Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Rare Hexalectris Orchids of the Great Trinity Forest

A Crested Coralroot Orchid Hexalectris spicata in the Great Trinity Forest, June 2013
The needles in the haystack. The drinking straw sized plants so obscure that many would walk right past them without notice. They are the native Hexalectris spicata, the Coralroot Orchid. The rarity of these orchids make for a difficult search in the Great Trinity Forest of Dallas, Texas. They exist only in the most untouched of places down there where the soil conditions and tree canopy must be just right.

The Piedmont Ridge Trail
The home range of Hexalectris covers some of the most inhospitable terrain in the Southwest. These orchids represent a genus of eight fully myco-heterotrophic species, which persist largely undetected due to their rarity, inconspicuous and unpredictable flowering patterns, and because they occur in harshest of habitats to man.The remote desert canyons of West Texas and Mexico, the dry tropical forests further south and in the case of the Great Trinity Forest, the dense cedar thickets of Oak Creek and lower White Rock Creek. It's tough to find these things.

A plant so specialized that it cannot be transplanted or curated in another environment. Attempts in the past to move these plants, transplant or take one for study have all failed.

Below is the Hexalectris nitida (Glass Mountain crested coralroot). So rare that it is listed as an Endangered Species in the State of New Mexico. In Texas they are a little more common but up until the 1980s they were thought only to exist much further to the south and west than Dallas. It rarely has open blooms in the Dallas population, it self pollinates according to those who have studied them.  The State of Texas doesn't formally recognize any plant species as Endangered or Threatened unless the US Fish & Wildlife Service has already done so, therefore, in Texas the federal and state lists are the same.

A lone Hexalectris nitida (Glass Mountain crested coralroot)  under a canopy of cedar and oak trees growing in the unique detrius of the Great Trinity Forest
The orchids here are not run of the mill wildflowers. They do not even require sunlight to grow. The fancy term is nonphotosynthetic orchid from a mycorrhizal fungi. Their evolutionary story centers around the very unique soils that lie in a paper thin layer covering the Austin Chalk uplands in this part of Dallas.

A thin veneer of soil noted as the Eddy Brackett sits atop the uplands here. This soil was once common in a belt that stretched through Pleasant Grove, East Dallas and Lake Highlands. Paved and developed long ago very few places still exist to find these plants.


A Special Partnership

The soil here harbors a special host for the orchids to survive, a special fungus known as mycorrhizal fungi. It's believed that the decaying leaf matter from the surrounding oak trees above provides the nutrients needed for the fungi to thrive. The undisturbed plant matter is a vital part of the success for the fungi and the orchids. The rhizome of the orchids tap into the fungi which provides all the nutrients that the orchid needs to thrive. As a result, the orchid requires no sunlight for growth and relies completely on the nutrients of the host fungi for food.
Hexalectris nitida (Glass Mountain crested coralroot)

The orchid extracts food and nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungus without providing any apparent benefits to the fungi. Thus, the orchid is parasitic on the fungus and because the fungus obtains its food from its host(oak trees), the orchid is an indirect parasite of the oak.
Coralroot Orchid as seen from above growing through a floor of acorns and leaves

A Super Long Lifecyle
Earlier this spring I posted about the Trout Lilies that reside in the woods here that take seven long years from seed to flowering adult. The Crested Coral Root Orchid takes an estimated ten to twenty years from seed germination to flowering adult. During the decade or two between germination and flowering there might be many individuals in an area that are simply unseen.

All species of orchids require fungi for seed germination and early development, but species vary widely in their dependence on fungi as they mature. The Coralroot needs the underlying fungi for carbs and nutrients for it to survive.

Hopefully the orchid pictured at left had a successful flowering and will seed offspring. Look for them in the year 2033.
Hexalectris spicata


The overlooks, canyons and diverse terrain in this part of Dallas are only a fifteen minutes by mountain bike from the Spillway at White Rock Lake. A short hop, skip and jump away from the Lake lands you in what looks smells and tastes like the Texas Hill Country. The blazing heat of an early summer night smells of hot cedar down here. The radiant warmth of sun baked limestone comes up through your shoes into your feet.

