Thursday, July 14, 2011

Rare, Threatened and Endangered Species of Joppa Preserve

"Our city life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground"--Walden by Henry David Thoreau

The trees that ring Lemmon Lake serve as a backdrop to one of Texas liveliest wildlife theatres. You can hear the nervous laugh of the wading birds, the howls of coyotes, bark of the tree frogs and the deep hoots of owls as the sun sets. The towering cottonwoods ring the lake at a distance not just as silent sentinels but also a place for the Wood Storks to observe the show from the cheap seats.

Separated from the Trinity River only by a gradual sandy beach and a 100 year old levee, Lemmon Lake supports a wide variety of wildlife giving it top billing to unique species and a watery wild kingdom.

Vast array of Texas wading birds at Lemmon Lake. Wood Storks, Herons, Egrets, White Ibis, White-Faced Ibis

Originally built as a private fishing lake in the late 1800s, it was purchased in the 1980s by Dallas County and then leased to the City of Dallas under a 99 year agreement. The purchase price was $500,000. $400,000 came from the county and $100,000 came as a private donation from the late Bill Barrett a well known Dallas businessman and philanthropist.
Summer sunset over Lemmon Lake at Joppa Preserve July 2011

Since the 1980s, the lake has sat idle, partially silted in and has now become more of a marsh estuary than a lake. Plans as recently as 2001 have called for a dredging and reworking of Lemmon Lake including a division of the lake into two cells for better water management. The neglect and lack of any access to the lake has actually benefited some of the rarest and most endangered birds in the United States.

Passed in 1973 and reauthorized in 1988, the Endangered Species Act regulates a wide range of activities affecting plants and animals designated as endangered or threatened. By definition, endangered species is an animal or plant listed by regulation as being in danger of extinction. A threatened species is any animal or plant that is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. A species must be listed in the Federal Register as endangered or threatened for the provisions of the act to apply.
The Act prohibits the following activities involving endangered species:
  • Importing into or exporting from the United States.
  • Taking (includes harassing, harming, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, trapping, killing, capturing, or collecting) within the United States and its territorial seas.
  • Taking on the high seas.
  • Possessing, selling, delivering, carrying, transporting, or shipping any such species unlawfully taken within the United States or on the high seas.
  • Delivering, receiving, carrying, transporting, or shipping in interstate or foreign commerce in the course of a commercial activity.
  • Selling or offering for sale in interstate or foreign commerce.

The Rare: The Roseate Spoonbill (Ajaja Ajaja)

A rare sight in North Texas, Roseate Spoonbills can be seen infrequently in the shallow drying ponds and swamps in the Great Trinity Forest. Spoonbills are traditionally coastal birds and are a regular site along the Texas Gulf Coast. Rare to see them hundreds of miles inland in not only a prairie but also a densely populated urban environment.

This species feeds in shallow fresh or coastal waters by swinging its bill from side to side as it steadily walks through the water, often in groups. It feeds on crawfish, water beetles, tadpoles, insect larvae and very small fish other wading birds ignore.

Texas Roseate Spoonbill at Joppa Preserve

Flight of Roseate Spoonbills

 The Threatened: The White-Faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi)

Texas Parks and Wildlife has listed the White-Faced Ibis as a Threatened Species due to loss of habitat in their range. The White-Faced Ibis population is in slow decline as a result. The federal government is awaiting additional information on them before deciding if they should be given federal status as an endangered or threatened species.

Similar in appearance to the Glossy Ibis, the White-Faced Ibis can be identified by their red eyes, reddish legs and reddish feathers. In mating season, the White-Faced Ibis will develop a white ring around their face. The White-faced Ibis frequents marshes, swamps, ponds and rivers. Like the spoonbill, they prefer small aquatic insects, fish, worms and frogs.

In the Dallas area it can best be described as a casual species, just flying through to points elsewhere. I believe the dry Texas weather in 2011 has concentrated many of these coastal birds into the North Texas since the area has seen more rainfall than other parts of the state.

