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.


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!

Huntin’ Armadillos: Hagerman NWR

TX Hagerman NWR_5999a Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge: 11,320 acres on the Big Mineral arm of Lake Texoma, along the border of Texas and Oklahoma. Bit off the beaten path for a Pennsylvania chick, isn’t it? Except that last month found me in Dallas spending time with family. Inevitably I got itchy for the great outdoors. This year I conned my cousin Jensen into spending a day at Hagerman, mostly by promising him armadillos. Jensen is a talented photographer with a good eye who focuses on landscapes and sports. This would be his first time birding – and armadillo hunting.

TX Hagerman NWR_6017aThe day didn’t start out auspiciously. 45° to a Southern boy with thin blood and no socks is darn near intolerable. The wind wasn’t helping matters; nor were the thick gray clouds. The weather only served to accentuate the stark landscapes, and send us scurrying back to the warmth of Jensen’s SUV.

TX Hagerman NWR_6310acs Then we saw one good bird, a Red-tailed Hawk, and then another, this time a Northern Harrier (above) in flight. Suddenly the day didn’t look so bad! By the time we’d driven along the Wildlife Drive to where the Snow Geese were, the wind was abating and the sun was trying to break out.

TX HagermanSnow Geese_6256aAh, the Snow Geese! There were hundreds of them, as there always are, gathered in a grassy field across from the lake. TX HagermanSnow Geese_6340aMore poured in from somewhere over the trees. Watching large flocks of Snow Geese fly always amazes me. They never fly into each other, even when the flight paths of individual squadrons cross. When I looked at these photos later, I discovered that there were a few smaller but very similar Ross’s Geese mixed in.

TX Hagerman NWR_6488aOne of the odd things about Hagerman NWR is that it is dotted with oil wells. Many of them are sitting out at the end of narrow peninsulas jutting out into the lake. The Turkey Vulture above startled us as we were walking down one such spit of land. It burst up out of the vegetation at the water’s edge right next to us, and we’d never even known it was there. One of the many Turkey Vultures at Hagerman.

TX Hagerman NWR_6500acs Off in the distance, we saw something brown splashing across a creek. An armadillo? No such luck, but what we saw was just as good. Jensen said “Fox!” just as I yelled “Coyote!”  TX Hagerman NWR_6514aMr. Coyote turned and looked back at us before disappearing into the brush. I’d never seen a coyote before.

TX Hagerman NWR_6618acs We spent some time walking along a couple of different trails, across marshy areas and through woods. These strange seeds littered the ground. Jensen said they called them “crabapples” as kids. Sorry, cuz, wrong again. The sign says they’re the fruit of the Osage Orange.

FUN FACT: Well, okay, we have to give Jensen partial credit, because a common name for these fruits is “hedge apple”; in Texas, “horse apple” is common. For centuries the Osage Orange tree was found only in a limited area near the Red River valley, a portion of which is now Lake Texoma. They spread throughout the Plains after they were widely planted as living fences in long hedgerows. Aggressive pruning turned them into tight thorny hedges. Barbed wire made the trees obsolete, but their strong termite-resistant wood makes great fence posts that don’t rot.

Maybe those hedges are keeping the armadillos out?

TX Hagerman NWR_6634acsBoth Western and Eastern Meadowlark are found at Hagerman. I’m not a good enough birder to tell the difference from a photo. Supposedly, their songs are quite different, but these birds weren’t talking!

TX Hagerman NWR_6673acs The ponds around the Refuge are good wintering places for waterfowl. We saw several kinds of ducks, including Mallards, Ruddy Ducks, Gadwalls, and this Northern Shoveler. There were also a number of Great Blue Herons.

TX Hagerman NWR_6907acsAt one point, the Refuge road passed through a small cattle ranch. This little Texan farm dog chased our SUV fiercely through his territory, despite not being any taller than our hubcaps.

TX HagermanSnow Geese_6724acs Also escorting us along the road was this flock of snow geese. No more dark clouds now – nothing but blue skies!

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY: There’s always one on every trip, isn’t there? This time it was a Greater Roadrunner, along the side of the road just feet away from our car. Of course this was AFTER we’d put our cameras away and left the Refuge!

The Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote in one day? I guess that was too much to ask!

And still no armadillos.TX Hagerman NWR_6686acs