Friday, August 24, 2012

Trinity Trail Between The Levees -- A Promised Path By 2014

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. --Mark Twain

Horseback at the confluence of the West and Elm Forks of the Trinity River, near Historic Eagle Ford, West Dallas, Summer 2012

The Trinity River has long been the greatest of divides in Dallas. Originally a temporary hermit camp on the riverbank turned into one of the great metropolitan cities in the world, Dallas wrestled with the Trinity since the infancy of the town itself. Often viewed as not just a geographic boundary but also one that divides residents by socioeconomic groups, political affiliations and race. A festering wound that won't heal. Some see the less than lukewarm success of the 1998 bond program to build amenities in the floodplain as a metaphor for the disfunction of the city as a whole.

Most of the critics that think that way have never been down on the river. Never stood on the bank, walked the woods, seen the wildlife or been patient enough to watch a sunset. I pity them. Often with the biggest soap box and megaphone they point to the blank canvas of barren floodway that they drive over everyday and think how boring and ugly. Hard to blame them. Fair enough. They make valid points but rarely offer solutions to what has vexed Dallasites for generations.

Riding the DORBA Trinity Trail near the Calatrava Bridge September 2011
Once in a great while, someone wants to change that. Almost exactly a year ago City Council members Angela Hunt and Scott Griggs launched a grass roots, low key initiative to put a soft surface trail in between the levees. More of a proof of concept idea turned reality, the trail meandered from Crow Park at Sylvan Avenue to I-35. It was a trail scalped out of the grass, leveled in spots and easy to ride by bike or horse. With the heavy fall rains and flooding I think that idea was put out to pasture, so to speak. The trail was complete though.

Angela Hunt and Scott Griggs concept trail turned reality on the Trinity River as viewed from Mill Creek looking west towards I-35
The trail was proof that with just elbow grease and a tractor that something useful could be cobbled out of something that already exists. Due to the close proximity to the river, the trail evaporated under substantial winter flooding. A+ for effort. People look down on the river from the lofty heights of Downtown buildings wishing someone would do something, anything. Here it was. Even if just for a few weeks there was a trail down there.

Time exposure of Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge Fireworks show, March 2012
2012 was billed as a new beginning for the river. A turning point at which many of the promised projects would become a reality. March saw the opening of the Santiago Calatrava designed Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and with it a renewed promise to bring more river amenities to the city. The promises were made by folks who have stayed silent since then which raises my eyebrows some about the sincerity of their remarks.

The New Plan -- A Bigger Better Bolder Permanent Route

Trinity Strand Trail 1908 High Water Marker
The newly proposed 2012 route somewhat shadows the 2011 route on the other side of the river. Extending from Crow Park at Sylvan Avenue, the 16 foot wide path would stretch south down the river to the Santa Fe Trestle Trail near Moore Park. The "trail" or "path" should be a term loosely used here. The primary use of the concrete trail/path/road would be for maintenance vehicles and secondary would be recreational use. Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm said to look for the trail in 2014 which is an aggressive timeline considering the slow progress of other projects on the Trinity.

I think the trail itself should be thought of as a connection to other trails not a destination itself. Using the open floodplain to connect various projects is a masterstroke of ingenuity and making the best use of open land.

Part of the plan is to formerly tie in the Coombs Creek Trail in Stevens Park with the Trinity River.  The Coombs Creek Trail provides great access to the heart of Oak Cliff, winding up the creek shaded by pecans most of the way.

The other trail connection would be the yet to be completed(or really even started) Trinity Strand Trail which should link the Katy Trail with the Trinity River. This tie in would be right around the upstream of the Sylvan Avenue Bridge near the Baker Pump Station.

I cannot overstate that if one were to believe that the proposed trail would be a destination unto itself they would be disappointed with the final product. It should be seen as a way to connect other projects or provide access to other places, other trails and other sites.

Why concrete?

The Corps of Engineers has quite a bit of say in what is constructed between the levees. They like concrete over any other material. The Corps broadly uses the power it was granted under The 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act to control what is built along rivers and streams across the country. Bloomberg has a great article that sheds light on why the Corps meddles and injects itself in so many things...