White-faced Ibis at Lemmon Lake

Federally Threatened White Faced Ibis at Joppa Preserve July 2011

White-Faced Ibis and White Ibis will often fly in flocks together as seen in the photo below.

Flight of White Faced Ibis(dark colored) and White Ibis(white) over Lemmon Lake

The Endangered: The Wood Stork (Mycteria americana)

Although they are listed as an Endangered Species in the United States, the birds are given threatened status in Texas. The Endangered listing applies to Wood Storks who live and breed east of the Mississippi in the Deep South and Florida. Wood Storks are still afforded the protections of Endangered Status here in Texas but since they do not breed here they are given a threatened designation. Wood Storks were once hunted for their feathers and have also lost much of their habitat to swamp draining in Florida. In Texas, the Wood Storks migrate north in the early summer from Mexico to take advantage of drying lake beds and the abundance of fish found in them. There have been only a handful of sightings in the DFW area of Wood Storks. Lemmon Lake is special in that so many can be seen at one time. Wood Stork sightings are more numerous further to the south in the Houston and Corpus Christi areas where the habitat lends itself to Wood Stork feeding tactics.

Wood storks are large water birds that stand 2-4 feet tall and are the only stork in North America. They have wingspans as wide as 5 1/2 feet. They are mostly white, but have a black tail and many black feathers under their wings. Storks are related to ibises, herons and flamingos. They have no feathers on their head and neck, so the black skin underneath shows. This makes wood storks the only tall water birds with black, bald heads. Since they have no muscles attached to their voice box, they are very quiet birds.

Wood Stork in flight preparing for landing

Wood Stork

Wood Stork roost on Trinity River south of Loop 12

These waders feed on minnows in shallow water by using their bills to perform a rare and effective fishing technique. The stork opens its bill and sticks it into the water, then waits for the touch of an unfortunate fish that wanders too close. When it feels a fish, the stork can snap its bill shut in as little as 20 milliseconds an incredibly quick reaction time unmatched by it's prey.

The storks prefer to employ this technique in isolated pools created by tides or falling freshwater levels, where fish congregate en masse. In some areas, such as Florida, breeding begins with the dry season that produces these optimal fishing conditions. Watch the video below, filmed at Lemmon Lake in July 2011 to see how they feed.

Video featuring hundreds of Wood Storks in flight and feeding at Lemmon Lake inside the Joppa Preserve. Also seen in the video are egrets, herons, white faced ibis, white ibis, glossy ibis, roseate spoonbills and cranes:

 Video below of coyotes yipping in the reeds on the far side of the lake. Within 2-3 minutes the coyotes approached the birds on the shore and the water creating a brief exodus to the air

Wideshot view of Lemmon Lake. Wood Storks are in treeline avoiding the 104 degree heat

Lemmon Lake Wood Storks

Notes and location on Joppa Preserve:

Lemmon Lake is a known American Alligator habitat.

American alligators normally avoid humans, but they can become perceived as a nuisance when they establish territories around people. As human populations in Texas continue to expand, there have been an increased number of encounters between people and alligators. Alligators have been known to prey on pets and must be treated with caution. Alligators can be surprisingly quick on land and are capable of running quickly over short distances. I have not seen alligators in Lemmon Lake but have seen one in Little Lemmon Lake, a smaller body of water directly to the north. There is also an active population of coyotes that hunt during the day and a population of Feral Pigs. Please exercise caution if you plan a visit.

Access does not come easy to Lemmon Lake. Ringed by triple canopy trees, some wetlands and a belt of sawgrass 50 yards thick it can be hard to find a way in. I would suggest parking at River Oaks Park or Simpson Stuart Road. From there walk down the paved Trinity River Trail till you find a place for entering the woods. Glimpses of the lake can be seen from the trail. Another more adventurous idea would be to launch a canoe from the Loop 12 Boat Ramp and take the river down to the Wood Stork roosting area, then take-out near Simpson Stuart Road.

