Friday, August 23, 2013

A Renewed Plan for a Trinity River Trail Downtown -- Into The Wild With The Downtown Dallas Coyotes

Coyotes hunting rabbits under the Continental Street Viaduct near Downtown Dallas, August 21, 2013

It's a scene out of rural Texas. A coyote jump-hunting cottontail rabbits on a sun-soaked evening as the sun begins to set. A predator versus prey game that plays out countless times in a day across the state.

The work done here by the coyotes is one of pride and pleasure. You can see the smile on their faces as they jump from one clump of grass to another rousting a hiding rabbit from one hiding spot to the next.

The pancake flat grassland here is not one of a far flung rural farm, it sits in the heart of Dallas within view of the Old Red Dallas County Courthouse and almost underneath the Margaret Hunt Hill and Continental Street Bridges.
Coyote bounding through high grass in the foreground, the old silver and red silos near Trinity Groves loom in the background

Coyotes are highly adaptable and can survive in urban areas as long as food and shelter requirements are met.  In urban areas coyotes will feed on almost anything including garbage, pet food, small cats and dogs, and other wild animals such as rodents, skunks, raccoons and birds.  Coyotes typically hunt alone, however they may hunt in groups when food is abundant. 

These particular coyotes have been here a number of years. I can recall the night shift watchmen during the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge construction comment on the coyotes who casually made their rounds in the evenings. The coyotes have learned that the day shift of construction workers would toss their lunch scraps around the job sites under the bridges. The coyotes here patrol the sites in the early evenings, going from one work site to the next.
A coyote trotting along a newly cut dirt road and proposed new hike and bike trail alignment between the Sylvan Avenue and Continental Street Viaduct
Coyotes sightings this close to Downtown Dallas are rare only because so few visit the area.  In areas where they are hunted and trapped, coyotes are extremely wary of humans.  However, in urban areas where they are less likely to be harmed and more likely to dis-associate people with danger, they simply give humans a wide berth.

Busy bee with the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge arch in the background
Coyote attacks are extremely rare.  In recorded history only 30 coyote attacks on humans have been recorded.  Three million children are bitten by dogs each year. A child is millions of times more likely to get attacked by the family pet than a coyote.  The vast majority of coyote attacks in the United States are the result of a coyote attacking a small dog or cat and the pet’s owner trying to stop the attack by getting between the animals.  When the pet’s owner gets between the animals, the coyote will bite the pet’s owner.

You are more likely to get attacked by a swarm of killer bees than bitten by a coyote.

2013's Renewed Promise of a Trinity River Trail in Downtown

Coyote yipping for her mate in a sea of grass
Coyote meandering towards the new Sylvan Avenue Bridge Project

The look of open fields and a sea of grass might look different in the near future. Just this past week there was news from City Hall of a renewed promise for building trails inside the levees near Downtown Dallas. More can be read about the details in an article by Robert Wilonsky in the Dallas Morning News here:

The coyote, seen at right is standing on the proposed route, it is standing near the lip of the Pavaho Pump Station outlet canal and where the proposed route according to the Dallas Morning News Map would run.

Currently a dirt road already exists, cut late this spring that serves some unknown utilitarian purpose. Most likely in bridge construction or pipeline maintenance of some sort.

Quite a few people ride the new dirt roads down here. They are 90 degree, perpendicular off-shoots to the older levee roads and give a unique perspective to the river.
New gravel culvert and road west of the Continental Viaduct

One of the gripes of the levee road access is that it never gets you to the river. Separated hundreds of yards from the trees and river bank, the river itself always seems like a distant mirage.
View from the Continental Street Viaduct looking west with the proposed trail alignment as seen currently as a dirt road
Potential view from the proposed alignment of the new trail
The 2011 Trail Idea
This is not the first try at a trail between the levees. Many may recall a plan headed up this time of year in 2011 by city councilpeople Angela Hunt and Scott Griggs. Their simple idea was to build soft surface trails near Downtown Dallas inside the floodway.

Known as the Trinity Trail Project, it actually became a reality for a short time. The details of that are here I actually rode the miles of trails cut inside the levees. That was a well thought out and unfortunately temporary path. I think those involved in that effort can see the fingerprints of their hard work in the new project. The local mountain bike group DORBA purchased a tow behind mower for that project, one that was never used. It is headed to two new projects on the Trinity River at Goat Island Preserve and Riverbend Preserve in Southern Dallas County. Those new trails, will use that mower than never saw use between the levees.

