29 October 2009

Distinctive Flora and Diversity of Birds Abound at Spring Lake Park at Omaha

A small tract of woods of near the bluffs of the Missouri River valley has attracted enthusiasts of flora and fauna for more than a century, and continues to be the focus of attention because of its natural features and their associated values.

Originally established as the privately-owned Syndicate Park - named because it was owned by a group of businesses - in South Omaha, when the city annexed the community in 1917, the place became public property and was designated as Spring Lake Park.

Long before it was a park, a little-known plant enthusiast found the setting of deciduous woods an appealing natural setting to find distinctive plants he could pluck and preserve as botanical specimens. As William Cleburne continued his endeavors, his collection grew, and although the local park was just one place to study Great Plains botany, it was close to his residence on south 12th street, so was undoubtedly visited on many a pleasant day suited to appreciating local nature.

Cleburne obviously gave a lot of attention to botanical collection. His first Nebraska collection in the University herbarium is from 1869, and his last in 1904, according to Dr. Robert Kaul, a botanist at the University of Nebraska State Museum.

In 1904, a short blurb in some papers and proceedings announced his donation of 2200 species of 800 genera to the Omaha Public Library. The material had been collected in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho. Cleburne was associated with the railroad, and may have used work trips to gather plant material, or had gotten them via postal correspondence.

Spring Lake Park Acreage

• The tract north of F Street includes a bit more than 40 acres, which includes the swimming pool and vehicle drives
• South of F Street is a tract of about 9.5 acres of woodland
• East of the Golf Course is a wooded hillside of ca. 7 acres
• There is also a tract of woods east of the park along Spring Lake Boulevard, which is ca. 2.7 acres and is privately owned by Spring Lake LLC.]

(Information primarily derived from details given by the web-site of the Douglas County assessor).

Flora is the first known bit of history for this particular place, but birds came to the forefront in the 1930s.

A short but indicative note presented some of the first species that occurred amongst the park's habitats: Red-headed Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Dark-eyed Junco, and a completely distinctive sighting of the Red Crossbill, according to information published by the Nebraska Ornithologists' Union.

Winter conditions seemed to have a certain attraction, with other birds notes given for December 1933, and January 1937. The notes are brief but they are among the first history for birds at this urban parkland.

A Place for Botany

When David Sutherland arrived at Omaha in 1968 as a newly degreed professor with a particular expertise in botany - taking a teaching and research position at the University of Nebraska at Omaha - certainly he was interested in places to find plants that would help in understanding the distribution of local flora. One of the first places he discovered was Spring Lake Park.

Dr. Sutherland, a co-author of the recently published tome Flora of Nebraska, knew about Mr. Cleburne. He must have "collected up a storm" with about 6000 botanical specimens in the collection at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. he professor of botanical studies, went looking for the wedge grass (Sphenopholis obtusata var. major) found by Cleburne, and successfully found a specimen in June 1973 in the northwest portion of the park.

Spring Lake Park is a good example" of an upland oak-hickory deciduous forest, the professor said. "I don't think anyone realizes that. The park is one of the better public parks for native flora in Omaha. The woods are a fine example of eastern deciduous forest and include some native tree species like redhaw (Crataegus mollis) and shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) that are not very common in other city parks." He mentioned that the park was probably more open in historic times.

Professor Sutherland has made many recent visits to the park. On a recent autumn outing in 2009, a graduate student went along on the days' foray with the professor, currently teaching Flora of the Great Plains to UNO students.

Bluebead, September 2002. These images courtesy of Dr. David M. Sutherland.

Moonseed, October 2001.

Shagbark hickory, May 2000.

Redhaw, October 2002.

There are no trails, he mentioned during a recent interview, so the two botanists just walked in and wandered about. This season he collected seeds of Arnoglossum atriplicifolium and sent them to a colleague in Texas. There is a colony of this tall herbaceous perennial species at the edge of the woods along F Street.

