Growing up Becky Rader was sure of two things. She wanted to study science, and she wanted to spend as much time as possible outdoors. It’s not surprising, then, that she became a wildlife biologist, educator, and naturalist. Rader, along with others whom she refers to as “the great tribe,” has spent countless volunteer hours in the Great Trinity Forest, working to preserve Big Spring.
She has visited the Trinity forest since childhood, first on outings with her family, then as an adult, trekking occasionally with Genie and Ned Fritz. Those walks often included people who would go on to become Master Naturalists, like Jim Flood.
Being connected to nature, she says, is not a passive activity. And that connection has been made all the more challenging to secure because of construction projects in the area like the Texas Horse Park and the Trinity Forest Golf Club. She and others do what they can to minimize destruction and colossal missteps, usually at the hands of the city and contractors. But, says, “We can’t be everywhere in the forest at all times.” It’s not enough to care for nature. She says, “It takes people who care enough to speak out and protect it.”
The forest doesn’t have an official entrance like other Trinity River amenities. People are free to go there any time they want, but it can be overwhelming at first, says Rader, because it encompasses about 6,000 acres. “The Trinity River Audubon Center is a great entry point for becoming acquainted with the area.”
If we can learn to “watch quietly and step softly,” says the biologist, it’s within our realm “to discover the wonders and life of the forest and wetlands.”
LARAY POLK: In 2015, you and others replanted milkweed near Big Spring. Can you explain what happened and why milkweed is important? BECKY RADER: I suggested the plan to re-locate existing milkweed and other native plants that would have been destroyed by the removal of soil from an adjoining site for the planned golf course. Most milkweeds contain poisonous cardiac glycosides, which protect the monarch caterpillars from predation. Milkweed is very beneficial and crucial for the Monarchs for this reason. The adults will nectar on any good nectar-producing flower, and the females will lay eggs only on milkweed plants so that the larvae, or caterpillars, can feed on them until they form their chrysalis.
How many generations of Monarchs does it take to make it to Mexico and back? I believe it can take 10 generations of the Monarchs to reach Canada and back. The last generation is usually in Texas, where it will then migrate to overwinter in Mexico and then head back to Texas. Monarchs are passing through now on their way to Mexico, along with other species that trek south for winter. You should be able to see them in the area though the third week in October.
Why do we need butterflies? How about bees? Both are excellent providers of pollination, which is necessary for the production of our food crops. And the bonus is that they are beautiful to watch in a good habitat landscape or on the farm as they travel from flower to flower taking, the pollen along and spreading it around.
What other life forms does the Great Trinity Forest sustain? There are so many. Let’s work our way up through the food web. First, soil. The soil is full of life, but you wouldn’t see it unless you took a much closer look.
Within the soil of the forest and the adjoining wetlands, tiny microbial activity is taking place. It’s fun to take samples of both; a little mud from the forest and a little mud from a wetland area. Do a thin smear of each on two separate slides, and then take a look under a microscope. It’s amazing what of that world you will see there; microbes wriggling, squirming around, and feeding on each other and decomposing organic material in the soil.
Then there are insects. Umpteen bazillion insects live in this world, and there are many more of them than all other creatures combined. Some insects are so tiny that you can barely see them with your eye, like gnats or mosquitoes. Others are so large they’re very noticeable and colorful and will fly right by you, like a dragonfly or a butterfly. Some crawl on the ground looking for their next meal, like a dung beetle or maybe even a walking stick.
In addition to these, there are:
Crustaceans: Crayfish (crawdads) and doodle bugs.
Mollusks: Freshwater clams or mussels.
Fish: Several different species live in the wetlands and the river from gambusia (“mosquitofish”) and shad to large mouth bass, sunfish, and catfish.
Amphibians: Frogs, toads, salamanders, and more.
Reptiles: Lizards, snakes (venomous and non-venomous), skinks, alligators, turtles, and tortoises.
Birds: Well over 200, maybe close to 300 species have been identified, from the tiny Ruby crowned Kinglet to the raptor galore; wetland long-legged wading birds and diving ducks; woodpeckers and brilliant warblers; wood storks and Painted buntings.
Mammals: From the rodents, deer mouse and beaver; to prey and predator, deer and coyote; to rogue feral hogs whose ancestors were left to roam by the settlers of years ago; to mink and river otter who frolic and hunt in the waters of the creeks and river and along the wetlands’ edge.
The Great Trinity Forest is described as an urban forest, how is that different from a non-urban forest? This urban forest is surrounded by development; previously agricultural lands surrounded it. Before that, perhaps before early settlement by Europeans, so let’s say about 300 years ago, this land and forest was extremely different. Most of that forest existed along areas of waterways and would have been a virgin forest, not harvested by man for timber.
When Dallas was placed on the map, in the mid-1800s, the wood from the Great Trinity Forest was used for the first buildings of our city, and much of it was cut for timber. The trees that we have now are the second or third generation after that initial removal, and are different in the number of species than what previously existed. It takes many generations for a forest to mature. There are still some huge old trees in the Great Trinity Forest, some older than 300 years and immense in size. Unfortunately, many have been destroyed to make way for trails and other things.
The Trinity forest area has seen a lot of destructive economic behavior. Some of the old sand and gravel mining pits fill up with water. Has wildlife adapted? Yes, some of the old gravel pits have filled from the river floods or over-banking events, which makes them protected under the federal Clean Water Act as “Waters of the United States.” They’re beautiful spots where you can see many species of waterfowl, beaver, otter, songbirds, fish, turtles, frogs and toads, and see tracks along the shoreline of raccoons, and otter, and who knows what else.
What are some of the ways humans can participate in the Great Trinity Forest ecosystem without causing harm or destruction? One way is to walk and ride along the many old trails and roads that already exist in the forest and along the wetlands. Many generations of forest-loving residents have lived in this area and know where they are. Actively participating in citizen science projects like bird counts, plantings of milkweed, observing wildlife, and reporting findings are ways we can all help and protect the forest.
Can you speak to the adaptive abilities of wildlife in and around the forest, and what humans can learn from them? Adaptations of the animals and insects in an increasingly urban environment are difficult. So many seek this place because there is encroachment from all sides, and if it continues, where else will they go? Some birds have lost their nesting sites due to the construction activities, like the Painted bunting population that nested where the Texas Horse Park is now. It’s difficult since they return to the same area every year to nest. Some nested in another area this year, so there’s hope. A rookery of Great Blue herons is in danger due to a proposed trail being built nearby. Adaptation is difficult for many species. Some won’t return once disturbed, and finding another location for reproduction purposes is becoming increasingly difficult with loss of habitat.
What can we learn from them? I think what we should have learned is how to live with them and consider their needs for survival above our needs for recreation. The loss of the sounds of nature, wind blowing through the treetops, water splashing on the rocks, and birdsong from the forested wetlands and the surrounding prairies give us all comfort and ease our stress. To ignore that is unthinkable, and completely defeats what quality of life is all about for so many of those who connect themselves to nature.
[Editor’s note: for an explanation of the Trinity Project, go here.]