 The 2012 Trail Idea

Where the sidewalk ends. The west end of the concrete trail/road poured in the fall of 2012 that stretches from I-35 to the Trinity River Standing Wave and Trestle Trail
 In late October of 2012 a concrete bike trail, technically a road, was built from near the Corinth DART Station at the Santa Fe Trestle Trail due west along the base of the levee stopping just east of the I-35 Bridge. Taking only a week to build, this ribbon of concrete replaced a dirt access road.

As seen in the Fall of 2012, the recently paved section of the concrete trail-maintenance road with the Corinth Street Viaduct in the background
 Lots Of Construction -- Lots Of Bridge Work

Drilling piers for the new Margaret McDermott Bridge August 21, 2013
I guess the trick is how all these new trails can be built with years of upcoming bridge work and construction. Currently, in the summer of 2013, the bridge work for the I-30 replacement bridge, the Margaret McDermott Bridge.
Rendering of the Margaret McDermott Bridge
Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, August 2013
When the first Santiago Calatrava Bridge was under construction, access anywhere nearby was quite difficult due to the large construction footprint. I imagine that the new Calatrava bridge might even be larger in scope due to the width of the I-30 replacement.

Given the number of construction vehicles, concrete trucks and semis trying to make the grade in and out of the levees, it was a real trick to navigate it on a bike.

With so many bridges currently under construction, closed for repairs or having trolley tracks installed, riding from the north side of the Trinity to the south on a bike is a real pickle at the moment. 

Houston Street Viaduct being retrofitted for a trolley line serving Oak Cliff
Piles of brand new trolley rails stacked along the Houston Street-Zang Blvd connection in Oak Cliff
The Houston Street Viaduct, Continental Street Viaduct and Sylvan Avenue Bridges have long been the most well traveled routes for cyclists and runners between Downtown Dallas and Oak Cliff. Presently all are closed. That requires using a makeshift lane on the Jefferson Street Viaduct to cross the river. Access from that bridge is somewhat limited to the river levee trails itself, requiring a double back on a closed road at the moment. Hopefully that improves soon with the winter 2014 opening of the Sylvan Avenue Bridge.

Full moon crowning the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge as seen from the levee, August 21, 2013

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Big Boy Locomotive Stops In Dallas Great Trinity Forest

Union Pacific Big Boy 4018 along the railroad tracks near Rochester Park that serve as the western boundary of the Great Trinity Forest
For almost fifty years the one million pound plus Big Boy 4018 locomotive stood as a silent and immovable monument in Fair Park. Fifty years of Texas-OU Weekends, Cotton Bowls and concerts it stood in stoic silence. That changed August 18, 2013 as it began a 50+ mile journey from Fair Park in Dallas, Texas to a new home in Frisco, Texas.

The first five miles of the journey took it down the western edge of the Great Trinity Forest through Dixon Circle Park, Rochester Park and within view of the Buckeye Trail. For a few hours on a bright Sunday afternoon, Big Boy sat among the trees, a view not seen for decades.
4018 Big Boy in Dallas Texas near White Rock Creek awaiting clearance to continue to the Bon Ton neighborhood August 18, 2013
As a non-revenue producing trip for the railroads, the revenue producing freight trains and even Amtrak passenger trains were given priority over the 4018 move. That caused a series of delays in what turned out to be a rather photogenic if hidden spot among the trees and White Rock Creek. Thousands of people lined the route from Scyene through Rochester Park, BonTon, Lamar and Corinth crossings.

Rear axle of 4018 Big Boy shimmed above the track
With such a large and heavy locomotive, turns and Y junctions are nearly impossible. The only way to accomplish the trip was to raise the rear axle of 4018 until it had passed some distance towards Downtown Dallas where the rails did not have abrupt turns and Y junctions.

The Big Boy locomotives are some of the largest locomotives ever built. Often called the last of the big freight locomotives, Union Pacific built 25 of the Big Boys in the early 1940s. Alco, the American Locomotive Company developed the colossus with a 4-8-8-4 wheel arrangement, a service weight over 500 tons and a length of almost 132 feet . This giant was known respectfully as "Big Boy" and the name stuck, becoming the symbol of the world's largest steam locomotive. Without the tender, the Big Boy had the longest engine body of any reciprocating steam powered locomotive.

