For my second visit to the vast tracts of wilderness north of Lewisville Lake I headed over to the west side of the Trinity River, to a place known as the Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center (CCNHC). Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center is part of the City of Denton’s park system. Here is how it is described on their website:

Mission

Inspire environmental citizenship through an understanding of the natural heritage of north central Texas by providing nature experiences, education and research programs, and conservation and restoration projects.

Vision

The Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center will:

  • Promote environmental citizenship
  • Provide a place for people to interact and connect with nature
  • Be a model of integrated learning for environmental, outdoor and experiential learning
  • Provide a leading example of conservation and ecosystem restoration projects
  • Be an educational, recreational and cultural resource for all people

The CCNHC serves as a gateway to the approximately 2900 acres comprised of rare bottomland habitat, surprisingly diverse flora and fauna, all surrounding the confluence of Clear Creek and the Elm Fork of the Trinity River.

To me this park was just a really wonderful place to hike and make interesting wildlife observations. Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center has a very nice trail system that provides excellent coverage of the property. The well maintained soft surfaces paths take you through some of the most scenic areas the park has to offer. Trails cut through densely wooded riparian forest and across open native grassland prairies. Some paths follow the Elm Fork and Clear Creek, while others skirt an expansive wetland area.

Signs of wildlife abound in this park. The trails are covered with the tracks of deer, Coyotes, and Raccoons. Along some sections of the trail there is evidence of Feral Hog activity. Birds of all types were present. Huge flocks of migrating cormorants were observed headed south, following the general route of the river. The knock knock knock of woodpeckers was a constant refrain emanating from the forested areas. American Crows added to the chorus with their harsh caws. Robins and other birds were found foraging along the wetland margins, while hawks, falcons, and vultures soared above us all.

I divided my efforts to explore Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center into two separate visits over the course of two different days. I conducted my first hike early in the morning, and I came back for an abbreviated walkabout the following afternoon just before dark. It was my hope that splitting the exploration up like this would give me a better feel for how the resident wildlife behaves over the course of a typical day.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The entrance to Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center off Collins Road in Denton, Texas.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The Education Center
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A kiosk with trail map at the trailhead.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center Trail Map.

November 11, 2014 – Denton, Texas – Morning

I arrived at the Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center with the first light of day. The temperature was right around 37F and the air was crisp. But the skies were clear, and there was the promise of a beautiful mid-autumn day that with the soft glow that was beginning to form on the eastern horizon.

I began my hike at the trailhead off of Collins Road and headed east toward the wetland area. I wasn’t sure how much water this section of the park would be holding after our long hot summer, but I wanted to get there before the sun cleared the trees nonetheless.

The walk through the forest was uneventful, as the morning twilight provided just the right amount of illumination. I exited the woods and stepped out onto the floodplain just as it was being bathed in the first golden rays of dawn. The soft light set the landscape aglow with the reds, oranges, yellows, and greens of early autumn. Luminous billows of fog, backlit by the sun, rose off the various ponds and lakes and draped the wetland in a shroud of mystery.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Predawn at the Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The nice soft surface trail leading to the wetlands in the east.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The Wetlands Trail
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Trails are well marked.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A bridge over an intermittent stream.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Approaching the wetlands.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
American Crow
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Great Egret
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Hundreds of Double-crested Cormorant flying by far on the other side of the river.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
An American Robin in silhouette.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A field of red-orange wetland vegetation in front of a majestic grove of Cottonwood trees.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The sun rising over the fog enshrouded wetlands.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The wetland pond as you near the river.

As I approached one pond, but before it had come into view, there arose a ruckus of some sort, and a menagerie of waterfowl took to the air. I was exited. I imagined the birds were flushed by some predator—possibly a Bobcat—and that maybe I could steal a look at him if I were stealthy enough.

I approached the water’s edge carefully, but found no furred marauder. It took a while to solve the mystery, but soon I noticed the protruding snouts of submerged Common Snapping Turtles in various places across the still water surface. Even on this cold morning, the large turtles were lurking under the murk and harassing potential prey.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A Double-crested Cormorant takes to the air.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A Common Snapping Turtle lurking in the murky pond water.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A wetland pond as the fog began to dissipate.

In the willow grove across from the wetlands, I found several large Paper Wasp nests hanging from branches near the trail. One nest was guarded by only a pair of wasps, but the another was covered by dozens of maroon and black insects. The wasps were in a heavy state of torpor, induced by the chill of the night. They were huddled together like this in a futile effort to resist the cold, no doubt.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The sun shining through the willow grove opposite the wetlands.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A pair of large Paper Wasp nests.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A closer look at the densely packed insects.

Nearby I found a peculiar jelly of mud and minnows that had formed in the bottom of a drying puddle of water. Numerous tracks made by snacking Raccoons led to and from the stranded collection of small fish.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Western Mosquitofish trapped in a drying pool of water.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A closer look at the mosquitofish.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Notice the Raccoons tracks leading to and from the stranded fish.

As I headed away from the wetlands, the trail began leading me to the river’s edge. Along the way, I was greeted by a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds arriving at the margins. Overhead, a group of Wood Ducks circled before disappearing behind the partition of trees shrouding a nearby small pond.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A female Red-winged Blackbird.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
More blackbirds gathered in a nearby tree.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Red-winged Blackbirds are attracted to wetland areas.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A group of young Wood Ducks overflying the wetlands.

A few step further along and I had my first look at the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. Wisps of fog still slithered off its surface. The confluence of the Trinity and Clear Creek was the next item of business on my to do list. The trail I was following parallels the river for most of the way. Massive Cottonwood trees can be found along this route, as can tiny Winter Wrens.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The Wetlands Trail as it begins to follow the river.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
My first look at the Elm Fork of the Trinity River.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A tiny Winter Wren.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
There are soaring Cottonwood trees along the river.

The meeting of Clear Creek and the Elm Fork is marked with with a sizable mound of near beach-quality white sand. I found evidence here of what I think are a pair of River Otter slides, side by side, and leading from the woods to the water.

River Otters are intriguing animals. There appear to be many more of these elusive Mustelids in North Texas than is commonly acknowledged. Every once in a while I will stumble across evidence of otter activity, or—if I’m lucky—even get to see one. It is always cause for excitement. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about these charming semi-aquatic mammals:

The North American river otter is more social than most mustelids. In all habitats, their basic social group is the family, consisting of an adult female and her progeny. Adult males also commonly establish enduring social groupings, some documented to comprise as many as 17 individuals. In coastal areas, males may remain gregarious even during the estrous period of females. Family groups may include helpers, which can be made up of unrelated adults, yearlings, or juveniles. Male otters disperse from such family groups more often than females. When females leave, they tend to move much further away (60–90 km or 37–56 mi) than males (up to 30 km or 19 mi), which tend to move shorter distances. Male river otters do not seem to be territorial, and newly dispersing males may join established male groups. On occasion, groups of unrelated juveniles are observed. River otters living in groups hunt and travel together, use the same dens, resting sites, and latrines, and perform allogrooming. In freshwater systems, groups occur most often in autumn and during early winter. From mid-winter through the breeding season, adult females move and den alone. River otters are not territorial, but individual otters of different groups portray mutual avoidance. Home ranges of males are larger than those of females, and both sexes exhibit intra- and intersexual overlap of their domains.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The confluence of Clear Creek and the Elm Fork.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A pair of River Otter slides leading into the creek.

12/04/2014 NOTE: I have been informed that this sign is most likely that of Beavers dragging their tails through the sand. I agree with that assessment. Considered in this light, it does seem unlikely that otters would attempt to slide over dry sand like they would on mud or snow. Beaver are also the far more common of the two species in our area.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A sand bank on the Trinity River.

After visiting the confluence, I moved on again by following Fisherman’s Trail as it follows the general course of Clear Creek to the west. I was making my way to the High Trail cutoff in order to explore the interior of the park. A short trip down the High Trail and I picked up the Old Wetland Road leading right into the heart of the wetland area.

From here I circled around to the High Trail once again and then followed it back to my starting point. Much of this route was through a dense forest which wrapped the trail in tunnel of overhanging branches. I believe I had the park mostly to myself at this point in the morning, and the isolated nature of this trail really reenforced my sense of solitude.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Fisherman’s Trail as it approaches the High Trail cutoff.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Beautiful trees along the east side of the wetlands.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
This is the view that awaits you at the High Trail cutoff.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The Old Wetlands Road.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A small clearing provided me with a chance to see this low flying Turkey Vulture.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The High Trail.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A Northern Flicker feeding from a knothole.

The High Trail skirts the western edge of the wetlands before zigzagging back to the east and then to the north. There it intersects again with Fisherman’s Trail, and it was here that I began following this path to the east along the banks of Clear Creek. The trail is clear and well maintained through this stretch, but it narrows considerably as the woods become denser. Another set of stunningly massive Cottonwoods trees can be found along this pathway.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Back on the Fisherman’s Trail.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Majestic Cottonwoods follow the creek too.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The woods just before the Prairie Trail cutoff.

I knew instinctively that this section of the park was prime White-tailed Deer habitat. I had seen an abundance of sign along the trail all morning long. I had even clumsily flushed a couple of deer at various places along the way when I stepped off trail briefly in a less than discreet way. I just had a feeling, that if I kept the faith, I would have a nice candid whitetail encounter before the morning was over.