Great Trinity Forest Trail at Joppa Preserve

Monday, July 11, 2011

President Sam Houston's Camp On White Rock Creek, Great Trinity Forest

168 years ago July 12-15 1843 Sam Houston President of the Texas Republic and his men camped at White Rock Springs near the mouth of White Rock Creek and the Trinity River. He and his diplomatic corps stayed in the company of the Beeman family who called the fine bottom land home. Unlike most of Dallas, this part of Dallas looks the same as it did when President Houston and his men rode through to make peace with the Indians. White Rock Spring is the sole survivor in regards to historic DFW area springs. Buzzard Springs, Cedar Springs, Kidd Springs, Grapevine Springs, Bone Marrow Springs. All gone. The City of Dallas recently purchased the land surrounding the spring and many other neighboring parcels for a future park. A tip of the hat to the Pemberton family who have kept the land around the spring in its near original condition for many generations. Currently a crude right of way exists between Rochester Park, across White Rock Creek and then down to the future Texas Horse Park to Elam Road and beyond to the Trinity River Audubon Center. A trail is planned through the area highlighting the spring as a focal point.

President Sam Houston circa 1840s
During his final term as President of the Texas Republic, Sam Houston's chief concerns were Indian relations, war clouds on the horizon with Mexico and Texas annexation into the United States. Sam Houston, who had lived with the Cherokees for years as a young man, had a fondness for the tribes and wanted them treated fairly as their lands were taken over by civilization despite their depredations against the settlers in Texas.

For many months Houston sent messages to his Indian friends proclaiming he would hold a Grand Council of the Tribes at Fort Bird(presently in the Mid Cities area) during the full moon of August 1843. Similar to what we might consider a general assembly meeting of the United Nations.  Houston sent Indian Commissioner Joseph C. Eldridge out months in advance of the date to bring the Comanches and others to the treaty council.

White Rock Spring in July, site of Sam Houston's Camp

Map of Texas 1840
It was in July 1843 when Sam Houston and an expedition of about 30 men departed Crockett in East Texas, and began their trek to the Three Forks of the Trinity to negotiate with the chiefs of the Indian tribes.  Their route was well documented traveling roughly on the same route into Dallas that US Highway 175 takes today. This route was an ancient Pre-Columbian trail used by Indians for many centuries as an imporant trade route between the Piney Woods of East Texas, the Plains and Indians living north of the Red River. Scyene and Preston Roads share similar distinctions in Dallas as ancient Indian trails that later became major roads.
Looking south with White Rock Spring in the far treeline beyond at the base of Pemberton Hill

Sam Houston made Indian policy a principal concern of his second administration. On July 1, 1842, he appointed a commission to "treat with any and all Indians on the Frontiers of Texas." The Indians, too, were more open to negotiation after the costly wars under the Lamar administration had reduced their numbers. In August, they agreed to a peace council at the Waco village on October 26, 1842. They failed to attend on that date, but on March 31, 1843, chiefs of nine tribes accepted an invitation to a Grand Council to conclude a treaty of peace. The nations present were the Republic of Texas, the Delaware, Chickasaw, Waco, Tah-woc-cany, Keechi, Caddo, Ana-Dah-kah, Ionie, Biloxi, and Cherokee.

They met six months later and on September 29, 1843 signed one of the few Indian treaties ratified by the Republic of Texas Senate.

A man who was traveling with Houston, an Englishman named Edward Parkinson wrote an account of Houston's journey, mentioning sites of note, and a typescript of his diary is in the collections of the Dallas Historical Society.  Other notable members of the entourage included future cabinet members of President Jefferson Davis in the Confederacy, future Civil War generals, Indian Fighters, judges and few rascals thrown in for good measure.

