Sunday, July 29, 2012

Roseate Spoonbills Put The Trinity In Pink

A sighting of Roseate Spoonbills in North Texas is a rare and special occasion. Their occurrence as a casual summer visitor to the Great Trinity Forest has not been well documented so seeing one, a pair, a few or a baker's dozen is special.

Roseate Spoonbills in the Great Trinity Forest July 28, 2012

Spoonbills, which share the same pink plumage and long twiggy legs as flamingos, are actually members of the ibis family. Generally smaller than flamingos, roseate spoonbills grow to a height of 32 inches with a wingspan of 50 inches, have shorter necks, and longer, spoon-shaped bills. They are found along the south Florida coast from the Florida Keys north to St Joseph Bay, with some populations in northeastern Florida and along the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. The worldwide population is only 175,000 with 30,000 living in North America. Whittling down that number further, many of those 30,000 live in Florida, the Caribbean or along the Gulf Coast. It is estimated that there are 5,500 breeding pairs in the USA. I wonder seeing 18 individuals here in Dallas, what percentage of the Texas population away from the coast this represents. I imagine many fly up from south of the Rio Grande and are not breeding in the US during the spring.

Roseate Spoonbill populations were reduced to only 15 pairs towards the end of the plume trade era through the early 1900s, but numbers expanded following legal protections and enforcement of conservation areas. Current threats to the species are not well understood, but degradation or loss of habitat due to coastal development, hydrologic alterations to wetlands, and reductions to important prey sources are of primary concern. Like other wading birds that depend on fragile estuaries and wetlands for foraging and breeding, Roseate Spoonbills are at risk of exposure to persistent contaminants such as heavy metals and pesticides.

Getting up close to these wild birds is a trick unto itself. To really get close, to really insert yourself into their environment requires getting among them before dawn. In late July, that is before 5:30am. The photo above was taken around 6am on July 28th in the pre-dawn, a half hour before the sunrise. Many of the birds seen here were still asleep, others were beginning their early morning preening ritual. Most of that white bird mass population are Wood Storks. I stopped counting after 300 Wood Storks and would put the number closer to 400 that morning.

Photographing these has been quite a challenge. I can only compare it to duck hunting and turkey hunting in degree of difficulty. Getting close to these Trinity River birds is harder than any hunting I have ever done. A real challenge. So quick to take flight if they sense a predator.

Wood Storks in the pre-dawn light of the Great Trinity Forest July 28, 2012

 The reward for the early wake up, near insane stumble through the moonless woods and dressing up in clothing to resemble a breathing seeing the sight above. The Wood Storks sleep at Lemmon Lake, leaving at first light to roost elsewhere for the morning. Having hundreds fly around, a few at first, followed by dozens, followed by hundreds at a time is really something to see. Not knowing I'm bunkered in the thick grass, they fly directly overhead, close enough that I could reach out and touch them if I felt like it.

Fog developing over Lemmon Lake
Getting along the shore early means that I'm there before the morning dew or fog develops. The Wood Storks leave before the misty fog rolls in across the lake. It's short lived as the first rays of the Texas July sun nuke the fog in short order. Left behind after the daily Wood Stork exodus are egrets and herons of every species native to Texas. Name it, it's there. From Reddish Egrets to Green Herons, it's there.
Roseate Spoonbills in the first morning rays of sun at Lemmon Lake Dallas, Texas

Resembling something like a free range Amazonia exhibit at a zoo, the colors and sounds intensified as the sun rose. The smell of the peat-mud lake bottom, the snap of the porpoising alligator gar and the grunt of distant pigs in the grass add a 4th dimension to it all.

Below is some video footage of the Roseate Spoonbills at Lemmon Lake and a good close look at a White Ibis eating a snail.

The Roseate Spoonbill is the only spoonbill species that inhabits the western hemisphere. The species is a resident breeder in South America, generally east of the Andes, and coastal areas of Central America, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Mangrove islands and occasionally dredge-spoil islands are the preferred nesting habitat for the species.

Spoonbills require dense concentrations of prey to feed effectively. They feed in water no higher than their knees by sweeping their bill from side to side. When the highly sensitive bill bumps into minnows, crustaceans or aquatic insects, a series of nerves along the tip trigger the bill to snap shut and engulf the prey.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bastille Day With The Swamp Coyotes

Quoi ! des cohortes √©trang√®res Feraient la loi dans nos foyers ! Quoi ! Ces phalanges mercenaires -La Marseillaise

What! Foreign cohorts Would make the law in our homes! What! These mercenary the English translation of La Marseillaise the French National Anthem. Fitting that those words describe how the coyotes of the swamp feel surrounded by so many foreign birds from afar. The gawks, squawks and howls of the birds sounding alarm seemed to interest and somewhat annoy the curious coyotes crossing a few hundred yards of open water.

