Monday, October 31, 2011

Santa Fe Trestle Trail Over The Trinity Nearing Completion

Santa Fe Trestle Trail as viewed from the Oak Cliff approach on the Trinity River

Santa Fe Trestle Trail October 2011
Looks like the Santa Fe Trestle over the Trinity River is in the final stages of completion. Finally. Seems long overdue. The concrete work looks finished for all practical purposes. Other than a couple metal guardrail sections and some paint it looks ready to open. Unlike previous trips that required climbing some scaffolding this one did not require a dismount.

I'm still scratching my head some as to how those north of the Trinity River will access the Santa Fe Trestle Trail. I'd assume that someone riding the Santa Fe Trail from White Rock Lake to Fair Park would be perplexed as to the route.

Santa Fe Trestle Trail deck looking north DART Blue Line train to the left
The Oak Cliff side of the Santa Fe Trestle has a few hundred square feet of deck complete with seats that overlook the Dallas Wave whitewater park. The DART light rail line that services Corinth Street Station blocks the view of Downtown to the northwest. To see the skyline you need to travel across the river.

Santa Fe Trestle Trail with a view of Reunion Tower, Convention Center, Belo Building, Omni Hotel

Santa Fe Trestle Trail looking north, Dallas Wave Whitewater Park below

Santa Fe Trestle Trail viewed from limestone bank of Trinity River
Three new Trinity River projects meet at this spot. The Santa Fe Trestle Trail, Trinity River Paddling Trail between the Sylvan Avenue and Loop 12 Boat Ramps, the Dallas Wave Standing Wave. The Dallas Wave feature has a different look to it than it did a couple months ago. There is now a distinct ripple that has formed about 100 feet downstream of the structure. I wonder if this could actually be caused by accumulating sediment? I cannot tell how deep the water is now in that spot. It could just be an illusion but my experience with river ripples like that tells me that the water is now very shallow. I could be wrong.


Dallas Trinity River Paddling Trail sign at Santa Fe Trestle Trail

I have been contacted a number of times about where and how a river user should portage the Dallas Wave also called the Standing Wave. In the photo below you will see a canoe portage takeout. It sits about 100 yards upstream of the DART Bridge/Santa Fe Trestle Trail.  Currently the lower portion of the takeout is covered in over a foot of thick mud. Might be easier to just use the bank upstream rather than the takeout ramp itself. If you are brave enough to float the Trinity River, I'm sure you'll figure something out.

The total portage is about 100 yards over paved surface with another ramp downstream of the whitewater project. I have suggested to the city that they give this spot a physical address for their 911 system in the event of an emergency. If you have floated the Trinity in this area you are aware that the banks are steep and few places between Sylvan Avenue and the DART Trestle exist for an easy bailout. This is also the classic spot known as a "Last Chance For Gas" before you head downriver. Chances of seeing another person downstream from here to the Loop 12 Boat Ramp are slim.

Portage ramp for Trinity River Paddling Trail

Monday, October 24, 2011

Dallas Bobcat on the Trinity River at McCommas Bluff

Bobcat (Lynx Rufus) in the City of Dallas on the Trinity River October 23, 2011
What, courage man. What though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.
-William Shakespeare
Much Ado About Nothing

Curiosity kills cats to paraphrase Will Shakespeare. Not the particular bobcat featured in this post but the cat put its guard down to fulfill the inquisitive nature only a predator can hold. As a result I had a rather rare encounter with this bobcat on the Trinity, thanks to the ruckus on the other side of the river.

This post features photos and video of a bobcat on the west bank of the Trinity River directly across from McCommas Bluff Preserve on October 23, 2011. The previous evening saw a heavy widespread rain across the Dallas area with the passage of a weak cold front. The cooler and partly cloudy conditions bring out many animals not normally seen during the day.

So what was the bobcat doing?

