The 200-acre Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center is celebrating its 10-year anniversary starting Oct. 2. Photo by Michael Smith.
Aug. 27, 2021
Our own little bit of the Hill Country is about to turn 10 years old, and the birthday party is going to go on for six months.
Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center, a place of lovely oak and juniper woodlands growing on a limestone escarpment, opened in 2011. To celebrate, the Center will throw a party on Oct. 2 and continue offering birthday-themed walks and activities until next March.
“We are a gateway for families and new hikers to explore the outdoors,” says Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center director Julie Collins.
Dogwood Canyon is family friendly because it’s quiet and safe, the trails are not particularly difficult and the 200-acre property features a sustainably-built 6,000-square-foot visitor center, making it a good place for people to try a walk in the woods.
All of this started when David Hurt – a birder, naturalist and owner of a Wild Birds Unlimited store – bought some acreage within what is now Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center. He thought it would be a great place for their kids to grow up learning about nature, as Collins tells it.
As Hurt explored the place, he discovered a grove of dogwoods and wondered what in the world they were doing this far west. These small trees with the beautiful white flowers (the big white “petals” are actually modified leaves around the real flowers) are seen in East Texas but are rare this far west.
The more Hurt explored the pristine woodlands and pondered that unusual grove of dogwoods, the more he was determined to save as much of the canyon as he could from further development. Collins said that Hurt became a man on a mission, making the case to organizations like Audubon, leading hundreds of guided hikes to recruit donors and working with landowners.
After 14 years of work, the preserve became a reality, with land purchased by Audubon Dallas, the National Audubon Society and the City of Cedar Hill. The Center is part of the National Audubon Society with local input from a Stewardship Board. David Hurt is still involved with the Center, serving on its board.
Dogwood Canyon's hilly trails feature limestone ridges and juniper woodlands. Photo by Michael Smith.
WHERE EAST, WEST AND CENTRAL TEXAS MEET
It is a biodiverse little sanctuary. According to Amy Martin’s upcoming book, Wild DFW (Timber Press), Dogwood Canyon has more than 160 species of plants, drawing more than 250 species of the insects and spiders that in turn support at least 140 species of birds.
The endangered golden-cheeked warbler was once found here, using bark strips from the Ashe juniper trees for nest building, just as it would on the Edwards Plateau where it is typically seen. Collins listed some of the other birds we might see, such as the white-eyed and red-eyed vireos, the blue-gray gnatcatcher and painted buntings taking advantage of the more open edge habitat near the visitor center.
This isn’t the bottomland forests, prairie patches and wetlands of Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area. It’s not the Cross Timbers woodlands, prairies and bottomlands of Fort Worth Nature Center. Walking in Dogwood Canyon, I could imagine that I was walking in the hills, limestone ridges and juniper woodlands somewhere near Austin.
A bench for birdwatching or a quiet rest stop. Photo by Michael Smith.
AROUND THE LOOP
During a recent visit, I walked the West Loop trail, which climbs a ridge and circles the forest on top of the ridge. Birds called back and forth through the trees. The songs of cicadas and other insects pulsed and trailed off in a way that makes summer afternoons pass like slow dripping syrup.
A tiger swallowtail in morning sunlight, just off the trail. Photo by Michael Smith.
Red oaks, junipers and understory trees like redbud were interwoven with Virginia creeper and poison ivy to make a rich and complex forest community. In one spot, a tiger swallowtail sailed on its enormous butterfly wings. Orb-weaving spiders had constructed webs that glistened in the sunshine, while the funnel-weavers waited within webs like little silken tornados.
Wooden benches are positioned at several points along the loop, providing quiet places from which to watch birds or to rest a minute and do a little nature journaling.
I looked for Texas spiny lizards, those spikey little reptiles that hang on tree trunks to ambush insects. Collins told me that they, along with skinks and green anoles live in the woods. While the mammals might be harder to spot, she said that bobcats, armadillos, foxes and skunks make their homes in the canyons and ravines.
An orchard orbweaver’s beautiful web, on the West Loop trail. Photo by Michael Smith.
NATURE CENTER CLUSTER
One reason that so many species can be seen is that Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center is part of a 3,000-acre corridor of preserves and properties. Healthy populations of wildlife and intact plant communities need that kind of space. If you cut the land up and make little islands of it, many species will die off.
Cedar Hill has wisely committed to supporting this greenbelt that includes Cedar Hill State Park, Cedar Mountain Preserve, Cedar Ridge Preserve (a small section on the east side of FM1382), as well as the campus of Newman International Academy and Calabria Nature Preserve.
When I asked about the potential to expand Dogwood Canyon, Collins said that there is at least one possibility. A 50-acre parcel owned by one landowner could potentially be bought and added, if the nature center was able to secure funding.
Dogwood Canyon Center director Julie Collins. Photo by Michael Smith.
One thing that will continue to grow is the education, mentoring and volunteer opportunities at the Dogwood Canyon Center. As we talked, the theme that kept recurring was for the Center to offer programs that truly impact the participants. The staff have worked with area schools, focusing on what natural science topics kids struggle with and designing activities that make it more understandable for them. Collins spoke of taking kids on hikes, saying that “many have never been in a pristine forest.”
Looking ahead, she plans a mentoring program where staff could “teach 5th graders specific science concepts and train them to be the teacher for their younger classmates, say second graders, thus reinforcing the learning while building leadership skills.”
Hands-on, experiential, and fun: that’s the plan for getting kids involved in nature. She also envisions a high school internship program involving volunteering and learning.
“If you come away with that connection to the ecosystem it doesn’t matter what career you go into … you have that connection, you can be a future advocate for nature,” Collins told me.
The Nature Play area for young children will re-open during the birthday celebration. Photo by Michael Smith.
In most years, Dogwood Canyon draws as many as 12,000 visitors, but last year brought closure because of Covid. The trails are now re-opened but visitors need to register online for available time slots during Thursday through Saturday. There is no charge for a reservation, but a donation at the end of the visit is encouraged.
For the Oct. 2 opening anniversary event, the Center will be open to the public and will include music, guided hikes and a re-opening of the children’s nature play area which has been closed.
Details will be posted on the Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center website, as the date approaches.
By next March, visitors will be able to view that grove of flowering dogwoods. A new trail will take visitors off the West Loop trail and to a ridge where a platform will be built overlooking and protecting the grove. It should be the perfect end to a six-month celebration of a wonderful place.
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