The sultry steam of a Texas mid-July morning is felt as soon as the sun clears the trees of the Great Trinity Forest. In the sawgrass flats that surround the swamps, the heat beats down in a merciless manner even at 7am.

Coyotes wading across drying lake in Great Trinity Forest July 14, 2012
Many people think that coyotes are a nocturnal animal. That simply is not true. In places where humans rarely venture, coyotes are often out in the daytime. The trick is being able to see them. Tough to do among the high grass and dense triple canopy foliage that rings Lemmon Lake. The coyote photos were taken around 9am with the coyotes moving southwest to northeast across the shallow lake.

Coyotes, Black necked stilts, Great Blue Herons, White Ibis and Egrets
Lemmon Lake is in a transformation at the moment. Changing from a lake to a shallow wading body of water fairly rapidly. Over the next few weeks the lake will probably go completely dry, just like it did last summer. It creates a feast for wading birds and a death sentence for the fish and shellfish that moved into the lake during winter flooding. It's a natural cycle. One that repeats itself yearly. The lake is a precious resource for the wildlife down there. One that often creates strange relationships as seen in the photo above.

Roseate Spoonbill July 14, 2012
The original purpose of this visit was to fulfill a promise I made last winter to show a couple guys some Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills. We luckily saw both those birds within the first ten minutes of our visit.

I get a lot of enjoyment seeing others witnessing this stuff unfold in front of them. It's a special kind of something that happens down there when adding friends to the mix that increases the experience.

Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills are a rare sight in Dallas. I'm not sure there are even any at the zoo. To see them with the sunrise cracking over the horizon is a special sight and one I wish more people could see for themselves. The problem is though, how do you balance something so obscure, remote and unique without ruining it. In the past week I have seen people going to silly lengths to photograph the birds here, ones that scare the birds away and ruin the experience for others.

I have been photographing the birds here at Lemmon Lake for a few years now. It's an interesting experience to see the same Roseate Spoonbills come back to the same lake and same roosting trees year after year.

I went through my old photos and compared the 5-6 Spoonbills that spend time at Lemmon Lake with the current 2012 Spoonbills. I can identify 3 of the same individuals from years past in 2012. Migrating from Mexico and Central America to spend time at Lemmon Lake year after year is really cool.  It would be fascinating to see what part of the world these birds spend the rest of the year.

I feel responsible for others spooking and scaring them off since without my mentioning the birds or the lake, I don't think anyone would venture there. I have learned this week that some folks cannot see the forest through the trees and will go to whatever lengths it takes to get a photo. I'd like to see the birds come back next year and years to come. I'm not a birder, environmentalist or some kind of green advocate. Far from it. But I do recognize something really special when I see it.

Wood Storks In Flight Over Lemmon Lake July 14th

Roseate Spoonbill

Friday, July 13, 2012

Water Quality Test At White Rock Spring

Ahh yes, the cool unfiltered 68-70 degree water of White Rock Spring in the Great Trinity Forest sure does look like a thirst quencher on a day when the temperature is 102 degrees in the shade. Running colder and clearer than the more famous Barton Springs, San Marcos and Comal Springs to the south it sure looks tempting. But is it safe to drink? Safe to touch? Safe to even stand near? When someone brings up the Trinity River a number of sights, smells and sounds come to mind. The last thing anyone would dare do is to take a sip of it.

Known by some as White Rock Spring, Sam Houston's Spring, Pemberton's Spring and a whole host of lost ancient terms that Native Americans used too. Many dozens of centuries of humans have used the spring here as evidenced by what they left behind. Stone tools of ancient people are all around the spring, old iron bits from pioneers and presently an old car tire or two that floats down nearby White Rock Creek.

I have drank freely and liberally from this spring a number of times. It tastes great. In the back of my mind though, an egg timer starts with the thought of a case of Beaver Fever, Hanoi Two-Step or Montezuma's Revenge.

The decision to test the water was not my idea. It was Dr Timothy Dalbey. Tim wanted to test the water to get a baseline for the future. See what was in the water now so that some time down the road the water could be re-tested if development/contamination occurs in the watershed that could pose a threat. You get the idea. I merely tagged along as the official test tube/water bottle holder and temperature taker. Tim fronted the expense for the test out of his own pocket and for that we should all be grateful. He was also the driving force behind protecting the spring in June and for that he should be applauded as well.

Thermometer probe inside the head of White Rock Spring

Beats me what all the results mean. All Greek to me. If you were expecting some deep insight into words that I cannot pronounce, you will be disappointed. Good news is that the spring tested negative for all the chemicals with big long words! I thought for sure a bunch of heavy metals or lead would be in the water but that is not the case at all.

