White Rock Lake: A New Perspective

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4763acsKayaking, the day after Christmas. Who would have guessed?

Yet that’s the way I spent my holiday this year. Christmas with family in Dallas, Texas is a tradition. Spending time at White Rock Lake, walking and photographing the park and the wildlife there, is a tradition. Getting out on the water there – well, here’s to new traditions!

Last year I discovered two kayaks, hidden away behind my cousin Jensen’s house. I immediately began a subtle (ok, not so subtle) campaign to coax him into an excursion on White Rock Lake over the holidays. All we needed was warmth, sunshine and light winds, the last always essential on a big lake like White Rock.

The day was warm, but the sky was dark and moody, and we even had a brief shower. No matter. The morning was dead calm, the lake as smooth as glass. I was paddling, for gosh sakes, the day after Christmas. All was right with the world.

161226_tx-white-rock-lake-kayak_112937acsAfter years of exploring White Rock Lake from land, this was the perspective I had been itching to see – White Rock from the water.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4761acsMy cousin Jensen, lookin’ good.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4767acsCruising past the marina. Brightly colored kayaks rested among the sailboats, just waiting for someone to liberate them from their land-locked existence.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4771acsJensen knifed through the water so powerfully he threatened to paddle right out of my picture. One-handed, yet!

Elaborate mansions line the shores of the lake behind him, and beyond that, the Dallas skyline.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4777acsA wonderful pedestrian bridge arched over a narrow arm of the lake.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4795acsWe paddled under the Mockingbird Lane bridge, where Jensen tried his hand at a little fishing. The day after Christmas. Imagine that!

After this, my photography went south. To capture images in the darkness under the bridge, I needed to adjust the settings of my small waterproof point-and-shoot camera. I forgot to reset it afterward. Later I learned that this camera can’t handle those settings. Only a few images after that point were even usable, and they’re a little embarrassing.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4823acsHere’s one of them anyway, which I only share since it’s of my favorite White Rock bird, the American Coot.

Jensen and I paddled a short way up White Rock Creek. We could have explored a lot further up the waterway, but frankly, it got depressing.

Why? Trash. Plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups and other bits and pieces of detritus. Now, I’m used to Darby Creek at home, which draws its fair share of refuse. But not this bad.

img951911acThe scene inspired Jensen and his son Jake to do a little volunteer work a month later.

They spent a good three hours cleaning up trash from a 40-foot section of shoreline, filling two large Hefty bags in the process.

Here’s one of their finds. Way to go, guys! (Photo by Jensen Moock)

170101_tx-wrl-kayak-jensen-and-alex_950923acsSpeaking of family… Jensen’s daughter Alex had really wanted to go kayaking with us. Alas, we only had two kayaks. So she went with her dad a week or so later. As you can see, they had a much prettier day. And Jensen had prettier company. (Photo by Jensen Moock)

Notice the GoPro behind the seat. Alex, soon to graduate from high school, is a talented filmmaker. She starts at prestigious Belmont University in the fall. Can you tell I’m proud of her?

(That doesn’t get you off the hook, Alex – I still haven’t seen footage from your White Rock kayak experience. Or anything you shot from the drone.)

170101_tx-wrl-kayak-jensen-and-alex_9155acsA lake, a fishing rod and a sunset. Jensen, enjoying the serenity of a day with his daughter. (Photo by Alex Moock)

Back to my little White Rock adventure. After the paddle up the creek, Jensen and I returned to our exploration of the lake. He had no luck fishing, but we chatted with another boater who told us a few fish tales. I showed Jensen the dog park, and the arm of the lake I call “Cormorant Corner”, for all the Double-crested Cormorants that roost in the trees there. Funny to think that a lifelong Dallas resident needed to be shown around White Rock Lake by a part-time visitor.

161226_tx-white-rock-lake-kayak_122640acsHere’s a rarely seen sight – me, captured on camera.

On White Rock Lake.

The day after Christmas.

(Photo by Jensen Moock)

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4843acsDramatic clouds over the lake. They would part just as we were getting off the water, yielding to sunshine and blue skies.

