Story and Renderings by John H. Ostdick
A crisp, on-its-way-to-gorgeous morning unfolds beyond the handlebars of my touring bike as I leave the two-mile warm-up stage of a long weekday ride with my frequent cycling buddy Don Knight.
We have the White Rock Trail, which tracks a 7.5- mile-portion of White Rock Creek in North Dallas, virtually to ourselves except for some screeching hawks, various songbirds, and buzzing insects above and to the side of us.
On my left on a bank above the trail is the back side of a strip of shops and restaurants, on my right a four-foot-high growth of brush and assorted small trees that stretch down to the creek below (a section that is mostly concrete side channels).
As I stretch my legs out and push for a little speed, I catch a glimmer of what at first appears to be a large dog trotting along in the distance in front of us. I quickly realize, however, that its trot has a definite slink to it. As I gain on it, I see that it is a rather large bobcat gliding south.
Tony Hawk has a quieting effect on the back yard.
I pull alongside the bobcat and stare at him incredulously. He doesn’t seem to mind sharing the trail for a minute or so, his fluid movements tracking the slowing spin of my wheels. He turns his head, looks at me earnestly, and then veers off the creek-side of the trail and vanishes into thick brush.
“Well, you don’t see that every day,” I say to Don over my shoulder. As he pulls up to my side, we exchange broad smiles and a simultaneous shrug. Later, during a mid-ride break we will comment that we do see something novel — animal, vegetable, or mineral — most every day we ride.
Pedaling by a field behind a Greek church one day, we see a hawk struggling near the edge of the trail. As we get closer, we see it has its claws in a just-killed jackrabbit, which is too hefty for the hawk to fly away with. The hawk tugs the carcass, a foot or two at a time, farther into the center of the field until it feels safe enough to tear into it.
Crossing the creek closer to White Rock Lake one day, I spy a beautiful great blue heron perched one-legged on an infinitely skinny stump sticking out of the middle of the creek. The heron is frozen in a diffused light, five-foot-plus wingspan fully extended, letting the persistent breeze of the day blow dry its blue-tinged feathers. It’s a wondrous sight.
And so on.
Dallas, situated on the rolling plains near the headwaters of the Trinity River, is mostly black-land prairies, midway between the Piney Woods of East Texas and the Great Plains. Its incredible, mostly northward, suburban growth in the past 40 years has overrun fields and pastures and swallowed up natural habitats. Yet amid a certain urban ugliness, nature here persists.
The creek itself, its bed composed predominantly of a tannish-white Austin chalk, is a study in survival. White Rock Creek — part nature respite, urban garbage pail, and urban filter — begins its 23.5-mile southerly journey from just southeast of the white-hot booming suburb of Frisco north of Dallas to the Trinity River close to the city center. (Its primary watershed is a narrow 100-square-mile band stretching from its upper reaches in Frisco through Plano, Richardson and North Dallas into White Rock Lake).
A resident snapping turtle glides past.
All along the urban watershed, vegetation and land have been stripped off to build houses, roadways, and shopping centers, eroding soils. The resulting urban storm water runoff is a smorgasbord of animal feces, fertilizers, and oil and grease from cars. What does not settle in its banks, travels along south in White Rock Creek.
(In an ironic environmental circle of life, the project manager of a 1997 dredging of a then-clogged White Rock Lake told me that the dredged material was pumped to a series of old gravel pits 17 miles south of the lake that originally gave up their dirt in the 1970s for highway projects to accommodate the rapid growth of the northern suburbs. So you had silt and sediment that streamed from northern expansion into White Rock pumped back to the gravel pits that had previously yielded materials used to build the infrastructure that supported that growth.)
Sometimes the creek’s banks are comprised of heavily wooded, undisturbed natural vegetation (cedar, elm, pecan, and ash trees being most prevalent, but including burr, Texas, and Shumard oaks, and an occasional giant sycamore), other times it is hardened against erosion by long concrete channels or stacked cages of riprap. During the spring, foliage and blooms brightened the expanse, hiding winter’s often gloomy post-apocalyptic visages of fallen trees and trash and plastic bags left behind, clinging to high branches after high storm waters recede.
My home is less than a mile from the head of the White Rock Creek trailhead. Although it is also a couple blocks from one of the busiest highways in Texas, it is partially shielded from the constant roar, resting in a sunken, wooded cul-de-sac with a White Rock Creek feeder running along my back yard. The creek mostly trickles year round but can rise and rage wildly during heavy storms.
A magnificent red-tailed hawk frequents our heavily-wooded block. We call him Tony Hawk. When the squirrels hunker into hiding places, and our plentiful bird population abandons the backyard feeders and stops singing, we know it’s a cue to look for the golden flash of Tony swooping above (a red-tailed hawk’s wingspan can approach five feet). He often lights on a branch away from our back patio and just stares into the creek bed below, waiting for a careless mouse, rat, or squirrel to stumble into his crosshairs.
Three large snapping turtles (Chelydra serpetina) live in a tunnel in a portion of heavily vined bank near our driveway. They are skittish when we peer at them from above. We seldom see more than one of them in the creek at a time, although it has happened. It is a touchstone of sorts for us every time we go out to our cars to look for the turtles.
Viewing Dallas skyline from White Rock Lake.
The howls of coyotes sounding mating calls or working the creek bed and a resident barred owl’s series of six to eight “Who cooks for you” are familiar parts of the night. A family of ladder-backed woodpeckers run tap-tap-tapping rings around a couple of large trees near the creek throughout the day. The male of these small black-and-white striped woodpeckers bears a bright red crown, a la Woody of cartoon fame. Migrating hummingbirds — predominantly ruby-throated — arrive starving beginning in mid-March, with a handful staying to nest for the summer before their return south in August.
The cast of characters changes over time.
Coyotes apparently have thinned the population of long-legged, scrawny jackrabbits that we used to have to chase off from munching plants in the yard. And we haven’t spied in a while the red fox that used to prowl around about dusk. (Not native, the red fox was imported to provide sport and training for fox-hounds, and Texas Parks & Wildlife notes that the entire red fox population of Central Texas probably descended from 40 foxes released between 1890 and 1895 near Waco.)
White Rock Creek provides a north-south wildlife highway of sorts through the city.
The predominant destination is White Rock Lake, and eventually the Trinity River Forest farther to the south. The 1,100-acre lake is the city’s fitness epicenter as well as its soft soul.
According to the For the Love of the Lake organization, White Rock Lake Park is home to 33 types of mammals, including squirrels, rabbits, skunks, raccoons, possums, bobcats, red foxes, and minks. There are 54 varieties of reptiles, including rattlesnakes, turtles, lizards, and horned toads. Twenty kinds of amphibians call the park home, including salamanders, toads, and frogs. There are more than 217 species of birds, including swans, pelicans, sea gulls, loons, double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, yellow-crowned night herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, mallards, gadwalls, northern shovelers, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, kestrels, red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, American crows, eastern phoebes, American robins, northern mockingbirds, ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, dark-eyed juncos, song sparrows, fox sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, and various owls.
And there are more, often combining their songs into our personal symphony as we ride around the lake, sometimes with hundreds of our close Dallas friends.
And while nothing about these regular wildlife intersections will stir memories of Yosemite or the Great Smoky Mountains, they provide crucial moments of urban escape — whether while navigating a bike trail or a back patio martini.
Glorious sunset puts an exclamation point on the day.