"You never know what you are going to find," Professor Sutherland mentioned. His remark was derived from something other than a botanical view, as he mentioned many other things which should not occur in a park, especially the amount of trash and tires.

"The park seems quite neglected and filled with junk," Sutherland said, mentioning the pervasive trash and thrown-away tires.

"During the winter someone puts in salt licks to attract deer so the park is way overpopulated with deer, which are not very kind to the plants because of their browsing."

Invasive species are negatively impacting the woods, that are "filling in with invasive trees, shrubs, and vines, including the tree-of-heaven invading at the tree line. Wild staghorn and mulberry trees are also invading" the park setting, and worsening conditions for the native flora.

Dr. Sutherland would like to see officials of the Omaha Parks and Recreation Department - the managers of parks in Omaha - recognize the natural values of the park resources and do something to conserve them. He also mentioned the need to control those invasive species.

One possibility that he likes is to promote the park as an important site of a "green corridor" along the Missouri River.

Spring Lake Park is located northward of other natural areas along the western side of the Missouri river. Starting at Haworth Park and Fontenelle Forest east of Bellevue, riverside woods extend from the northeast corner of Sarpy County into Douglas County and Mandan Park and the flats on its eastern side - where piles of "unneeded" rubble occur - and onward to the Mount Vernon Gardens (also a city park), then further along the hillside which is City of Omaha property, past the river bridge where the potential exists for developing suitable landscaping where houses were recently removed when the road system was redeveloped and the State of Nebraska became owner of the property parcels.

This vicinity is near the southeast corner of Spring Lake Park. The greenspace also continues onward to the Interstate corridor.

Eastward about a third of a mile is the former Riverview Park, now the Henry Doorly Zoo grounds. Across this highway to the north, is the Lauritzen Gardens, promoted as Omaha's botanical gardens, which does have an extensive amount of plantings, but with some valuable relicts of natural habitats.

The Professor, also suggested the park environs could be used for nature study, with the readily accessible opportunity for students to get outside to learn in the natural setting of the woods. Spring Lake School is adjacent to the park and could be a readily appreciated asset for educating kids.

Outdoor Days With the Birds

Natural places always are attractive to wild birds. Trees and shrubs in this park are a natural haven for a myriad of birds that occur during each year along the valley of the Missouri River.

Birds are always about, but irregular visits are made by observers, so any notes on species occurrence occur to a much lesser extent.

During recent years, contributors have gathered notes that do convey a realization and understanding of which particular species occur during the seasons.

When Jim Kovanda renewed his acquaintance with the park environs - having grown up nearby - he found the place was "a good habitat because of the woods and springs that were attractive to birds. It was a good place to bird because it was conducive to the occurrence of songbirds." During visits in recent years with his wife, Sandy, there was always a good diversity and number of birds they carefully watched and enjoyed.

Highlights he recalls include viewing or hearing Barred Owls, with Carolina Wrens and Fox Sparrows "pretty nice birds to see." During the spring and autumnal migrations, there have been different warblers garbed in their myriad of seasonal colors and patterns of plumage, leading to challenges in determining their identity, as the birds were subtly marked or hidden among the foliage, making a positive identification a challenge.

Audubon group at Spring Lake Park. Images courtesy of Janet Bonet.

Members of the Audubon group.

The Kovanda's have not visited the park in the past few months, because of the problem with parking on the north portion of the park, as the gates which block the access roads cause concerns with parking because of the potential for getting a parking ticket for blocking a gated entry.

Spring Lake Park would be a "nicer place to bird if the habitat was kept clean and made more conducive to visit," Kovanda said. He mentioned that there could also be "less cutting of grass," and how there could be more attention given to promoting the natural habitats, to "keep it as natural as it wants to be."

A compilation of records available for the park, indicate that a wide variety of species have been documented at the park place during the past ten years.