I ate lunch in my bare feet. The day after Christmas.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

A Texas Ecology Lesson

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7840acsEven in winter, the Blackland prairie habitat at the Heard Sanctuary in Texas was beautiful. Sunlight painted the grasses and plants with glowing shades of amber, russet and pale cream. A bird box awaited the arrival of new life.

I wasn’t expecting an ecology lesson when I wandered through the Heard Sanctuary. I was thinking about the variety of habitats and plant communities that I was seeing. I was also wondering where the critters were. But I soon realized that all the elements of a complex ecosystem were observable here, hiding in plain sight.

ECOSYSTEM (noun): a community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment (things like air, water and mineral soil), interacting as a system. (Wikipedia)

A habitat is the natural environment for an organism. Add a variety of plants and animals, make it interconnected and self-sustaining, and now you’ve got an ecosystem!

An ecosystem is self-sufficient and cyclical; its nutrients go through a series of changes that transport them around the ecosystem in an unending web. Ecosystems need abiotic matter, producers and consumers, scavengers and decomposers. All of these were in evidence on my walk through the Heard Sanctuary.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8157aThis is the black soil of the Blackland Prairie. Soil, sediment and organic matter form the abiotic component of an ecosystem. Here the soil is an alkaline clay of chalk, limestone and shale. In dry weather, large deep cracks form in its surface. All the cycles of life – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, water cycles and more – start with the soil and come back to the soil. Abiotic matter, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7755acsGrowing in that rich dark soil were plants. Pretty plants…

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7759acs… and strange plants. This one has winged stems. Plants are the producers of the ecosystem, taking nutrients from the soil and energy from the sun to grow and reproduce. Their seeds, fruit, stems and leaves become food for the animals. Producers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7538acsWalking along the trail through the woodlands, I heard the twitters of small birds – chickadees, nuthatches, a cardinal. While searching in vain for them, the nubby texture of this tree caught my eye. That big hole looked just right for an owl… but alas, no one was home.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8112aThese are galls, or they may be burls. The two growths are similar, and there are so many conflicting definitions online that I couldn’t sort out the difference. Insects, bacteria or fungi get under the tree’s skin, and an abnormal swelling of plant tissues forms around the invader. These growths are the result.

Most galls are small and appear on leaves or twigs, but they can be large and woody. Burls seem to be exclusively woody. Inside a burl, the rings of the wood twist into lovely shapes that are prized by woodworkers for their beauty.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8117acsI thought the outside was beautiful, too.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7897acsGoldenrod.

In this season, my wildflower guide was not a lot of help. Without flowers on the plants, I couldn’t identify much along the trail.

But I could admire everything! Except critters. So few critters to admire…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then I came to the swamp, and suddenly there were animals everywhere.

Waterfowl swam placidly past. Coots. Mallards. A Northern Shoveler.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7986acsAnd turtles. Lots of turtles, basking in the 82° sunshine. There was plenty of plant material in the swamp for herbivores like turtles and ducks. Primary consumers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7546acsOh, cool! Snakes!

Yes, that’s actually what I thought when I saw this sign. I’ve never seen either a copperhead or a cottonmouth. I was hoping to see one or both, though preferably at a safe distance. Not this day, though.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7802acsI found some droppings on the boardwalk. Why, oh why, you might ask. Why was I interested in this?

Because there was fur and bone in them, the calling card of something carnivorous like a fox or coyote. I never saw the animals themselves. For evidence of this component of the Heard ecosystem, a little scat had to do. Secondary consumers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7785acsWheeling over the prairie, a Turkey Vulture. Even though I see them all the time back East, they somehow seemed appropriate in this dry environment. To our eyes, vultures are ugly birds with an ugly lifestyle – they eat dead animals. Scavengers like vultures play a really important role in consuming and passing on the nutrients that would otherwise remain locked inside an animal’s body after it dies. Scavengers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7541acsNearby, a bracket fungus clung to another tree like the bookshelf of a woodland elf.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8012acsFungi are neither plant nor animal; they make up their own kingdom and play their own part in an ecosystem. Fungi’s role is to decompose organic matter.

The portion we see, the mushroom, is the fruiting body of the fungus.

Decomposers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7915acsThe variety of plants in the swamp, cedar brake and prairie of the Heard Sanctuary was a marvel to behold. Studying it and photographing it kept me busy and happy on a warm December day.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7959acsAnimal life was less obvious. Turtles sunned themselves on logs, while birds sang in the trees. Scat revealed the presence of a carnivore, but the critters themselves were tucked away out of sight.