The locomotives were designed to haul coal mostly over the mountains in Wyoming and Utah. They remained in service in Utah and Wyoming for two decades and each one nearly racked up over one million miles in their lifetime.


Only 8 of the 25 Big Boy locomotives remain. 4018, the locomotive seen here was built in December 1941 and saw service for decades in Wyoming and the Green River Valley. It burned the same low grade coal it hauled making fueling the massive locomotive an easy task.

4018 was decommissioned in 1962 and donated to Fair Park in 1964. The route it took to Dallas was through Wyoming, Missouri and then into Dallas via the Santa Fe Railroad. That final section is now the Santa Fe Trail in East Dallas between White Rock Lake and Fair Park.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Night Herons On The Trinity River

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron landing at a pond near the base of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge Dallas, Texas
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron
Thunderstorms in the heat of a Texas summer are well known for turning a shadeless hundred degree evening into a dark wind blown affair.  As the quick growing towers of such storms rise into the stratosphere they provide a dramatic backdrop for the flat Texas plains. Accompanying the cool weather is an ever changing palette of color in the sky that turns the mundane hazy blue sky into unique color hard to replicate anywhere else.

The quickly darkening conditions can often trick the nocturnal animals that are often active after sunset. Some of the more common birds are night herons. The two species of night herons in Texas are the Black Crowned Night Heron and Yellow Crowned Night Heron. Both species are small wading birds that are relatively unknown to most due to their reclusive nature and trait of nocturnal activity. They forage in shallow water at dusk and under the cover of night feeding on a collection of aquatic prey including fish, crayfish, frogs, tadpoles and insects.They are the dagger billed birds that are widespread along the river bottoms but so few people see them working the ponds and shallows in the dark.

Buckeye Butterfly near the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge

The Weather Turns Angry
A slight bit of caution needs to be taken when out in the open during approaching storms. The levees are a vast and open place with very little shelter beyond the bridges. No real threat of flash flooding exists here as 90% of floodwater must first be collected and then pumped over the levees. Lightning is the real threat as cover is sparse.
A fast changing skyscape from sunny to imminent rain in the span of a half hour

The water feature here so often photographed as a backdrop reflection to the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge is a set of shallow depressions from long ago borrow pits used to build the levees. Old maps and aerial photos dating from the 1920s and 1930s show a small creek or water feature running through this area that might have existed prior to the levees being constructed. During levee construction, this area was excavated and the dirt used in the levees.

The water body starts up near Sylvan Avenue and winds down to the Continental Street Viaduct.

Black Crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Black Crowned Night Heron Dallas, Texas

One of the most widespread birds on the planet, the Black-Crowned Night Heron can be found on every continent but Antarctica. Often called the Night Hawk or Night Heron, this bird of both the Old and New Worlds is steeped in old legends as a harbinger of ghostly contact with the underworld.

The Black-Crowned Night Heron is a small, wading bird that reaches lengths of 22-26 inches with a wingspan of up to 45 inches. They have black plumage on top of the head and back with grayish-blue wings. The underside of the neck and belly usually a brilliant white. It also has a thick black bill and short yellow legs. The night herons have a shorter neck than other herons assisting them in their stocky appearance when compared to other wading birds. Two long white slender plumes extend from the back of the head while in breeding plumage. There unique vocalization, “quock”, is often heard at or around dusk as they fly to their feeding grounds

Black-Crowned Night Herons are most active at dawn and dusk, but they also forage in the dead of night (hence "Night-Heron") and occasionally during the day, although much of the daytime hours are usually spent sleeping in nearby tree roosts. As a bird of the night one of the most remarkable features are the large red eyes they exhibit. One of the biggest and colorful eyes of any bird in Texas.

The bird uses a variety of shallow wetlands for foraging and employs various techniques to capture a diversity of prey including insects, fish, frogs, mice, and the young of other native waterbirds.

Black Crowned Night Heron killing a Cattle Egret chick

One of the more amazing aspects of the Black Crowned Night Heron is the ability of the bird to eat other birds of near similar size, whole. Above and left, a Black-Crowned Night Heron kills and eats whole a Cattle Egret chick. This occurred right off the Trinity River in a nearby rookery used by many species of wading birds. During spring and early summer the adults fish the wading pools of the nearby Trinity and commute back to the nest site to feed their young.

