Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Big Spring's Vireos In The Great Trinity Forest with Father Tim Gollob

A vibrant White Eyed Vireo in the Great Trinity Forest at Big Spring
The winter and spring rains of early 2015 has brought an ocean of green growth to the Great Trinity Forest. The magnitude of growth the forest has not seen in several years due to drought. The flora and fauna of the woods have responded, signaling a new year of promise. Each spring sunrise seems to illuminate another inch of growth overnight.

Father Timothy Gollob and Bill Holston walking among the soon to be blooming wildflowers of Big Spring in the Great Trinity Forest

It is on of those fine spring mornings one can pursue the wild birds of the Trinity. In this case the brightly colored White Eyed Vireo population at a place called Big Spring in the Great Trinity Forest.

The story of Dallas County's vireo population runs through the recorded sightings and observations of a South Dallas Catholic priest. His name is Father Timothy Gollob of Holy Cross Catholic Church.

Father Timothy Gollob has been telling the story of the Trinity River for over a half century through his extensive bird observations. If there were a search for the man alive who knows the most about vireos in Dallas, it would be Father Tim.

Into the early fog of the Great Trinity Forest at Big Spring
His parsonage sits just west of the river bottoms only a minute or two drive from Joppa. It is there in the cooling atmosphere of early evenings where one can often find Father Tim with his field glasses walking the woods.
The Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills and Egrets all have been documented by him. On casual walks with Father Tim, he has mental notes about where the resident chickadees like to spend their mornings and evenings. Where the buntings feud. The favored nest sights and perches of the tanagers.
Two of Dallas great citizens, Bill Holston and Father Tim Gollob stand under the limbs of the historic Bur Oak at Big Spring

The body of his work in birding observations is overshadowed by his lifetime of service as a Catholic priest where he is known as one of the greatest humanitarians ever to call Dallas home. Ask around. He work is inspirational to many in a challenged part of Dallas where life does not often come easy.

Father Tim hip deep in recycled beer cans back in 1975
Father Tim learned much of his birding craft from ornithologist and late University of Dallas Professor Warren M. Pulich. Pulich is considered the first resident professional ornithologist in North Texas. In the 1960s he authored the Birds of Tarrant County and later The Birds of North Central Texas. His groundbreaking work specialized in species like the rare Golden Cheeked Warbler. As Professor of Ornithology at the University of Dallas he led the way with many pioneering bird collection projects, many of which were obtained from bird strikes on high towers at Cedar Hill. Often accompanying Pulich was Father Tim.

Warren Pulich and Father Tim Gollob did extensive surveys and observations of vireo populations in the 1950s-1970s. Many of those observations were for the Black Capped Vireos of Dallas County in the southwestern portions of Dallas in the cedar ridges and woods there. The habitat was largely extirpated and with it the loss of habitat for that species of vireo. That species of vireo now resides on the endangered species list and is very rarely seen in North Central Texas. If there ever were a Dallasite you would want along to look at vireos it would be Father Tim.....

Jeff Lane and Father Tim
Hiking along this fine morning are one of Father Tim's close friends and lifelong parishioner Jeff Lane. Jeff's family has a multi-generational relationship with Father Tim's church. Jeff Lane has performed a number of volunteer roles in the Great Trinity Forest and Trinity Corridor. Working in his free time with the county, he has kept many of the levee areas mowed at Goat Island Preserve and in the past mowed in areas around Joppa Preserve to keep trail access open.

Also joining along are Bill Holston and Scott Hudson. When Scott is not hiking on the weekend he can be found running one of the local municipalities environmental services departments. Below Father Tim and Scott Hudson listen for the identifying call of an Indigo Bunting.

Bill Holston earlier this spring was recognized by Southern Methodist University with their 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award for Public Service

The White-eyed Vireo

About fifteen species frequent the United States. These are all members of the genus Vireo, and some of them have a wide range, only equaled in extent by some of the warblers. The name vireo signifies a green finch and is from the Latin word meaning "to be green." The body color of nearly all the species is more or less olive green. A fitting hue of a bird to look for on a lush green morning.
White Eyed Vireo in the early morning foggy light

The vireos form a varied and interesting family — the Vireonidae, which includes about fifty species.
All are strictly American and the larger number inhabit only the forest or shrubby regions of Central and South America.