Soil, plants and animals; swamp, woodland and prairie. All the building blocks of an ecosystem were there in the Heard Sanctuary for me to see if I looked hard enough. A walking ecology lesson!

Lone Star Habitat

2016-12-28_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary-pan-1acsI’ve been thinking a lot about the word “habitat.” My friends and I throw the term around a lot. We talk about pristine or disturbed habitat; interesting, unusual or downright odd habitat; preserving habitat and restoring habitat.

What the heck are we talking about?

The Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary in McKinney, Texas showcases a variety of habitats, from wetlands and forest to prairie. On a recent visit, I took a walk that wound through several different habitats, three of which were unlike anything I see back East. Along the way, I started to muse about the meaning of habitat.

HABITAT (noun): the natural environment of an organism; place that is natural for the life and growth of an organism. (Dictionary.com)

It’s the place an animal or plant lives. It’s comprised of everything an organism, or a population of organisms, needs to survive, from soil, moisture and light to food and shelter. Habitats range from a large area like a forest to a small site, such as the inside of a rotten log.

My friends and I use the term in a wider, more colloquial way to refer to a geographical area of varying size, where the soil, geology and plant communities are fairly uniform. Technically, that’s a “biotope”, but the terms are so similar that we say “habitat.”

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7643aDallas lies in the Texas Blackland prairie region. Before much of the land was converted to agriculture and residential use, grassland, oakland and savanna habitats once covered the area.

At the Heard Sanctuary, the trail wound through remnants of Blackland prairie. A type of grassland, prairies typically have deep fertile soil, on which grasses and wildflowers grow. Trees and shrubs may be present, but cover no more than 10% of the area. For centuries, animals such as bison, pronghorn and deer, as well as wildfires, kept woody plants and trees at bay and preserved the land as prairie.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8179aGrasses found in the prairie include big and little bluestem and Indian grass. In winter, golden browns, russets and tans adorn the land. In the growing months, these hillsides are ablaze in wildflowers.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7931acsAt the Heard Sanctuary, I encountered a swamp for the first time. They call it a wetland, but it’s a swamp. “Wetland” is a term that encompasses any land area saturated with water at some time of the year. Bogs, marshes and swamps are all wetlands, but a bog is not a marsh and a marsh is not a swamp. Marshes, like those at John Heinz NWR near home, are dominated by soft-stemmed herbaceous plants and grasses.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7926acsSwamps like this are dominated by woody plants, aka trees.

The swamp here is ephemeral, meaning it is not flooded the whole year. In the summer, it dries up. During the dry period, annual plants sprout.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7956acsThen the autumn rains come, and the plants die. Their seeds and leaves become an important source of food for the wetland visitors and inhabitants. The swamp is again a watery wonderland.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8015acsFurther along the trail was another interesting habitat, the Cedar Brake. I wondered what a “brake” was. From what I’ve been able to find, it’s a tangle of dense brush and briars. So the cedar brake was a thick cedar grove with a thick brushy understory?

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8022aLife is not so simple. As you can see, there was almost no understory to this cedar brake. Lots of trees, yes, but no brush. Deep in the woods, the trees were bare of foliage for most of their length.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8111acsOnly when I looked to the sky did I see the greenery.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8083acsAbout those trees… They may be called “cedars”, but they are not true cedars. Instead, they are junipers in the Cypress family.

Junipers are evergreen trees or shrubs with small scale-like leaves and cones surrounded by a fleshy covering that looks like a berry.

Junipers often occur in oak-juniper woodlands in Texas, but here it was a monoculture of cedar trees.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8060acsExactly which juniper tree remains a mystery, to me at least. Identifying junipers is very difficult, even for experts.

 

Possibly Eastern redcedar, Juniperus virginia, which usually has a single trunk.

Ashe juniper, Juniperus ashei, known as post cedar or Texas cedar, is common in Texas, but usually has multiple stems and is shorter.

Both have blue seed cones, and the two species hybridize.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7537aEvery region has its own types of habitat, and exploring different regions of the country is a great way to get to experience distinctive environments. When I am in Texas, I always seek out natural places that have something new to show me. With a wonderful variety of habitats, the Heard Sanctuary did not let me down!