The nests in this rookery vary greatly in size, stability, and construction. Many of them are crude, loose-built platforms, made of coarse sticks, and scantily lined with twigs and feathers. Some are so small and so insecurely placed that the eggs or young are shaken out of them by heavy winds and the nests are blown out of the trees.

 Rather remarkable to see this bird take on such a prey of that size. Black-Crowned Night Herons have the ability to handle the bones of other birds such as this. One of the few birds in Texas that consume other birds, whole.

Juvenile Black Crowned Night Herons are mostly brown overall with a darker head. The second year brings plumage more like the adult plumage; it will be browner with a dark cap and back and brown wings and neck.

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron Nyctanassa violacea
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron in the reflecting pond of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, Dallas, Texas
The Yellow-Crowned Night Heron is a migratory bird that resides here along the Trinity River in Texas during the summer months. During the winter, it can be found as far south as South America, but can be found almost anywhere along the Gulf and Atlantic Coast year round.  Unlike other night heron species, the yellow-crowned forages both late in the day and night. It forages much like other herons by wading through water waiting for its prey to come within striking distance. Also, unlike the great heron which many have seen standing motionless like a statue in many Texas waters, the yellow-crowned will stir up its quarry by wading briskly at the waters edge. With a quick dancing motion, the dagger like bill stabs its prey.  The prey of a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron normally consists of fish, frogs, grasshoppers, and occasionally snakes, but its primary diet is crustaceans (crayfish).

With a quick dancing motion, the dagger like bill stabs its prey.  The prey of a yellow-crowned night heron normally consists of fish, frogs, grasshoppers, and occasionally snakes, but its primary diet is crustaceans (crayfish).

This pictured Yellow Crowned Night Heron caught the crayfish in the reflecting pond of the Calatrava Bridge in Dallas as the storms approached.

It is also not uncommon to see a Yellow Crowned Night Heron prey upon small turtles since it has a unique stomach acid to help digest the shell, much like the Black Crowned will take on small birds.
The Yellow-Crowned Night Heron is slightly different from the Black Crowned. The yellow crown or "yellow mohawk" on the top of it's head is easy to spot from a modest distance. Like it's cousin, the Yellow Crown is a short stocky bird about 24 inches in length with a wingspan of a little under four feet. It has long yellow to orange legs, red eyes, a black bill and a short neck. The adults are a soft blue-gray, blackish on wings and tail, with a creamy white crown accented by a black face and white cheek patch. During breeding season, adults have a yellow plume of feathers on their head.
Yellow Crowned Night Herons with the eery reflective backlight of the Calatrava Bridge casting light on the water

Yellow Crowned Night Herons are a far rarer find in North Texas. Traditionally birds of the coast and of wetlands, they are not widely distributed here in the Dallas County area. The Yellow-Crowned Night Heron has a misleading name. The crown of this bird is actually white for most of the year. It is not until breeding season arrives that the crown turns yellow.

Yellow Crowned Night Heron Nestling
During breeding season, the Yellow-Crowned Night Heron will build a nest of sticks and twigs measuring two or three feet across. This nest is generally a substantial platform that can be found on the ground, or low in a tree, by a body of water. The female will lay three to five eggs that are a pale bluish green in color. Both the male and female will take turns incubating the eggs.

Yellow Crowned Night Herons traditionally do not nest with other species, preferring to nest independently in smaller groups of four or five nests. That makes finding their nesting sites much more difficult as one cannot use the tell-tale rookeries of large white feathered birds like egrets as a guide.

Juvenile Yellow Crowned Night Heron near the Continental Street Viaduct Dallas, Texas
Juvenile Yellow Crowned Night Heron
Young Yellow-crowned Night Herons do not look like the adults. They have the same bulky black bill, but their feathers are brown with white markings. The young have orange eyes and greenish legs. They are almost identical to the young Black-crowned Night Heron, but the young Yellow-crowned has longer legs and it stands with a more upright posture

The Yellow-Crowned Night Heron is a common wetland bird in Texas, but is listed as threatened in many of the states within its northeastern range. Loss of wetland habitat has had the greatest impact on this species. With continued conservation of our wetland areas and development of new areas we can help preserve the viewing of this species for many generations to come.

Post-sunset glow over Dallas, August 9, 2013