Thursday, January 24, 2013

Eagles in Dallas County's Trinity River Basin

Somewhere beyond the remains of an old brick factory and the town that carries the same name lies a unique corner of Dallas County where the Trinity River and tributaries engage in wholesale misanthropy against a population hellbent on controlling it. The give and take struggle, man vs nature, has yielded an out of sorts landscape primed for the largest hunters of the North American skies. Eagles.
The twilight evening moon setting behind an Osprey (fish eagle) in the floodplains of Dallas, Texas January 2013

The modest world of topographical study does not lend itself well to the open prairie of North Texas. Attempts at flattering comparisons to that of the Texas Trans-Pecos or rolling Hill Country fall flatter than the land itself. Most of what made this land so special to pioneers, why they settled here instead of the rough hewn rolling cedar hills further west is an answer lost to most. The grand prairie grass plains.

Restored Tall Grass Prairie in Southeast Dallas County near the mouth of Ten Mile Creek and the Trinity River
There was a time not long ago when settlers to North Texas would send letters back east proclaiming the vast shoulder high grasses that extended as far as the eye could see. The Indian, buffalo, grama, big and little bluestems, names forgotten to most. That epic carpet of grass, has long since been subdivided, housed and paved over. Remnants still exist. Patchwork quilted along old railroad sidings, vacant lots and forgotten farm family cemeteries. You don't get a feel for it though. The ocean of grass moving like waves on water. The aesthetics of a fast moving red lit sunset moving across a field so fast you cannot keep pace. Here, you can experience that. This panoramic view attracts more than the wandering human eye but also that of winged predators who feast on the rich fields of quarry that these fields invite.

Ten Mile Creek valley overlooking the South Creek Ranch's Red Angus herd with Riverbend Preserve in the far treeline beyond. Dallas County Texas.
In order to see such a sight, one of large tract native grass vistas, one needs to head into the farthest corner of Dallas County. It's a great place few know exist. It's not on the way to anywhere. It serves as no shortcut. The roads can become impassable after heavy rains. I offer this area as one of the best to see eagles this winter inside Dallas County.

While the eagles featured in this post were often photographed inside the city limits of Dallas and inside the confines of Loop 12, the more remote areas of Southeast Dallas County afford the best chance to see one. Parkinson and Wolf Springs Roads seem to be the best option if one wishes to keep your sightings a car bound affair. For the more adventure seeking, one of the least visited Dallas County nature preserves sits right in the middle of this eagle rich countryside. A few months ago, Chris Jackson made a detailed report of his trip to the preserve and Lock and Dam #4. He has spotted numerous bald eagles inside the metroplex this winter including some around the south side of the Lewisville Lake Dam.

Dallas/Ellis County line on Wolf Springs Road looking south into Ellis County. Dallas County portion is paved and abruptly ends at the county line. Trinity River is in treeline to the left, old Ten Mile Creek Channel is immediate right of photo
This area in Southeast Dallas County is literally a place where the pavement ends. This is one of the only places I know of in Dallas County where you can literally see a mile in any direction and literally sit in the middle of the road if the mood strikes without worry of being run over. The silence is deafening on windless visits here. Beyond lies the unkempt roads of rural Ellis County and roads aptly named after places they once served. Sawmill. Log Ranch. Trinity Basin. Ten Mile.

River bottoms such as these are prime real estate in the winter for large birds of prey, the largest seen in Texas are eagles.The Trinity is often overlooked for eagles. The Colorado and Brazos to the south steal the thunder of North Texas when it boils down to the grit.

Why Southeast Dallas County Attracts Eagles
Current Bird's Eye View of Ten Mile Creek where it enters the Trinity River north of Wolf Springs Road in Dallas County

1900 Map showing Ten Mile prior to channelization
For millennia a quiet war of wills has raged down here between the land and the river that cuts through it. From the north the river has hauled down tons of silt many times over and deposited them annually on these fields. The near biblical floods of pre-history have changed the course of the river and tributaries here often. The long forgotten riverbeds go by new names, Cottonwood Slough to the west and Parson's Slough to the east.

