Visitors, faculty and staff of the Texas A&M AgriLife Center in Dallas continue to spot, photograph and log emerging wildlife at the Benny J. Simpson Ecopark on campus — a sign of successful efforts to reclaim this swath of Texas Blackland Prairie in urban Dallas.
Sightings have included deer, coyotes, bobcats, a vibrant palette of butterflies and pollinators, and a range of small mammals, insects and birds of prey.
Visitors to the park, which opened in May 2019, have logged more than 200 observations of over 100 plant and animal species at the popular iNatrualist.org webpage for the campus. The sightings denote growing diversity in the 7-acre ecosystem, said Amanda Gobeli, project coordinator with Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute, or NRI, in Dallas.
Gobeli is an environmental scientist who conducts educational events with the Reversing the Quail Decline Initiative, which seeks to rebuild Texas quail populations.
She said her own sightings have included somewhat common birds of prey like the red-tailed hawk, Cooper’s hawk and sharp-shinned hawk. But she has also seen birds whose urban presence might be considered rarer. Those include American kestrels, which prefer sprawling open spaces for hunting, and a pair of Swainson’s hawks, whose population density tends to be higher in the grasslands north of Dallas.
The birds’ presence at the park “means they’re hunting for food like rabbits, rodents, insects and other prey in the park,” Gobeli said. “In any natural community, the higher the diversity, the more resilient that community is to future changes, so it’s always nice to see more species.”
Biodiversity by design
Daniel Cunningham, Texas A&M AgriLife Research horticulturist in Dallas, said the growth in diversity came by design. Cunningham is part of AgriLife’s Water University program — a public outreach initiative on water conservation and quality protection focusing on landscape practices.
The Water University team renovated the acreage that now includes the ecopark — once used as plots for row crop research — with more than 140 local plant varieties and “green” infrastructures. The plant selections aimed to replicate the diversity of a natural Blackland prairie, which once comprised the North Texas region.
“These plants help boost our beneficial wildlife populations and provide many other ecological services,” Cunningham said, “but they’re also important as part of a comprehensive demonstration of healthy land and water resources management.”
The ecopark also includes a 3-acre rainwater detention pond, which was designed by the Dallas center’s ecological engineering program and installed on campus in 2007. The installation collects runoff from campus hardscapes and the overflow from the center’s 90,000-gallon rainwater harvesting systems. The pond also underwent renovations by the Water University program in 2019. That effort included erosion reinforcement and planting around the pond.
The large-scale demonstrations dovetail with AgriLife’s pioneering efforts to sustainably improve the interconnected realms of urban agriculture, urban forestry, nutrition and healthy living for Texans.
Log your sightings
The Dallas campus had prepared to host a “bioblitz” event in April, welcoming visitors to log plant and wildlife species at the ecopark using iNaturalist. The event on campus, part of the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge, is cancelled due to the outbreak of COVID-19. But cities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area encourage residents to participate by logging plants and wildlife while sheltering in place. The challenge begins April 24.
The Benny J. Simpson Ecopark is located at the Texas A&M AgriLife Center, 17360 Coit Road. It includes a sign-guided walking trail through the prairie with information on the plants and wildlife that make up its ecosystem. Visit dallas.tamu.edu/ecopark for information and video.
The AgriLife Center in Dallas is home to major research programs in plant breeding and resilience as well as extension, or public educational programming, in wellness and nutrition. In addition, NRI components at Dallas include aquatic ecosystem research on freshwater mussels as well as studies on bat populations.