Insects are the principle food taken by this species of vireo, and especially Lepidopteran (butterfly and moth) larvae.

The White-eyed Vireo is a foliage gleaner, and it forages deliberately with short hops or flights. Most of the food is taken from leaves, and after a food capture, the bird will usually perch and swallow. An interesting behavior is the repeated flogging of large caterpillars on a branch before eating.
Vireo with a mouthful of caterpillar
In migration and during the early days in the breeding season, males sing to attract mates, usually while perched high in a tree. It is at this time they are easiest to observe. Males vigorously defend their territories, while females are tolerant of others sharing the same area. Males often use the same territory from year to year, and older males arrive on the breeding grounds before young males. Females wander from territory to territory and eventually choose a mate and then a nest site. The pendulous, cup-like nest is attached to a Y-shaped horizontal branch a few feet off the ground in dense vegetation. The Big Spring vireo calls loudly, pronouncing rather proudly that he has the best territory in town.
White -eyed Vireo singing in the bows of a willow
Up to twenty five songs are predominate in the White-eyed Vireo population in the United States. Each individual has a repertoire of about a dozen songs, only males sing on the breeding grounds. Both sexes sing on the wintering ground to defend territories. Singing is believed to be learned behavior, with young birds adapting the song set of their father. White-eyed Vireos repeat an individual song type multiple times before switching to another song, and the order of songs appears to be random from one singing bout to the next.

Our hike started on the high terraces of Pemberton Hill on an early morning after a heavy night of rain and thunderstorms. The rain, dew and fog made for a rather wet experience in the high grasses.

The topography of the land here steadily drops 50 feet in elevation over the course of a quarter mile which winds up at the site of Big Spring, a natural and free flowing spring at the boundary of Trinity Terrace sand deposits and the floodplain proper. It is an idyllic place.

A spot where it takes very little imagination to see the fondness generations of Native Americans, explorers and pioneers had for the place. It continues even today in contemporary times as people look for a connection to things natural and unspoiled.
Father Tim Gollob is dwarfed by the massive arms of the mighty Big Spring Bur Oak

As we dip farther down into an older forest the sounds of the song birds begin to erupt. The distant calls of Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting and the more familiar Mockingbirds. It is here in this treelined transition zone between upland and bottomland where so much biodiversity can be seen.
In the distance a Red Tailed Hawk stands perched on a fencepost casually eating a squirrel. Hawks usually fly away with prey when encountering humans, this hawk spent over an hour lazily nibbling on the squirrel.

The trees, grasses and the wildflowers have formed a reciprocal community here fostering an environment of tremendous bounty. With the addition of heavy rains and flooding, the Great Trinity Forest is primed for an excellent late spring and summer of increased wild bounty.

As we walk from the flooded bottoms near the confluence of White Rock Creek and the Trinity back up the hill Father Tim is quick to point out the ladybugs afoot.

The rains are renewing a land parched for years. Talk of great things to come and a hopeful summer filled with the wild observations and sightings that make Father Tim Gollob and the little vireos he knows so well a treasure of the Great Trinity Forest.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Hiking Dallas Great Trinity Forest In The Snow

Sojourn in the snow swept woods and ridges of the Great Trinity Forest in Dallas
The stunning beauty of the snow covered scene could be any mountainous terrain in North America. The near deafening silence of this place would suggest the nearest human would be far beyond the horizon. The snow covered trail we followed over the course of a couple miles only has the footprint of a lone coyote. No human has walked here for days. A place so remote in feel is in the heart of Dallas, inside Loop 12 and just minutes from Downtown.
One of the limestone strewn gullies along the Devon Anderson section of the trail

Hiking across Renda Meadow east of Scyene Overlook
The encroachment of development over the last half century has left much of this area encased in concrete and manicured lawn. The landscape has changed in many ways and in other places, a quickly disappearing few, have remained essentially the same.

The White Rock Valley known to many from headwaters in Frisco to the mouth in the Great Trinity Forest has lost much of the natural character which drew Dallas first settlers.

