Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wildfire in Devon Anderson Park

Dallas Fire Rescue Engine 34 fighting wildfire in Devon Anderson Meadow
It was one of those rare Texas spring evenings when the Dallas weather sheds its usual overcoat of humidity and haze for one of the crisp bright Colorado air of Crested Butte or Telluride. Perfect weather for getting outside on a weekday evening after work and head for the lake, White Rock Lake. Problem is, everyone with a bike, a pair of running shoes or a dog thinks it's a great evening to head outdoors too. The lake often turns into a traffic jam of humanity competing for the same ribbon of concrete. Cooler heads take a rain check and head somewhere else. If you are on a road bike an attractive alternative is the Richardson Bike Mart South Route that heads southeast of Dallas towards Sunnyvale. If you are dirt savvy, a world of alternative options opens up to explore.

Scissortailed Flycatcher on Yucca Piedmont Ridge

Hard to find fault though with sticking to White Rock Lake. The east shore of the lake features a prominent limestone uplift known to many as Lake Highlands. From the Harry Moss Native Area near the corner of Arborside and Royal Lane; Flag Pole Hill on Northwest Highway, the Lower White Rock Creek Trails off Jim Miller; clear to McCommas Bluff in Pleasant Grove, a loose patchwork of blackland prairie can be found.

North Texas does not have snow capped peaks, crystal clear streams or ocean front vistas found elsewhere. For a few short weeks though, the blackland prairie of Dallas shines as one of the best places to see wildflowers, anywhere. Through the hard work of private citizens, many of these places that were once mowed quarterly have been allowed to return to a more natural state.

For those less enthusiastic about a trip to Pleasant Grove to wander remote trails, Norbuck Park at the corner of Buckner Blvd and Northwest Highway is a great alternative. Park in the softball parking lot on the east side of Buckner. Head up the hill towards the tennis courts. Veer left through the trails that wind in and out of the woods.

Friend of the blog Bill Holston, has a great off beat trail guide featured in the May 2012 issue of D Magazine. The link to his story can be found here: 10 Top Trails For Hiking And Biking In Dallas.He has a great list of trails there that span a great deal of the 214 and 972 area codes. He even mentioned the Scyene/Piedmont Ridge Trail discussed in this post.

Other than the purple coneflower photo overlooking White Rock Lake from Mockingbird(above), the rest of the photos were taken on the Lower White Rock Creek Trails between Scyene and Lake June. I have mentioned them previously in a post from last spring here: Lower White Rock Creek Trails.

The Fire at Devon Anderson Park
Frederic Remington's The Grass Fire
Prairies and fires go together like peanut butter and jelly. Hard to have one without the other. Fire was a routine part of the ecosystem across much of United States before European settlement. Many varieties of plants use fire as a trigger to broadcast seed or trigger new growth. Fires clear underbrush, weeds and deadfall that often clog up the natural cycle of life.

Foxglove along Piedmont Ridge Trail
Up until last week I had never seen a prairie fire in person. The Dallas area dodged a bullet last summer during the drought with wildfires. Possum Kingdom to the west and areas around Bastrop to the south were hard hit by massive fires. There were many times last summer when I wondered not if but when some careless or intentional act would set afire the Great Trinity Forest. Luckily it did not happen.
Footbridge over ravine on Devon Anderson Trail

Riding down from White Rock Lake through Scyene and Piedmont Ridge, smelling wood smoke around dinner time is routine. People grill outdoors all through the neighborhoods around there. It was not until I moved south of Bruton Road that I figured out something was off. I still did not think much of it, focusing instead on the trail that had become overgrown in some areas. Much of the trail south of Bruton is difficult to negotiate on a bike and much of it must be walked, called hike-a-biking. Steep ravines, switchbacks and some deadfall across the trail make it a bit of a slow go. The bridge(inset right) spans over one of the deeper ravines in Devon Anderson Park. A few years ago it was not quite this deep. I think that the DART Green Line construction coupled with a new housing development above has led to some flash flooding along the trail during heavy rains.

Moving further south the smell of smoke grew stronger. As I rode into the meadow clearing at Devon Anderson, much of it was consumed by fire or was currently burning.

Firefighters from Station 34 knocking down hot spots
The fire had made it to the edge of the woods which are mostly cedar and oak. Moving southeast to northwest starting from an area nearest a trailhead junction. I imagine had it made it into those trees something far worse could have started. It appeared as though the fire probably burned for a long time. Some of the larger logs and branches were either just smoldering or out cold. With the wind direction, the homeowners never would have smelled the smoke.