USGS India Quadrangle noting old Ten Mile Creek Streambed
Man has changed the streams here too. The rich flood prone land impeded farming in the early parts of the last century. Efforts were made around the First World War to reclaim some of this land and put it into production without worry of seasonal flooding.

2012 aerial view of Wolf Springs Road with old Ten Mile streambed visible
This was one of the earliest forays of Dallas County into rechanneling a stream. At top right the Dallas County Map of 1900 shows Ten Mile Creek headed south into Ellis County where it reached the Trinity some distance below the county line. The circa 1917-1920 public works project moved the mouth far to the north well inside Dallas County on an east-west path. A series of small levees were built in this area which contributed to flood protection.

It's worth noting this century old project because the wildlife still seem to congregate along the old creek channels. This shift of streams greatly plays an integral role in the sheer numbers of animals in the area.

Smaller tributaries such as Bear Creek were also moved as a result of this project and funneled south to join Red Oak Creek near it's mouth with the Trinity River.

The Crested Caracara --The Sacred Eagle of the Aztec

Crested Caracara beginning a gliding dive over Ten Mile Creek

Crested Caracara hunting over Ten Mile Creek near the Trinity River

Aztec Warriors as depicted in the Florentine Codex
Here among the patchworked squares of Ten Mile Creek bottom works one of the most revered and mythic eagles of North America, the Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway).

The Caracara has long been a sacred bird for the people of Mexico. Steeped in deep legends of the Aztecs of interior Mexico, the sighting of one had deep significance. The symbol of the Caracara is immortalized in the petroglyphs of Aztec pyramids across the region.

The most fearsome of Aztec shock troops the Eagle and Jaguar Warriors wore suits fashioned from the feathers of the Caracara. Called the cuāuhocēlōtl these soldiers were the most disciplined and during the Spanish Conquests of Mexico could fight the well armored Conquistadors on an even field.

Crested Caracara hunting a field near Ten Mile Creek
The Caracara is now represented on the national flag of Mexico. Some liberties have been taken with the coloration to reflect the appearance of a Golden Eagle. The story goes that the Aztecs in 1325 AD received a vision or a sign through one of their many gods that told them they would know where to build their central city, the empire  of Tenochtitlan when they saw what is today depicted on the Mexican Flag. They were told that when they saw an Eagle perched on a Nopal cactus with a serpent in its talon, located on an island, this is where they should begin to build their permanent city. They supposedly did encounter this on an island in the middle of a lake (Lake Anahuac) now known today as Mexico City.
Caracara with a snake in beak

I find this story relevant because the Caracara seen in Dallas County hunting over the sunny but cool fields of Ten Mile Creek came up with a snake as a late afternoon meal. Seen pictured at right. This is most likely one of a mated pair that loiters up and down the river in this area over the last few winters with regular frequency.

These birds have the body and span of an eagle but tend to forage more on a wide array of carrion if the opportunity presents itself. It would be fair to say that the have the body of an eagle and the mind of the most depraved vulture. I have seen Caracara as far north as the old Progreso Farm location on Pemberton Hill Road in 2009-2010. The area was strewn with discarded animal remains at the time from a slaughterhouse operation. As a result the area was thick with carrion loving birds.

Caracara are actually listed as a Threatened Species under the Endangered Species Act. Much like the Wood Stork that ranges through this Dallas countryside in the summer months, the habitat threatened Caracara is listed not for the ranging birds from Mexico but those residing in Florida. At some point in the past a vast extinction event took place along the Gulf Coast between Florida and Texas separating the populations into two distinct groups. The Endangered Species Act contradicts itself in a few areas regarding species protection. Rather than separate the population into subsets, the species as a whole is protected.

Caracara are a somewhat rare sight in Dallas County. They are most often seen around landfills in Irving, Dallas, Mansfield. North of the DFW metro area they are very seldom seen. Maybe in coming years as this species population improves more will be seen towards the Red River.

