Explore any aspect of Dallas as intently as naturalist Ben Sandifer does on his birding and biking expeditions, and you are bound eventually to see all the rest of the city somewhere in the weave, especially if you look at all of it with the same wonder.
Sandifer’s most recent adventure began with a series of calls last weekend about an egret caught in a fishing line. It took him to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, netted him some great photos of a bald eagle and finally caused him to recall his mother’s work with the Kurds. And that was without leaving the city limits.
“Early in the morning Sunday, probably before 7 o’clock, I started getting phone calls from people saying there was an egret that was stuck in a fishing line down below the spillway at White Rock Lake,” Sandifer says.
He told the callers he was sorry but couldn’t come right away. “I was with a friend of mine looking at birds at the wastewater treatment plant down off Belt Line Road,” he says.
Later in the morning when he got to White Rock, the egret had freed itself and flown. But he found something else. The spillway is a large, stair-stepped waterfall below the White Rock Lake dam visible from above from a pavilion behind railings. He looked down.
“I found lots of people down there with nets, multiple groups of people,” he says. He recognized them right away. They were using cast nets to forage for turtles for food. “They can kind of corral whatever fish or turtles are in that body of water.”
“Being in that entire spillway area is considered trespassing,” he says. “In the past, the Dallas police issued tickets pretty heavily there.”
In the past, Sandifer could get action from the police when he spotted foragers in the spillway.
“I had a police officer named Ricky and another named Ray," he says. "They ticketed people with a pretty heavy hand. But they were a part of that big retirement thing that happened back in October with the police and fire pension fund.
“It’s kind of a multiple domino effect, why the poacher people are down there. The police officers who used to heavy-hand patrol that area had to leave to greener pastures because if they had stayed on past October, they would have lost so much of their benefits. That created a vacuum.”
Sandifer called 911 anyway Sunday, but the police department told him to call the state game wardens. He did that as well, but he knew it wasn’t going to lead to much.
“This time of year, the game wardens are always on the big lakes dealing with people who are boating while intoxicated, with drownings and public safety issues,” he says. He understands that poaching is a lower-priority issue, but he said it’s still poaching.
“They were catching red-eared sliders, soft-shell turtles, also the snapping turtles, both kinds, the common snapping turtle and the alligator snapping turtle," he says. "People catch them and then turn them into turtle soup. They were also catching fingerling large-mouth bass and sand bass.”
Sandifer rides around the lake on a bike every evening after work, so he stopped by the spillway again Monday evening to check on the poachers, and he found a rare treat:
“Up in a tree near the little wooden footbridge that goes up to the top of the spillway was an adult bald eagle,” he says, which was staring down on a potential feast below. “There were big fish down there, carp, buffalo fish, lots of fish. I’m sure he fishes there all the time, but he couldn’t Monday evening because of people down there again poaching.
“I was pointing out the bird to a lot of people. It was literally almost over the bike trail that goes to the spillway, perched in a pecan tree. So many people stopped. It was a showstopper on a Monday evening about 7:30 ... for a lot of people that aren’t really into birds to see something that cool that close. It was really special.”
Sandifer knows the poachers, at least in a general sense. He has run into them in the woods on many occasions and spoken with them. He says they are Southeast Asian refugees who live in apartments in the Vickery Meadow area to the north of the lake, where the relief agencies have placed successive waves of refugees for decades.
“They have an ability to kind of forage off the land there at the lake," Sandifer says. "They do a number of things. A lot of them are from Myanmar. One time I asked them about it, and I got this history lesson on World War II about the Japanese and the British and the Americans. The Burmese all took sides. I can’t remember how that all ended up.
“They forage up and down the creek for all kinds of things. They forage for tuber-root plants and fish. They kind of bush-meat hunt down there as well. They’re in the area around Fair Oaks Tennis Center, in the woods east of Presbyterian Hospital, anywhere in that whole area they can walk to. You will see them down there with slingshots and all sorts of stuff.
“I have seen them trying to knock squirrels out of trees and things like that. Occasionally I will see one with BB gun or something like that. That has led to a stern talking-to. I think the police may even have arrested one at some point in years past.
“They will go to even places like Sunset Bay, which is kind of like the marquee duck and bird sanctuary at White Rock Lake by Doctors Hospital. They harvest a non-native Asian species of elephant ear plant that has a real fibrous, starchy, potato-like root.”
Sandifer says it’s OK to pick that one. “It’s an invasive species. They’ll go through there and have trash bags and take all the plants out of there that have that tubular root," he says. "They take walnut leaves for herbal tea. They kind of use the land as they would back home.”
He has mixed feelings. He senses that the refugees take things from the land because they know the land and reap a bounty from it that others ignore or don’t even see. But some of the taking is still illegal.
“It’s kind of an awareness thing, but at the same time it is against the law here in Texas to do that,” he says.
Sandifer thinks about their lives: “If you could imagine being plucked out of the jungles of Burma, the most dense of jungles, being plucked from there as a refugee and being sent to Dallas,” he says.
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The various waves of refugees housed in Vickery Meadow have been a part of his life since his adolescence. He says his mother is his “touchstone back to refugees in my life and why I feel for them and I give them a mulligan on a lot of stuff a lot of times."
“My mother for a number of years ran the Vickery Meadow learning center," Sandifer says. "In high school, I went to help her. The Kurdish refugees had come back after Desert Storm number one. But there were a lot of refugees. Every color was there, and every language was spoken in those areas.
“It’s been a remarkable story, going forward another 20 years, to see how the Kurds especially have completely assimilated into the Dallas area. Most of them are very successful in their businesses and with their careers, and their children are flourishing in college.
“I remember 20 years ago going to some of these large, older apartment complexes where they had recreational rooms, and there would be 30 or 40 Kurdish elders sitting in a circle in a darkened room drinking tea. I was like, ‘Golly, this is like something out of Lawrence of Arabia.’”