Comparing the results of the spring to an aggregate of other spring tests in the state, the numbers for White Rock Spring closely parallel the numbers found elsewhere for the region at the link below

The first table below is the City of Dallas Water Utilities 2011 Water Quality Report. I think there is a more extensive version available that requires an Open Records Act request. Not sure why it's not online since it's not like the secret formula for Dr. Pepper or something.

City of Dallas 2011 Drinking Water Quality
 So that analysis above is what Dallas sends out to City Of Dallas residents as drinking water.

Below is the report from National Testing Laboratories on White Rock Spring. Taken June 25, 2012 from the head of the spring where the water first contacts open air. The spring flows out of a few different places and we chose the strongest flowing head to take the water sample from. The last previous precipitation occurred June 12, 2012 during the monster hailstorm in Dallas. Many of the leaves seen in the photos above were knocked off the trees from that storm.

First table is the Definition and Legend followed by the complete results sent to Dr Dalbey. The coliform note jumps out, E.coli was not detected.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Wild Pigs, Wood Storks and Spoonbills Of Dallas

Where the wild things are. A special place that for a few weeks serves as a backdrop that I'm not sure even an African safari could rival. These are scenes that had me shaking my head, amazed to see firsthand. To see different wild animals coexisting on some base level in the same body of water is not something I had ever seen before in the Great Trinity Forest. Throw in the fact that these scenes are all a five minute drive from Downtown Dallas, inside the city limits of Dallas and feature some very aggressive feral pigs and rare birds...makes it super exceptional to see.

Feral Hog Wading Across Lake in Dallas Texas evening of July 3, 2012
The enlarged version of the photo above has 62 Wood Storks in it. Mostly in the background foraging for fish. There is one Wood Stork in the near foreground in the left of the photo. I almost missed seeing this feral pig entirely. It was laying motionless like a hippo in the lake with water up to the nostrils. You can clearly see the distinct water marks on the pig. It stood up and approached the near shoreline not 50 feet from me, entering the 8 foot high saw grass that rings the lake. I could hear grunts, squeals, stomping in the grass. About a minute later 3 feral hogs emerged and began a slow methodical crossing of the lake. The video of that crossing is below.

The birds you see in the far background of the video that take flight are all Wood Storks. Numbering over 150+ that evening it was a spectacular sight. Previously an endangered species in the United States and mainly a bird of the coast, a sighting of just one is a rare event. Over 100 is just not heard of. Unless you are in the Great Trinity Forest. Of course!

Hard to tell the height and weight of the pigs. The Great White Egrets seen in the photos and video average 31-41 inches in height according to the Audubon Field Guide. The pigs are roughly somewhere in that range. I would guess given their similar coloring and weight that they are either siblings or the sow is the mother with the other two being full grown juvenile pigs.

Watching the pigs cross, I see a similarity in their venture across the lake in the same way 3 humans would cross. Everyone follows the lead pig, you look around the whole time being a little vulnerable, you stick close. As you approach the shore your pace quickens and when you get across you breathe a sigh of relief. I guess the pigs had somewhere to be since they wasted no time entering the grass on the other side.

The Pigs Don't Belong

Reveau Bassett's 1953 painting of the same lake
Reveau Bassett
World famous artist Reveau Bassett often chose Lemmon Lake as a backdrop for his oil paintings. Looking basically the same as it did in the 1930s-1960s when he did many of his paintings, the lake is like a time capsule where the growth of the city around it had no effect. Except for the pigs. The invasive feral pigs don't belong in this environment. Apex predators, they eat bird eggs and juvenile young of  every animal from small birds to deer fawns. The pig problem is more of a poor stewardship and management issue by those tasked with eradication of the population.  In an era of tight budgets and staff cutbacks, using volunteers who would gladly pay a fee to hunt is a logical solution.

:Lemmon Lake July 2012

One of the very real dangers in going to a place like this is encountering large animals on their own turf. This was the same spot a couple weeks ago where a pack of coyotes wander up to see what I was doing. It's their house, their playground and not mine. A three pig sounder or an overprotective sow with piglets could really ruin someone's day in high grass like that. Pigs often bed down in the high grass and cool mud to escape the heat of the day. I have come across pigs sound asleep like this and when awakened are like sticks of lit dynamite in the anger department.

I think it would be a great idea to allow responsible private individuals to hunt out the pig population down here. There are many citizens who are experts at discreet hog hunting with silenced firearms and would jump at the chance to rid the Great Trinity Forest of these pests.