The Bald Eagle -- The Trinity River Duck Hunters

Ducks in flight over the Trinity River Wetland Cells
In a woodsy corner of Pleasant Grove the ducks stack up in mid-winter thicker than a traffic jam on Central. Safety in numbers from feathered foes loitering above waiting to pounce for an easy breakfast.

Juvenile Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in the Great Trinity Forest near the confluence of White Rock Creek and the Trinity River, Pemberton Hill, Dallas Texas, January 19, 2013
I chalk up the drought of 2011 for a less than productive year of eagle sightings in the Great Trinity Forest. The scant food and dried pocket ponds caused many of the wintering waterfowl to head further south to the coast. With the ducks went many of the eagles who follow like lions stalking a wildebeest migration.

Bald Eagles are rather punctual as a breed. Give or take a week they always seem to show up about when expected. It was disappointing not to see them last winter. The ebb and flow of winged wildlife is only tied to food sources and weather. Both in short supply last winter. A near normal spring and summer yielded more food and shelter this winter holding the ducks here in Dallas for a longer period.
Adult Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) near the mouth of Ten Mile Creek and the Trinity River, Riverbend Preserve, Dallas County Texas, January 13, 2013

Inside the city limits of Dallas eagles are seen much less frequently. Casual documented observations have been made at White Rock Lake in years past but they are very infrequent and the birds seldom stay long. The photos above show two common adaptations of Bald Eagles. The juvenile Bald Eagle was seen in the Pemberton Hill area on January 19, 2013. As is customary these oddball sightings always seem to involve Bill Holston a Master Naturalist and all around master hiker to boot. I being armed with a camera and he armed with binoculars, we both scratched our heads about the odd looking juvenile bird. It was not until a look through the images post hike I was able to see it was a Bald Eagle. It might have fooled us humans but the ducks pecking away at morning breakfast in the pond ahead of us knew what it was...........
Ducks in a flooded Pleasant Grove field near the Trinity River, scattering at the sight of a juvenile Bald Eagle a Chinese fire drill.

It can take years for a Bald Eagle to develop the hallmark white head. Seen in a photo above, that particular adult Bald Eagle was seen down near Ten Mile Creek, a healthy distance away over a grove of large trees. The great majority of the Bald Eagles in this area are merely transients and are not building nests in the Dallas area. The Great Trinity Forest has a very few scant trees that would even be capable of Bald Eagle nest habitat. The eagles seen in Dallas proper most likely commute from larger bodies of water like Ray Hubbard, Tawakoni and Richland Chambers where eagles reside in greater numbers during the winter.

Great Horned Owl
The Great Trinity Forest and White Rock Creek drainage does make for excellent owl habitat. Wearing a coat of natural bark camouflage Barred Owls and Great Horned Owls are a worthwhile pursuit within a half hour of sundown in the woods here. No special equipment is needed. Just a sharp set of eyes and the patience to find them.

Barred Owl near the Buckeye Grove

Osprey -- Fish Eagle of the floodplain

Osprey (Fish Eagle) feasting of a freshly caught carp in Dallas Texas under a rising moon

Fog rising among White Rock Creek's five story tall trees in the Great Trinity Forest, Rochester Park
The Osprey and owls are the only raptors whose outer toe is reversible, allowing them to grasp their prey with two toes in front and two behind. Known as fish eagles, sea hawks and fish hawks the Osprey(Pandion haliaetus) is one of the great winged aquatic hunters of North America. The special talons allow the osprey to firmly hold onto slippery fish which makes up the primary source of food in the diet.

This particular species of bird is often seen diving head first towards water then using razor sharp talons to deliver a devastating blow.

Widespread across the globe, these birds live on every continent but Antarctica.
Osprey clutching a carp on a cottonwood tree
Suffering a similar fate of the Bald Eagle, the widespread use of the pesticide DDT had negative impacts on the Osprey population in the last century. Due to the widespread geography of the Osprey the overall health of the species was maintained during the use of that chemical. The numbers are now up higher than before and the Osprey is becoming a more familiar sight far into the plains of Texas.