Texas Travelogue

Critter Radio Logo v3Up North, the wind is howling and the snow falls by the foot. But here in the heart of Texas, the maelstrom is far away. The late afternoon sun shines warmly on the gently rippled lake as a flotilla of stately Pelicans sets sail for Sunset Bay. Refined dining awaits.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4114acsHello. I’m Arthur Pelican, travel editor for KRTR, Critter Radio. I’ve come here to White Rock Lake to sample the amenities and meet the guests at one of the finest avian winter resorts in Dallas.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4521acsNestled amid grasslands, wetlands and woodlands, this 1,015-acre jewel is the perfect escape from the cold and snow for the discriminating critter.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_4951Amenities include endless opportunities for water recreation, numerous docks and piers for sunbathing, and a variety of fine cuisine.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4448acsIn addition, the Lake’s location northeast of Big D offers an abundance of urban culture and nightlife within easy proximity.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4146acsWhite Rock Lake is fed by White Rock Creek, a 30-mile creek that joins the Trinity River south of the Lake. The Creek and the Lake get their name from the white Austin chalk that makes up the streambed and banks. Large rocks of weathered chalk pepper the shores of the Lake.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_4828acsA popular highlight of the Lake is a large water park called the Spillway.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_4968acsDrought can put a damper on recreation, but not this year. There is no shortage of water in which to play, thanks to recent drenching rains. The Spillway fairly gushes with the precious liquid.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_4948acsDown the wide shallows of the Upper Spillway and around an island, water then streams over the elaborate Stair Steps of the Lower Spillway. And on to the Trinity River, 8 miles downstream.151229_TX White Rock Lake_4820acs

151229_TX White Rock Lake_5243acs Some birds prefer their solitude; for them the quaint coves of White Rock Lake offer the serenity they seek.151229_TX White Rock Lake_5127acs

151229_TX White Rock Lake_5016acsBut for the many who enjoy the social whirlwind, there is no shortage of prominent points and expansive bays where the feathered flock can see and be seen.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4203acsPosh clubs abound, where singles can mingle, and perhaps become pairs…

151229_TX White Rock Lake_5083acsOr trios…

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4757acsOr… Perhaps a gentleman simply wishes a hideaway to escape over-ardent suitors!

151229_TX White Rock Lake_5235acsWhatever their tastes in dining and entertainment, be it lively fellowship or peaceful seclusion, rest assured the cultured critter will find it here at White Rock Lake.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4007acsJust tell them Arthur Pelican from KRTR Critter Radio sent you. Bon voyage!

The Clown Prince of White Rock

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4486acsConsider the Coot.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4406acsIn the pantheon of White Rock Lake, he is the court jester.

Black of body, red of eye, white of bill, the American Coot is a plain-looking water bird that can’t figure out where he belongs.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4503acsOn water he swims and dives like a duck; but he isn’t a duck.

Consider the Coot. On land he doesn’t waddle, but walks like a chicken. He’s sometimes called “Mud Hen” and his shape resembles a chicken; but he isn’t a chicken.

In the air he’s awkward – but first he has to get there, a challenge for the coot. He takes off by running for a long way across the water while flapping his wings, like a loon; but he isn’t a loon.

Other birds don’t think much of the Coot.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4127acsDouble-crested Cormorants, undeniably snooty, look down their bills from lofty heights at the Coot.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4158acsGreat-tailed Grackle struts, smug in the knowledge that he outshines the Coot.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_4853acsGreat Egret is studiously cool, ignoring the Coots.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_5177acsYes, the bird royalty treats the Coot with disdain. Not so the squirrels. They think the Coot’s a little nuts.

Perhaps this is why. What sensible bird would hurl himself at a wall of rushing water 5 times his height – for fun?!? Yet that is what the Coot does, over and over again. He walks up the face of the dam spillway until the water knocks him tail over teacups and washes him down the stream bed. Then he walks up and does it again. It’s whitewater kayaking, coot-style.

Coot Collage 2

Click for full-size image

FUN FACT: The American Coot is most comfortable on the water, but his feet aren’t webbed like a duck’s. Instead they have long toes with lobes of skin that propel him through the water. The same lobes keep him from sinking into mud when he’s on shore leave.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4696acsLook out, here come the Coots!