Wood Storks

Once listed as an Endangered Species in the United States, the birds are given threatened status in Texas. The Endangered listing applied to Wood Storks who live and breed east of the Mississippi in the Deep South and Florida. Wood Storks are still afforded a Protected Status here in Texas. 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 Big Birds

Large wingspan of Wood Stork compared to Great White Egret
Few people in North Texas have seen a Wood Stork. The photo above of a landing Wood Stork on July 3rd illustrates their large size compared to what many would consider a big bird for Dallas, the Great White Egret. 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.

Video of a Wood Stork flock feeding at Lemmon Lake

Roseate Spoonbills

Roseate Spoonbills are skittish. Hard to approach and sneak up on I don't have much luck getting close to them.

Other than a few long shots and accidental flushing out through the grass I have not had much luck.

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.

Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks in flight together

Price of Admission

The barriers to entry to experience this place are high. I don't recommend a visit unless you are very well versed in outdoor skills and have a broad sense of personal safety. Just to get a glimpse of the lake requires a tough slog through willow swamp followed by hard hike through 8-10 foot high sawgrass. Any loud movements or noise will spook all the birds. Venomous snakes are always underfoot and snakeproof chaps are a must. The Wood Storks are not always at the lake. They puddle jump between this lake and other small lakes that dot the area between I-20 and US 175. Instead, I would encourage a recon from the Loop 12 bridge over the Trinity River looking north into a grove of high Cottonwood trees that line the river. The past two years Wood Storks have roosted there and would afford a better and much safer viewing.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

River Otter In The Great Trinity Forest

North American River Otter in Great Trinity Forest Dallas Texas June 30, 2012

A rare sight indeed to see a River Otter inside the city limits of Dallas. Many fishermen, hunters and outdoorsmen can spend every weekend of their lives on the water in Texas and never see one. The matrix of ecology needed to support a River Otter limits sightings here. Just the right mix of food, wetlands and cover are needed to support an otter population. They feed on crawfish, fish, shellfish, frogs, snakes to name a few. All in abundance where we spotted this River Otter on the morning of June 30th.

I'm not sure how rare River Otters are in North Texas. As sighting of one is uncommon but how uncommon are they in population? An animal that spends so much time in the water is hard enough to spot. Compounded by the fact that it does not fly, have bright colors and favors hunting at dawn/dusk. TPWD says that their numbers are restricted to the eastern 1/3 of the state but sightings have been made as far as Wichita Falls and into West Texas.

Below is a video clip of the River Otter checking us out. I have found that the deeper in the woods you go, the less likely that an animal will bolt. Usually they sport a puzzled and interested look on their face. Just like the otter featured here.

Up close and personal with a River Otter
I think I get more joy out of others seeing things like this than I do seeing it myself. Joining me were once again Bill Holston and someone I had not hiked with before David Mimlitch. David is best known for his great aerial photography of the Trinity River and this was his first hike downriver. I had met him on other occasions around the Calatrava bridge in Dallas but had not hiked with him on the river proper. If he had a blank checklist of things he wanted to see on our hike, I think he left with many things checked off. River otter, a whitetail deer jumped across the trail not 30 feet from us, green tree frogs, snakes, raptors, buntings and waterfowl species too numerous to mention. To catalog what we saw could fill a zoo.

In a jungle town Where the sun beats down To the rage of man and beast, The English garb Of the English sahib Merely gets a bit more creased. In Bangkok At twelve'o'clock They foam at the mouth and run, But mad dogs and Englishmen Go out in the midday sun. Noel Coward's Mad Dogs and Englishmen(1930)

That old song sums it up. It got hot!

The day started on a much cooler and darker note.........................

Venus and Jupiter aligned in the NE sky over the Great Trinity Forest before dawn June 30
The planetary alignment of Venus and Jupiter in the pre-dawn light was something to show up a little early for, 5:30am. Looking to the northeast the other planets were clearly visible just after nautical twilight. Starting this early is not so much a function of getting into the woods before the animals are up. This time of year the sultry steam of the summer sun makes a visit down there a tough go anytime between 10am-7pm. Finish before 10am or head down there after 7pm.

American Green Tree Frogs among the head high swamp grass in the Great Trinity Forest

Great Blue Herons fishing in the early light of dawn

Anhinga taking off from it's perch
Some of the wetland areas in the Great Trinity Forest offer long views where wildlife can be viewed at some distance. Other areas the views are short and restricted meaning you often spook birds off their roosts long before they can be seen. Such is the case with most of the Anhinga anhinga currently along the river and swamps. Fast to take flight and noisy to boot, they often spook other birds too. Spending most of the year in tropical rainforests and sub-tropical areas south of the border, Anhinga anhinga feel right at home in the oppressive heat of an early Texas summer.

Adult and Juvenile Wood Ducks

White Faced Ibis
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 other wading birds, they prefer small aquatic insects, fish, worms and frogs.

Great Blue Heron in the shallow swamp

Widow Skimmer Dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa)

Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia)