Mar 202016
 

We are still dealing with the side effects of last spring’s heavy rain and flooding. Until just recently the spillway at Lewisville Lake has been wide open and the Elm Fork of the Trinity River has been full and flowing faster than it has in years. It’s quite a sight to see. The Trinity in this state is big and powerful. It makes a lasting impression on you when you see it this way.

The Trinity River at Dawn. Flowing hard.

The Trinity River at Dawn.

The Elm Fork of the Trinity River. Full and flowing hard.

The Elm Fork of the Trinity River. Full and flowing hard.

The bottomlands along the river call out for exploration. You see them everyday on your commute into work. Vista views can be had from the high overpasses of Sam Rayburn Tollway and the President George Bush Turnpike. More intimate looks can be had on State Hightway 121 and Stemmon Freeway. Vast tracks of densely wooded lowlands follow the Trinity River as it winds through the northern Metroplex. Soaring oaks, pecans, and cottonwoods vie for sunlight above a tangled mesh of greenbriar vines and interlocked button bush. Impenetrable in both appearance and in practice. Many of you must have had moments like I have and wondered, just what is in those woods?

Expansive Elm Fork Bottomlands. Picture from Google Maps.

Expansive Elm Fork Bottomlands. Picture from Google Maps.

Hidden inside this forest is a multitude of small lakes, isolated ponds, and foreboding swamps. These places are especially suitable for urban wildlife. All of this right in the heart of the 4th largest metropolitan area in all of the United States.

Water everywhere! Picture courtesy David Mimlitch

Water everywhere! Picture courtesy David Mimlitch

The dark woods of winter.

The dark woods of winter.

One of the many small lakes along the Trinity River in North Texas.

One of the many small lakes along the Trinity River in North Texas.

The Elm Fork Bottomlands.

The Elm Fork Bottomlands.

Interesting features abound on aerial maps as provided by web sites like Google and Bing. These place can easily become objectives for hikes of exploration. I made several trips into these woods during the months of January and February. On many of these visits I was accompanied by my friend and fellow nature photographer, Phil Plank.

Riverside on a brisk January morning.

Riverside on a brisk January morning.

Early one morning, just after we arrived riverside, Phil and I flushed a large bird from the tree we were standing next to. This was a real oops moment—a moment to learn from. The bird was an adult Bald Eagle. We had missed him during our approach, and we milled about beneath him for several minutes without taking notice. Finally the eagle had enough of our intrusion and decided to split. We only managed a fleeting view of the majestic bird as he flew away across the river, disappearing quickly behind the trees on the opposite side. The pictures we took only serve to document the exciting observation.

A quick look at a Bald Eagle over the Elm Fork in Lewisville, Texas.

A quick look at a Bald Eagle over the Elm Fork in Lewisville, Texas.

What happened here is that Phil and I were in the wrong frame of mind while approaching the river. We did not even allow for the possibility of seeing a Bald Eagle, and that was a mistake. If we had begun scanning the trees during our walk up, we likely would have spotted the eagle early and had a much better opportunity to photograph him. As it was, neither of us expected to see an eagle, so it did not even occur to us to look. Simply allowing for the possibility would have made a huge difference here. In fact, that very thing seems to be a key ingredient in so many special wildlife encounters.

Fortunately, there is another species of big, fish-catching raptor that also shares these haunts. The Osprey—otherwise known as the Fish Eagle—is much more common and often more accommodating than the rare Bald Eagle. Osprey are sleek and beautiful birds of prey, supremely adapted for a life of catching fish. Long curved talons, a sharply hooked beak, long and stall-proof wings, and outstanding eyesight make the Osprey a tremendous hunter.

The Osprey, also known as the Fish Eagle.

The Osprey, also known as the Fish Eagle.

Most often you will catch a glimpse of an Osprey while the bird is on the wing, soaring through the sky and following the river in search of its next catch. Sometimes you will see one carrying a freshly caught fish in its talons, as the big bird makes it way back to its favorite perch to feed. Osprey carry their prey inline with their bodies in order to streamline their slippery cargo. In this mode the the fish look much like a drop tank on a fighter jet.

Carrying an Channel Catfish.

Carrying a Channel Catfish.

Notice how long the Osprey's talons are.

Notice how long the Osprey’s talons are.

Slippery fish have to be carried with a tight grip.

Slippery fish have to be carried with a tight grip.

A favorite perch.

A favorite perch.

Even more rarely, you might actually get to witness the spectacle of an Osprey pulling a fish from the water. I’ve only seen this happen a handful of times. This past winter, Phil and I were granted a front row seat to the show…

Hovering above a promising target.

Hovering above a promising target.

Hitting the water hard...

Hitting the water hard…

...and plucking out a nice-sized catfish.

…and plucking out a nice-sized catfish.

Gaining altitude.

Gaining altitude.

Inspecting the catch.

Inspecting the catch.

A successful hunt!

A successful hunt!

From the riverside, Phil and I made our way to the trailhead and entered the forest. In the summer, when vegetation is at its fullest, the woods near the Trinity can be nearly impassable in places. The situation is slightly improved in the winter when the trees shed their leaves and many other plants go dormant.

Into the woods.

Into the woods.

But, even in our coldest months the flora can be dense in some places. Often evergreen Chinese Privet is the culprit. Considered an invasive species, Chinese Privet out competes many of our native plants. Introduced as and ornamental plant to be used in landscaping, escaped privet thrives in bottomlands like these and will be a difficult genie to put back in the bottle. In the pictures below you can see how the dense underbrush created by these plants can swallow you up only a few steps down the trail.

Vanishing.

Vanishing.

Heavy privet growth loaded down with an excess of berries.

Heavy privet growth loaded down with an excess of berries.

Exploring the woods along the river is an amazing experience. There is a stark beauty in the leafless forest of a North Texas winter that is good for the soul. A fascinating interweave of bare branches reaches upward creating striking patterns across the crisp, clear azure of January skies. A day in a place like this lifts me up and invigorates me in a way few other things can. Afterwards, I am stronger and more vital for several days onward.

Branches

Branches and Blue Sky

The Trinity Bottomlands

Winter Woods

Overall these woods appears static and unchanging, but trees live and die here. Dramatic stories of struggle and growth, triumph and failure can be discerned here if you take just a moment to see the trees revealed from the forest. Ancient oaks brought low by the power of a storm. Young saplings stretching for their place in the sun. Ghostly skeletal silhouettes at sunset. It’s all here in these Trinity River bottoms.

A massive tree brought low by the floodwaters and storm.

A massive tree brought low by floodwaters and storm.

Evidence that someone had been here before. An arrow embedded in a tree stump.

Evidence that someone had been here before. An arrow embedded in a tree stump.

The sun sets on the Trinity River bottoms.

The sun sets on the Trinity River bottoms.

Nightfall

Nightfall

A multitude of marshes, bogs, ponds, and small lakes are also hidden in these woods. Some can only easily be seen using aerials from a tool like Google Maps. These are the places that beg for an in-person visit.

A Bottomland Bog

A Bottomland Bog

A feather on the water.

A feather on the water.

One of the strangest finds I have ever made came as a result of seeking out one these intriguing places on foot. Leaving the trail behind late one afternoon, Phil and I worked our way through the heart of the forest. Our objective was to reach an isolated pond hidden within.

The hike in was mostly uneventful. The tracks of deer and other wildlife abounded, and we used these game trails to our advantage as we made our way.

We were not prepared for what we saw we we arrived at our destination. Instead of a murky swamp of brown or green, we found this sizable pond completely covered in a dense carpet of vivid, blood red. Neither of us had seen anything like it before, and it was stunning to behold. One of the most surreal things I have ever encountered.

An unexpected field of crimson observed through the trees.

An unexpected field of crimson observed through the trees.

Red Water

Red Water

Phil trying to decide between a drink or a swim.

Phil trying to decide between a drink or a swim.

Around two acres of water was covered in this way.

Around two acres of water was covered in this way.

Like nothing I have ever seen.

Like nothing I have ever seen.

A little research back home revealed that the growth on this pond was attributable to an aquatic fern known as Azolla . Here’s is what Wikipedia has to say about the unusual flora:

Azolla (mosquito fern, duckweed fern, fairy moss, water fern) is a genus of seven species of aquatic ferns in the family Salviniaceae. They are extremely reduced in form and specialized, looking nothing like other typical ferns but more resembling duckweed or some mosses.

The plants are typically red, and have very small water repellent leaves. Azolla floats on the surface of water by means of numerous, small, closely overlapping scale-like leaves, with their roots hanging in the water. They form a symbiotic relationship with the cyanobacterium Anabaena azollae, which fixes atmospheric nitrogen, giving the plant access to the essential nutrient. This has led to the plant being dubbed a “super-plant”, as it can readily colonise areas of freshwater, and grow at great speed – doubling its biomass every two to three days. The only known limiting factor on its growth is phosphorus, another essential mineral. An abundance of phosphorus, due for example to eutrophication or chemical runoff, often leads to Azolla blooms.

A thick mat of  vermilion vegetation.

A thick mat of vermilion vegetation.

In most places the Azolla resembled a heavy shag carpet.

In most places the Azolla resembled a heavy shag carpet.

A closer look at the strange aquatic fern.

A closer look at the strange aquatic fern.

Azolla growing on the water's surfaces.

Azolla growing on the water’s surfaces.

It still isn’t clear what caused this strange condition, or why it would be localized to this particular pond. According to the sources I referenced, there does not seem to be a reason for concern.

A pond of red deep in the Elm Fork bottomlands.

A pond of red deep in the Elm Fork bottomlands.

Discarded appliances and other garbage found around the perimeter of the pond.

Discarded appliances and other garbage found around the perimeter of the pond.

Interestingly, Azolla is not the only thing that can turn water red in the wilds of the Trinity River bottoms. Red Imported Fire Ants respond to a flooding event in an unusual way. When water begins to infiltrate the colony, the ants inside will abandon ship. As the ants leave the mound and enter the water, they cling to each other forming chains and then a clump of writhing little bodies. As the mass grow larger it forms a sort of living life raft for the colony, floating on top of the rolling flood waters.

A mass of Red Imported Fire Ants working to survive a flood.

A mass of Red Imported Fire Ants working to survive a flood.

The vast majority of a colony can collect like this, keeping a good number of its members safe until the flood recedes or they encounter some other way to exit the water.

A closer look at the floating mass of ants.

A closer look at the floating mass of ants.

I first discovered this unique ant behavior as a boy. Suffice it to say that you do not want to bump into floating colony like this one while wading through the water!

A couple of smaller clumps had broken away from the main body.

A couple of smaller clumps had broken away from the main body.

The bottomlands of the Trinity River are full of mystery. Strange geographical features like the unusual red pond are just one example. But this is also a rich environment, full of the resources native species need to survive. As you might imagine, wildlife abounds here.

The ducks of winter.  Counterclockwise from the top:  American Wigeons, Northern Shovelers in a shallow pond, and a male and female Mallard with an American Coot.

The ducks of winter. Counterclockwise from the top: American Wigeons, Northern Shovelers in a shallow pond, and a male and female Mallard with an American Coot.

Right to left: A male and female Gadwall, two male and two female Northern Shovelers, and a male and female Northern Pintail all flying together.

Right to left: A male and female Gadwall, two male and two female Northern Shovelers, and a male and female Northern Pintail all flying together.

Canada Geese

Canada Geese

Early one morning I noticed a large number of Ring-billed Gulls stirred into flight near the woods.  When I stopped by later in the morning, I found hundreds of gulls congregating on a shallow lake.

Early one morning I noticed a large number of Ring-billed Gulls stirred into flight near the woods. When I investigated later in the morning, I found hundreds of gulls congregating on a shallow lake.

The remains of a catfish.  A possible victim of our friend the Osprey.

The remains of a catfish. A possible victim of our friend the Osprey.

A deceased Virginia Opossum.

A deceased Virginia Opossum.

A Raccoon skull.

A Raccoon skull.