Old River Bluff looking up at Courthouse
Critics of the new plan for a 16 foot wide trail between the levees will say concrete will scar the natural landscape or the river will be ruined. I don't believe that to be the case. The river channel between the levees is not natural to begin with. It's merely a diversion channel that takes the Elm and West Forks of the Trinity River off their natural course over a mile. The original course of the river is illustrated below in this undated photo which should be from around 1915 at the latest. The river at that time was much further to the east and ran through the Industrial and Medical District that we know today. The confluence of the West Fork and Elm Fork of the Trinity River was at the southwest corner of present day Irving Blvd and Inwood. The river channel is still there today. Archeological digs at that river junction have found old campsites at this confluence. Those radio-carbon dated are shown to be from the 1700s. Much older fire hearths and camps sit below the dated site.

Below are two looks at the river taken roughly 100 years apart. The older photo dates before the First World War, the comparison below it is from Google Earth in 2012.

The Chambers Mule Barn sits about where the Dallas County Jail sits today. The wooded island above it, a cutoff of the river channel is called an oxbow. The island went by a couple different names and was often seen as a place for petty outlaws to live in, sheltered from the prying eyes of the law. Looking at that photo, much of the formal 100 year floodplain at that time was fenced off and used for pasture land or agriculture.
Rare Tricolored Heron in old creek channel near Trinity River, Summer 2012
The small creek running(close to the notation T&P Railroad) south and parallel to the river has no name. It now sits on the north facing side of the south levee and during wet weather forms a reflection pool of standing water west of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. The bird in the photo above, a tricolored heron is in that old creek channel fishing in the water holding there in June.

Fuel City Longhorn--Old River Channel in the roadbed

Near Reunion Tower and the old Reunion Arena site, the old river channel ran down what is now Riverfront Blvd. The channel ran through the widest span of the Houston Street Viaduct which now sits almost 1/2 of a mile from the present channel. The old channel ran through the present Fuel City Truck Stop/Tacorama then past the Old Sportatorium site on the east side of I-35.

Further upstream in West Dallas where office parks and strip warehouses have not been built over the old channel it is much easier to find remnants of the old river channel. Above is a graphic illustration of the old channel of the West Fork and how it was moved some distance north. Hard to believe so many homes were built in this area right up against the edge of the old riverbank. These flood prone areas have some of the lowest elevations in Dallas. If the levees were ever to give way in a large flood, these homes would be under 40 feet of flood water.

Motorcyclists using the old Mockingbird/Westmoreland Bridge
Known as the Devil's Back Porch, West Dallas was the epicenter in Dallas County for disease and crime. Illustrated in the map above you can see how the old cutoff slackwater meanders of the river became a breeding ground for typhoid, cholera and malaria. Similar to the West Nile Virus scare of today, some neighborhoods saw the curse of these diseases more than others. West Dallas saw the worst. To combat flooding in the future, Dallas is building a large 3 story high Pavaho Pump Station to drain much of this basin. David Mimlitch has some great aerial photos taken this month of that new facility which can be found on his flickr page
Aerial photos of the new Pavaho Pump Station

What's useable now?

White Ibis Flock Near Continental Viaduct

I think one of the misnomers about the levees is the open access. Other than a few spots with ongoing construction of the new Sylvan Avenue Bridge or slurry wall work on the north levee(called the east levee), the levees are open to the public using non-motorized transportation. I know that there is some apprehension about going some place new or getting off the beaten path. The levees are pretty safe. Especially between the Commerce Street Viaduct on the south side and the Westmoreland Bridge upstream.
Dallas Marshal patrolling the levees summer 2012
Patrolled frequently by the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas Marshal's Office it seems to be pretty safe. Gone are the days of homeless sleeping under the bridges. That ended about the time construction started on the Calatrava Bridge. The neighborhood gets rougher on the downriver side of I-35 on both sides of the river. Loose dogs and the occasional homeless person on the river side of the levee make the access road between I-35 and the Santa Fe Trestle Trail a little more sketchy. Still safe, I would just be aware of the dog issue(really bad dogs) and the wayward wandering homeless.

Crow Park is host to soccer fields and a cricket field/pitch. On most weekends there are quite a few people there and can be considered safe year round.

How to get there by car:

Directions to visit the levees are simple, providing you are not using a motorized vehicle. In a car, formal parking is really limited to Crow Park at 3700 Sylvan Avenue between the levees. This parking might vanish in the next several months with ongoing construction of the new Sylvan Avenue Bridge.

