Farms and ranches. Urban and suburban sprawl. Highways and byways. Throughout the “civilized” world, these anthropogenic artifacts have gone to great lengths in reducing the availability of natural habitat for plants and animals. Traveling some distance from humanity seems a prerequisite just to see nature doing its thing in what little space we’ve left for it. This explains why most people in developed areas rarely see anything more than a handful of bird species, the occasional rat or mouse or ant or wasp, and almost no flora save that planted in manicured lawns and decorative gardens.
Conversely, nature has an interesting way of taking advantage of what few opportunities we provide it. These oft overlooked silos of life accommodate surprising diversity where it’s least expected. And that creates an opening for discovery, a chance a lot of people won’t otherwise have. Therein lay the seed of appreciation that can make a city dweller comprehend the beauty beyond—and the need to protect it.
As the crow flies, it’s less than four miles/six kilometers north of downtown Dallas: the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center campus, a large complex of health facilities and college buildings smack-dab in the middle of the hospital district. For miles around, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a doctor or nurse or medical student—and winding up in court for the trouble! Yet nestled in the middle of a bustling urban landscape and located on the campus grounds lies an example of nature’s irony and majesty.
A small wooded area at the intersection of two major roads. It covers approximately 3.5 acres/1.4 hectares and serves as respite for students, faculty and patients, a breath of verdant escapism outside cold stone walls. To leave the sterile smell of the hospital for a few minutes and listen as gentle breezes whisper through the trees probably has as much a medicinal effect as any prescription drug. (Recent studies showing the impact of nature on the human mind and body certainly agree.)
But that humble area of trees and brush also serves another purpose, one protected by state and federal laws. It’s a rookery for migratory birds.
I visited the site a few weeks ago. I’m embarrassed to admit it was the first time in my life…and I’ve lived here almost 40 years. It seems I’ve spent too much time running here and there, always looking for the exotic or out-of-the-way opportunities, and in the process I ignored what should be a cherished Dallas landmark.
Like an imaginary world, the rookery presents as a surreal oasis in the middle of the city. To get close to it, one must stand within a cluster of multi-story buildings and heavy traffic, yet the number of species nesting here defies belief. Great egrets flit across six-lane roads. Anhinga circle above the treetops. Snowy and cattle egrets busy themselves with collecting twigs for their nests. Green and little blue herons lurk in the shadows trying to remain invisible. Once in a while a tricolored or great blue heron shows up. And white ibises sometimes nest here as well, although they tend towards the middle of the woods, a forbidden realm that offers them escape from the city around them.
Then there are the robins and kingbirds and flycatchers, and the sparrows and wrens and finches. Starlings, grackles, mockingbirds, doves, woodpeckers and an endless parade of other species likewise dwell or hunt here. The magnitude, the volume of life in this tiny patch of land seems incomprehensible at best. That’s never more true than when one considers that it’s a small green dot in the middle of a gray concrete jungle.
Birds aren’t the only inhabitants. Fox squirrels and Virginia opossums scurry about the branches and understory while trying to avoid the angry retribution of nesting herons. If you’ve never seen a great egret wallop a squirrel for being too close to its nest, I assure you the squirrel always loses. And it ain’t pretty.
Signs around the periphery of the grove adamantly declare the obvious: “Bird Nesting Area: NO TRESPASSING.” These manifest the university’s responsibility…but not necessarily its wishes. Controversy surrounds this wonder, this beguiling gem amidst mundane people and their ways. While so many pass by without noticing, even the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department pays attention.
I contacted UT Southwestern about the rookery. I asked for more than the usual press release: I added several specific questions related to historical treatment of the area and what plans exist for the future. I have yet to hear back, although I hope to include their response in future installments of this miniseries.
Meanwhile I’m left with a sense of awe and intrigue. I’ve seen alligators and crocodiles, killer snails and killer snakes, rodents larger than most dogs and rodents smaller than a thumbprint, whales and wasps of many stripes, and countless birds that fill every niche of nature’s womb, yet still I find myself beguiled by the bounty of life that finds home and safety in a wee bit of woods hidden within a concrete jungle. It’s a testament to life that many hundreds of nests will be built there—again.
The rookery calls me back while the spring nesting season continues. I intend to return as often as I can to document this marvelous dichotomy, a simple little spot that reminds me of what Rachel Carson penned in The Sense of Wonder:
For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?'”
Indeed, what if…
— — — — — — — — — —
 Great egret (Ardea alba)
 Black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax)
 Snowy egrets (Egretta thula)
 Tricolored heron (a.k.a. Louisiana heron; Egretta tricolor)
 Green heron (Butorides virescens)
 American robin (Turdus migratorius)
 Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana)
[cross-posted to The Clade]