Among the 101 known species noted since 2000 - based on more than 850 observations - there is the very recently noted Eastern Bluebird, heard during a bird survey. Also recently seen was the American Woodcock, found near the spring seeps on three different days in September 2003. This was a new species for the park's avifauna. Also recently noted was the Great Horned Owl, a common species in the region.

There is one particular species which is a special species of the park. During the harsh months of winter, the little bits of habitat created by the flowing spring waters, are a haven for a feathered mite, the Winter Wren which relies on havens of this sort. The first observation was made on Halloween day in 2003, and other sightings followed during the final weeks of that year.

Spring north of F Street. October 19, 2009. J.E. Ducey photographs.

Bubbling spring south of F Street. October 19, 2009. This picture was taken after all of the trash had been removed from where the underground water pours from the ground, and can be visually appreciated.

This bit of a wren is known to prefer places where unfrozen water occurs during the winter, whether it is at Spring Lake Park, Elmwood Park or far to the northwest along the Niobrara River. The springs at Spring Lake Park - as well as at Mandan Park - certainly are a factor conducive to providing suitable winter habitat.

Birds noted at Spring Lake Park since A.D. 2000

  • Snow Goose - flyovers
  • Canada Goose - flyovers
  • Wood Duck
  • Wild Turkey
  • Double-crested Cormorant - flyovers
  • American Bittern
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Bald Eagle
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Cooper's Hawk
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • American Kestrel
  • American Woodcock
  • Franklin's Gull
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Rock Pigeon
  • Mourning Dove
  • Yellow-billed Cuckoo
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Barred Owl
  • Common Nighthawk
  • Chimney Swift
  • Red-headed Woodpecker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Northern Flicker
  • Olive-sided Flycatcher
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee
  • Least Flycatcher
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Great Crested Flycatcher
  • Blue-headed Vireo
  • Warbling Vireo
  • Philadelphia Vireo
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Blue Jay
  • American Crow
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  • Barn Swallow
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Brown Creeper
  • Carolina Wren
  • House Wren
  • Winter Wren
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Swainson's Thrush
  • Hermit Thrush
  • American Robin
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Gray Catbird
  • Brown Thrasher
  • European Starling
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Nashville Warbler
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • American Redstart
  • Ovenbird
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Wilson's Warbler
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Spotted Towhee
  • Eastern Towhee
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Field Sparrow
  • Fox Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow
  • Lincoln's Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Harris's Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Indigo Bunting
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Rusty Blackbird
  • Brewer's Blackbird
  • Common Grackle
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Purple Finch
  • House Finch
  • Common Redpoll
  • Pine Siskin
  • American Goldfinch
  • House Sparrow

Some of the species recorded, though not directly part of the park's environs, can easily be seen flying overhead on their route along the Missouri River bird flyway.

One species noted prior to 2000, but still obviously present in the woods is the Eastern Screech-Owl. Add to the list the dynamic Killdeer and that one time observation of the Red Crossbill to complete the tally.

There are additional species which would be expected to occur in the arboreal realm of the park's natural settings, if birders were to visit on a regular, though occasional basis, and present their sightings to others to realize.

A recent visit to conduct a bird survey indicated there were at least 21 species present on 19 October. Noted among the autumn setting were the American Goldfinch, American Robin, Eastern Bluebird (heard), Black-capped Chickadee, Blue Jay, Carolina Wren (loudly proclaiming their presence), Chimney Swift in the aerial realm, Common Grackle, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Hermit Thrush, Lincoln's Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Northern Flicker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Spotted Towhee, White-breasted Nuthatch, White-throated Sparrow, Wild Turkey (a flock foraging on the slopes of the hill at the northwest portion of the park), and the vivacious Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Every visit can be different in regards to what bird-life might be about!

A Neighborhood's Park

Looking back about 25 years, Janet Bonet, a resident of the Spring Lake neighborhood was captivated with the park's setting and since then has worked to one degree or another to make it an attractive place for people and natural residents. She has coordinated trash removal days - working to get rid of pesky tires rolled into the hollows - with poaching and litter other problems. "It should be harder to dump trash" in the park, she said.