Parking for the southern end of the levees where the Santa Fe Trestle Trail and Dallas Wave are located would be at the Corinth Street DART Station 100 South Corinth Street. One of these years, parking for the Santa Fe Trestle Trail and Dallas Wave will open. Until then the DART Station is your best bet.

How to get there on foot/bike/horse:

Simple. Pick a spot and climb over the levee. From the Katy Trail, simply take Victory Avenue west under I-35, left on Oak Lawn and take it south till it dead ends at the levee. Less than 5 minutes on a bike and decent sidewalks if you don't want to ride in the street.

From the levees one can go as far upstream as Bachman Lake to the north, I-30 in Grand Prairie to the South. I believe the mileage is just over 30 miles for all the levees inside the city limits of Dallas.

Motorized vehicles are prohibited on the levees without a permit. I see quite a few mx bikes, quads and even scooters sometimes. Verboten! A much better option is to head right across the river to Shady Grove Motocross where for ten dollars a day you can embrace your Evel Knievel. You'll have ten times more fun there than on the levees.

The Old Abandoned Dallas Wave Whitewater Project
Cobwebbed Dallas Wave Whitewater Project
Oh yeah, whatever happened to the Santa Fe Trestle Trail and the Dallas Wave? Don't ask me! There was so much promise for the Dallas Wave and the Santa Fe Trestle Trail that the city was on the right track with the river project. A win here would have silenced many of the curmudgeon critics of the Trinity River Project. That did not really happen. Yet. Or will it ever? The Santa Fe Trestle Trail has been rideable for the better part of a year yet still remains officially unopened. I think there were some delays in getting a powerline tower moved, wooden bollards installed. Little things. The little things have added up to a long delay one that has been too long.

Cyclists on the Santa Fe Trestle Trail
There is a misconception that another trail, the Santa Fe Trail in East Dallas will link with the trestle. I do not believe this to be the case. One needs to ride from the Santa Fe Trail to Fair Park, then down Grand Avenue to Lamar, crossing the active railroad line at Cockrell Avenue. Not an attractive option but more safe than cycling the old dark Corinth underpass to Riverfront.

The Dallas Wave -- Monster Alligator Gar Capital of The Universe
Alligator Gar Angler at the Dallas Wave

Weird thing happened with the Dallas Wave-Standing Wave thing. You know how in Florida, manatees hang out around the outflows of power plants to stay warm. Or sea lions hang out on pier 39 in San Francisco. In Dallas, alligator gars the size of sharks(big ones) prowl the depths of the Dallas Wave. I think the concentration here is the oxygenated water and also the natural boundary created by the twin wave structures that prevent travel of fish up and down the river except in floods.
Trophy Sized Longnose Gar Surfing The Standing Wave

Sprinkle in some foamy swirling water, a disturbed water column and bait fish you have a perfect environment for big gar. This is not the place for canned corn and Snoopy Zebco fishing rods! The anglers pictured here are more geared up for a fight than a quiet evening of fishing. Steel leaders, surf weights, stainless steel hooks, heavy gloves, pliers and machetes. Not the normal tackle one would think of taking on a fishing outing. The gar above, a Longnose Gar was in the surf below the second wave. I would guess it to be near record size for the State of Texas and would easily be a water body record for the Trinity River.

These guys often fish between the mouth of Cedar Creek and the Standing Wave where they told me they encounter 4-5 foot gars. Serious, serious business. I think with the gaining popularity of reality TV shows featuring people hand wrestlin' fish or grabbing animals that can bite back...there has been a mushrooming rise in the popularity of catching these fish. The Dallas Wave has become a hot spot as a result. Sad to see it silt in so fast too. In some places directly below the second structure, the water is only knee deep and a shoal has formed.

I'm glad to see so many diverse user groups of people using the Trinity River near Downtown. The more "normal" folks using the river for recreation, the fewer "bad" folks will use it in a nefarious manner. I think when the 1998 Bond Program was adopted, that was the original intent. Not a freeway. Not roads, concrete and tolls. But a place for people to use and explore. That's happening. Finally.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Twilight Over The Great Trinity Forest

Thunderhead viewed from atop McCommas Bluff, August 2012

If I squint my eyes long enough through the late afternoon haze I just might find what I'm looking for. Takes awhile though. Seven miles away and a couple dozen floors up in my office building I can just make out the river as it flows through Southern Dallas. Following the serpentine route with my eyes from White Rock Lake, through Parkdale, through the tangled mass of Roosevelt Heights, Pemberton Hill, Joppa and then out to the great unknown south of I-20.