Fire Station 34 responded to the fire and carried in water to put it out. This group of firefighters is also the Swift Water Rescue Team for Dallas Fire Rescue. They do some great work and really know the Trinity River. Got to talk to one of the firefighters for a few minutes and was really impressed with the professional knowledge he had about the Trinity and some of the lesser known parts of town in the riverbottoms.

Sign in the wrong spot
I'm not familiar with streets or addresses in this neighborhood off the top of my head( I live in North Dallas) so calling 911 with a location was an adventure in itself. The fire was back in the woods a couple hundred yards away from the street. Getting out to the street the sign for Devon Anderson Park it read "1525 Devon Cr.". Naturally, I called 911 and gave that address. Problem is, whoever installed this sign placed it in the wrong area. It should have been placed at another entrance to the park about a half mile drive away. I could hear the fire truck in the far distance yipping its siren for me but since I gave the wrong location, it took a couple minutes to get the address right. To complicate things, the bend in the road where this street is located sits at a street name and number change. It changes from Eastcliff to Umphress and the house numbers change too. I called 311 the next day about it. See what happens.

Also will be interesting to see what happens with this burned area. If it comes back as a thriving meadow or just stays a burned spot. The ground had quite a bit of moisture in it and the fire looked only burn the tops of some plants. Other places where logs burned, it scorched everything.

Bugs and Butterflies

Below are some of the wildflowers and insects that are out at the moment along Lower White Rock Creek from Scyene to the mouth of White Rock Creek where it joins the Trinity River.
Hobo spider (Tegenaria agrestis) on Purple Coneflower stem (Echinacea purpurea)

Hoverfly(Syrphidae) over Queen Anne's Lace

 American Lady Butterfly Vanessa virginiensis on Purple Coneflower Echinacea purpurea
Black Swallowtail Papilio polyxenes on Purple Thistle
Buckeye Butterfly (Precis coenia)
Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)
Engelmann's Daisy (Engelmannia peristeni)

Below are a couple photos and a short video of the area in and around the Historic White Rock Spring. This is the site of Indian camps, Sam Houston's campsite,founder of Dallas John Neely Bryan's home and now a unique spot in Dallas. Always see something different every time I visit. In a week or two I suspect this whole area will be filled with black eyed susans. Wine cups will do for now

Wine Cup Callirhoe involucrata on Bryan's Slough Great Trinity Forest
I also stuck an underwater camera in the spring itself, for about an hour. Turned the camera on and just let it run as I made a quick jaunt down to White Rock Creek. Hoped to catch on video some of the crawfish that live in the spring. Interesting to see all the minnows and the clarity of the water. Crystal clear. The head of the spring, a perched aquifer, flows directly from the bedrock about 20 feet away. Clean enough to drink from. On this particular Sunday afternoon, the air temperature was about 85 degrees and I would guess the spring water was at least 20 degrees cooler if not more. The glass on my camera instantly fogged as I pulled it out of the water.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What About That Mess At McCommas Bluff

Bumblebee on Foxglove at McCommas Bluff
By any measure, it has been a rough eight months for what many consider to be the only natural crown jewel of the Trinity River in Dallas, McCommas Bluff. A postcard picturesque chunk of hill country real estate sitting in the middle of what is otherwise a muddy river bottom. Fossilized sea creatures the size of hubcaps line the rock. Wildflowers grow on the cliff tops. Coyote calls echo off the bluffs almost every evening. A timeless scene that is quickly vanishing.

It started back last summer when Dallas Water Utilities began a pipeline reinforcement project for a 72 inch water main that meanders along the river. I have said in the past that you have to break some eggs to make an omelette. I'm not an engineer, hydrologist, pipeline expert or claim to be one. I do know a mess when I see one. It's apparent now that this whole foray into messing with the river is getting into the realm of the absurd. I believe the dawn of something stupid is on the horizon.

I planned on filling this post with photos featuring the bumper crop, maybe once in a lifetime crop of Foxglove Beardtongue growing along the cliffs. The showy 3 foot high plants respond in an exceptional manner to a prolonged drought followed by a wet winter. That enthusiasm gets diluted quite a bit when I see the river in a larger scope.

