It has begun

Less than four miles/six kilometers north of downtown Dallas.  Nestled within the hospital district with towering university and medical buildings quite literally a stone’s throw away.  Surrounded by major thoroughfares and the constant din of automobiles and airplanes.  A motte only 3.5 acres/1.4 hectares in size.  Yet at the height of summer, it will host more than 70 bird species.

A great egret (Ardea alba) standing on winter grass (2010_02_06_049479)

Some species will travel hundreds of miles from their usual nesting territories just to play a part in what can only be described as the most powerful and profound example of opportunism in the whole of North Texas.  Thousands of nests will be built, thousands of eggs will be incubated, thousands of chicks will be hatched, and from late winter through early autumn it will be a place of unimaginable beauty and awe such that all those who see it will be left struggling to comprehend how it could be real.  And all this will take place in a grove of trees much smaller than your local supermarket.

A black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) perched on a branch (2009_06_20_024000)

I’m of course speaking about the colonial wading bird rookery that continues to thrive on the grounds of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center campus.  Older than the oldest records, all we know about the rookery is that it hosts a congregation of species so diverse and so vast that it engenders an otherworldly sense of reality, as though one has been transported to the most remote place imaginable where mystic creatures thrive.

A snowy egret (Egretta thula) hunting in the shallows (2009_06_01_021362)

Yet this is anything but remote.  The rookery lives in an urban jungle.  Six lanes of concrete surround it on two sides and multistory buildings and parking garages surround it on the other two.  Nevertheless they will come, the birds, and some will travel far outside their usual nesting territories just so they can join thousands of other pairs who will mate, nest, brood and rear young in a place that seems accidental at best.

A cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) resting in a tree (2009_06_13_023406)

Already the largest nesters, the great egrets (Ardea alba), vie for prime real estate, these giant birds wandering the still barren woods plucking up twigs and sticks with which to build a home for their newest generation.  Soon the black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), little blue herons (Egretta caerulea) and snowy egrets (Egretta thula) will join them.  Following quickly behind them will come the anhingas (a.k.a. water turkey or snakebird; Anhinga anhinga), the cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) and the tricolored herons (a.k.a. Louisiana heron; Egretta tricolor).  And when it all seems too much, white ibises (Eudocimus albus) will arrive.

A tricolored heron (a.k.a. Louisiana heron; Egretta tricolor) standing in a tree (2009_07_12_026569)

Meanwhile, flycatchers, cardinals, grackles, woodpeckers, kingbirds, mockingbirds, jays, swallows, wrens, hawks, thrashers, sparrows, robins and a legion vast of species will settle in where space is available.  Simultaneously the opossums and woodrats and raccoons and snakes and tree frogs and other animals will begin making appearances.  The air will fill with insects, the ground will move with crawling things, and the transformation will be complete: the rookery will once again be alive, will be thriving, will be full of so much life that it boggles the mind.

A white ibis (Eudocimus albus) looking out from the treetops (2009_07_12_026496)

I will make every effort to visit regularly and document reliably this most fascinating natural wonder.  As I did last year, I hope to follow the progress of the rookery and observe its inhabitants as much as possible.  I hope you’ll come along for this journey through the wonderland of an urban rookery where life abounds, where magic abides, and where city dwellers can lose themselves in nature’s demonstration of alien life.  One cannot say they know birds in North Texas without visiting this place, for this place holds more bird species and more individual birds per square yard/meter than anywhere else in this region.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] Great egret (Ardea alba)

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

[3] Snowy egret (Egretta thula)

[4] Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis)

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

[6] White ibis (Eudocimus albus)

26 thoughts on “It has begun”

  1. The rookery sounds magical. Magnificent birds, beautiful photos. I kept going back to the Black-crowned Night Heron’s hunched shoulders and gnarly knuckles. What a cool bird.

    1. Once the breeding season is in full swing, Jain, the rookery does indeed become a magical place. It inspires a sense of wonder not just through the dense population and diversity of wildlife, but also by its location and longevity.

  2. This sounds incredible. Can you point the area out on a google map? I’m trying to visualize the landscape but my Texan geography is somewhat pathetic. Is this a protected/managed space at all, or just one that’s been left undisturbed? Beautiful photographs, by the way, especially love the little night heron and that startling blue Ibis eye.

    1. Take a look at this map, TGIQ. The rookery is the grove of trees in the middle. Zoom out to get a better perspective on its location.

      Unfortunately the rookery is not officially protected; it’s just a small undisturbed wood on the university campus. The first president of the university asked that it be maintained as long as the birds nested there, so the only thing keeping it alive is that promise. Damage has been done to it before and it has been reduced in size to make room for a basketball court and the like, so it is threatened.

      It’s monitored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department because of the federal and state protections on the birds, but for about two months in winter the entire motte could be razed. There’s a grassroots effort underway to get state recognition and protection. (It’s important to note this is a state college, hence bad press about harming the rookery would fall not just on the university but also on the state. That no doubt helps, though how much I don’t know.)

      1. Is it that patch of green space between Inwood and Butler? Either way, that’s an awful lot of development around that area…unbelievable that such a place could still persist!