A place where the deep bottom lands of the Old South meet the Great Plains of the West. Just right there. I can see it out the office window. Where a cool Canadian summer front meets the sweet hot air of Mexico to build majestic towering thunderheads. Right there.

I think nearly all the photos in this particular post were taken on weeknights after getting off work in late July and early August. The birds, the pigs, the otters, the violent thunderstorms.

Electrical storm as viewed from the Wetland Cells near the community of Joppa, August 12, 2012
The conditions were really ripe this year for seeing the vagrant tropical birds that often wander up the Texas Coast during the summer. Few ever travel inland in search of food. Even fewer travel as far north as the DFW area to feed in the shallow drying lakes and ponds that dot the remote flood plain of the Trinity River. Lemmon Lake is one such place. Seems that a number of my posts have been about Lemmon Lake lately. The lake dries so fast that many of the scenes here vary greatly in just 24 hours. At over 200 acres in size but only a few feet deep, the lake can expose 30-40 feet of new lake bed per day as it dries.

Wood Storks in a feeding frenzy at Lemmon Lake

The journey to find out more about this place has been an interesting one, taking some interesting turns as I dig deep into a history murkier, cloudier and more mysterious than the Trinity River itself.

Roseate Spoonbills in evening flight over the Trinity River
This is a piece of Texas countryside that is in its original natural state, one the way it looked before pioneers came to stay. Looking into how old the lake might be, I have referenced maps well back into the 1800's noting the lake. Whether it was an old oxbow river channel turned lake, a natural lake improved upon or a naturally blocked mouth of Five Mile Creek is a mystery yet to be solved. It's not so much what pioneers left. It's what the inhabitants of this place thousands of years ago left behind in weird spots near here that leave more questions than answers.

Warren Angus Ferris -- Mountain Man Surveyor of Dallas County
Warren Angus Ferris Cemetery Marker corner of St. Francis and San Leonardo
Many of the unsolved questions I have are being answered by a man who died in 1873. Warren Angus Ferris. Perhaps you have not heard of him. His name does not exist on a road sign, a school, a park or a plaza anywhere in Dallas. Ferris is not only long forgotten in Dallas history but even his final resting place in the Forest Hills Neighborhood was bulldozed over and had homes built on it. I have road cycled from White Rock Lake east out to Sunnyvale, hundreds of times on the Richardson Bike Mart route that passes by the cemetery. The Historical Marker that notes the cemetery was covered by Chinese Privet brush and the cemetery so unkept I never knew it existed. Cemetery census courtesy of the late Jim Wheat's website W.A. Ferris Cemetery Census says over 100 souls are buried here with the last one in 1906.

Warren Ferris was originally from Buffalo, New York and was the official surveyor for Nacogdoches County, Republic of Texas. At the age of 27, he was tasked with surveying what we now call Dallas County, east of the Trinity River. Beginning in 1839, he built a base camp along White Rock Creek to survey the lands for the Republic, for veterans of the Texas Revolution who were guaranteed a league and a labor of land for their war service. Many of the ex-soldiers never saw the land parceled for them. They exchanged their titles for cash or other lands held by real estate holding companies elsewhere.

Ferris led a survey crew of well armed men, sometimes as many as sixty men split into three 20 man divisions. They were given the tough task of surveying the wilds of the Three Forks of the Rio Trinidad, ripe with Indians and wild animals. In each survey team were not just surveyors but trappers, hunters, scouts and cooks. Traveling light and living off the land, they ate a diet of mostly red meat from the abundant animal life in Dallas County at the time.

Ferris was no stranger to wild environments. Prior to being hired as offical surveyor, he surveyed what is now Yellowstone in Wyoming and Montana as a 19 year old hired by the American Fur Company. He kept a daily diary of his travels in the Yellowstone country which was later compiled into one of the single greatest books on Mountain Men in North America. His book entitled Introduction to Life in the Rocky Mountains by W.A. Ferris still serves today as a Rosetta Stone into the lives of the fur trapping trade in 1830-1835. You can read his journal here Introduction To Life In The Rocky Mountains . He described in detail the Battle of Pierre's Hole against the Blackfeet, grizzly bears, wolves, geysers, half starved to death, you name it. So vivid in detail was he about the Indians and their customs that his journal still serves as a gold standard reference to Native American cultures in the Central and Northern Rockies.