Purple Prairie Clover and Dewberries

Penstemon cobaea of the Great Trinity Forest

Foxglove overlooking the Trinity River
Members of the figwort family, these perennial flowers prefer the rocky cliffs limestone outcrops and near bear soil one can find on higher ground in the Great Trinity Forest. They go by Prairie Penstemon, Foxglove, Foxglove Beardtongue, Prairie Beardtongue  18-30 inches in height, these plants produce flowers up and down there stems in April through May. Since this spring was warm and wet, the flowers are earlier than normal. Actually, they are very prolific this year. Growing in places I have never seen them before.

Flowering yucca
Foxglove often share the same soil profile with flowering yucca and can be seen simultaneously this time of year at McCommas Bluff and the Scyene Overlook.

Also a banner year for pink evening primrose Oenothera  speciosa as seen below. Open fields are carpeted with them at the moment. Enough so that a walk or ride through them will leave you yellow with pollen

Pink Evening Primrose in the Great Trinity Forest

Lingering Effects Of The 2011 Texas Drought

McCommas Bluff Preserve is rarely visited and few if any people visit the secondary entrance to McCommas Bluff on Fairport Road. The preserve begins where Fairport dead ends. A recently constructed yellow gate blocks vehicle access to the woods. You need to either park and walk-in from there or make other plans. This was the proposed site of Trinity City. A long forgotten platted town in the Peter's Colony that hoped to serve as a port city on the Trinity River. It never happened. Over the last 150 years this piece of land had buildings, a couple post Civil War factories and an animal rendering plant.

The topography is a gentle slope, declining down towards the river. Borrow pits were dug in the 1800s to level the land off in a stair step set of terraces. This built up a profile of 100 yards of flat ground, followed by a descent and abandoned borrow pit, followed by more flat terrain. The borrow pit areas are now ponds during wet weather. To get a feel for this terrain, I have posted the video below which starts from the Fairport gate down to the river, then parallels the river for a distance downstream towards the cliffs at McCommas Bluff. Easy to access in drier weather from the Audubon Center too.

This upper portion of McCommas Bluff Preserve suffered heavily during the 2011 drought. Where most lowland areas in the Great Trinity Forest were buffered by damp soil, this particular upper terrace area saw many smaller trees die off. The photo of the pond above illustrates that well with a number of trees not coming back this spring. The pond went dry in late spring of 2011.

What In The Wide Wide World Of Sports Is A Goin' On Here?

Getting back to the construction. I gotta wonder. What is the method to the madness in all of this? The city says this marring of the landscape was needed to protect a 72 inch water main that runs down to the southeast waste water treatment facility in southeast Dallas county. Time was of the essence it seemed a year ago with potential erosion of the riverbank exposing the water main to problems. Fair enough. But the construction has been anything but fast and has eroded more riverbank than it has fixed. Not much has happened at all. Other than some large holes punched into McCommas Bluff large enough to drive a semi-truck through.

Much of this area was supposed to be protected as part of a US Army Corps of Engineers Mitigation Area. When the McCommas Bluff Landfill was expanded around 5-7 years ago, it ate up a good chunk of wetlands, forest and prairie. To mitigate that per a 2002 federal law, a special area was set aside and re-engineered for the purpose of the habitat loss......
As a reminder of where the area is located, a host of signs every 50 yards or so line the area that is not to be disturbed. The sign above is located near the Trinity River Trail and bridge(in the background). The Trinity River Audubon Center is about 1/3 of a mile from this sign on the other side of the river.

Below is the summary of the landfill application for the landfill extension describing the mitigation.

Fine and dandy till the 72 inch water main project started last summer. The idea is to rock armor the riverbank using chicken wire boxes filled with baseball sized pieces of concrete. Put enough chicken wire boxes filled with rocks together and you have a wall. The current construction, started last summer spans about 1000 feet of riverbank. Seen below, you can see the workers installing course after course of rock.

A wider view and you can see the large scope of the project. The workers and their equipment are at the very far end of the photo in the distance. Big project. Slow project. Takes a long time to do something this large. Going to be a long time before this wraps up.
Seems to me that the construction would finish a current project before starting on another. Last weekend I was puzzled to see that while construction had still not finished at the original site nor at the large holes chopped in McCommas Bluff, someone had taken the liberty of clearcutting another 1000 or 2000 feet of riverbank downstream.