Tracks:  Bobcat on left and Striped Skunk on the right.

Tracks: Bobcat on left and Striped Skunk on the right.

A cautious Fox Squirrel keeping an eye on us as we passed by.

A cautious Fox Squirrel keeping an eye on us as we passed by.

An American Kestrel hunting along a Utility Right of Way.

An American Kestrel hunting along a Utility Right of Way.

A Cooper's Hawk flying high overhead.

A Cooper’s Hawk flying high overhead.

A juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk unusually low to the ground.

A juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk unusually low to the ground.

Eastern Phoebe left.  Song Sparrow right

Eastern Phoebe left. Song Sparrow right

Male Northern Cardinal

Male Northern Cardinal

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Egret

Great Egret

Killdeer

Killdeer

American Crow

American Crow

A sharp-eyed Turkey Vulture

A sharp-eyed Turkey Vulture

Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to observe wildlife in the Trinity River bottoms. The murky transition between light and dark gives many animals the sense of security they need to feel comfortable conducting their daily routines.

In addition to improving your odds of observing wildlife, an added benefit for the human observer are the absolutely stunning sunsets and sunrises you will be treated to from time to time. North Texas is well known for its dramatic dawns and dusks, the backdrop of the river and its lowland forests only serves to heighten the beauty of these stunning light shows.

A spectacular Trinity River  sunrise.

A spectacular Trinity River sunrise.

Early morning sunlight breaks through the trees.

Early morning sunlight breaks through the trees.

A tranquil morning by the river.

A tranquil morning by the river.

Beauty at nightfall.

Beauty at nightfall.

Evocative transitions.

Evocative transitions.

Huge flocks of birds—Ring-billed Gulls, vultures, cormorants, herons, and American White Pelicans—can be seen here at dawn and at dusk. In the early morning light, these birds leave their nighttime roosts on and around Lewisville Lake, following the river southward to wherever in the metroplex they spend their days. Then in the evening, just before sunset, they repeat their voyage in the opposite direction. Both events are quite a sight to behold.

Ring-billed Gulls following the river northward toward Lewisville Lake.

Ring-billed Gulls following the river northward toward Lewisville Lake at the end of the day.

American White Pelicans

American White Pelicans

Double-crested Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorants

Ring-billed Gulls

Ring-billed Gulls

The video below includes footage of hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls returning to Lewisville Lake just before nightfall…

On one such morning, having learned my lesson from the Bald Eagle near miss described earlier in this article, I approached the river deliberately and with prudence. Scanning the treeline from a distance I spotted the silhouette of a raptor perched in the very same tree that we had flushed the eagle from just a few weeks earlier.

A raptor silhouette.  Could this be the Bald Eagle again?

A raptor silhouette. Could this be the Bald Eagle again?

I used every trick in my book to approach the bird without alarming it. I invested a great deal of time and effort crossing the 300 or so yards that separated us. My hopes were high and I did not want to lose this possible second chance at an up close Trinity River Bald Eagle sighting.

When I finally closed the distance between us by arriving at a well concealed vantage point, I put my big lens on the bird to have a better look at what was what. There staring right back at me was a duly unimpressed and very common Red-tailed Hawk. Fully aware of my presence, the hawk had probably been keeping tabs on me the whole way in. Oh well, the best laid plans…

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

There is a family group of Coyotes that patrols a portion of these woods and adjoining floodplain. From all indications, four individuals call this place home—one appears to be a little mangy, likely made vulnerable to the disease by eating poisoned rats caught along the margin of nearby businesses and parks.

The territory these Coyotes defend is very important to the group. They make regular rounds and take notice of every intrusion. On most visits Phil and I could count on eventually seeing these prairie wolves. Usually they would be found sitting in a clearing next to a far off treeline, keeping a careful eye on us from a safe distance.

A coyote watching me and Phil from across a small lake.

A coyote watching me and Phil from across a small lake.

This Coyote was spying on us from over a quarter mile away.  He moved on quickly as soon as he realized he had attracted our attention.

This Coyote was spying on us from over a quarter mile away. He moved on quickly as soon as he realized he had attracted our attention.