Parkinson described in his diary the difficulties and trials encountered by the expedition.  The men had to literally hack their way through groves of Bois d'arc trees in the Trinity River bottoms east of present day Dallas before crossing the river, were overtaken by hordes of insects and killed buffalo to sustain themselves. President Sam Houston and his men met with John Neely Bryan on July 14th in what is present day Downtown Dallas near the Old Red Courthouse as they were passing through to Bird's Fort. A couple men from the group were taken with fever and stayed behind at White Rock Spring unable to continue on. White Rock Spring was a great place to stay behind since Dallas at the time was largely a barren plain with little shade in the heat of the summer. They stayed in the company of John Beeman and his family who were the first family to settle in Dallas.

Looking north from White Rock Spring

John Beeman chose the White Rock Spring area off present day Pemberton Hill Rd to settle. John Beeman migrated to the Peters Colony which was part of Nacogdoches County at the time. On April 8, 1842 John Beeman, brought his family to White Rock Creek; building his cabin and planting the first corn in Dallas County. He initially built a fortified "blockhouse" a two story prairie defensive tower house just south of present day Military Parkway. He later moved to the Pemberton Hill area the next year. After annexation John Beeman was elected the first US Congressman to represent North Texas.

View of Pemberton Hill looking east from White Rock Spring
The photo above shows a grove of walnut and pecan trees directly north of White Rock Spring. The single walnut tree just to the left of the road has seen quite a bit of history. The story is that the tree has two spikes driven in it on the trunk. One to note the high water mark of the great 1908 flood that destroyed much of Dallas. A second spike, even higher, noting the high water mark of the 1866 Trinity River flood.

Honey Bee hive inside the walnut tree with the spikes driven in it

Large Alligator Snapping Turtle in White Rock Spring

When Houston arrived at Ft. Bird, several tribes had shown up but did not want to go near the garrisoned fort fearing a trap. Houston moved the negotiations and camps six miles north to Grapevine Springs.  He felt the Springs offered better water, more shade in the summer heat and less mosquitoes.  However the group camped there for more than a month while awaiting the Comanches, and was described by Parkinson as:  "there were some fine though rather monotonous days, only relieved by finding a bee tree or killing our beeves."
Finally Houston realized the Comanches weren't coming and decided to have a council with those in attendance.  Known as a flamboyant dresser, Houston's attire for the occasion was noteworthy.  "Donned in a purple velvet suit, with a huge Bowie knife thrust in his belt, and a folded Indian blanket draped over one shoulder to proclaim his brotherhood with the red men, Houston eloquently promised the chiefs that a favorable treaty line would be drawn beyond which the Indians could live unmolested by white men."

At this time, along with the negotiations with the Indians, Houston was still President of the Republic and having to deal with the Mexican situation and annexation of Texas.  Before the actual treaty was signed, he had to go back to Washington on the Brazos to deal with these issues personally.  To deal with the Comanches when, and if, they arrived he assigned Gen. Edward H. Tarrant and Gen. George Whitfield Terrell. The treaty was signed in the last three days of September 1843.

The Treaty at Birds Fort was a rare instrument: it was actually ratified by the Republic of Texas Senate. Throughout both his administrations, Sam Houston worked to negotiate with the Texas tribes, not only because of his natural inclination but also because the new Republic simply could not afford to be at war both with the Indians and the Mexicans. His policy had already been put into practice when he and John Forbes negotiated a treaty with the Cherokee on February 3, 1836.

President Mirabeau B. Lamar, on the other hand, was convinced that the tribes were conspiring with the Mexicans, and he also believed that the tribes constituted a foreign nation in competition with the Republic. He actively supported a policy of extermination and expulsion, a policy which removed the Cherokee altogether and which helped plunge the new nation into considerable debt.

The Englishman Parkinson in his journal noted that the rough draft for the conditions of the Birds Fort Treaty were discussed and drafted in route including at White Rock Spring.