White Rock Lake is a large park in a highly urban area. Lots of folks come down to the shore with bags of bread for the “ducks.” What they get is Coots.

Consider the Coot. The Coot is a rail; rails are usually known for their secretiveness. But he’s a noisy gregarious bird that hangs out in large flocks in the open.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4727aWhich squabble over every bit of junk food tossed their way.

Other birds think this behavior unseemly. Little do they know how magical, how wondrous, it is!

An audience of young urban children is enthralled with his comedy routine. They giggle at his antics, and shriek with delight. For many of them, the park is a rare escape from the noise, the congestion and the concrete of their neighborhoods. The Coot is their first connection with wildlife.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4722acsIf even a few of these children grow to love and defend wild animals and wild lands, it will have started here. In this urban park, in the heart of Dallas, on the wild edge between man and nature.

The promise of the future rests on the wings of the clown prince of White Rock, the American Coot.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4492acsAll hail the Coot!

Git Along Little Doggies

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8343acs Getting my daily dose of wildlife while visiting family on vacation can be frustrating. At home I know when and where to go to find cool critters. Heinz Refuge and Cape May in early May for warblers, the Delaware Bayshore in late May for horseshoe crabs and red knots, Hawk Mountain in the fall for raptors. When I go away to visit family, it’s an excellent opportunity to visit new places. But the timing of the visits isn’t always conducive to wildlife spotting.

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8314aI go to Texas in the winter. Except at White Rock Lake (where there’s always something happening) I pretty much have to take what I can get.

That means a lot of landscape and plant photography, and accepting that brown is the color of the day.

Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge was no different when I visited; lots of neat habitat, not a lot of wildlife.

Except for the prairie dogs!

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8278acs The Nature Center has a prairie dog town. It’s a large area of fenced prairie; I’m not sure whether the fence is to keep the prairie dogs in, or the humans out. The sign above would seem to indicate the latter.

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8481acsInside the enclosure, a good number of the little rodents go about their lives. Yes, they are rodents, related to squirrels. The “dog” name comes from their high-pitched bark. Prairie dogs are highly social. They live together in family groups, sometimes called a coterie; a number of groups comprise a ward, and a number of wards make up a town.

The land is peppered with the entrances to their burrows. Weather is harsh in the prairies, and burrows offer protection from floods, hailstorms, fires and temperature extremes. Below the ground are a number of separate chambers for sleeping, raising babies, food storage and elimination. There may be as many as 6 entrances to a burrow. The craters serve as lookout posts and ventilation.

FUN FACT: Burrow holes have different shapes and heights. When the wind blows, air moves into the burrow through the lower, more rounded dome craters; it passes through the burrow and exits through the higher, sharper-edged rim crater.

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8444acsPrairie dogs dance! Nuzzling and grooming is common among family groups. It’s ridiculously cute when they do this. Call it the Texas Two-step.

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8448acsCONSERVATION PIECE: Not everyone thinks prairie dogs are cute. They feed on grasses, sedges and roots, keeping the vegetation short and churning up the soil. This benefits the habitat by enriching the plant life and attracting other wildlife. Their burrows can provide homes for other critters as well. Because of their importance to the plains, prairie dogs are considered a keystone species.

Despite this, farmers and ranchers often consider them pests, and eliminate them where possible. This has contributed to a population nose-dive, which has had a ripple effect across the plains. The endangered black-footed ferret, which relies on prairie dogs for shelter and food, has been driven to near-extinction by their eradication.

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8359acsPrairie dogs have a number of predators besides humans, including raptors, coyotes, snakes and ferrets. So they need to be wary. Living communally affords them safety in numbers. One or more prairie dogs will be on lookout duty at all times.

FUN FACT: Things get interesting when a threat is detected. Prairie dogs have a large repertoire of barks and calls. Years of study have revealed that these calls are capable of indicating not only which species of animal is threatening the colony, but can describe the individual animal. A prairie dog call for a tall human is different than the call for a short one!

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8494acsAlways on the lookout, a lone sentry stands guard.

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8346aAll clear!

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8355acsAnd off we go.