Even more remarkable is his "Map of the Northwest Fur Country," drawn in 1836. It was made available in 1940 with editorial notes by a man named Dr Paul Phillips for publication with the journals. Dr. Phillips noted this was "the most detailed and accurate of all the early maps of the region," far superior in accuracy to the famous maps by Bonneville, Parker, John C. Fremont, and others which were published in the same era. The text of the journal, together with the map, suggests that Ferris witnessed and described Old Faithful, the geyser which has become the symbol of Yellowstone National Park.

I mention all this because he also kept a diary of his exploration and adventures in Dallas County too. He writes of his first trip into what is now Dallas:

Everywhere deer, turkeys and prairie chickens were as thick as ants on a hill, with bear, panthers, wolves and wildcats keeping in the daytime to the river and creek bottoms, but after dark issuing forth to ravage the plains and startle the night with uncouth shadows, and hideous screaming and howling.

I saw in the picturesque regions there much of the wild soul-stirring scenes with which I had been so familiar in the Mountains. Thousands of buffalo and wild horses were everywhere to be met with. Deer and turkeys always in view and occasional bear would sometimes cross our path. Wolves and buzzards became our familiar acquaintances and in the river we found abundance of fish from minnows to 8 footers. The prairies are boundless and present a most beautiful appearance being extremely fertile and crowned with flowers of every hue.

He ran into just as many fierce Indians in Yellowstone as he did in Dallas. Only the names and the places changed. The Comanche and Kichai were a constant shadow to his small survey crew across what is now North Dallas. Near daily contact and skirmishes were the norm rather than the exception. Many of his men would often abandon the survey parties due to the Indian raids and flee back to East Texas.

If you live in East Dallas or North Dallas, Warren Ferris walked your property. He might have camped there too. Ferris used the Texas system of surveying. This was an offshoot of Spanish Land Grant surveying that used a 55 1/2 foot chain and a compass. The Vara Chain it was called, used 20 lengths, 20 varas as the measurement. Ferris and his men measured 55 1/2 feet at a time from one end of Dallas to the other and back again.

Ferris surveyed Dallas in 1839-1842 on at least half a dozen trips.
1839-First exploration of Trinity River on east bank and White Rock Creek
October 1840-Setup base camp on east bank of Trinity River near mouth of White Rock Creek and surveyed much of what is now SE Dallas County
Winter 1841-Surveyed what is now Downtown Dallas, Design District, Love Field
May 1841-Richardson, Garland
June 1841-The Lagow League what is now Fair Park
July 1841- Ferris served as chief scout under General Tarrant and General Smith in an Indian campaign across what is now Dallas and Tarrant counties
October 1841- Setup base camp at what is now Presbyterian Hospital and surveyed Upper White Rock Creek
January 1842-Seagoville, Sunnyvale

Warren Ferris settled not far from the present day Arboretum on what is now St Francis in Forest Hills. Since it was illegal at the time for surveyors to purchase land they were working on, his land holdings were placed in the name of his half brother, Joshua Lovejoy. There he raised a family of nine children, built a grist mill near the present day White Rock Lake Spillway and served in the Confederate Army as a member of the White Rock Mounted Rifles. One of the first four cotton farmers in North Texas, his crop was the first to be floated down the Trinity River some seventy miles to market.

Hopefully I can get the detailed manuscripts of his travels, soon. They sit in Nacogdoches, Texas at the moment. Ferris in his surveying, noted spring locations, Indian trails, General Rusk's route across lower White Rock, hard bottom stream crossing sites, timber breaks and many other natural features that either once existed or still exist today. One of which is the natural water feature now called Lemmon Lake.

Lemmon Lake and the diversity of birds feeding

Bill Barrett -- The Coors Beer Philanthropist

Many of the photos I have taken this summer would not be possible without the enormous gift Bill Barrett bestowed on the City of Dallas in the 1980s. He purchased Lemmon Lake and some of the surrounding land to preserve the unique nature and environment there. In the 1980s this area was threatened with the development of a concrete factory and expansion. Mr Barrett's purchase saved the lake and surrounding woods. When I have taken friends mountain biking or hiking down here I tell them that this is what the Coors sold in Dallas during the 70s and early 80s bought. Bill Barrett owned Willow Distributors, the Dallas distributor for Coors at the corner of Grand and Lamar. Now known as Andrews, the facility sits a stone throw from the Santa Fe Trestle Trail on the north bank of the Trinity River.