The Osprey in these photographs is an infrequent visitor along the White Rock Creek drainage. Being a unique bird to the area it's unknown whether or not similar sightings this past fall of an Osprey near the mouth of White Rock Creek are the same bird.

Much of the wildlife habitat in this thread exists not through preservation of habitat but rather private conservation efforts by places like the South Creek Ranch. Proper rural land stewardship and not overworking the land has provided not only for excellent grazing and agriculture. It has dramatically increased the diversity of species that were for all practical purposes once hunted or driven to extinction inside Dallas County.

It seems that without reservation that the Trinity River Project faces problems far greater than most people realize. The mismanagement of this resource across a broad scale is starting to impact the natural wildlife that is just starting to make a toe hold back into the woods. No amount of money can create some of the sights down there. But for a price, you can destroy it.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Texas Winter -- Predators of the Dallas Woods

Cold and austere, the post Christmas early morning light cast shadows on frozen ground so stiff it resembled old concrete. The previous evening's snow has muffled the urban noise of the city that has grown up around these bottoms. The primate populous of that same city that calls it home has retreated indoors to loaf, channeling a deep seed of cave man DNA not to venture into the cold. During these special times, the rarely seen predators of the woods come forth from their shadows.

There is no better time to see the large carnivorous animals of Texas than after a bone chilling freeze. It seems that the cold drives these animals to hunt and explore more than any other season. Following are some photos taken during that North Texas cold snap between Christmas and New Years. Some are common sights while others are exceptionally rare.

Red Shouldered Hawk taking flight from a pecan in the Renda meadow below Scyene Overlook
A certain fidelity exists among the animals here rarely seen by humans. Where we see simplicity, the reality is complexity. We might see it happen on a small scale out a kitchen window in the morning. Or in a carefully scripted fifty minute wildlife documentary on television. The real world life and death drama played out through window panes or a piece of LCD glass is no match for bearing witness in person.

The frozen climb up the north face of Scyene Overlook
Coyote in Gateway Park
The twenty degree overnight temperatures froze the ground solid here the night before. Locking rocks in place where they lay, turning the small scree slopes of the escarpment on which the trail lies into an easy to walk path.

In the far distance, a shy coyote makes a bolt across a fallow field for nearby Oak Creek. Coyotes are seldom seen, often heard and leave their scat everywhere. Weary hunters, they seem opportunistic in their forays around people. Fuller bodied than the swamp coyotes  a few miles to the south, this Gateway Park yote seems to make meals out of more than just the local fauna. Pet food or garbage left outside are likely culprits. It beat a hasty retreat towards the DART Green Line where it crossed under the tracks using a small culvert for an unnamed creek.

JJ Beeman Trail in the Great Trinity Forest

Red Shouldered Hawk hunting in the Renda Meadow
Red Shouldered Hawk beginning a hunting dive off a power pole in the Renda meadow
A sharp, descending "kerr-yeee" scream announces the presence of the Red-shouldered Hawk as one enters the meadow near Scyene Overlook. Getting to the meadow is a worthwhile hike and sits mere minutes from Downtown Dallas.

Red Shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus) seem to be the most efficient raptors in the Great Trinity Forest. Medium in size and quite agile they can thread themselves through floodplain woods and bramble thickets with ease.
Renda meadow raptor

Their diet consists of insects, lizards, snakes and smaller rodents. They will take down another bird from time to time but the bulk of their diet seems to be smaller ground dwelling animals. The Red Shouldered Hawk seen above was hunting field mice in the snow covered meadow. It appeared as though it was watching for movement under the snow then launching a dive to the target.

This past spring I was fortunate enough to see a pair of Red Shouldered Hawks build a nest on White Rock Creek. Checking in once every few weeks I could watch from some distance the different phases of hawk rearing from nest construction to the eventual hatching of hawklets. This particular nest hatched three and raised three to adulthood. I still here them from time to time calling to each other nearly a year later.