The waning days of the wildflower season here are drawing to a close. Most of the flowers are starting to go to seed save for the late blooming Horsemint and the ever random late yellow flowers whose names escape me.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Supermoon Over Dallas -- Tracking the Moonrise

The Supermoon as it rises through the thick humid air of a Texas June night
Around once a year the Moon is a whisker closer to Earth than the the other lunar cycles, setting up for what some advertise as a bigger and brighter Moon. Coinciding in 2013 within a day of the Summer Solstice this astronomical event is interesting to see especially when one can find a suitable backdrop to frame a photo. In Dallas we lack a mountainscape, ocean or even much of a hill that gives enough perspective to capture a full moon. We do have a bridge and some tall buildings to work with that make for a fine backdrop for a moonrise.

The term Supermoon is not used within the astronomical community, which uses the term perigee-syzygy or perigee moon. Perigee is the point at which the Moon is closest in its orbit to the Earth, and syzygy is a full or new moon, when the Earth, the Moon and the Sun are aligned. Hence, a supermoon can be regarded as a combination of the two, although they do not perfectly coincide each time. On average, about once a year (14 months) the moon becomes full within a few hours of perigee.

Waiting for the sun to set within a day of the Summer Solstice is often like watching grass grow or waiting for paint to dry. Gives someone a chance to explore the Trinity River bottoms between the levees and see some of the sights and do some unconventional things that few check out. Killing a few birds with the same stone.




Surprising to see more and more people out at these things. Just a couple years ago I'm certain that I was the only one out there on the levee photographing the moon. On this particular night there were about one hundred. Some here on their own, some in pairs, some in groups.

The Dallas Marshal's Office has upgraded their vehicles to patrol the Trinity River. Seen at left is one of the new Chevy Silverado 4x4's equipped with heavy duty mud tractor style tires. This deputy marshal was up on the levee near the new Pavaho Pump Station watching for illegal motorized vehicles on the levees. Inset above is David Mimlitch who is best known for his award winning aerial photography of the DFW area and Trinity River. This evening his camera gear was on two wheels instead of two wings.

Fading light over the wildflower filled floodway looking towards Downtown Dallas near the Sylvan Avenue Bridge
Sun setting behind the Hampton-Inwood Bridge over the Trinity River
As the sun slowly descends out of the way and the skies begin to darken, the real reason most people are here on the river can begin.....

The Rise Of The Super Moon

You really don't need the Moon to be in a "super" phase to photograph the full phase down here. Advertised as 12% closer and 30% brighter the moon looks the same to me year round. The best time of year to photograph the moon in Dallas is actually in the winter when the atmosphere is clearer, the sun sets earlier and the chance for clouds out to the east is lower. Many people, in any event, use the annual Supermoon event as an occasion to dwell on Earth’s only natural satellite and chose the levees as their location.

In the summer months I have found that storms and cloud cover in East Texas some 100 to 150 miles away can often impact the sighting of the Moon as it first rises above the horizon. If the Tyler, Kilgore or even Texarkana area is experiencing early evening storms then one must wait thirty minutes or more after moonrise to see the Moon as it clears the distant high clouds.

The light bouncing off the Moon through all that thick East Texas humidity creates an orange glow at first then into a mustard yellow as it passes by Reunion Tower.  It's usually around this time that many people photographing the Moon will migrate towards a better spot for their liking. The Moon moves at a fast pace diagonally from lower left to upper right. The pace of which allows for a shot or two at most before requiring a move of a few steps if one wishes to re-rack the same shot. Below is a real time clip taken in June 2013 of the Moon as it travels from left to right across the night sky moving directly behind the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge

Gotta move fast to get the shot you want and need to be able to pick up and move with your gear when the time is right.

Full Moon directly behind the Santiago Caltrava designed Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge June 2013

The sweet spot for photographing the Moon down here is about 1/4 mile downstream of the Sylvan Avenue Bridge on the west levee. If you push further out towards the Hampton/Inwood Bridge the moon perspective will be much larger but the powerlines along Sylvan will be in the way. Pushing even further out toward Singleton/Eagle Ford area has been tried too with mixed results. If any clouds are low on the horizon to any extent then the trip is also a bust.

The Supermoon as it continues past the Calatrava Bridge onward and upward

We live with the Moon and see a Full Moon every 28 days. Few realize the speed that it travels across the night sky until they watch it move across the night sky. Great vantage points and worth attempting sometime if you have a camera that can be manually set. The bright white lights of the bridge make for a challenging shoot, there are tradeoffs with getting details of the Moon or details of the bridge.

