The rookery – Part 1

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.

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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.

A great egret (Ardea alba) perched in a tree (2009_04_19_015737)

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.

Two black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) perched in the treetops (2009_04_19_015683)

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.

Two snowy egrets (Egretta thula) building a nest (2009_04_19_015774)

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.

A tricolored heron (a.k.a. Louisiana heron; Egretta tricolor) perched in a tree (2009_04_19_016082)

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.

A green heron (Butorides virescens) perched on a branch over a pond (2009_04_19_016309)

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.

An American robin (Turdus migratorius) standing in dirt looking for food (2009_04_19_015993)

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.

A Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana) looking down from within a tree (2009_04_19_016229)

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…

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] Great egret (Ardea alba)

[2] Black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax)

[3] Snowy egrets (Egretta thula)

[4] Tricolored heron (a.k.a. Louisiana heron; Egretta tricolor)

[5] Green heron (Butorides virescens)

[6] American robin (Turdus migratorius)

[7] Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana)

[cross-posted to The Clade]

Whistling wings

Amongst the cypress and pecan, hidden between the oak and sweet gum, shadowed by the cottonwood and elm, there stands a place known only to me.  Within a refuge shared with none save the creatures of the forest and lake, the rightful inhabitants who bestow upon me special consideration, I take leave of the world as I enter this realm both magical and removed.  Stepping betwixt two trees appears a mundane event, but nothing could be further from the truth.  A world lies just beyond the one we know, a landscape shrouded by limbs both ancient and new that resists the commotion of progress.  And therein I find escape.

No one but I dares enter, for no one else may know the path to and from, the path that carries my tired soul.  Troubles melt from me there like winter’s ice bathed in spring’s warm sunshine.  Even the single step that transports me sheds from my mind and heart all worry, all trouble, all concerns.  It is a bathing…a baptism.  Guardians of forever tolerate no disruption, so I think cares must be left behind to enter.  Am I thankful for that?

A Mourning dove (a.k.a. rain dove; Zenaida macroura) standing in shade and sunlight (2009_03_08_012847)

When the world crushes in on me and threatens to overwhelm me, I run to this place with abandon, like prey followed by predator.  In my own urgency I sometimes stumble and fall, but a gentle hand always reaches out to help me regain my footing, for that which lives outside this place envies all who enter it, and their jealousy and want can never overcome their desire to see its splendor realized.

A mourning dove (a.k.a. rain dove; Zenaida macroura) grazing (20081127_15137)

Anxiety dares not invade this place.  It could never withstand the defenses of those who protect it.  Tempests cannot find me here.  Although the heavens rest above, the sky is forever restrained from offering anything less than its best.  Should snow fall or rains blow, time for such indulgences remains limited.  Offer what drinks you will to the earth, bathe all life in refreshing showers, and blanket the landscape in your icy best, but forget not that you too must adhere to the spirit of this place.  Its tranquility will not be violated.

A mourning dove (a.k.a. rain dove; Zenaida macroura) perched on a limb (2009_03_21_013264)

Would that the inherent beauty and magic wind their way into the spirit of others.  Yet a small degree of selfishness wishes to keep it all to myself.  Perhaps nature, too, feels as I, that to welcome more interlopers would be to invite harm and discord.  Too sacred it is for such a thing, I feel.  Listening to the soft rustle of leaves and swaying of branches as trees, the still watchers, dance with gentle breezes, I know they feel what I feel, that they wish to veil this world from humanity’s prying eyes.  Fear of our kind is palpable.

A mourning dove (a.k.a. rain dove; Zenaida macroura) walking across a parking lot (2009_04_14_015125)

So I rest my weary bones against the eldest oak who caringly offers its safe haven only to the kind, to the respectful.  I watch its brethren as they watch me.  Together, one man and nature’s bounty, we find peace and calm in each other’s company.

I stretch my legs out before me and lean back against a timeless being.  Its rough bark cradles me softly.  Quietly—so quiet, in fact, that I think I might be dreaming—quietly the tree begins weeping, a sound whose depth is felt more than heard.  Great rumbling sobs tenderly shake the ground on which I sit, and I turn, rest a hand upon its trunk, and I inquire: “Why are you sad?”

“For you,” it replies.  “My tears are not for me or my kin.  They are not for this place or the lives we protect.  They are for you, for your troubled spirit and aching heart.”

A mourning dove (a.k.a. rain dove; Zenaida macroura) perched in a tree (2009_04_14_015077)

It is then I too begin to weep.  My head falls slowly until it rests against the tree’s bosom, and there my tears join with it, falling endlessly on its skin and tracing paths toward the earth.  For I feel it as well.  Setting aside my anxious thoughts when entering has always been my way.  Only now do I realize I have denied the strength of those who welcome me, the love and cradling arms that for too long have been given all but the best of me while longing to support the weakest of me.

Far off in the distance, a bird calls out.  I do not recognize its voice until it draws nearer.  Then I realize a mourning dove approaches.  It flutters overhead, flits about in the air above for a brief moment, and finally comes to rest in the branches under which I sit.  There, no more than an arm’s length away, it perches in the branches of our mutual friend, the tree, and it looks at me.  When it calls out again, the lamentation in its voice cannot be denied.

A mourning dove (a.k.a. rain dove; Zenaida macroura) perched in a tree (2009_04_15_015171)

And the tree answers, “Yes, dear one, you may cry with us.  Help us carry this burden.”

[photos are of mourning doves (a.k.a. rain doves; Zenaida macroura); cross-posted on The Clade; based on something I wrote two years ago]

The Clade

It goes without saying: I’m a tree hugger, an environmentalist and naturalist who strives to save the world at every opportunity.  Whether it’s using all renewable energy to power my home or recycling everything I can get my hands on or choosing local, organic, sustainable farms for groceries, I do my part as often as possible.

Likewise, I am profoundly enthralled with nature as a whole, from its ubiquitous wonders to the rarest jewels of life discovered in the least likely of places.  It rejuvenates me, empowers me, helps me to relax and gives me the escape I too often need.

So it was with great joy that I accepted Chris Clarke’s invitation to join a new community environmental blog called The Clade.

As Chris points out in his introduction, The Clade is about more than environmental journalism as it has existed to date.  This endeavor is about context, community and the full compass of nature.  To wit:

Environmentalism is, by definition, all about context, and The Clade exists to bring that context to reporting about the environment. You’ll find a lot more than straight environmental news reporting here. Our contributors will bring you profiles of wild places and the animals, plants, and other things that live there. They’ll offer thoughtful essays on environmental philosophy, no-holds-barred analyses of the latest environmental horror story du jour, informed constructive criticism of environmental groups and practices, art and photography and more.

The spirit of the site is simple: Make environmentalism accessible again; bring it back to the people who can make the most difference, and give them more than hand-slapping snark and holier-than-thou corporate hogwash meant to baffle and befuddle the masses.  Caring about our planet is more than just wagging a finger at Big Oil; it’s about knowing what will be lost, what simple things every person can do to help turn things around; it’s about appreciating nature and its struggles and triumphs; and most importantly, environmentalism is about perspective.

The Clade officially launched yesterday.  Plenty of content was already available by then, and more will be forthcoming as we the contributors move forward with this worthwhile endeavor.

I hope you’ll join us.