I had no idea initially. It was laser locked on something across the river. If you are familiar with house cats when they are in full stalk mode with ears up and tail twitching, you get the idea here. As I approached it moved to my right, stopping at the top of a small dirt berm. Usually, a bobcat will turn tail and leave. It decided to stay and intently watch the other side of the river. I finally saw what it saw. Along the bluffs were a couple teenagers with a remote control toy truck. The whine of the remote control motors drew in that bobcat like a moth to a porch light. The truck would stop, the cat would lose interest. Truck started up again and the cat would whip its head around to stare. Cat completely ignored me.

Below you can see what transpired. The drone of a small Cessna overhead drowned out the sound of the toy. I did not even think of getting my camera out for something like this because cats like this are basically just ghosts and vanish out of sight before you can get a camera out. The last few seconds of video show the teenagers on the other side of the bluff messing with their truck.

Video footage of bobcat at McCommas Bluff

This section of the Great Trinity Forest is rarely visited by humans. Other than utility workers who mow a 20 foot wide stretch of right-of-way twice a year, humans simply do not visit the far west bank of the Trinity. Miles from any paved road and inaccessible by private vehicle, this area is by far the closest thing you will find to wilderness in Dallas. From this point south you will not find anything developed along the river until you reach Lake Livingston. A game warden told me that traveling north from Lake Livingston you will not encounter a single chain link deer proof fence until you reach the SE corner of the Trinity River Audubon Center near Woodland Springs. As a result, this area is just as diverse in wildlife as anything you will find 20, 40, 80, 160 miles down the river. When the second phase of the Great Trinity Forest Trail opens in 2012, this are will be much more accessible. You can read more about the new trail and bridge here:Trinity River Trail and Bridge

Bobcats are small wild cats with the scientific name Lynx rufus. They get their common name because of their short bobbed tail, while their scientific species name rufus refers to their brown coat coloration. 

Trinity Bobcat
Bobcats are the most widely distributed wild cat in North America.  They are also found in Southern Canada and in parts of Mexico. Given their wide distribution, they are not considered endangered species. It is even legal to trap bobcats for their fur in many parts of the United States, including California. Trapping and hunting is banned inside the Dallas city limits.

Bobcats tend to be primarily nocturnal creatures, particularly near urban areas where they actively attempt to avoid crossing paths with humans.  They are solitary creatures, like most cats.  They are territorial, and we call the areas each individual occupies their 'home range.'  Male home ranges tend to overlap several female home ranges.  Males try to maintain distinct home ranges from other males, and females try to keep separate, non-overlapping home ranges from other females.

How to identify a Bobcat vs Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion vs Bobcat size comparison; source: Cougar Central

I can tell you with 100% certainty that no mountain lions exist in the DFW area. Not one. Much like the 20 pound largemouth bass that got away or space aliens, no one has pictures to back it up. If you really want to see a panther, you need to head over to the corner of MLK and Cesar Chavez where they congregate on the street corner. In the past year at various times, motion sensing game cameras have been placed throughout the Great Trinity Forest. Some were placed there to combat feral pig eradication. Some were placed just out of curiosity. Deer, pigs, armadillos, bobcats and all matter of varmint on four and two legs were seen. No mountain lions. The cougar conspiracy theorists chalk it up to the immense range of a mountain lion. Often hundreds of square miles. While the food source needed for a mountain lion exists for one, the animal itself does not exist here.

North Texans seem to have a hard time identifying a bobcat. Since bobcats are usually nocturnal they can easily be seen as something larger like their distant cousin the mountain lion. Light, distance and space 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. I think many people can get confused especially when a bobcat turns away from the person viewing it. Below is the same bobcat on the Trinity. When viewed at the rear quarter, the bobbed tail is much less pronounced and the coloration of the foot at the base of the leg resembles that of a mountain lion tail.

Bobcat viewed from rear

In addition, while the bobcat appears to have the same basic squatty dimensions of a house cat, the torso of a bobcat is quite long. In the photo below you can see just how long they can appear to look given the right angle.


Another tell tale sign are tracks. Just like other animals, cats seem to enjoy walking roads and trails rather than traversing cross country through the woods. Below are some great examples of the different sizes of tracks.

Comparison of animal tracks; Source TPWD

Things can get blurry when it comes to the tracks of a coyote and bobcat. I even have problems with feral pig vs deer. The main thing differences to look for with canine versus feline are the presence of claws and the triple lobes on the heel pad of cats.

