads the entire page, including figures. With my iBook version, I can select portions of the text for my Apple MacBook’s or iPad’s electronic voice to read. The iBook version also contains videos, quizzes, and other nice interactive features.

Hot science – Cool Talks – Chemistry

 Dr. Jay Banner, Commander Ben, Dr. Chris Kirk, and Dr. Rebecca Lewis at the 2014 UT ESI Education and Outreach Dinner

Dr. Jay Banner, Commander Ben, Dr. Chris Kirk, and Dr. Rebecca Lewis at the 2014 UT ESI Education and Outreach Dinner

I’ve always loved Hot Science – Cool Talks from the UT Austin Environmental Science Institute (ESI).

Hot Science – Cool Talks are a series of presentations where you can enjoy fun prelecture activities and learn a lot about science during presentations given by distinguished scientists. They’ve become very popular over the years, and I’ve been going to them since I’ve been a little scientist guy.

Thanks to Dr. Jay Banner, UT ESI director, I’ve had the great fortune to interview many of the previous presenting scientists. (Here are some of my video interviews with Dr. Chris Kirk for his Hot Science – Cool Talks presentation, “Your Eye, My Eye, and the Eye of the Aye-Aye”.)

With myself and many other Austin-area sophomores learning about chemistry in science this year, what great fortune that the first Hot Science presentation is on chemistry!

Dr. David Laude will give a presentation on How I Learned to Love Chemistry on Friday, September 12, 2014. The fun prelecture activities start at 5:45 p.m., and Dr. Laude’s presentation starts at 7:00 p.m.

I’m counting on his promise that Dr. Laude will blow stuff up! He’ll make liquid nitrogen ice cream for everyone at the end. See! Science can be fascinating and delicious at the same time.

Fall 2014: Hot Science – Cool Talks presentations

Now you know why it's called Hot Science! (Photo credit: UT ESI)

Now you know why it’s called Hot Science! (Photo credit: UT ESI)

I look forward to seeing you at Hot Science this Friday!

Your friend,
Ben

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Filed under Chemistry, David Laude, Dr. Chris Kirk, Environmental Science Institute, Hot Science - Cool Talks, Modern Chemistry

Learning about Texas Invasive Species during Muster Days at Camp Mabry

You didn't have to walk far to find Commander Ben and the Invasive Hunter Academy during Muster Days at Camp Mabry

You didn’t have to walk far to find Commander Ben and the Invasive Hunter Academy
during Muster Days at Camp Mabry

This spring I was honored to be invited to bring my Invasive Hunter Academy to 2014 American Heroes Days at Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas.

This special weekend included the Muster Days event, and the academy was part of the Texas environmental section with activities and booths for kids and attendees. In addition to the Texas ecosystem activities, there were lots of military displays and reenactments, including a WWII battle.

Here are some pictures from the event:

 Austin kids creating their invasive species action dioramas as part of the Invasive Hunter Academy at Camp Mabry


Austin kids creating their invasive species action dioramas as part of the Invasive Hunter Academy at Camp Mabry

I always enjoy teaching kids about Texas invasive species through the Invasive Hunter Academy’s fun activities. This was the third academy event that I held this spring, including taking the academy on the road to Austin school kids for Earth Day at St. Edwards University.

 Justin Bush, Commander Ben, and Mike Murphrey in front of the Texas A&M Forest Service table. I'm holding my "May the forest be with you" bookmark.


Justin Bush, Commander Ben, and Mike Murphrey in front of the Texas A&M Forest Service table. I’m holding my “May the forest be with you” bookmark.

Justin Bush talking about the Wildflower Center and Mike Murphrey talking about Texas trees at Camp Mabry

Justin Bush talking about the Wildflower Center and Mike Murphrey talking about Texas trees at Camp Mabry

Mr. Justin Bush, Invasive Species Coordinator for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and Mr. Mike Murphrey, Forester with the Texas A&M Forest Service, teamed up to talk about native Texas plants and trees.