Below is the last page of the Bird's Fort Treaty 

Bird's Fort Treaty Ratification Proclamation, 1843

Now, Therefore, be it known
That I, Sam Houston, President
of the Republic of Texas, having seen

and considered said Treaty, do, in
pursuance of the advice and consent
of the Senate, as expressed by their res-
olution of the thirty first of January,
one thousand eight hundred and forty
four, accept, ratify and confirm the
same, and every clause and article
In testimony whereof, I have
hereunto set my hand and caused
the Great Seal of the Republic to be af-
Done at the town of
Washington, this
third day of Feb-
=ruary in the year
of our Lord one thou-
=sand eight hundred and
forty four and of the
Independence of the
Republic the Eighth.
By the President
Sam Houston
Anson Jones
Secretary of State

Monday, July 4, 2011

Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks at Lemmon Lake Joppa Preserve

Roseate Spoonbill at Lemmon Lake Joppa Preserve Dallas, Texas

Somewhat rare to see coastal birds such as the Roseate Spoonbill this far north in Texas. Exceptionally rare to see the Roseate Spoonbill inside the city limits of Dallas, within a large urban area.  Hunted to near extinction in the early 1900s, the Roseate Spoonbill population dwindled to only 100 breeding pairs in Texas by the 1930s. Their striking pink feathers were popular on women's hats, and hunters from all over the United States competed for spoonbill plumes. In the early 1900s, roseate spoonbills began to recolonize areas along the Gulf Coast and slowly increase in number. Today, threats to roseate spoonbill populations come as a result of habitat loss. Even by 1979, their numbers had only rebounded to 2500 birds in the wild. Currently their numbers have rebounded substantially enough to be removed from Federal protection as an Endangered and Threatened species.

Lemmon Lake at sunset Joppa Community water tower in background

Lemmon Lake Wood Stork

The video clip below was filmed the evening July 3rd 2011 at Lemmon Lake:

As an older lake, over 120 years old, Lemmon Lake once served as a private fishing and hunting lake to well heeled Dallasites at the turn of the last century. Over time, the lake as slowly started to silt in creating an ideal shallow water environment for wading birds, alligators and snakes. Sightings of venomous snakes and alligators are common here.

The Roseate Spoonbill, Ajaja ajaja, (sometimes placed in the larger genus Platalea as Platalea ajaja) is a gregarious wading bird of the ibis and spoonbill family, Threskiornithidae. It is a resident breeder in South America mostly east of the Andes, and in coastal regions of the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, and the Gulf Coast of the United States.

Spoonbills consume a varied diet of small fish, amphibians, aquatic invertebrates, and some plant material. They feed in the early morning and evening hours by wading through shallow water with their bills partially submerged. As a Roseate Spoonbill walks it swings its head back and forth in a sideways motion. When the bird feels a prey item it snaps its bill closed, pulls the prey out of the water, and swallows it.

Sunset over Joppa

Lemmon Lake is by far the single hardest body of water to reach on public property in Dallas. Remote not just in its geographical location but also in the way the forest has encroached on the lake itself. Triple canopy woods, briar patches, poison ivy clog any route to the shore. Once one gets within 100 yards of the lake itself one must navigate around swampy areas and a 30-50 foot buffer of reeds and cattails before getting an unobstructed view of the lake itself. Evidence of alligators from their tracks and wallows are everywhere in the cat tails. Great caution should be taken walking through this area. The reward of visiting such a place are encounters with birds and animals you will not see anywhere else in North Texas.

Evidence of animals in the shoreline reeds and cat tails can be seen in the photo below:

Lemmon Lake

Can you spot the coyote? I could not, till I accidentally spotted it while looking through the photos I took. Had no idea it was there.

A closer view of the same photo, coyote on shoreline in the right of the photo:

Coyote along shoreline of Lemmon Lake

Closest address is below

5400 Simpson Stuart Road Dallas Texas

Better to travel via foot or mountain bike to this area rather than leaving your vehicle near the dead end of the road.