Canine vs Feline tracks; Source TPWD

Mountain Lion tracks in Texas Hill Country

Above is a photo I took a few years ago of a verified set of mountain lion tracks outside Kerrville, Texas(up Harper Road) in the Texas Hill Country. Not only are the tracks huge, almost the size of a dinner plate but they also have the hallmark feline triple lobes and lack the claw marks one would see in a canine track.

The Poop on Bobcats

One great way of determining if there are bobcats around is to look for their poop/feces/scat. Bobcat scats are similar to those of a house cat, but much larger. Each dropping is segmented and contains very little plant matter. The type of scat indicates the time elapsed since the bobcat's last kill. Bobcats normally feed first on the internal organs of their prey, and scats from this feeding consist mostly of gray matter mixed with some hair. Scats from later feedings consist of bone chips and hair. The last feeding often contains hair only. Grass may also be found in bobcat scats. Scats can be found under overhangs, near kills. Finding scats is one method of determining the presence of bobcats in an area of low cat populations. Bobcats will leave scats in ravines, on trails and near scrapes. There is usually a large concentration of scats around kills.

Urban Bobcats in Dallas

Urban areas in Dallas are home to a number of smaller predators like the bobcat. Frequent sightings are common at White Rock Lake and up White Rock Creek in the Lake Highlands area. The bobcats in this area have found a certain niche in the environment that allows them to coexist with humans. Below is a video clip I filmed on the evening of August 28, 2011. The weather that day was a brutal 107 degrees for a high. I had been down to the Trinity and was coming back home via the Santa Fe Trail when I crossed paths with this bobcat near TP Hill. Unless you are walking a pet rabbit off a leash you have nothing to fear from the bobcats there.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Coyote Pack On Great Trinity Forest Trail

Family Pack of Trinity River Coyotes near Great Trinity Forest Trail October 15, 2011

I imagine if we could crawl inside Governor Rick Perry's head at night and see his deepest and darkest nightmares it would look something like the photos and video in this post! A pack of coyotes on a bike/jogging/nature trail. His Coyote Special Ruger .380 would find itself winchestered out of ammo in short order on the Trinity Forest Trail.

Urban and suburban coyotes are often feared here in Dallas due to a general misunderstanding about how they behave. The local TV media does not help coyotes much with sensationalized stories of coyotes terrorizing neighborhoods. If a dog or cat goes missing in the far suburban reaches of the 972 area code, a coyote seems to get the rap. And airtime on TV. Almost as much as whatever iphone is coming out next. Or Tony Romo's rib.

Fact is, unless you run across a rare hybrid coydog(half coyote/half dog), your average pet dog will outweigh it by a handsome sum. Coyotes are built for lean, efficent travel. They often range 5-7 miles in a 24 hour period and need a lean build to maximize the calories they consume. Unlike their wolf cousins, coyotes are omnivores meaning that they will eat just about anything.

The coyote pack photographed in this post is comprised of two adult coyotes and their two offspring. For lack of a better term they are mom, dad and two siblings as best I can tell. Coyotes usually mate for life and will usually stick together throughout the year. Juveniles will usually break away from the family pack around November here in Texas and venture out to find a new home range. Mortality of a coyote litter is quite high. Coyotes have an average litter of 6-10 puppies with only two making it through the first year.

Below is some video of the coyote pack taken in the late afternoon/early evening October 15, 2011 near the Joppa Preserve trailhead in the Great Trinity Forest.

There seem to be two varieties of coyote – runners and non-runners. The majority of coyotes run if you even begin to look their way or change your path. I’m not sure if running from humans is a learned trait, but I think every coyote who has ever been shot at or had his mate shot is a runner from that point on. I’m sure running is conducive to longevity. Here in this part of the Great Trinity Forest, the coyotes are non-runners. They casually ramble along keeping you at a distance. If you approach them, they simply leave or get far enough away. They are curious and seem to enjoy watching people as much as you do them.