Hawks Over Piedmont Ridge

The gusting northwest winds blow strong updraft currents along the White Rock Escarpment. The abrupt hundred foot elevation differential creates an enticing loitering area for some of the largest winged predators in Dallas, the Red Tailed Hawk. Seen at left and below, the hawks pictured were riding the draft up in effortless concentric maneuver. Much like a spiral staircase, each rotation would take them an building story higher in the air.

Some of these hawks migrate in seasonally for the winter from the northern plains, others stay year round.  I imagine the hawks view this ridge of Trinity chert gravel topped limestone as an island of sorts. A place to survey many acres of prime hunting fields.

Snow covered Piedmont Ridge Overlook

The large population of hawks in this area might be the result of the easy to hunt areas on the Grover Keeton Golf Course. The large number of nut bearing pecans here attract squirrels and the cropped grass keeps a stable population of rabbits.

Hawks are too small to predate the largest four legged menace in these woods, the feral pig. Signaled with the installation of traps and a feeder within 50 yards of the Gateway Trail, feral pigs have made the move to Scyene. The DART Green Line fencing serves as an effective barricade against pig migration to some extent. From the looks of the recent tracks near the DART crossing at Glover Pass, some of the pigs are quite large. One can only hope that the widespread extermination of non-target species (deer, bobcats, coyotes and birds) as evidenced near the Audubon Center will not accompany the attempts to eradicate the feral pigs from the Scyene Overlook area.

Snow covered juniper stump along the Piedmont Ridge Trail

Devon Anderson Trail
Devon Anderson Trail south of Bruton Road
Red Tailed Hawk being harassed by a Mockingbird
Belonging more to the air than to the tree limbs on which it sits perched, hawks are often the subject of harassment by lesser birds. Like a monkey on his back, the mockingbird makes insulting remarks and curse statements at a bird fifty times in size. Annoyed, the hawk reluctantly takes flight moving to another tree nearby.

Footbridge over the dry gulch in Devon Anderson Park

The Great Horned Owls -- Master Hunters of the night

The fabric of Texas Lore is wound tight with the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). Modern day Texans are poorer for never having heard one. The booming voice of evening calls to attract a mate resonate louder than a man can yell.

The Native Americans saw the Great Horned Owl as a harbinger of death and bad luck. An owl near their camps while revered by their beliefs was a forboding sign.

The Spanish Conquistadors and missionaries that first colonized Tejas in the 17th Century blended the ancient Caddo stories of owls into their own. Es como los tecalotes; la viveza lo tiene en los ojos. He is like the owls; all his liveliness of wit is in his eyes.

Mexican bandits often thought the Great Horned Owl's call was "Refugio, Refugio, Refugio". Refuge. Refuge. Refuge. Hiding for a night under a tree used by an owl was a sure sign of a remote sanctuary. 

The old Texas pioneer rhyme that dates back to the mid 19th century has similar parallels to them all :A wise old owl lived in an oak, The more he saw the less he spoke,The less he spoke the more he heard. Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?

"Uncommon but widespread" is how many field guides list many winged predators. This applies to the Great Horned Owls especially. Owls are apex night hunters and the preferred technique for Great Horned Owls is to perch on a pole or cliff or other site with a view, watching and listening for prey. Spotting or hearing potential dinner, they launch off and dive in on silent wings to snatch the unlucky critter in incredibly strong and large talons. With two foot long bodies, five foot wingspans and talons with crushing power over 300 psi, Great Horned Owls are one of the few birds that can kill animals larger than themselves.

Hearing a great predator call in the moon lit air of sunset is a rare occasion inside the city limits of Dallas. Seeing one is quite unique given their nocturnal schedules. Getting some photographs of one is even harder to come by. For the intrepid willing to brave the cold, the chance to get some owl photos was a rare chance indeed. Below is some footage I shot of one Great Horned Owl. It was a cloudy and foggy evening after sunset.

