2.20.2011,11:36 AM
Fort Worth Nature Center/Wildlife Refuge
Marsh trail
 Last Sunday was Spring: warm, sunny -all the smells and charms of a First Spring Day. I wanted to ride the bike, but wasn't sure where to go. Shortly after my last cup of morning coffee, I realized I could do three of my favorite pastimes: ride, hike and photography.

The day seemed like a good opportunity to visit the Fort Worth Nature Center and Wildlife Refuge; something I've been meaning to do for several years. I loaded the camera bag and a pair of hiking shoes, in the Whee-strom's aluminum panniers. Soon, I was geared up and heading down the gravel driveway; it's been a long time.

Once on the road the feeling of riding quickly returned, like getting back on the horse after a long time off. Indeed, the bike under me felt just like I was riding Shadow: let him have the reins and run. I took the long way to the Refuge and arrived to find many other people with a visit in mind on this Spring-like day. A parking spot for the bike was hard to find; parking is limited and all the spots, except for those for handicapped, are gravel. Big chunks of gravel. I finally found a solid spot on a corner of the sidewalk to the Visitor's Center. 

This visit was prompted while reading an article about conservation of the American Bison on the North American continent and that the Center has a small herd of registered bison. A veterinary geneticist at Texas A&M University developed a DNA screen to detect the admixture of cattle and bison genes. From a survey of  herds across North America the screen revealed genetic impurity, or hybrids, in a high percentage of the remaining American Bison. The information prompted a movement to preserve the genetic purity of the American Bison and an organization for authenticating bison individuals and herds by genetic testing and registration. (A summary of this work is online here.)

Variegated yucca
Two hundred and ten of the FW Refuge's 3,621 acres are dedicated pasture for their bison herd.  The first three animals were donated from the herd at Witchita Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma (1973). Now totaling 24 bison, the most recent herd bull was acquired from Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico in 2004. All the bison in the herd are genetically tested and confirmed free of cattle genes. It is encouraging to learn that a city, especially Fort Worth, is contributing to the conservation of pure American Bison lines. So, I had to visit.

While riding the couple miles through the prairie area of the Refuge, no bison were to be seen. Upon inquiring at the Visitor's Center, I was informed that all the bison are on their winter pasture. Unfortunately, that is the northern-most pasture, and the animals are not visible from the road. They are returned to the four pastures close to the Refuge interior and the road during summer and where they can be seen by visitors. Distance from the road and visitors might be strategic for when the cows give birth. I'm not sure I would like dozens of humans watching me give birth, either. 

Several trails traverse the Refuge, three radiating from behind the Visitor's Center. After pulling off my riding gear and exchanging riding for hiking boots, I snapped the camera bag on my hip and chose a trail. At the head of the trail and behind the Center's building are two large cages. Inside one was a napping barred owl sitting on a tree limb. In the other was a  Great Horned Owl. I felt rather akin to this one because of the nesting pair near my house. Although this one was smaller than the pair I'm accustomed to, she was still impressive. 

 View of retreating armadillo.
Both owls are rehabilitated from injuries that prevent them from surviving in the wild. The Great suffered injuries from a car; it must have been flying low to be hit by a vehicle. Part of me delighted in seeing these magnificent birds so close. Another part of me was pained to see them cooped up in their spacious cages. It just seemed wrong. The Barred owl seemed quite content and adapted to close contact with human visitors and their accoutrement: crying babies, chatty children and leashed dogs. The Great, on the other hand, kept a reserved distance towards the back of her cage, not too sure of the commotion around her. 

I wanted to sit by them and visit; just me and the owls. Maybe we could have struck up a conversation of a kind; I've been able to elicit responses from the Greats at home by mimicking their calls. But there were too many people, kids and dogs. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was at a zoo.

Yucca and oaks
I struck off on a narrow trail that follows the top ledge overlooking the river below. Gnarled limbs, arms and fingers of oak trees seem almost chaotic against the blue of the sky, as if they are frozen while reaching above. Somewhere below is the West Fork of the Trinity River, but the wildly crooked post oaks obscure most of the view. Brown oak leaves carpet the forest floor except for occasional limestone outcrops and scattered yuccas with their green dagger leaves. 

Rounding a corner on the trail down to the river I startled an armadillo digging for its meal. Not only was this the largest but the only live armadillo I have ever seen. People passing on the trail stopped and commented how large it was.