The late Spring rains in 2013 have kept the small ponds that dot the floodway full of water. They serve as a great reflective backdrop when the winds are absent. In wet periods when the river floods between the levees the ponds here will fill with small fry, baitfish and crawdads that serve as a food base for wading birds. The Trinity did not see large scale flooding rains this winter and as a result the small patchwork of ponds down here lack any real forage for birds.

Small pond between the just downstream of the railroad trestle that services Downtown Dallas
A mountain bike really is the best form of transportation if you want to explore the levees between the Caltrava Bridge and the Santa Fe Trestle Trail. A bike makes quick and easy work out of the gravel access roads here and one can travel from one site to another in just minutes.

Trinity River Trail near the Santa Fe Trestle and DART rail line
The City of Dallas calls this a 16 foot wide access road. Looks more like a bike path don't you think. The final section seen above was paved about two weeks ago and now connects the Santa Fe Trestle Trail with this new section that stretches almost to I-35. I have heard it called the Trinity River Connector, Trinity River Trail. It still does not connect with anything nor does it serve as a functional piece of infrastructure. It's just sort of there.

David Mimlitch riding the new Trinity River concrete trail thing near the Corinth Street Viaduct
Mountain bikes had no trouble negotiating the soft surface road that was here before. The concrete smooths things out a little. This particular section from Corinth to I-35 was paved in about a week, the whole thing. The contractor had a machine that just laid out a smooth ribbon of concrete the whole distance. Wish they would have kept on going as many of the trail users come from the Continental Avenue and West Dallas area to recreate down here. Recent news is that the trail is stalled for planned construction of new highway interchanges. I bet it has something to do with........

That Big Gigantic Hole Near the I-35 Bridge

I bet a million people pass within rock throwing distance of this ten story deep hole everyday and don't even know it's there. It's big. It's deep. It's spooky. Larger than a missile silo and if above ground would rival an office building or two in size Downtown. This hole is part of a Dallas public works project to tunnel underneath the Trinity River. The project is supposed to link the east and west banks of the Trinity River water system, carrying via gravity waste water from the Downtown side of the river to the Central Wastewater Treatment Plant. A twin bored hole of similar size sits next to the Cadiz Pump Station not far from Old City Park. Construction of this project began in early 2012 I believe. In the past year the site for whatever reason has sat empty. The fencing, signs and equipment all disappeared with the passage of time. So, we're left with this big hole.

There is a bit of a lip to the top of it, 4 feet or so. No danger of falling in. It's also not high enough to keep floodwaters at bay. In the spring of 2012 the Trinity inundated the site.

You can read more about it below:
The twin access vertical tunnel at the Cadiz Pump Station
The Cadiz Pump Station sits in the shadow of Downtown Dallas and spitting distance from I-30. I believe when the new I-30 freeway project begins construction, the century old pump station will be demolished for the "Horseshoe Project".
The long forgotten limestone cliffs of the original Trinity River near Downtown
The old Cadiz Pump Station once sat on the banks of the Trinity River. Prior to channelization and realignment some half mile away, the natural river channel near Downtown was a picturesque limestome cliff lined river with large groves of mature trees. Remnants of that old Austin Chalk lined channel can still be seen like the one above. The Sportatorium wrastlin' arena once sat in the abandoned lot above. Without much imagination you can picture what the river once looked like through here.

Speaking of the river being re-channeled..................

Walking On Water At The Standing Wave
Trinity River Whitewater Park at the Lower Wave

At the far end of the levees stands the Santa Fe Trestle Trail and the Trinity River Whitewater Park. The century old Santa Fe Trestle has been converted into a pedestrian/bike bridge that spans the Trinity right at the very end of the southernmost portion of the levees. Just upstream a mere 50 feet or so sits a purpose built DART Light Rail bridge that services the Red and Blue lines to the Corinth Station from Downtown.

Below the bridge sits the Standing Wave, the Trinity River Whitewater Park.