Grants have been written to acquire funds to further park improvements. Working with local community enthusiasts, Bonet noted several accomplishments. In May 1999, there were 33 trees planted - species included the white swamp oak, cottonwood, red cedar and linden - in a project financed by the Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2002, a grant was received from the Nebraska Environmental Trust to prepare a plan to restore habitats.

The park is "priceless as green space and wildlife habitat and provides an opportunity to get out of the urban scramble. We have migrating big brown bat and then some small brown bats that stay all year. As the older trees are lost and none replaced, the bats are losing habitat."

"One of the three neighborhood visioning sessions facilitated by the Kansas State University team in 1999 just before we wrote the NETF grant that got funded." Left to right are Janet Bonet, Margaret Engstrom, and Dorothy Patach a South Omaha community activist. These images courtesy of Janet Bonet.

Jaime, James and John Bonet planting trees received through the Bockley grant.

Meeting at the Omaha Parks and Recreation Department, discussing Spring Lake Park, July 2000.

Broken sewer north of F street.

Historically, there had been a lake at the park - mentioning three ponds present in the 1870s and 1880s at Syndicate Park - and Bonet would like to see the former ball-field - now growing domestic grasses - to become a stormwater catchment basin, rather than having the runoff flow into the woods.

The whole community can take advantage" of the park setting, Bonet said.

The park needs to be improved so people can have a better experience when they visit, Bonet said. She is currently continuing her efforts - despite somewhat limited involvement due to the uncertainties of the massive and pending sewer separation project underway in eastern Omaha - to get the community aware of the park and involved with making it an attractive place for residents.

Some opportunities for the future include could include:

  • Improving walking trails to 13th street, and onward to the new bridge across the Missouri River, and over to Iowa.
  • Modifying the sledding hill to make it safer for kids and other sledders;
  • Improved handicap access and parking;
  • Closing the west portion of the park to prevent motorcycles and bicycles from creating unwanted trails; and
  • Getting rid of the illegal dumping of trash.

Spring Lake Park needs to be developed "in a manner conducive to natural creatures and attractive to local residents," Bonet said.

Green Space Opportunities

The Omaha Parks and Recreation Department is aware of the natural values of Spring Lake Park.

"We have many parks which have natural habitat areas and we consider these areas important," said Walter B. Mertz, a part-time arborist with the department. "We encourage wild life to inhabit" these area "by this nondisturbance" of natural growth.

We "believe springs are absolutely a benefit and a reason we have wildlife at certain areas, and we want to take care of those resources," Mertz said.

The Parks department continues to evaluate "grow-back" areas at different parks, said Brook Bench, also with Parks, Recreation and Public Property. One potential site for this is at Spring Lake Park in west of the former access drive in the northwest portion of the park and northward to the former ball diamond.

He said the department staff is learning more about these areas, and how residents respond to these places, and react to not having the grass mown and the growth of vegetation.

A representative of the department has been closely involved with the Environment Omaha initiative.

We "will agree with their objectives and willing to work closely" to achieve stated objectives, said Steve Scarpello, administrator of the department.

In the recently released report by the Natural Areas section, there are a couple of pertinent items related to recognition and management of natural habitats within the city.

One objective states: "Establish an ongoing inventory process to identify and evaluate sensitive areas (steep slopes, ravines, bluffs, wooded areas and highly erodible land and flood prone areas,), and both cultural and aesthetic features (Natural Habitat Inventory)."

A second objective in this section is to "Preserve native plant communities as a valued community resource, as habitat for native biota, and as a means to maintain ecosystem processes."

The Environment Omaha effort does not indicate any sources of funding which may be needed to achieve the state objectives.

An environmental coordinator has been recently hired to focus on how the City of Omaha can be "more green."

Spring Lake Park has numerous values associated with its natural features, though it is obvious that recognized problems need to be addressed in the near term to maintain the native flora and different sorts of fauna.

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