Continuing down the trail and closer to the riverside, the big oaks thin out, revealing grasses and smaller wild plums. The yuccas are more prevalent and larger. I could hear ducks in the distance and songbirds overhead. It was quite pleasant.

Marsh alongside the river.
The trail ended at a narrow and rough asphalt road. On the other side is a pull-off for a few vehicles. Judging from the canoe racks on many of them, this must be a favorite spot to launch boats into the water. However, boaters would have to navigate the marsh grass before accessing the river proper. This area is unmistakeably an adjoining marsh.

A dike traverses the marsh to the other side and next to a connecting channel. The red dirt was colorful and inviting, but the ground still quite muddy from the previous winter storms. I made it a few hundred feet before orange-red mud began bogging down my boots. I decided to save this walk for another day.

Red squirrel
Turning down a trail alongside the marsh, I saw in the distance a bird blind. Like a beacon, I walked towards it. On the way, two squirrels busied themselves with my presence. Squirrels are like little tricksters; they scamper up and down trees, jumping limb to limb, squeaking so hard that their little bodies convulse; sometimes their little front feet bump up and down as they squeak. They might chase you overhead, staying out of reach; they will taunt you, fully cognizant that you can't reach them. Yes, little tricksters they are. I enjoy watching them.

A few ducks were leisurely floating in the green water. All bodies of water in Texas are green or shades of brown. The blue waters I am used to in Oregon and Maine are nowhere to be found here. Likewise, no natural lakes can be found in Texas. All are man-made. Yet, we enjoy them while we can.

Ducks on the water
Surprisingly, I saw no deer; but then, they are regular residents on my plot of prairie back home. I was hoping to see a more elusive animal, say, a bobcat or fox. Considering the number of people there, some with their dogs, it was not surprising that most of the animals avoided the open. One of the popular trails and features of the Refuge is the Prairie Dog Community. Because I visited with the prairie dogs in the Witchita Wildlife Refuge several times, I opted to forgo that area this visit.

Marsh boardwalk
After my return to the Visitor's Center, I rode to the northwest area of the Refuge. An expansive maze of boardwalk traverses into and along the edge of a larger marsh. A large covered gazebo looks out across the water and to the river. The boardwalk provides a more intimate contact with a marsh ecosystem; from solid land, a transition along the edge, and many feet out over the water. From here, one can view and experience large flocks of geese and ducks, fish, turtles, marsh cane and grasses, frogs, and marine plants.

Moon over marsh
Despite the number of vehicles in the parking lot, few people were on the boardwalk, which made the experience private and more intimate. Because of the time of day and season, the moon hung over the convergence of marsh and river despite being so close to noon-time. It was quite photogenic and, of course, I did not waste the opportunity to photograph it.

I especially enjoyed the section of the boardwalk maze where it zig-zagged through the tall marsh grasses. The golden grass heads weaved and waved in the wind and angle of the sun. A soft chiming sound ebbed and flowed with the wind and I felt cocooned while standing on this wooden walkway. It reminded me a softly humming sea of grasses parting, as if they were inviting me to enter and explore their secret world. As they towered over me, I was reduced to a hobbit child adventuring into the unknown.

Sea of tall grasses in marsh

Geese in flight
After leaving the quiet solitude of the marsh grasses, I rode for several miles down the narrow road meandering alongside the river. This ends at another parking lot that was overflowing with vehicles. I found a rather precipitous perch to park off the side of the road near the water's edge. A long trail traverses across the river on a dike accessing an island. Many people were coming and going on this trail, so I opted to make my way down to the water's edge not far away and just sit for awhile there. As I did, a large flock of geese suddenly took to the air. Because they did not form their typical 'V' flight pattern, I surmised they were startled from their resting place on or near the water. I was lucky to catch a few shots of them in flight.

Moon, moon!
The Refuge closes the gates at 5 pm on Sundays. I could tell by the angle of the sun and other visitors leaving the island that time was growing short. My last shot of the day was of the moon and the oddly placed wooden structure, with various shadows, over the trail entrance to the island. I packed my trail bag and changed into road-riding gear to head for the exit and road home.

All considering, it was a good day. I vowed to split my weekends into a day of riding the bike somewhere new, and one day of errands and home-body jobs. Weekends are too short these days. But with improvements in the weather, time to take advantage of it and dedicate some time to relaxation. Now, where to next weekend?

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posted by Macrobe
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