        1. Oh, sorry about that. I didn’t realize the map had zoomed out quite that far. Yes, the rookery is the patch of trees between Inwood and Butler. (Interesting to note: Before the new satellite image was taken, the previous view showed white treetops from all the egrets.)

          1. Goll-eeee. What a crazy place to nest.

            Ok, for serious, the satellite image was WHITE??? Dude!

            Is there a body of water in there somewhere?

            (Sorry, asking a million questions but this is fascinating!)

            1. The only satellite image I can find close to the previous one is the second photo on this page. All the white dots are great egrets prior to the arrival of the cattle egrets. I’m a fool for not capturing a screen shot of the one where it looked like the entire motte was covered with snow. I should talk to someone about the satellite photo schedule…

              There’s a small pond at the south end of the wood. The university is charged with allowing water to drain into the pond while the birds are nesting; last year at the end of our cataclysmic drought, the pond had dried and was a muddy mass graveyard of dead birds–all of them chicks. Very sad. The pond has no fish but usually has frogs, toads and snakes (though not enough to support the bird population). All the chicks get food by eating other chicks (common for anhingas and black-crowned night-herons) and from parents who go to the nearby Trinity River to feed.

              And no problem on asking questions. The rookery is unbelievable–literally and figuratively. Unless you’ve been there, it sounds too strange and too extraordinary to be real. But it’s a passion of mine, so I’m happy to talk about it.

              1. “Too strange and extraordinary to be real”…

                Yeah, I believe it, but WOW, it’s blowing my mind.

                That shot with all the white dots in the tree is incredible.

                Does anybody know how significant this breeding ground is in terms of the overall population of any of these birds?

                Dangit, now i need a excuse to go to Dallas. And money.

                The opportunity to see SO many individuals from SO many species in one tiny area!!! WOWEE. OK, I have to step away, my brain is about to explode from coolness overload.

                1. If you want to make a trip to Dallas to see the rookery, TGIQ, make it in the middle of June. Sure, the weather will be unbearable and oppressive for non-Texans, but that’s when this site is really at its best–chicks, all the resident species, and so much life that it overwhelms the senses. And let me know if you’re coming as I’d be more than thrilled to give you the grand tour.

                  As for the importance of the rookery, that rests entirely–and unfortunately–in an academic sense. These birds aren’t threatened in general terms. The site raises questions about diversity and population density and longevity, but it’s not really considered scientifically important outside those considerations. We’re trying to change that by showing its importance to the city as an area of education, study, conservation and observation. As far as the whole of North Texas goes, the rookery is the most powerful emblem of nature’s desire to survive.

                  1. Hm. I think I’m going to be, quite litterally, on the opposide end of the continent in mid-June, so that’s going to be a no-go this year (boo, hiss).
                    p.s. I have a little shout-out for you on my blog today!

    1. You’ll love it, Amber. Right now only the great egrets are there, and not too many of them yet. But things will pick up quickly (the egrets begin nesting by the end of February and other birds start arriving shortly thereafter). By the end of March it’ll be a happenin’ place–yet even then it won’t have all the species that will wind up there. I’ll send you some details via e-mail (like the best times to go, where to park, etc.); and yes, we’ll be making at least one trip together, if not more.

    1. It’s definitely feeling like spring, Laura. We’ve already had our first tornadoes of the year, the great blue herons and great egrets are building nests, and it won’t stop raining! From here on the changes will be sudden and dramatic (a gift of our southern locale).

      The rookery is located at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center campus in Dallas. It’s not a park or preserve or refuge; it’s just a tree lot on the university’s property (basically in their front yard).

  3. I should have included this in the post. Each year the university reports to TPWD on the number of egret, heron, anhinga and ibis nests. While researching the rookery last year, I got my hands on one of those reports via a state “Public Information Act” request (Texas’s equivalent to the federal “Freedom of Information Act”). You can see a scan of the report summary in this graphic. Keep in mind those are counts of nests only, so multiply that by two for an approximate count of these species.

  4. I just wandered over from Clive’s Artlog, and I can’t believe what I’ve found! I ended up going back over many pages; awe-inspiring images of birds and other creatures I could only dream of. Glorious.

    And you say the bird life of this place will get even richer… I’ll certainly be back

  5. Superb stuff here! All those photos are pretty awesome, but the night heron one in particular I’m quite fond of. And the ibis – sweet lighting on just the right spot! How’d ya do that? I’d be over at the rookery all the time too…maybe you should set up camp?

    1. Thank you, Jill! One thing the rookery provides is ample opportunity to observe and photograph a mind-blowing population of birds. Thankfully it’s a short drive from where I live and I’m able to visit as frequently and for as long as I’d like, otherwise I would set up camp.

      And the ibis posed for me. I waited for five minutes or so as it meandered through the branches, then it finally came out to just the right place and stopped to look at me–with its head in that glorious ray of sunlight. I thanked the bird afterward, of course, but I’m not sure we were speaking the same language.

    1. You would love it, Marie-Ann. The adults are only part of the beauty; when chicks start showing up–little heads popping up above nest rims and young fledglings stumbling around the branches and demanding voices calling for yet more food–well, at that point it can induce fainting. And that the large birds actually represent a small fraction of the species present….

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