It would be considered by many this time of year, even Native Dallasites a place that is foreign to them. The tropical breezes that blow in weird birds. Weird colored birds with funny shapes, funny sizes and funny sounds.

Waiting for the birds to come off their day roosts to feed in the evening you have time to sit, ponder, reflect on what makes this whole place tick. Sitting in the shade of Old Growth Oaks among old chards of chert and ancient cooking fires you develop a connection with whoever sat there a thousand years before around dinner time. Same view I would imagine.

It's out on the far eastern horizon where you see them first. Lumbering in among the storm clouds, hundreds of feet, maybe a thousand feet high at first soaring in to feed. The heat of the day broken, they come to feast on the quickly drying lake where I sit.
High flying Wood Storks under an appraoching storm

The draw for the Wood Storks is the perfect knee deep water that wading birds need to feed. At Lemmon Lake that -perfect- water depth only lasts a week or two, slowly giving way to more challenging fishing.
Wood Storks
I looked around for some good video of Wood Storks feeding but could not find any. In North America the Wood Storks are few and far between. Most of the video I have seen features Wood Storks on roosts or standing on front lawns in Florida. In the winter months, the Lemmon Lake birds head back to the Amazon Basin mostly likely where someone with a camera is not likely to venture.

So...below is a video of Wood Storks feeding at Lemmon Lake. If you watch the video closely you can see how they move through the water with their beak open. They fish by feel not by sight. Wood Storks have the fastest beak closing reaction time among any birds in the world, a fraction of a second. Feeding mostly on crawfish and small bait fish, they can eat pounds of fish in an hour using this technique.

A number of times I was caught up in summer rains. Not showers that just knock the dust down. Real rain. Driven walls of water that electrify the air with lightning and wind. That brings out the predators. Highlighted in the white dashed box below is a coyote prowling the shoreline looking for an unsuspecting bird for dinner. The video of the coyote is below in the video starting at about the 5 second mark and moving left to right....

The lightning in this particular storm was cloud-to-cloud and given the damp nature of the air reverberated over and over and over again while filming this clip.

As the storms collapse after the heat of the day is gone and the cool outflow boundary drops the temperature out of the triple digits, the larger animals appear out of the woods. You can set your watch by it. Lumbering out of what was probably a long afternoon nap the feral hogs of the Great Trinity Forest make their way down to the shoreline for a drink.

Few in number at first, as the sun lowers more and more appear. Tolerated at first by the birds, the number of pigs becomes too great and sends the Wood Storks and Spoonbills to their night roosts in the tall cottonwood trees along the banks of the Trinity River.

Pig sounder with young'ens at Lemmon Lake
Some of the adults in this sounder, like many Texas Feral Hogs have Hampshire markings from their domesticated ancestors many generations ago. Longer snouts, longer legs, bigger eyes and ears make the wild feral hog version of a domesticated pig a force to be reckoned with.

Below is video of one feral pig sounder in action. Moving up and down the shore looking for freshwater shelled animals, eggs, tuber roots, carrion, whatever they come across.

River Otters are something new for 2012 in the Great Trinity Forest too. I think that I have gotten a good glimpse or two of them in the past but never like I have in 2012. The otters in late July and early August made a transition from Lemmon Lake to Little Lemmon Lake, seen in the photo below taken the evening of August 1, 2012.

Hopefully the otters, rumored to be a family of four, take up residence here. Playful and interesting to watch I think quite a few people would get a kick out of seeing them somewhere other than a zoo. Little Lemmon Lake or the Wetland Cells north of Loop 12 would be an ideal environment for them to flourish in.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Great Trinity Forest By Moonlight

Daytime temperatures soar well over one hundred degrees in Dallas during early August. The chance to encounter some of the larger animals living in the Great Trinity Forest really drops off as a result. Down to a near zero chance of seeing one. Rather than a traditional 4pm Saturday visit to the river, I went down at 4am instead.