Birdseye view of the Trinity River Standing Wave as seen from the Santa Fe Trestle

The Standing Wave feature serves as a sort of endless surfable whitewater wave. If you have the right equipment you can get into the wave and surf it, do tricks, spins and such. There are two water features here, the Upper and Lower Wave. A concrete divider on river left(north bank) separates the surfing waves from a "canoe bypass" that is more like a flume.

Trinity River Whitewater Park, the Lower Wave, watch your step
When the water is low in the summer during dry periods I have noticed that some of the larger wading birds have been able to hold their own at the top lip of the lower standing wave feature while they are fishing for a meal. Maybe it was the Full Moon pulling on my brain that made me decide to try it myself.
Making Rooster Tails as I walk out onto the Standing Wave
Footing is firm under what is an algae mat of sorts that blankets the Lower Wave. I was able to walk out there without issue and into the middle of the main channel and wander around for a few minutes. A slip would not have been a good thing as I would have been laundered through the Lower Wave which is rated Class II-III whitewater. Some video standing out on the Trinity River in mid-channel:

It's a great view from here. Looking straight up the channelized Trinity River one can see right under the Corinth Street Viaduct channel and much further beyond. A real unorthodox way of seeing the Trinity River. In the very near future, the Corps of Engineers plans to dismantle the wooden sections of bridge here on either side of the river. If you want to see the old woodwork here you should make plans for a trip here soon.

Standing on the Lower Wave of the Trinity River Standing Wave, mid-channel, looking upstream at the Santa Fe Trestle Trail

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Hunting The Wetlands and Sloughs of the Trinity with the Swamp Coyotes

Patient coyotes of the Great Trinity Forest on a quiet and methodical stalk of their prey through the undisturbed wetlands of Dallas
In the early part of the last century George Dorsey(1868–1931) from the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC recorded a collection of Caddo mythology stories. At that time the Caddo had long since been moved to Oklahoma from their traditional lands in East Texas. Dorsey realized way back then that the stories and traditions of those native tongues would likely vanish. Among the vast collection are stories named "Evening Star and Orphan Star,""The Boy Who Married a Mountain Lion," "Coyote and the Six Brothers," "Lightning and the People," "How the Buffalo Ceased to Eat Human Beings," and "Why Hawks Have Thin Legs."

Most of those stories have no bearing to modern Texans. They might glimpse the tail of a retreating coyote or maybe the distant call of a hawk. Frankly few places still exist where one can see animals of such mystique behave as the First Texans once did. Those Caddo stories are not about people. They are about the animals themselves.

The coyotes own this land. They run, manage and decide who stays, who goes. I imagine I must meet their muster as I often find myself within a distance so close to them that my camera will not focus for being under the designed minimums of the lens.
Red Tailed Hawks along the Trinity River upstream of the Sylvan Ave Bridge
Our city forefathers spent the better part of the last century killing out a good part of the natural world they knew down here. A process of rearranging nature to suit the hand of man. Fair enough. I imagine those old Indian tribes if given a bulldozer and a chainsaw would most likely do the same.

Those old animal stories though, well, they still ring true today. Given enough time and enough human neglect the Trinity River has reclaimed much of what was wrecked and ruined in the last century. A post World War Two generation of man skipped over this place and let it go back wild.

Few things on two legs and without feathers get down here. Some special places where the human is the unexpected outsider and where animals often challenge a man to find somewhere else to spend a Saturday afternoon.

It all comes full circle back to those old Indian tales. That vague feeling of being on equal footing with what many would consider small varmits living on the margins.
A young coyote quietly approaching a flock of birds from down wind in low swamp brush
The Caddo language calls them ta shah. The coyote. The coyote is also represented in many morality tales as an example of a trickster and liar. The stories that make up the Caddo mythology attempt to answer questions about the world, teach lessons and simply to entertain. Some of the more popular stories that explain the world are about how death came into the world, the creation of a sacred spring and the flooding of the earth. Moral lessons are taught using the stories of the twin heroes named Thunder and Lightning.
A coyote stalking prey along a trail marked by Master Naturalist Bill Holston in the background
The voice of those ancient stories still ring true today. In the Great Trinity Forest, in the heart of a city, where one can find the terror and wonder of a coyote pack sniffing and walking over your own footprints laid minutes before. I thought their eyes might be larger than their mouths. Their quiet thousand yard stares were more geared toward quarry one hundred yards distant.