The clearcutting extends from almost the new Trinity River Trail bridge down to McCommas Bluff. Strange thing is that this is in the Corps of Engineers Mitigation Area and some of the trees bulldozed were planted for compliance with the mitigation law. Some still have the green tarp material around the base of the trunk for irrigation. Puzzling.

If erosion control is the purpose here, why did they push so much of the bank and trees into the river? In some places doing this shed 4-5 horizontal feet off the bank.

Here you can see where the clear cutting stopped. What it looked like before in the background, versus what it looks like now in the foreground after the haircut. I'm sure there is a very logical reason for this. One above my brain level to comprehend. One that involves protection of the water main from erosion. Well...I got to thinking, has the river ever changed course through here? The solid limestone cliffs are just around the corner from here and serve as an effective barrier to any change in course. I also can see from this bend in the river, the original 100+ year old log moorings on the opposing bank for the riverboat landing used by excursion boats that took day trippers from downtown to the picnic grounds here. I pulled photos of the bend in the river from 1957 through 2011 posted below.



I'm just not seeing it. maybe it's my untrained eye. But I cannot see any difference in the bend now than the photos above. Oh wait. Yes I can. You see when they bulldozed off the bank, they took 4-5 feet of bank with it. Maybe a couple hundred years of erosion done in just one afternoon. Congrats!

I wonder if it would just be easier to just rebuild the whole pipeline? Seems that someone decided the river was the problem and the pipeline is the victim. I think it's the other way around. I don't want to see a concrete rock lined riverbank every time I cross that new million dollar bridge from the Audubon Center. If the pipeline was flawed in design, start over. It would be quicker to rebuild it farther away than fix a problem like this. The original project has seemed to lose its compass and over time with periodic flooding and maybe some sloppy on the job stuff accidents happen. Like this diesel fuel watery polluted mess.

Don't start new problems when you have not finished the old ones. I guess. Maybe I'm wrong here.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Great Trinity Forest Trail -- What's Cookin' Down Yonder

Indian Paintbrush on Ancient Indian Campground Site In Great Trinity Forest April 1, 2012
The Comanche Legend of the Indian Paintbrush
"Little Gopher had a dream.  The vision told him to find a white buckskin and keep it.  One day he would paint a picture “that is as pure as the colors in the evening sky.” Although he found the buckskin, Little Gopher could not find the right colors. However, one night a voice told him to go on top of a hill the next day at sunset. The voice said, “Because you have been faithful to the People and to your true gift, you shall find the colors you are seeking.” The next evening, Little Gopher found paintbrushes the colors of the sunset all over the hill, and he painted his masterpiece. When he returned to his tribe, Little Gopher left the paintbrushes behind.The next morning the paintbrushes were all over the hills and had turned into beautiful flowers.  Little Gopher became known as “He-Who-Brought-the-Sunset-to-the-Earth.” --Comanche Nation

For most, the view gazing out over the Trinity River from the paved Buckeye Trail Overlook or Audubon Center Overlook would fulfill what they hoped to see when they visit. There it sits. Snap a photo. Foursquare it on Twitter. Leave. Mission complete. I would hazard a guess that 99% of the visitors to the Great Trinity Forest never venture beyond the established trails of the Buckeye and Audubon.

For a few others though, the question enters the mind, what's on the other side? What lies yonder. Most of the photos in my blog and places I mention are in the yonder and beyond yonder spots. They are the places left behind by nomadic tribes of wandering ancient people. They are the places left behind by the pioneers who tamed it. They are the places left behind after the cash crop of cotton, whose farmers wore out the soil. The places left behind by the quilt of random forgotten homes that pepper the river bottom bought by the city for flood easement.You see all of it combined as a mosaic on what the river is today. If you can find your way around. Which is tough.

Someone unfamiliar with the Great Trinity Forest will find themselves perplexed with the random ongoing construction that seems to plague the larger infrastructure projects that were slated for completion years ago. Along with other regular visitors, I have grown somewhat frustrated with the slow pace of some projects. It has created an uneven balance between completed projects grand in scope that sit marooned behind never ending public works projects. The bond money for these projects were allocated many years ago. It's the execution of the construction that is holding the works up.

Some of the concrete paths were completed in 2009 but lack a real purpose until they connect with the Audubon Center. It leaves you scratching your head. Wondering when and if. Life goes on though and for those familiar with the woods, the spring is the best time to visit with mid fall a close second.