Patrolling lakeside.

Patrolling lakeside.

Is somebody watching me/

Is somebody watching me?

Pursuing prey—a rat perhaps.

Pursuing prey—a rat perhaps.

Other times we might get a closer look at the Coyotes if we surprised each other on the trail. This happened a number of times as a result of all six of us going about our business in the stealthiest possible way.

Surprised on the trail.

Surprised on the trail.

We caught this guy unawares late one afternoon.

We caught this guy unawares late one afternoon.

It was very easy to develop an empathy and understanding for the way these animals feel about the land they call home—protective and connected. I imagine it is very akin to the way we feel about our own homes and land.

Visiting the Trinity bottomlands during the day tells only part of the story. To get a more complete picture of the wildlife activity in a certain region, you have to investigate under the cover of darkness. A two week trail camera survey can reveal much about what kind of wildlife these dark forests support. See our results below.

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer

A nice buck!

A nice buck!

A bobcat (lower left).

A bobcat (lower left).

Coyotes

Coyotes

Coyotes

Coyotes

A family of Raccoons.

A family of Raccoons.

Not far from this spot we found another intriguing location. At this place the trail narrowed as the canopy opened around a swampy section of the forest. Here the path followed a section of dry land that cut the murky body of water.

A bog located deep in the Trinity River bottomlands.

A bog located deep in the Trinity River bottomlands.

Also on this section of trail we discovered that some combination of woodland creatures had left a muddy path of their own linking the two bogs. We became curious about what types of animals were making use of this passage, and we set another trail camera here. A week later we had our answers. It turns out this was a very active spot.

The muddy path created by wildlife moving between the two bodies of water.

The muddy path created by wildlife moving between the two bodies of water.

Raccoon

Raccoon

Virginia Opossum

Virginia Opossum

Swamp Rabbit or Eastern Cottontail

Swamp Rabbit or Eastern Cottontail

Nine-banded Armadillo

Nine-banded Armadillo

Female Northern Cardinal

Female Northern Cardinal

Fox Squirrel

Fox Squirrel

American Beaver

American Beaver

Coyote

Coyote

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer

On the other end of all of this is McInnish Park in Carrollton, an interesting place in its own right. The high waters of the Trinity have not excluded this park. Flooding has put Carrollton dam under water, and the river has over-banked in some places.

McInnish Park and Carrollton Dam under water.

McInnish Park with Carrollton Dam nearly submerged. Picture courtesy David Mimlitch

The Trinity River at high water, a pair of Canada Geese near a flooded roadway, and over-banking near Sandy Lake Road.

The Trinity River at high water, a pair of Canada Geese near a flooded roadway, and over-banking near Sandy Lake Road.

A fascinating variety of wildlife can be found in this park. Even under ordinary conditions McInnish is an excellent location to view certain certain types of urban wildlife. I stopped by briefly one afternoon in late January just to see how things were looking. Here are few of the creatures I observed on that cold winter day…

An American Crow foraging roadside.

An American Crow foraging roadside.

Black Vultures circling overhead.

Black Vultures circling overhead.

Canada Geese congregating on a small island.

Canada Geese congregating on a small island.

The geese appeared to be pairing up for nesting season.

The geese appeared to be pairing up for nesting season.

A Double-crested Cormorant working to become airborne.

A Double-crested Cormorant working to become airborne.

A Great Egret doing a cormorant flyby.

A Great Egret doing a cormorant flyby.

Northern Shovelers at McInnish Park.

Northern Shovelers at McInnish Park.

Northern Shovelers engaged in their unique "scrum huddle" feeding behavior.

Northern Shovelers engaged in their unique “scrum huddle” feeding behavior.

A pair of Red-tailed Hawk in a tree at the north end of the park.

A pair of Red-tailed Hawk in a tree at the north end of the park.

The hawks.

The hawks.

  2 Responses to “The Elm Fork of the Trinity River – Surging through Lewisville”

  1. Great detective work, thanks for sharing !

  2. Another phenomenal entry, Chris! I’ve been telling lots of folks about your blog — these entries are inspirational. 🙂

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