Time exposure of the full moon and stars over the Great Trinity Forest
Moonlight filtered through the ancient Post Oaks
Planning a little ahead of time, I knew that the full moon would rise over Dallas after sunset and set the next morning at 9am. From 4-6am it would be near it's height bathing the woods in a shadow pattern similar to that of the summer sun. Far enough away from the city lights, the moon casts bright vivid light, clear enough to read a newspaper or in my case walk without a flashlight.

The first hundred steps are always the hardest. When hiking through the woods in the dark, your hearing plays as much a role as your eyesight. Since your eyesight becomes so muted, your hearing seems to magnify many times.

Leopard Frog

Finding toads and frogs is easier at night than in the daylight. Using their calls coupled with a brief red-eye flash from a camera, one can see the glowing eyes of a frog bounce back.

The Great Trinity Forest has a variety of frogs and toad species. In addition to the Green Tree Frog, there are species of the Leopard Frog(both Plains and Southern) and the Texas Toad(both Texas and East Texas Toad).

East Texas Toad

My resident go to guy on herpotology, Michael McNair is still on the mend from being struck by a car in May and just recently released from the hospital after spending almost 40 days in Baylor's ICU. He would know more about these amphibians off the top of his head that I would know scouring wikipedia for their ID.

Foxfire Fairy Fire
Bioluminescent Foxfire fungus
Bioluminescent fungus goes by many names, Will o' the Wisp, Foxfire and Fairy Fire to name a few. The rotted falling logs around the oldest portions of old growth forest along the Trinity host the fungus among the detrius of the forest floor. I have found it after sunset in a number of places on the Trinity but only in areas above the 100 year floodplain or not subject to prolonged submerged periods.

Scientists are unsure as to why some species of fungus are bioluminescent. One possibility is that the faint glow attracts insects, which proceed to disperse fungal spores. Thus, in the case of fungi bioluminescence may serve as a form of reproductive assistance.

Parade of the Pigs

I have been able to find the same feral hog sounder this spring with pretty good success. Knowing where they are and when they are active lets me follow them at a distance with ease. The trick has been the daytime heat. When the weather gets too hot, they are not active until after dark. That poses a problem seeing them in the high grass they enjoy.

Recently, I found that by hacking the software of my Canon using an opensource program called Magic Lantern, I could(in theory) use the camera in very low light conditions like a full moon.  It's not perfect but works better than a human eye in very, very low light conditions.

The result is below, filming a 19 pig sounder parading across a mudflat well before dawn.

It was so dark that the pigs did not even spot me, standing out in the mudflat, in full view. It's fun to watch them crossing the mud, all in a line, wary of the dark around them at that early hour. Pigs have excellent senses in the smell and hearing department but have really poor eyesight.

Great Trinity Forest Under A Full Moon
The mud serves as a historical record, a guestbook of who and what has been through the area. All prints lead to the water holes. Pig, coyote, fox, raccoon and bobcat. I placed an HD camcorder at one of these waterholes the evening before hoping to catch some unattended views of wildlife before sunset. Not much happened as the sun set. It was some hours afterward, maybe 10pm that some kind of violent explosion of stomping, snorting and ruckus occured. The sound was crystal clear, the video was black as black can be.

Dawn Breaking Over The Trinity River
Dawn's early light at around 6am with a 6:40am sunrise is an interesting time when the light is about as strong from the moon as it is from the sun. The cool blue of the moon mixing with the reds of the rising sun mix into some interesting colors on the horizon.

With the rise of the sun and setting of the moon it was time to head over towards Little Lemmon Lake to rendezvous with Dr Tim Dalbey for a look into some River Otters and Spoonbills that had been sighted there earlier in the week. Drawing a blank, he showed me around Roosevelt Park, Bruton Bottoms and Oak Creek on a driving tour, scouting out areas to explore in the future. I'm excited about what might lie up that way, vast out of the way sloughs, wetlands and swamps. We came across a dead beaver on Bruton Road, probably killed by a vehicle within the last few hours. Moving it off the road, it must have weighed well over 50 pounds and appeared pregnant. Some reckless driver killed it for sport from the looks of things.

Spoonbills at Little Lemmon Lake

Before making our way back to where I had parked, we swung by a potential pre-historic Indian site and a set of historic outbuildings. Walking down the trail only 100 yards we encountered this nice young healthy 6 point Whitetail Buck.

It was probably wondering what two humans were doing so far away from a road, so far away from just about anything. Funny that this is all inside the city limits of Dallas!