Whitetail Buck in velvet, Great Trinity Forest, Dallas, June 2013
The browsing habits of a Whitetail buck is what held their attention. Mine too. A rare sight for Dallas, the deer population is making a very slow recovery and a move up into East Dallas by way of wildlife corridors on White Rock Creek. Detrimental poaching activities which the city could easily address go largely unchecked down here. Hunting deer using hog dogs and cruel snare methods are a poor way to hunt and should be openly ridiculed by those at city hall.

It's hoped that whatever plans and designs are on tap for the second Trinity River golf course planned for this area in the last 50 years that accommodation will be made for the wildlife that already call it home.

This time of year the rich groundcover serves not just a unique foreground for a rising anvil headed thunderstorm some miles distant but also serves an an incubator of sorts for amphibians and crustaceans. The moderate late spring rains send water into these low areas allowing tadpoles and small crawfish an area to mature.
White Faced Ibis feeding in the immense flooded grass flats of the Great Trinity Forest

The tropical birds know all to well what feast awaits them in the shallows here. Those same birds that move up from the far flung places we Texans know as resort destinations, the Yucatan, Belize, the rain forests of the Amazon. Here in Dallas they feel right at home. What small Dallas county remanent left of a once immense bottom land that once reached clear to the Gulf of Mexico. Few such places exist these days. With the rarity of this type of land comes the loss in population of such birds. The White Faced Ibis is so few in number here in Texas now that the over-summering population here in the Great Trinity Forest most likely represents a notable percentage of the entire population. Bird minded folks always seem to flood me with email when I see the White Faced Ibis down here, especially when they have juveniles in tow.

White faced Ibis taking flight after seeing the coyotes

I imagine an Ibis would not have much of a taste to it or much nutritional value. The coyotes might have flushed the birds just for the sake of flushing. Just out of view and behind a small batch of willows the four coyotes converged on that flock. Hoping for what, I do not know. The tricksters.

Great Egret (Ardea alba)
Many of the birds this time of year are in full breeding plumage. The neon colors of their feathers and beaks really show in strong daylight. Birds that many see as plain vanilla this time of year have colors bolder than any running shoe.

All the birds featured here all feed directly from the Trinity River in the flats, flooded marshes and swamps that pepper the landscape of central Dallas in late spring.

Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga)

Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)
 This past winter did not bring the large flooding rains needed to send bait fish and fry into many of the old swamps and oxbows where these birds feed. Sort of slim pickings this year in places that are traditionally the Golden Corral buffets of fish for wading birds.

Unknown what impact this will have on the traditional migration of Wood Storks and Spoonbills to the DFW area.

Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor)
Juvenile Little Blue Heron
White Ibis fishing out the last puddle of water between the Corinth Viaduct and Santa Fe Trestle Trail, June 2013
Many of the wading birds in Texas are specialized in some hunting method that sets them apart from the rest. While flood water might not have moved in baitfish for consumption, the jack of all trades White Ibis and Snowy Egrets seem to have a niche in the flooded cover down here. Found up and down the Trinity River they can often be spotted close to Downtown if you peer over the bridges. About the size of a chicken the round birds are impressive to watch as they feed in organized groups.

Moving further down the river is where they really shine. This time of year when some of the areas hold small frogs and crayfish the birds attack with zeal. A hard rough cuss of a place to visit. Hard to get down there, hard to get through the woods, hard to move through all the detrius of the swamp and work up the nerve to stand in it, knee deep.
White Ibis

In the video above filmed entirely in Dallas, watch how the White Ibis and Snowy Egrets work in a coordinated flock eating frogs and small crayfish as they go.

Under the gathering clouds and electrifying claps of thunder a nearby storm does not even register with these birds. The ibis seem to serve as the bartender of the swamp, stirring up the bottom of a mix that brings prey to the surface. The egrets need to only follow the leader.

On their own, the egrets shake their feet methodically under the water hoping to stir food to the surface. Neither species of bird grips prey to any extent with their feet, all food is caught with their beak.

The off colored Ibis above is a juvenile White Ibis and has mastered the art of foraging for it's own food.

Many wonder if these sites will soon be a thing of the past. Killed off once by an ever expanding city and then left to regenerate without any help from man, this area now faces the very real possibility of being bulldozed for a new purpose. The bells still toll for one and all  -- and God knows for the land.