Seeing the owl in the fork of a tree, I placed a camera and tripod some hundreds of feet away. Then left the area. Over the course of the next twenty minutes it made territorial calls a number of times, calling for a distant mate. Around the 1:50 mark or so the distant return calls of the second owl can be heard in the far background. Towards the end of the clip, the owl leaves to join the other. I have not seen many Great Horned Owl videos on the internet. Nearly all seem to be of owls in captivity. Quite entertaining to hear the owl hooting 500+ yards away knowing down in the woods your camera is catching it all.

Much of the groundwork for knowing about this particular pair of Great Horned Owls was done by Robert Bunch, a professional photographer of note based in the Dallas area. His willingness to share his find and donate personal time for chronicling birds in Dallas is exceptional. His website features some of his great wildlife photos Robert Bunch Photography. I had heard owls many times previous to this in the Great Trinity Forest and caught fleeting glimpses of them but never seen one so close. Joining Robert was another great photographer Geryl Mortensen of Birds Afield. He made waves last winter with his Texas Snowy Owl photos that caused quite a bit of buzz. Both those guys are outstanding photographers and seem like exceptional people to boot. A pleasure meeting them both. I'm a two bit idiot with a camera compared to what they bring. Really nice to meet ethical folks with an appreciation for keeping an unobtrusive distance to wildlife.

Urban Bobcats - The Bobcats Of White Rock Lake
Bobcat at White Rock Lake December 30, 2012
The bobcat (lynx rufus) is the most common wildcat in the United States. Their name comes from their short bobbed tail and is easy to spot from some distance. Varying in color and size, they can take on a gray milk color or a more exotic leopard pattern like the one seen in the photos here. With the magnified toolset of a house cat many times over, the bobcat is an apex predator across the North Texas landscape. Only an unfortunate run-in with a bullet or a car bumper stand in the way of their demise as adults.
Bobcat at Sunset Bay, White Rock Lake, Dallas, Texas near the CCC Statue

Roughly the size of a medium dog, this particular bobcat was seen at White Rock Lake about an hour before a cold cloudy sunset on the last weekend of 2012. Blending in well with the dormant grass it moved virtually unnoticed across a couple acres of open ground at Sunset Bay near walkers, runners and cyclists.

White Rock Lake bobcat marking scent on brush next to the Sunset Bay offices

Like many cats, this bobcat appeared to be on a daily patrol, marking territory with facial scrapes and urinating on brush. There is more than one bobcat in this immediate area and claiming territory of your own is an important job duty for any cat. Looking at the facial features and overall girth, this bobcat is most likely a younger individual maybe the result of litter last spring.

The bobcat like others I have seen at the lake have found a way to coexist with people in a non-threatening manner. Their prey diet consists of rodents, waterfowl and small game that live around White Rock Lake. Seeing a cat this size along the hedges here would give a dog owner a reflective pause before letting a pet run off leash. No need to worry. The cats seem to have a healthy respect for humans and their canine companions. They keep their distance and so should you.

Comparing a bobcat to a mountain lion ........

Poor light, long distances and excitement can often confuse your eyes into seeing something that is not there. The illustration above shows the main differences between the larger mountain lion and the bobcat. 3 feet long for a bobcat, 7-8 feet long for a mountain lion. Similar coat colors, similar markings.

Comparing cougar, coyote and bobcat tracks, Courtesy TPWD

Despite claims of mountain lions in the Dallas area, the tales of big cats are just that. Concoctions of rumors, third hand accounts and a healthy dose of misinformation. Even the prints of large dogs are misidentified as mountain lions all the time. The prints above illustrate the similarities and marked differences between the animals. It's unclear how someone could not tell the difference but it happens all the time.

It's a paradox to often find images such as these in the most violent and impoverished neighborhoods of Texas.  Places that many reading this will never visit for fear of the people who call it home. I wonder what it will take to change that.