Sure enough, it was here along the last leg of the Fisherman’s Trail that I finally came across a deer with his guard down. I was alerted to the presence of this young buck when I caught the faints sound of hoof steps through the leaf litter.

I stopped to listen just in time for the deer to emerge from the woods and crossed the path roughly 30 yards ahead of me—the picture is included below. There was only time for a fleeting glimpse, however, as the deer gingerly crossed the path and soon disappeared into the heavy brush on the opposite side of the trail.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A White-tailed Deer cautiously crossing the trail.

I had watched the deer cross in front of me. I saw were he went and I knew where to look for him. He, on the other hand, did not even know I was there—that fact gave me a decided advantage. So, now the game was afoot. Would I reacquire the deer and have a chance for some more pictures before he fled, or would he see me first? It would be a contest of wilderness prowess. Who had the keenest senses? Who had the stealthiest movements?

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
He saw me first.

Oh well. Maybe next time.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A relic of a time gone past. I don’t believe shooting or hunting is allowed on the property any longer.

Just a little further on and I reached Prairie Trail—the last leg of the trail system that I intended to cover on this morning. The forest gives way here to a gorgeous grassland prairie covering a gentle rise. Following the trail to the top gives you a commanding view of the bottomland forest all the way to the river and beyond.

From this rise, it was only a short distance back to my car. It was time to call it a day and begin making plans to return on the following evening.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The Prairie Trail as it exits the woods.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Looking back the way I had just come.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The grasslands along the Prairie Trail.

November 12, 2014 – Denton, Texas – Evening

I arrived the next afternoon at around 3:00pm. We had set the clocks back an hour overnight, so it would be getting dark around 6:00pm. That only gave me a couple of hours for this abbreviated hike. Again, I headed off on the Wetlands Trail. The ponds and the floodplain down by the river were my objective for the evening.

The sky was overcast this afternoon, and it was decidedly gloomier than the beautiful sunny weather on the day before. Shadows in the park were already starting to grow long by the time I hit the trail. I double-timed it down the path in order to arrive at my destination while there was still some quality light available for photographs. I emerged from the woods and out onto the floodplain only a short time later.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Heading toward the wetlands late in the afternoon.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A dry intermittent stream bed.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The trail leading out of the woods and on to the wetlands.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Though dry now, this area has obviously held water in the past.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
It was a bit grayer and gloomier on this visit than on my first.

American Robins by the dozens congregated in the overgrown mud flats in the lowland. The gregarious robins were busy feeding, drinking, and bathing where the wetland vegetation met the water.

Many other birds also were attracted to this location. Northern Flickers, American Crows, White-faced Ibises, Black Vultures, and a pair of Cooper’s Hawks all where spending time around the wetlands in the last light of day. The setting sun caused the gray sky to glow with an eerie light, and this allowed me the opportunity to take pictures of several of these birds in stark silhouette—with interesting results.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Dozens of American Robins congregated on the floodplain.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Many foraged near the water’s edge.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The active robins stayed on the move constantly.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A Northern Flicker.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The setting sun created a dramatic sky…
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
…and many interesting silhouettes.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A murder of crows.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
American Crow
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
White-faced Ibis
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
American Robin
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Black Vulture
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Cooper’s Hawk

It was a foraging Armadillo distracted me momentarily from the sky and indirectly lead me to one of my more intriguing encounters of the afternoon.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A foraging Armadillo.

Nearby, in a small pool of water, I spotted the one-legged juvenile White-faced Ibis pictured below. The ibis is missing its left leg from the knee down. In spite of this terrible injury the ibis looked fit and seemed to be managing his condition well. He did not appear to be in any pain, and was able to forage for food without too much difficulty.

But looks can be deceiving. White-faced Ibises usually travel in groups. It is unusual to find one alone—especially a first year juvenile like this one. They also typically migrate to the coast and into Mexico for the winter. This bird may have been having trouble keeping up with his group—I’m just not sure.

I spent quite a bit of time looking at the photographs I took of this bird and zooming in on his injury. I cannot tell from the pictures if the wound is new or if it is healed. In some images it appears as if there is exposed bone, but in other it looks as if small pieces of draped aquatic vegetation are what is responsible for making the wound appear fleshy and open. I hope it is later.

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A one-legged juvenile White-faced Ibis.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Though handicapped, the ibis seemed healthy and capable.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The left leg is missing from the knee down.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The ibis foraged competently in spite of his injury.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Feeding in a small pool.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Balanced on one leg.
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The ibis used his wings for extra balance.

After observing this ibis for and extended period, I was due to head back to the car. I arrived at the gate just in time to be treated to a brilliant and colorful North Texas sunset. The perfect way to end an exciting weekend of hiking and exploring!

Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
The sun setting on the Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center
A dramatic sky of pink and purple.