I know some of you reading this have mountain biked with me down here in the past, where around sunset the woods around Lemmon Lake turn into a coyote symphony in every direction. Usually we only get a glimpse of a coyote through the brush or a brief sighting as it turns tail. To get a good view of the coyote pack in the video above I loosely followed them from the dried bed of Lemmon Lake through the horse trails at Floral Farms. I had an idea that they would probably emerge from the woods where the Great Trinity Trail starts on Simpson Stuart Road near the Eco Park campus. Sure enough, they came across like clockwork. In the video you can see how they are casually moving south into the McCommas Bluff landfill property. They eventually crossed a flood control berm and down into a basin. They came back a few minutes later and just chilled out in the grassy field beyond the fence.

The coyote above was actually hunting grasshoppers (sorry to burst your bubble about the fierce predator lying in wait for Red Riding Hood). It was doing one of those 4 legged pounce acrobatic maneuvers.

This summer when Lemmon Lake dried up, I was able to see through footprints what kinds of animals fed on the decaying fish that perished during the drought. The coyote tracks were only around the carp, buffalo fish and catfish. They did not touch the numerous alligator gars. The feral pigs ate the gar.  So it seems while they may gnaw on whatever they come across, they do have a gag boundary on the distant horizon. One that they even turn their nose up at.

Seems to me that the only way animals like these can become a nuisance is if people feed them or are careless with their pets. Watching them in their natural habitat one can see they are just screwing around and take advantage of opportunities when the world serves them up on a silver platter.

One rare example of life imitating art on this stretch of road is that this is the same area frequented by a Greater Roadrunner.

Just like the coyotes hunting grasshoppers on the edge of the trail in the first clip, the Greater Roadrunner in the clip above is doing the same thing. There is a gentleman who spends quite a bit of time sitting on this closed piece of road in his Jaguar, reading his bible on the weekends. He said he goes down there to keep the roadrunner company. Next time I see him I'll have to ask if he has seen any ACME delivery trucks dropping off any dynamite, anvils or rocket powered roller skates for the coyotes.

New sign on the Trinity Forest Trail, Trinity River Audubon Center
Construction continues on Phase II of the Trinity Trail from the Audubon Center to join the previously completed Phase I. New signage has been installed recently and landscaping is going in. I think that until the 72" Water Main project is completed that the trail will not be finished on the south side of the river. It looks like the stretch from the Audubon Center to the new bridge will be open soon with the rest open months later. The heavy construction to repair the riverbank looks a long time from being finished.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Texas Drought 2011 and a tale of two summers

Joppa residents at Trinity River Wetland Cells September 2011

With summer in the rear view mirror maybe now would be a good time to see what impact the historic Texas drought of 2011 had on the Great Trinity Forest. The summer of 2011 broke over a dozen long standing records in Dallas. Most 100 degree days. Highest night time temperatures. Highest daytime temperature on multiple dates. Smashed many of the long standing 1980 records and many of the epic 1950's temperature records. Perhaps the only record of note not broken was the 1980 record for most consecutive days at or above 100 degrees. 2011 was one day short of a tie.

The lack of rain and the heat were a one-two punch knockout across Texas. The duration of the drought coupled with a drier than normal 2010 spelled disaster across the state. Large agricultural losses to farmers, the livestock ranching industry in near ruins tell an awful story. One that will be told decades from now.

Prickly Pear Cactus in Great Trinity Forest on the 5980 Trail
While the economic losses are a known quantity by now, few can guess what impact the months of scorching desert like climate will have on the trees and wildlife in the Trinity Riverbottoms. The "Great Trinity Forest" can usually suck up a regular Texas summer. Much of the acreage lies in ancient alluvial soils that retain moisture like a sponge. Not this year. By early July I could tell that the "sponge" had gone dry. Many of the pocket ponds and lakes began to dry at an alarming rate. Some as much as a vertical foot per week. By mid-July many of the trees started to show stress, casually dropping leaves that began to blanket the forest floor. No real concern since the water loving cottonwoods and willows will start dropping leaves at the drop of a hat. By the end of July, the native pecans, burr oaks and red oaks began showing signs of stress. That is a real concern. Those trees have deep tap roots and to see them stressed in that way means that the moisture deep underground is beginning to disappear. Perhaps one of the only plants I have found to be thriving down there is the Prickly Pear Cactus(see inset). This particular cactus is about the size of a VW bug and easy to spot on the "5980 Trail". Enormous fruits for such a hot summer. Even it seemed to be heat stressed some with a milky discharge coming from the fruit.

