Today was cold and cloudy. Not bitterly cold, but there was a sort of damp chill underneath the deck of gray clouds that made you pull your jacket close around you. I wanted to get out for a while to somewhere pretty close by and so I chose Oliver Nature Park in Mansfield. It is 80 acres situated alongside Walnut Creek a little distance upstream from Joe Pool Lake, much of it oak and juniper woodland, a little island of nature within the city of Mansfield. And Mansfield is just one of several varieties of sprawl; Arlington, Kennedale, Grand Prairie, and Cedar Hill, spreading southward from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. There are a few islands of nature embedded within those cities, all of them much needed and all of them too small.
I climbed up the hill to an observation platform overlooking Walnut Creek, passing a jogger or two along the way. Once on the platform, you look down through oaks, cedar elm and other trees to the creek as it winds along past a few slabs of rock. It could be a good birding overlook or just a peaceful place to sit as if perched in the tree canopy, but it also places you within mostly unobstructed earshot of a nearby street. On that street, someone was doing their best to get noticed, loud and powerful. A motorcycle engine wound up higher and louder, speeding in one direction and then coming back. It was time to move on.
I waited for a family to pass by before starting down the path, and was approached by a very nice woman who told me I looked like I might be a birder. I did my best to speculate about what kind of bird she may have seen, and told her about iNaturalist, which will be much more helpful than I was able to be. I was awfully glad she talked with me. Isn’t that the sort of community that I believe is ideal, people interacting face to face to share and learn about the natural world? But everywhere I turned, there were people. I stepped around a photographer taking a photo of a girl on the boardwalk, and hurried along to stay ahead of a group of people headed my way. Solitude was definitely escaping me today.
Further along the boardwalk, there was the roar of a big plane on approach to DFW airport to our north. Right, I remembered, we are just about due south of the airport, on the southern approach to the runways. It’s just the way it is. There is no quiet place in the metroplex. But there were still treasures to see, like a big honey locust tree whose curled and twisted seed pods had mostly fallen. The trunk with those clusters of spikes, and dark reddish-brown spiral pods still clinging here and there, attracted me. And in places there were clusters of oak leaves turning beautiful bright red.
The farthest section of the park had the fewest visitors. Near a couple of bird blinds a group of sparrows was flitting from ground to low branches in a tangle of vines and understory. That woman who approached me earlier was right – today I was a birder. No self-respecting spiny lizard or ratsnake would be prowling around on this chilly 50-degree day, but crows had been calling to each other and now these little sparrows where challenging my naturalist skills. I got the best photo that I could of what turned out to be white-throated sparrows.
This group appears to have behaved quite typically, foraging near the ground in a brushy area, with one positioned higher in a tree sounding the alarm as I walked up on them. They eat seeds as well as small fruits and insects. According to the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds site, white-throated sparrows are abundant but have declined over the past fifty years or so.
My walk continued, among the many others using the park. At one point as I was engrossed with a group of doves in a nearby tree, about to take flight, I was startled by crunching on the trail and turned to see a jogger pass me. I had to hurry to stay ahead of a family group in which a child was repeatedly screaming (in annoyance rather than distress, apparently). The situation in the park today is one likely to trigger in me a good bit of cognitive dissonance. I write, give talks, and lead interpretive walks with the goal of sparking a love of the natural world. Most of these people were presumably there out of some sort of love of nature, not in my nerdy and introverted manner perhaps, but they wanted to get outside at a nature park on this cold autumn day. That ought to be worth celebrating.
We need more and bigger places. Urban preserves and parks are full, especially during this past year of pandemic, to the point where it can be hard to stay socially-distanced. People blaze networks of unauthorized trails, contributing to erosion and leaving hardly any refuge in which wildlife can feel safe. What if this park and other small urban preserves were at least twice as big? Visitors would not be bumping into each other and the birding and wildlife watching would surely be better. And for people like me, who want to get lost somewhere with no one else to be seen or heard, to experience solitude and quiet, it would be heaven.