For those willing to make the jump to the other side of the river, a new world opens up. One where the khaki bird watchers are left behind for spur wearing cowboys. The folks in the photos here are friends of mine, people I have gotten to know on the "other side" of the river from the Audubon Center. Really neat to see them together on a trail ride. Usually I see them in groups of two or three on weekend evenings. So to see literally everyone together is awesome. I think the riders in the photos represent half of all the people I have ever seen in the Great Trinity Forest on this side of the river. No one else really goes there.

Trail Riders in the Great Trinity Forest April 2012

Across the river from the Audubon Center
Bridge over the Trinity River to the Audubon Center

Miles from the nearest paved road in the Great Trinity Forest

The new multi-million dollar trail near the Audubon Center is finished on the north side of the river. So is the bridge. The hang up is a couple hundred yards of never ending construction on the south side of the river for a water utilities project.

Once completed the access to the south side of the river will really open up some true wilderness to those willing to cross the bridge. Deer and pigs run free here and are a common sight.

Map showing location in proximity to TRAC
Last summer when the bridge above was finished, I mentioned to the horse guys that they should ride over to the Audubon Center to introduce themselves to their new neighbors. They got dressed up and rode over on horseback. Unknown to them, the afternoon in question, the Audubon Center was hosting a runway fashion show. I'm not sure exactly what happened but they were received somewhat on the chilly side. The horse rider folks know all about the river and the wildlife. I know they would rather be a part rather than apart from all the signature projects across the river. Excellent resource, especially as bilingual guides,  if anyone bothers to ask them.

Along the new concrete path, which is what I guess will be called the Great Trinity Trail, remains of old farms are all but vanished. Left behind though are the spring Iris and other perennial bulbs that were once part of some farmer's front yard or garden. Like the one above at the old Truck Farm Trail site .

The trail and parallel access road sits close enough to the river and Lemmon Lake that animals cross it constantly. This large turtle above, a Common Snapping Turtle was on the trail in Mid-March. It looked like it was out to lay eggs. Weighing in well over thirty pounds+ this was a beast of a turtle. Many of these turtles resided nearby at Lemmon Lake until the 2011 drought dried up the lake bed. Turtles such as these became trapped in the deep mud unable to make the 150 yard journey to the Trinity River. With some help and a few shovels we dug many turtles this size out of the lake and put them in the river. I would bet this is one of those turtles.

The Great Trinity Forest Trail -- Through Joppa Preserve
Location and information 

Great Trinity Forest Trail Joppa Preserve April 2012

Somehow this concrete path has stayed off the radar since it was completed in 2009. Much of it was cut right out of very dense forest following a century old dirt path used by fish camp leaseholders at Lemmon Lake. Seeing little use, the forest is slowly reclaiming what was built just a couple years ago. A segment north of River Oaks Park even traverses over a swamp labeled the Otter Pond.

With just a couple hundred more yards of concrete construction this path will connect the Loop 12 Boat Ramp trailhead at Little Lemmon Lake with the Audubon Center.

Across From The Buckeye Trail -- The Trinity River Wetland Cells
Location and information

Trinity River Wetlands

This is the land that sits on the south bank of the Trinity River facing the Buckeye Overlook. During the winter it's possible to catch a glimpse or two of the lakes. The lakes are narrow and long cascading from one to the next in a chain stretching from I-45 to Loop 12.

In 2009, the area was sown with oats and rye grass which made for easy exploration of the hundreds of acres here. Later that summer, ragweed started to take over, making much of it impossible to wander in. By 2010 the ragweed was out of control, 8-10 feet high in many areas. In response, the Corps of Engineers is trying to rid this area of ragweed and converting it into a native grassland prairie. So far this year, 2012, it seems to be working. By mowing in 2010 and 2011 prior to the ragweed going to seed, the life cycle of the weeds has been dramatically curtailed. I hope! I use the dirt road and trails of the chain of lakes to make it on my trip down from White Rock Lake to the river. Jumping the guard rail at 310/Overton then down the lakes to Loop 12 and Joppa Preserve.

The chain of wetlands attracts more and more birds every year. Many that are rare for North Texas. A similar wetlands, the Bunker Sands Wetlands near Seagoville attracts bird watchers from all over. The chain of wetlands here in Dallas could be similar if more people knew about it. Same birds show up both places. Just a perception problem on the part of the people who visit.