The citizens of Dallas are insulated from many of the draconian water restrictions other cities in Texas face. During the last great drought of the 1950s, Dallas was nearly caught flat footed without a way to provide adequate water to residents. As a result, Dallas built over a dozen reservoirs in North and East Texas to provide a reliable water supply for the future. While cities like Austin and San Antonio faced a summer without being able to fill a swimming pool or even washing their car in some instances, Dallasites could water as much as their wallet could handle. Looking around Dallas one cannot really see what happened unless you visit a part of town without a sprinkler that turns on at 3am.

Below are some photos taken from places throughout the Great Trinity Forest about one year apart. In most cases the differences between the summer of 2010 and 2011 are rather dramatic. 2010 was also a hot summer. DFW was in a rain deficit until Tropical Storm Hermine stalled over North Texas in September 2010 dropping over a foot of rain.

Trinity River Wetland Cells

Trinity River Wetland Cells September 11, 2011

Trinity River Wetland Cells August 2010

The Trinity River Wetland Cells sit roughly between I-45 and Loop 12 parallel to the main Trinity River Channel. They are partially fed by discharge from the wastewater treatment plant. Using a series of water level gates, the water can stay at a constant depth year round. During periods of river flooding these lakes perform a vital role of slowing down flood water. In normal conditions the lakes serve as a biofilter for discharge before it heads south. A month or two from now the water in the Trinity wetland cells will be in a Houstonian's glass of water.

To see the dramatic feast/famine nature of the drought check out the photo below. The plants in contact with the water are green while the plants left high and dry are all but dried potpourri. In the background are ash trees I believe. Apparently they do not drop their leaves when they go dormant. The result is what looks like fall in New England or turning aspen trees at Crested Butte. Unfortunate that this is not the case. Those trees were cooked. Baked.

Drought starved trees at Trinity River Wetland Cells sunset October 1, 2011

McCommas Bluff

McCommas Bluff September 2011

McCommas Bluff August 2010

McCommas Bluff sits in the far southeastern portion of Dallas. Here the land is a sandy loam sitting atop limestone. The trees are a mix of post oak, live oak and even pine trees do well here in the sandy acidic soil. Much different than the rest of Dallas in that regard. Along the bluffs some of the older smaller trees show heat stress. A false autumn color peppers the landscape. The lush green of 2010 is nowhere to be found and the native grasses one usually sees are replaced by dust and bare dirt. The native grass really never even got tall enough to go to seed this year. An issue that might not crop up until the spring of 2012.

McCommas Bluff is one of the few places where it is easy to see how the low flow of the Trinity has left things high and dry. Also one of the few spots left in Dallas where you can find a hard limestone bottom in the riverbed. Record Crossing, Miller Crossing and Eagle Ford also had hard bottoms but are now long gone. At McCommas Bluff the river stayed low enough all summer for weeds and grasses to spring up in the old riverboat tie-down.

McCommas Bluff riverboat landing in Trinity River Channel August 2011

McCommas Bluff riverboat landing in Trinity River Channel September 2010

Not only can you see the how the exposed riverboat landing sat exposed during the summer, one can also see how the drought stressed trees along the bluffs began to go dormant. The upper photo was taken August 6, 2011. I think it was close to 110 degrees when I took that photo.

Texas Horse Park

The future site of the Texas Horse Park. Long used as a grazing pasture the land is peppered with mesquite and cactus. Many of the ponds at the Texas Horse Park went dry by the end of July.

