Monday, May 25, 2015

Exploring Dallas Great Trinity Forest At Flood Crest

Trinity River in Dallas, Texas flooding out the Great Trinity Forest under a spectacular sunset sky May 24, 2015
It's the Flood of 1957. Carbon copy of a large scale drought buster that quenched thirsty North Texas and ended years of sustained drought. To the month, to the week of the month, to the day of the month and even the river height are near duplicates to the inch. It is often hard to convey relevance to many when it comes to this place. Maybe there are not many around anymore who recall what the Flood of 1957 brought, the lessons learned and why you don't mess with the river.
Wading deep into the Great Trinity Forest on May 24, 2015 off Bexar Street in an area known for Texas Buckeyes and wooded views

White-lined sphinx larva (Hyles lineata), commonly known as the hummingbird moth searches for high ground in the flood water

Snowy Egret walking double yellow line down Carbondale
In order to gain such appreciation to take a place for granted one needs to talk about what is present in the landscape, what is absent or what has been absented. No one told a man named Wallace Jenkins that. No one sat him down in the 50's drought when he decided to plant 500 acres in the bottoms near the mouth of White Rock Creek and the Trinity.

His ranch headquarters stood where the recent Texas Horse Park was constructed in 2013. Jenkins was so furious that his crops were ruined by changes in flooding that he ran for and won a seat on the county commissioner's court. The whole of his effort was directed at flood protection and mitigation from changes in riparian flooding in the rapidly urbanizing watershed upstream.

The old Riverlake Country Club entrance with the parking lot under 7 feet of water
It was the flood that led to the bankruptcy of Riverlake Country Club in what we contemporary Dallasites now call the Great Trinity Forest. Backed by big sports names like Mickey Mantle, funded by well connected Dallasites with braggart attitudes of controlling a piece of river bottom spilled across the pages of the Dallas Morning News of yesteryear in paid advertisements. The river smashed that idea to pieces. Over and over again.

Dallas Floodway Extension between Cell F and G near Fellows Lane at major flood stage 5/24/15

Joppa resident fishing before flooding rains in April 2015

That old golf course was bought for flood control in the last decade. Gone are the sand bunkers, manicured greens and the clubhouse. The ghostly cart paths remain intact. Portions of a levee built, rebuilt, fortified and left behind still exist.

A confusing plan to demolish 1200 feet of it in 2015 has left everyone scratching their heads. Everyone I show the spot to all cuss under their breath about it. Some cuss loudly. The people in Joppa cry about their big trees lost. The ones their great grandparents told them about as children. The trees that they as great grandparents tell their great grandkids about.

 Where the water goes once it leaves the confines of the Trinity Levees in Downtown is a complete mystery to so many. It is cringe worthy reading others thoughts on what happens to the water, impact on new construction and the often untold stories of South Dallas residents who live without flood protection. Large technological dreams of concrete are stalking the river which will ever change the hydrology of not just the Downtown area. The water flow will accelerate and scour the Great Trinity Forest in ways no one has yet to imagine.
Residents of Joppa trying to drain the flood waters from their property using gas powered pumps on May 24. 2015

Crested Caracara the Mexican Eagle lands on a pile of clearcut tree trunks in the Lower Chain of Wetlands Dallas, TX May 24, 2015
Crested Caracara moves in for the kill on a Cattle Egret May 24, 2015
A Mexican Eagle on May 24, 2015 is the only living thing seen across the horizon. Across an angry chain of river raged swale that was once golf course across from Joppa. Standing on a pile of clearcut tree trunks admiring the view of a bend in the river. A bend that the freed slaves who founded the community here referenced a similar bend in the Old Testament. A bend that Moses and his followers found when freed from bondage.

Many Dallasites have never seen an eagle outside of a zoo. Fewer have seen one in Dallas. Fewer still have seen one chasing down killing another bird in aerial combat as the photo sequence above shows at Cell G in the Lower Chain of Wetlands.

Black Bellied Whistling Ducks, a tropical duck rarely seen in North Texas
The flood waters are not high enough to build an ark but in some places the animals are lining up in twos. At Joppa Preserve pairs of Black Bellied Whistling Ducks line up and feed among the flooded shallows of the ever rising Trinity whose channel is some 3/4's of a mile away. Black Bellied Whistling Ducks are an uncommon site in the Dallas area. Many experienced birders don't have them checked off their bucket lists for the county. Here, in South Dallas they can be seen with some regularity in the summer and early fall.

Birds like the Black Bellied Whistling Duck which hails traditionally from the corn belt of Mexico has been drawn in Aztec and Mayan art on their temples for centuries. The Mexican Eagle also known as the Crested Caracara has been depicted as an ancient symbol in sacrifice and even adorns the current flag of Mexico.

These birds exist here as summer residents yet rarely documented. The reason is that traversing this land, this river, this river bottom turns away all but a few. The long winded stories about personal safety have a ring of truth to it. Throw in high fast moving water and the number of people visiting such a place whittles down to about zero. Visit this place and you will have it to yourself.

Photographer Sean Fitzgerald shooting wildflowers in floodwaters
Getting into these spots is less than straightforward during dry spells. The adventure of making your way into the unknown and untouched masterpiece of nature here is one that people crave yet few know it exists in their own backyard.

The few who do know these places well are folks like Sean Fitzgerald a well known and popular professional photographer based out of Deep Ellum in Dallas, Texas. His website has photos from all over the world. Quite a few are from garden spots across Texas like Big Bend, Blackland Prairies and the Great Trinity Forest.
Sean Fitzgerald wading the Great Trinity Forest in very deep water
Making headway across water neck deep with delicate camera gear is a tough chore to accomplish in dry weather and very tough in high water. One false step and the camera gear can be ruined in an instant. The risk is worth the reward when the weather, light and wind cooperate to allow for sights so stunning that a camera cannot capture the intense color and beauty.
The perfect light of a setting sun illuminates an island at Rochester Park in Dallas Great Trinity Forest
This is the Great Trinity Forest. The wild open lands inside an urban metropolis of millions. A complete fluke of a gift left behind untouched by people for decades. To be here at this spot, at this time under sunset perfected light is something I wish all decision makers could see with their own eyes.
Clasping Coneflowers submerged up to their flower heads in floodwaters

Spiders and insects of all kinds seek dry refuge

Seeing such a place would change their perspective and prejudices of such a place. It will make anyone second guess their ideas of blight and trash in South Dallas. It is a beautiful place of water, wildflowers and wildlife that cannot be equaled upstream or downstream.

As the light begins to soften and the sun begins to set the real true colors of a Texas spring take shape. It is the magic hour for photography when the sky comes to life.

 These sights are only temporary. As the river rises and crests it is soon surely to fall. A brief period of inundation that spreads nutrient rich silt, aquatic life and plant seeds into new areas. The harvest of such a flood comes months from now as the water recedes and brings forth a new beginning to the ecological cycle of the Great Trinity Forest.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The White-eyed Vireo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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