The creek's course has been confined for millennia by Austin Chalk limestone ridges that it traverses to the east.

To the west of said outcrop lies a magnificent tangle of oxbow tied meanders and sloughs replete with hawks, otters and beavers that will make even an untrained eye awe in wonder.

Here, in the Great Trinity Forest and the escarpments one can see in places what White Rock Creek and the woods it feeds might have looked like hundreds of years ago.

Barred Owl in the snow on February 28, 2015

Few venture places in Dallas during winter weather events. The combined effects of warm gulf air in variegated layers often turns a beautiful snow event one day into one of treacherous freezing rain the next. Such is the case here in Dallas on this last day of February 2015.

 Pioneer Family Roots Run Deep
Trail junction signs for the JJ Beeman Trail which traverses bottomland and the Scyene Overlook Trail which quickly gains elevation to a commanding view over the lower White Rock Creek Valley
In the simpler times and by any stretch the hardest times, this area was the domain of the Beeman family. What I would call as the real first pioneer family of Dallas, the Beemans settled this part of what is now Dallas County in the spring of 1842 on an old Indian and Buffalo trace now called Scyene Road. John Beeman (1799-1856) and his family were the first of that larger extended family to settle here. The history and legacy that those families wrote along with their neighbors are what cut what was then true wilderness into the city we see today.

The extensive discourse one can provide on the local pioneer history would fill many a line of a blog.  The conduit between contemporary Dallasites and that of the pioneers still runs through the bloodlines of their descendants that still call North Texas home. The original settlers to Dallas County were a strong people and that is still evident today.
 MC Toyer, his mother Lois Beeman Toyer, MC’s sister Cynthia Toyer Fusco

Sam Beeman,Margaret Beeman Bryan, John Neely Bryan Jr

The two photos at the time taken, represent the matriarchs of the Beeman family, taken over one hundred twenty years apart. At upper left Margaret Beeman Bryan, wife of John Neely Bryan, founder of Dallas. At right in the 2015 photo is Lois Beeman Toyer, the oldest living member of the Beeman family.
Lisa Dye Bentley and MC Toyer, descendants of Benjamin Dye lay a wreath at the gravemarker at Warren Ferris Cemetery near White Rock Lake in January 2015
 The occasion was a rare event in 21st century Dallas, a gravemarker dedication for a War of 1812 Veteran who settled Dallas in the infancy of Texas. His name was Benjamin Dye and is buried a few short blocks from the Dallas Arboretum at White Rock Lake. Paul Ridenour wrote a terrific piece for the White Rock Weekly on the gravemarker dedication found here:

Some would like to think Dallas is a poor place for local history. That the depth of events happening on the soils of our county is thin. Simply not true. It is rich and features many of the romanticized touchstones of other Texas history events that make Dallas history a fascinating study.

What sets Dallas apart are the places of yesteryear. Where the first explorers clad in buckskin pants and coonskin caps wandered across Dallas for the first time. Many of those spots still stand intact. Places like the Beeman lands, at interesting places like Scyene Overlook.

 Scyene Overlook
Bill Holston standing atop Scyene Overlook
 It is from the top of Scyene Overlook that not just the Great Trinity Forest spills out beneath your feet but also a chance to see for a few miles distant, the immense land holdings once held by the Beeman family.

Fresh rabbit tracks are the only footprints on the trail
It was across this land in the distance that JJ Beeman guided President Sam Houston and his Treaty Party entourage visit in the summer of 1843. JJ Beeman guided Sam Houston's Treaty Party from their overnight camp at Big Spring up White Rock Creek to John Neely Bryan's cabin in what is now Downtown Dallas.

The best known overlook in this trail system is Scyene. Roughly one hundred yards south of the road bearing the same name the overlook gives one a commanding view of the Great Trinity Forest to the south.
Below the overlook in a stand of cedar
Scyene Overlook is named for an old frontier town two miles to the east of the named Scyene. The town center was at the present day intersection of Scyene and St Augustine . The name "Scyene" is a play on the ancient Egyptian town named Syene an old frontier outpost on the east bank of the Nile.

Piedmont Ridge Trail and Devon Anderson Trail
The millennium old natural bison path and hard bottomed ford of White Rock Creek made this a preferred ox pulled wagon route into Dallas prior to the railroads. The long haul freight transporters of their time.

The Lower White Rock Creek Trails are comprised of a roughly 3-4 mile(depending on route) soft surface trail network spanning three different City of Dallas Parks. JJ Beeman/Scyene Overlook on Scyene Road, Grover Keeton Park which includes Piedmont Ridge Trail and Devon Anderson Park south of Bruton Road.

Best Parking
2300 Jim Miller Road Dallas TX

The JJ Beeman Trail starts near the corner of Glover Pass and Scyene and continues east to the Scyene Overlook. From there the trail roughly follows an Austin Chalk Escarpment high above the White Rock Creek Valley.  One clear days can see the VA Hospital in South Dallas, Cedar Hill, Hutchins as well as Downtown Dallas. The trail continues through Grover Keeton Park, up Piedmont Ridge, across Bruton and into Devon Anderson Park. 

The trails here are comprised of a random mix of trails with no clearly defined start or finish. Over the last couple years, trail maintenance has fallen off and as a result some of the sections might become an awkward adventure to find. The trails are all still there just more faint in appearance for a first-time visitor.

Piedmont Ridge
Crossing an open field before hiking up Piedmont Ridge
Piedmont Ridge, which sits to the south and east of Scyene Overlook is slightly higher than overlooks to the north. The long ago built trail along the topographical high is reached by navigating across the Scyene Overlook escarpment and across the driveway entrance of Grover Keeton Golf Course. Heading south with Jim Miller on the left and the DART tracks to the right, one will find a trailhead kiosk and trail entrance.
Climbing up the short switchbacks that lead up the spine of Piedmont Ridge
Some short and steep switchbacks climb quickly onto a level topped ridge with a set of cedar hewn benches roughly 2/3'rds of the way towards Bruton Road.
Piedmont Ridge Overlook
Cactus covered in ice

The cedar benches here have some of the most photogenic views of Dallas and Oak Cliff to the west. A real showstopper of a place to take in a sunset and only a ten minute walk from where one can park a car. The smell of this spot is that of the Texas Hill Country and even during below freezing conditions, the cedar pollen of this spot is thick.

 Devon Anderson Trail

Mexican Buckeye seed pod

South of Bruton Road, the becomes nearly non-existent in many spots. Even in dry weather the trail is not much more than a faint trace of a path frequented more by that of a coyote, a couple rabbits and bounding squirrels. No human traffic as evidenced by the clean snow.

Footbridge across a very deep gully in Devon Anderson Park
The trail follows ridge lines and then switchbacks down into a series of gullies. The rewarding views of each new ridge afford different views of the forest and city skyline in the far distance. The gullies offer something much different this time of year, the first signs of spring.
Down in one of the deeper gullies

Trout lilies partially encased in snow
Residing in the organically rich leaf strewn soils just inside the sun dappled treelines for a short few days become home to one of Texas most unique natural blooms. The Trout Lily, Erythronium albidum. Along this trail system, particularly south of Bruton Road one sees vast numbers of these early bloomers, many of the plants grow next to and even up through the trail here.

Above is a video clip of trout lilies growing on the banks of a small arroyo stream in Devon Anderson that is swollen with ice melt from a recent winter storm to hit Dallas.

White Trout Lilies are known to exist in the State of Texas in 15 counties. Trout Lilies, also called Dog-Tooth Violets or Adder's Tongues are a spring flowering woodland native to Texas. The flowers have 6 white tepals (inverted petals), 6 stamens and bright yellow anthers that hang downwards forming an inverted shape. Each plant is about 6 inches tall and roughly the diameter of a dinner plate. It takes 6 long growing seasons before a Trout Lily will produce a flower in year 7.

Trout lilies take so many years to mature, so difficult for their seed to spread, so hard to see in other times of the year that they have become a splintered subset of colonies here in the Dallas area. Separated by great distances in geography and existing in ecological isolation they are a unique plant worthy of distinction.