Texas Horse Park September 2011

Texas Horse Park August 2010

Texas Horse Park trail from Trinity River Audubon Center September 2011

Texas Horse Park trail from Audubon Center late June 2010

Scyene Overlook White Rock Valley

Scyene Overlook September 2011
Scyene Overlook August 2010

One of the stark contrasts of the 2010 and 2011 summers can be seen at the Scyene Overlook located near Scyene and Jim Miller in East Dallas. Scyene Overlook offers unobstructed views south to Wilmer, Hutchins and Cedar Hill. The photos above are looking out over the White Rock Valley across Bruton Road and US 175. The water tower in the upper photo is near I-45 and Carbondale near the Joppa Community. The photo shows hundreds of trees that have defoliated from the heat. Many are mature pecan, walnut and oak. I would think many of these trees have gone dormant. Since the trees lived through the drought of the 50s and the similar 2011 heat of 1980, I would imagine they will rebound by next spring.

Lemmon Lake

Lemmon Lake Summer 2009, Trinity River on immediate right, Loop 12 in extreme upper right hand corner

Lemmon Lake Dried Lake Bed  August 2011

Alligator Gar remains eaten by feral pigs at Lemmon Lake August 2011

Storks, Ibises, Spoonbills, Egrets at Lemmon Lake
Lemmon Lake is long forgotten relic of generations past. Once a playground for wealthy Dallasites, the lake saw its heyday about 1900. So popular back then that a small train station named Lakewood was built where River Oaks Road crosses the train tracks today. Over the last 40 years the forest surrounding it crept up to its shore cloaking it from the outside world. Maybe the only notable thing to happen there in the last 30 years was a Dallas Police helicopter crash landing after what was later determined to be horsing around. Slowly silting in, the lake now serves as a refuge of sorts to rare birds that one is more likely to see on the Amazon, not the Trinity.

It will take a flood that rises half way up the levees upstream in Downtown to refill the lake.

Historic Springs

The Great Trinity Forest holds two springs of historic note, Honey Spring and White Rock Spring. As the crow flies they are only 1 1/4 mile apart. Honey Spring currently sits in the heart of the Joppa Freedman Community on the west side of the river. At one time the spring served as the sole water source for the community that built around it. In the 1800s the MKT railroad built a water station near the spring. At the time, the spring was considered a reliable water source south of the Trinity. It was here at Honey Spring in the late 1800s that some Spanish Conquistador gear was found buried. Helmet, axe, chest plate.

The spring went dry in August.

Honey Spring Joppa October 2011

With Honey Spring going dry this summer I thought that White Rock Spring would share a similar dry fate. I have a previous blog posting about White Rock Spring here: Sam Houston's Treaty Camp on White Rock Creek. White Rock Spring sits on the east side of the Trinity River in the middle of an unassuming field surrounded by a clump of trees. My last visit to that area was on Labor Day. The previous 3 months not an inch of rain had fallen anywhere in that zip code. In the previous 5 months there had not even been a storm with real runoff that could recharge a spring. I'm not sure there was even a cloudy day in that 3 month stretch. Just oven baking heat. To reach the spring from Rochester Park(now called William Blair Park after Elite News founder William Blair) usually requires a knee deep fording of White Rock Creek and some sketchy tip toeing around some swamp areas infested with alligators. The drought turned what is usually a 20 minute slog of cussing and second guessing into a 2 minute breeze of traverse.

Much to my amazement, White Rock Spring(also known as Big Spring on some very old maps) was running strong and cool. Video below:

Spring strength is measured in flow, liters per minute. I would say the flow was about 10 liters per minute of flow. More than a couple average garden hoses put together. I'm impressed. Somehow, despite a dry winter, spring and summer, that spring still flows.

What lies ahead

Beats me. I'm not a forester or biologist. The effects of this summer will be felt for years. I guess the first signs will be if the wintering birds decide to stick around.

For about a month this summer I was certain some idiot would set the Trinity on fire. Watching the rest of Texas burn in wildfires from the Sabine to the Pecos I thought for sure some firebug would torch the woods. In the White Rock Valley, the mountain cedar just smelled like it was already smoldering in the early evening heat. In Rochester Park the air was thick with hay dust that could have sparked a massive blaze. Just absolutely amazed that did not happen. I can only chalk that up to a complete absence of people there.