Mr. Bush is a wonderful friend and great speaker. He has traveled across the state giving talks and workshops to train citizen scientists how to spot invasive species. He gave me a bunch of Wildflower Center and invasive species brochures to hand out at my academy events. (Thanks, Justin!) Be sure to sign up for the iWire newsletter to stay in touch with the latest Texas invasive species news.

Mr. Murphrey loves Texas trees, and it shows every time he talked with attendees at the event. He explained how trees are renewable resources and how important they are to our ecosystem and economy. He brought a large cross section of a Texas tree to show everyone the rings, the differences between heartwood and sapwood, and how xylem and phloem moved water and nutrients throughout the tree. (I learned a lot about plants in my high school freshman biology class.)

Commander Ben visiting with the Austin Zoo at Camp Mabry

Commander Ben visiting with the Austin Zoo at Camp Mabry

 Safari Greg and Commander Ben want you to hop over to the Austin Zoo


Safari Greg and Commander Ben want you to hop over to the Austin Zoo

Safari Greg with the Austin Zoo brought a lot of animals, including an adorable tortoise and this cute baby kangaroo, to show kids on Sunday. The Austin Zoo helps many animals in need, rescuing and rehabilitating them. I had fun visiting their southwest Austin location when I was younger.

Lots of goodies from Texas Military Forces to commemorate Army Earth Day

Lots of goodies from Texas Military Forces to commemorate Army Earth Day

Notice those large colored rocks to help hold down the papers in the Army Earth Day booth in case of wind. That’s a great idea! I used large binder clips to help keep my academy materials from blowing away during the 2014 Milam County Nature festival.

Petroglyphs wall activity at the beginning of the Muster Days event before kids started adding their cave drawings

Petroglyphs wall activity at the beginning of the Muster Days event before kids started adding their cave drawings

 Local Plant Source also had a booth at Camp Mabry's event


Local Plant Source also had a booth at Camp Mabry’s event

Many examples of native plants at Camp Mabry to help people avoid planting invasives

Many examples of native plants at Camp Mabry to help people avoid planting invasives

 Did you know you can fish at Camp Mabry? I didn't, but it's true!


Did you know you can fish at Camp Mabry? I didn’t, but it’s true!

The secret nature boxes activity is always a lot of fun for kids

The secret nature boxes activity is always a lot of fun for kids

Texas Military Forces: The Power of Partnerships. What an honor to be listed with a lot of great nature organizations!

Texas Military Forces: The Power of Partnerships.
What an honor to be listed with a lot of great nature organizations!

 Humvee parked outside the Texas Military Forces Museum


Humvee parked outside the Texas Military Forces Museum

You never know who might helicopter in during Muster Days

You never know who might helicopter in during Muster Days

Where did that Sherman Tank go? It was here just a minute ago.

Where did that Sherman Tank go? It was here just a minute ago.

The Sherman Tank that I took a picture with at the Texas Military Forces Museum was gone! But it wasn’t MIA. Instead, it was leading the charge during the WWII battle reenactment during Muster Days at Camp Mabry. The Axis powers were no match!

I really love dogs, so it was great to find a booth for the canine corps and the police force dogs. These dogs are great because they can enter buildings to quickly find threats or hostages. They really help to protect our soldiers, and I got a neat t-shirt from them.

Dr. Linda Brown and Commander Ben in front of the Invasive Hunter Academy at Camp Mabry

Dr. Linda Brown and Commander Ben in front of the Invasive Hunter Academy at Camp Mabry

My thanks to Dr. Linda Brown, Natural Resource Program Manager with the Texas Military Department, for inviting me to the event. I met Dr. Brown during the 2014 Texas Invasive Plant and Pest conference in Port Aransas earlier this year.

Dr. Brown made me feel at home, and we talked about our wonderful Texas ecosystem and how I’ve enjoyed visiting Camp Mabry and attending previous Muster Days since I was a young naturalist. (I guess I still am, but a little older than before!)

Your friend,
Ben

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Filed under American Heroes Day, Camp Mabry, iWire Texas Invasives Newsletter, Justin Bush, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Linda Brown, Mike Murphrey, Muster Days, Texas A&M Forest Service, Texas Military Forces Museum

Austin School Kids Learn about Invasive Species at St. Edward’s University

Commander Ben and Austin school kids practice the moves to take down invasive species during Earth Day at St. Edward's University

Commander Ben and Austin school kids practice the moves to take down invasive species during Earth Day at St. Edward’s University

I was honored to be invited back to St. Edward’s University to celebrate Earth Day 2014 with them this spring. I brought my Invasive Hunter Academy along with me and entertained 200 kids on a field trip from Travis Heights Elementary School.

As always, the kids enjoyed going through the Academy and graduating as official Invasive Hunters. Upon graduation, the kids loved picking out a nature prize along with some candy to fill their field trip goodie bags! And of course they each received their official “I’m an Invasive Hunter” sticker. Who doesn’t love stickers?!?

Here are some fun pictures from the event:

Knife hand attack is superb for taking down invasive plants like the Giant Reed (Arundo donax)

Knife hand attack is superb for taking down invasive plants like the Giant Reed (Arundo donax)

And let's not forget about swallow hand stalk strike! I see an invasive plant going down!

And let’s not forget about swallow hand stalk strike! I see an invasive plant going down!

Austin school kids eager to work on their invasive hunter dioramas

Austin school kids eager to work on their invasive hunter dioramas

Future invasive hunters thinking about which invasive species to battle

Future invasive hunters thinking about which invasive species to battle

Young Austin naturalists working on their Invasive Hunter Academy action dioramas

Young Austin naturalists working on their Invasive Hunter Academy action dioramas

HEBuddy joined in the fun on Earth Day too

HEBuddy joined in the fun on Earth Day too

National Wildlife Federation booth during Earth Day at St. Edward's University

National Wildlife Federation booth during Earth Day at St. Edward’s University

Commander Ben trying out Car2Go's electric car at St. Edwards University

Commander Ben trying out Car2Go’s electric car at St. Edward’s University

On a quick break, I visited the Car2Go booth and decided to sit in the car and get a feel for what it’s like to be behind the driver’s wheel…especially since I’ll be getting my driver’s license soon!

Wild Basin Creative Research Center booth during Earth Day at St. Edward's University

Wild Basin Creative Research Center booth during Earth Day at St. Edward’s University

I enjoyed talking with the representative at the Wild Basin Creative Research Center table. The center’s also called the Wild Basin Preserve, and St. Edward’s University acquired the preserve that’s along Austin’s loop 360 in 2009. Here are some of my previous posts about Wild Basin:

Now is the time for all invasive hunters to dance!

Now is the time for all invasive hunters to dance!

And just when I thought Earth Day was winding down, the music cranked up, thanks to Topper Radio, and I led a dance party with all the elementary kids. It was so much fun and a great way to end the day. I think we’ll have to add a new move to the Academy to take out invasives. Maybe a dance move…and we’ll call it the invasive stomp!

Commander Ben and Phoebe Anne Romero meet in front of the Invasive Hunter Academy before Earth Day festivities

Commander Ben and Phoebe Anne Romero meet in front of the Invasive Hunter Academy before Earth Day festivities

Thanks to Phoebe Anne Romero for inviting me to bring the Invasive Hunter Academy back to St. Edward’s for this year’s Earth Day celebrations! I had a lot of fun with Austin’s young naturalists!

Ready for action during Earth Week 2014 at St. Edward's University

Ready for action during Earth Week 2014 at St. Edward’s University

Previous Earth Day celebrations at St. Edward’s

It’s been a summer of adventure for me! I hope you’re having a great one too!

Your friend,
Ben

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Filed under Earth Day, Earth Week, Invasive Hunter Academy, Invasive Species, Phoebe Anne Romero, St Edward's University, Wild Basin Preserve

Mud and Paintball: That’s a Summer Adventure

I still cant believe I was in so much mud.

I still can’t believe I was in so much mud.

I hope everyone is having a great summer. I’ve been having a lot of fun this summer and wanted to check in with everyone to say hi and to fill you in on what I’ve been up to.

So far this summer, I have been to a great week long camp that was incredible. I went with two of my friends, which made it doubly fun. We did all sorts of amazing activities, including an obstacle course where we had to slog through waist deep mud. We also played paintball. At the end of the game, everyone was calling me “Mr. Polk-a-Dots” because I was covered in paint ball hits that I received as I charged the opposing team when I was the only one left on my side!

Next, about a week after I got home from camp, I volunteered to serve as a counselor at my church’s camp for kids ages Pre-K to 5th grade. This was my first year to be a camp counselor and it was SO MUCH fun. The camp had a theme called “Wacky Animals” and I got to play a character called “Dr. Paws” who was an animal specialist. He was very funny and the kids really liked him. It was great fun for me, and I look forward to volunteering as a camp counselor again next year.

That Arundo donax is messing with the wrong Segway rider.

That Arundo donax is messing with the wrong Segway rider.

I also went rafting, horseback riding, hiking, canoeing, and lots of fun outdoor stuff too, including taking a a fun Segway tour around Austin. Highly recommended!

I hope you’ve been having fun this summer too. I’ll be catching up on my blog posts on invasive species, science, and dyslexia before starting school this fall. I’ll be a high school sophomore! Wow! Where did the summer go?

Your friend,
Ben

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Filed under Arundo donax, Summer camp

Wildflower Center Family Garden Welcomes Young Invasive Hunters

Young Austin naturalists train in the Invasive Hunter Academy during Nature Nights at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Young Austin naturalists train in the Invasive Hunter Academy during Nature Nights at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

This month I brought my Invasive Hunter Academy to the Plants and Play event—the first Nature Nights of the summer at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center! This was the first time that a Nature Nights event was held outdoors at the Wildflower Center’s Luci and Ian Family Garden. I had a great time and here’s a collection of pictures from that night.

Kids training to become Invasive Hunters during Nature Nights

Kids training to become Invasive Hunters during Nature Nights

Lots of great kids came to visit with me to learn how to become invasive hunters.  They especially enjoyed picking out a prize upon their “graduation” from the Academy.

Kids training in the visual identification of invasive species

Kids training in the visual identification of invasive species

It’s always so much fun to play the identification game with the kids where they have to guess whether a plant is an invasive or a native.  Many times they guess right about identifying native plants, especially when it comes to the Texas Bluebonnet!  Even the parents get involved and are often surprised that they have an invasive growing in their yard.  And it’s often Elephant Ear!

Kids practicing their invasive hunter moves

Kids practicing their invasive hunter moves

As the kids and I progress through the Academy, I teach them the Taekwondo moves that they are going to need to take down those pesky invasives.

Kids working on their invasive hunter action dioramas

Kids working on their invasive hunter action dioramas

The final step of the Academy is where the kids get to create their own action diorama with their character battling an invasive plant species.

Kids learning how to create the popup feature for their invasive hunter action dioramas

Kids learning how to create the popup feature for their invasive hunter action dioramas

As I explained to the future invasive hunters how to make the dioramas, I described the invasive hunter character as a “he”…but then one of the girls piped up…”or a she!”  How right she was.  Anyone can be an invasive hunter and her enthusiasm proved it!

Invasive Hunter graduate (yea!) points out invasive species he's seen

Invasive Hunter graduate (yea!) points out invasive species he’s seen

Thanks Mr. Justin Bush, invasive species coordinator for the Wildflower Center, for the invasive species books and brochures that I could pass out to kids. This young invasive hunter talked with me about the invasive species that he saw around Austin.

HEB volunteers couldn't resist joining the fight against invasive species

HEB volunteers couldn’t resist joining the fight against invasive species

Our HEB supermarket chain is a generous sponsor of Nature Nights and of other Austin nature events for kids, including Earth Week at St. Edwards University.

Play or hop across dinosaur creek at the Wildflower Center

Play or hop across dinosaur creek at the Wildflower Center

I loved the creek at the Wildflower Center. It’s as much fun for kids to wander along (or play in) as the water features at the Austin Nature Center.

Waterfall at the Wildflower Center's Luci and Ian Family Garden

Waterfall at the Wildflower Center’s Luci and Ian Family Garden

The waterfall in the Hill Country Grotto that’s part of the Wildflower Center’s Luci and Ian Family Garden is a great place to hide.

Coyote statues at the Wildflower Center

Coyote statues at the Wildflower Center

The bronze coyote statues were popular for kids to play on during the night. My Invasive Hunter Academy was set up near these coyotes, and I remember one boy telling his mom that Medusa was here.

I love dogs. Here’s my dog, Obi Wan.

It's fun to relax in the huge bird nests at the Wildflower Center

It’s fun to relax in the huge bird nests at the Wildflower Center

When you visit the Luci and Ian Family Garden don’t forget to visit “The Nests”.  They were one of the highlights of the new garden.

Bill Oliver and the Otter Space Band join Commander Ben to help protect our native ecosystem

Bill Oliver and the Otter Space Band join Commander Ben to help protect our native ecosystem

It was great to see Bill Oliver (“Mr. Habitat”) and his Otter Space Band performing at the Wildflower Center. I first met Mr. Habitat at this year’s Milam County Nature Festival.

Past Nature Nights at the Wildflower Center

Commander Ben and Julie Graham prepare their Invasive Hunter moves during the Wildflower Center's Nature Nights

Commander Ben and Julie Graham prepare their Invasive Hunter moves during the Wildflower Center’s Nature Nights

Thanks, Ms. Julie Graham, Education Specialist at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, for inviting me to be part of my third Nature Nights. What a wonderful honor!

Wildflower Center Nature Nights - Plant and Play event information on the web

Wildflower Center Nature Nights – Plant and Play event information on the web

Here’s my blog post previewing my 2014 visit to Nature Nights:

Wildflower Center Nature Nights - Plant and Play event sign

Wildflower Center Nature Nights – Plant and Play event sign

And here are posts from my previous Nature Nights visits:

More adventures for Austin kids this summer

There are lots more Nature Nights to enjoy this summer through July 24 (with a break for the Fourth of July week). Here’s a full list of events, including tonight’s event on water, which should be lots of fun with the waterfall and Dinosaur Creek that’s part of the Wildflower Center’s Luci and Ian Family Garden.

  • June 12: Plants and play
  • June 19: Fossils
  • June 26: Wondrous water
  • July 10: Snakes
  • July 17: Wildlife tracking
  • July 24: Birds of Prey

Hope you’re having a great summer!

Your friend,
Ben

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Filed under Austin Nature and Science Center, Invasive Hunter Academy, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Nature Nights

Which invasive species will you battle at the Wildflower Center?

Wanted: Invasive species - Needed: Invasive Hunters to protect our native ecosystems!

Wanted: Invasive species – Needed: Invasive Hunters to protect our native ecosystems!

This week starts a summer of fun at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. On Thursday, June 12, from 5-8 p.m. the Wildflower Center kicks off the first Nature Nights of 2014 with a focus on plants and play in the new Luci and Ian Family Garden. (The garden is new to the Wildflower Center this year, and I’m looking forward to enjoying it with all the kids.)

There will be lots of free kids activities, including habitat hikes, a scavenger hunt, big bubbles (oooh! I’m liking this!), ring toss, and lots more. You’ll even meet local nature celebrities, including Bill Oliver and The Otter Space Band. (I first met Mr. Oliver at this spring’s Milam County Nature Festival.)

Invasive species at the Wildflower Center?

There are a few plants that I’m sure will not be part of the plant petting zoo during Nature Nights, and they’re all invasives!

You can do your part to help stop the spread of these non-native plant species from overrunning our native ecosystem.

As part of my Invasive Hunter Academy during Nature Nights, kids will get the chance to learn about invasive species and their impact on our environment through these fun activities:

  • Visual activities (Is that an invasive or native plant that I see?)
  • Action moves (I attended my taekwondo class last night to brush up on the moves that I’ll teach you!)
  • Creating an action diorama featuring you battling an invasive species (You can take this home along with some other surprises!)

Graduates from the academy become Invasive Hunters, ready to protect their native ecosystems. We need young naturalists (like you and kids you know!) to become guardians of our central Texas galaxy!

Hope to see you there!

Your friend,
Ben

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Filed under Invasive Hunter, Invasive Hunter Academy, Invasive Species, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Nature Nights, Wildflower Center