Eric Duran

Wildlife Wednesday: The Other Arachnids

Wildlife Wednesday: The Other Arachnids

Spiders aren’t the only arachnids! To honor the 2nd week of Ms. Jenny’s Spider themed Summer Science Camp, this week we’re going to look at 3 other arachnids that are found in the area. Arachnids are arthropods, invertebrate animals that have exoskeletons made of chitin and multiple jointed legs.They’re on every continent, and tend to be terrestrial, though there are several species of spider and mite that live in freshwater aquatic ecosystems. They are never found in the ocean. Here’s a look at 3 non-spider arachnids that are found in and around this part of Texas.

One of the most commonly encountered non-spider arachnids in this part of the state is the Striped Bark Scorpion (Centrutoides vittatus). This is a small scorpion, growing to only about 2.75 inches in total length. They may deliver a painful sting, though the venom is not usually injurious to humans, beyond the obvious pain and discomfort. As with all other scorpions, this species is carnivorous, seizing their prey with front pinching claws, and injecting the prey with venom from the tail stinger. They then spit out digestive juices onto the prey, and suck up the dissolving body of the prey. Maybe a bit gross, but its what they do!

Velvet Mites (family Trombiidae) are exceptionally small arachnids, a little bit larger than the size of a period at the end of this sentence. They are very easy to identify, with their tiny bright red furry bodies. They’re seen in a wide variety of ecosystems, crawling over vegetation, rocks, and picnic tables. These mites are active and voracious predators, hunting down a wide variety of tiny invertebrates.

The 3rd animal we’ll look at this week is from a much lesser known group of arachnids called the “whip scorpions”, and here in the U.S. we call them Vinegaroons (Mastigoproctus giganteus). These large chunky arachnids may grow up to 3 inches long (6 inches if you count the whip tail). They’re named for the practice of squirting a vinegar-like substance from from their “tail”, which they use to deter predators and disable prey. As with other arachnids, they are predatory on a wide variety of other invertebrates. Though we do get them rarely in this part of Texas, they are far more common in the arid regions of South and West Texas.

Now, in our park, you’ll only see spiders and mites, but make sure to keep an eye out for spiders, whip scorpions, scorpions, and velvet mites, when you’re out and about at nature centers, state parks, and national wildlife refuges around the Houston area. You might be surprised at what you’ll find.

Thanks for joining us, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Photographs: Top photo – Charles&Clint | Flickr; Scorpions – Douglas Mills | Flickr; Velvet Mite – Chris Fifield Smith | Flickr; Vinegaroon – Acrocynus | Wikimedia

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Wildlife Wednesday: Spiders of the NDC

Wildlife Wednesday: Spiders of the Nature Discovery Center

To celebrate Ms. Jenny’s arachnid themed Summer Science Camp this week, I thought we should dedicate this week’s WW to common spiders of the Nature Center. Spiders are arachnids, along with scorpions, daddy-long-legs, Camel Spiders, and Whip Scorpions (amongst others). Spiders have 2 body sections (the abdomen and the cephalothorax), 8 legs, 2 front arms called pedipalps, and usually have 8 eyes. All spiders are predatory, and use venom to subdue and digest their prey, though none of the species in our park are seriously venomous enough to harm people.

The Carolina Wolf Spider (Hogna carolinensis) is one of the most commonly seen spiders here, especially under rocks and logs. They are free roaming spiders, and do not inhabit webs. They’re often encountered this time of year carrying an egg sac, or carrying around dozens of babies on their backs. These large brown spiders are often mistaken for tarantulas, but they’re not quite as hairy, and not quite as large. Though the venom isn’t medically injurious to humans, it is painful, so you should avoid handling this spider.

Orchard Orbweavers (Leucage venusta) are commonly found hanging out on webs found on bushes, trees, and other low vegetation all throughout the park. As with other orbweavers, the female constructs a typical orbweb, but also constructs other protective silk web structures around the main web, making it a little more complex than many other orbweaver webs. The males are much smaller, and hang out around the edges of the web, venturing in occasionally to steal food and mate with the female (if they’re able to avoid getting killed and eaten by the female). This little spider is easily identified by the bright orange spots that appear on the bottom of the abdomens of older females.

A really awesome spider, found only in the Cypress Pond at the South End of the park, is the Six-spotted Fishing Spider (Dolomedes triton), which is known for running across the surface of the water. These large leggy water walkers prey on a wide variety of aquatic creatures, like:  minnows, tadpoles, aquatic insects, and even other spiders!

I hope you enjoyed this brief look at common and fascinating spiders at the Nature Discovery Center, and that you get a chance to go out look for them in the park sometime.

Thanks for joining us, see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Photographs: Top image – Wolf spider face by Thomas Shahan (Wikimedia); Wolf Spider by John Flannery (Flickr); Orchard Orbweaver by Kaldari (Wikimedia); Fishing Spider by Stephen Little (Flickr)

 

 

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Wildlife Wednesday: Recent Butterfly Sightings at the Nature Center

Wildlife Wednesday: Recent Butterfly Sightings at the Nature Center

Springtime is a great time to see butterflies at the Nature Discovery Center. You may see one fluttering through the forest, visiting our wildflower gardens around the Henshaw House, or flitting from flower to flower in the Pocket Prairie. In this week’s Wildlife Wednesday, we’ll have a look at few species of butterfly that have appeared over the last few weeks.

Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae, above photo) are one of our most common butterflies in the park. Not actually related to other fritillaries, these butterflies are actually a kind of longwing or Heliconian butterfly. While the adults will feed on nectar from a variety of flower species, the larvae (caterpillars) will only feed on passionvines (Passiflora spp., Left photo). Passionvine leaves are toxic, and in turn the caterpillars are toxic, as are the adults. The bright orange and black coloration acts as a warning. Gulf Fritillaries have a wingspan of about 3.5 inches.

Another common species of butterfly in this park is the large black Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio troilus), which can often be seen flying in an undulating manner through the forested sections of the park, but is really common all over. These large black butterflies have a 4 inch wingspan, and often fly close to the ground. The larvae feed on plants in the Laurel family, like Sweetbay, Red Bay, Spicebush, and non-native Camphor trees.

A butterfly that is not so common in the park, but that recently made an appearance is the gorgeous little Long-tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus). We saw one feeding on white clover flowers near the Pocket Prairie a few days ago. These blue and brown butterflies have long projections on the hindwings, which look like 2 tails. They lay their eggs, and the larvae feed on plants in the legume family, like wild peas, wisteria, beans, and various others.

Thanks for joining us for another Wildlife Wednesday! Come out to the park soon, and see if you can spot some of these butterflies in the wild.

See you soon,

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photos: Gulf Fritillary and Passionflower by Eric Duran; Spicebush swallowtail by Greg Hume | Flickr; Long-tailed Skipper by John Flannery | Flickr

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Wildlife Wednesday: Common Turtles of the Nature Center

Wildlife Wednesday: Common Turtles of the Nature Center

Welcome to the 3rd and final look at common reptiles of the Nature Discovery Center. This week, we review the turtles that are found here in the park. It’s a little misleading to talk about the “three most common turtles of the park”, because, while there are many turtle species found around the Houston area, we only have three species of turtle found in the park.

The Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene triunguis) is our most common species of turtle, and is therefore the one you’re most likely to see. As with most box turtle species, they’re terrestrial, and tend to be associated with forested and semi-forested habitats. They are rather omnivorous, feeding on a wide variety of mushrooms, berries, flowers, insects and other small invertebrates. Also like other box turtles, their lower shell (the plastron) is hinged, which allows them to pull inside their shell and then close it up tightly. Three-toed Box Turtles usually have a caramel colored shell, which may have darker markings as well, and the males will will have various colorful markings around the face and legs. Males are larger and have reddish eyes, and the females have yellowish eyes.

Look for these turtles walking through all sections of the park.

Ornate Box Turtles (Terrapene ornata) also occur in the park, but much less frequently. These terrestrial turtles are associated more with open grassland habitats. They are omnivorous, but tend to eat more insects and small animals than other species of box turtle. They have been known to hang around cow and bison patties, and feed on the dung beetles that are attracted to them. Ornate box turtles, and indeed most North American box turtles, are inedible to humans and some other animals, because they feed on toxic mushrooms, which turns their flesh toxic (for us). Ornate box turtles have dark shells with yellowish rays on each scute (sections of the shell). The larger males often have bright olive colored heads and bright red eyes.

As far as we can tell, there is only one ornate box turtle currently in the park, and its randomly seen through the summer, walking near open areas of the parks

Just a note: With most species of terrestrial turtles, the males grow to be larger, and with most species of aquatic turtles, the females grow to be larger.

The only species of aquatic turtle that lives in our park is the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), which is also one of the most commonly encountered aquatic turtles in the Houston area. This is one of the “basking turtles”, aquatic turtles in the family Emydidae that are often seen basking in the sunshine on pond banks, rocks, and logs. Sliders are ominvorous turtles, but start out their lives as primarily carnivorous, and shift to a more plant based diet as they grow older. Despite the name, the red marks on the sides of their heads do not correspond exactly with the location of the ears. While the shells of the juveniles may be elaborately marked with yellow and green lines, the patterns fade away (eventually to black or dark gray), as they mature. Older individuals may even lose all markings and become totally black (a color condition called “advanced melanism”).

Look for baby red-ears in our Cypress Pond at the South end of the park.

Well thanks for joining us for another Wildlife Wednesday, we hope you get a chance to get out into the park soon and encounter some of our fascinating native turtles.

See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Photographs: Three-toed Box Turtles by Eric Duran; Ornate Box Turtle by Andrew Dubois | Flickr; Red-eared Slider by Allan Hack | Flickr

*For any of you who are reptile enthusiasts, and perhaps confused or vexed by some our taxonomy choices, in most cases, we go by the 2016 4th Edition of the Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America by Powell, Conant, and Collins.

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Wildlife Wednesday: Common Snakes of the Discovery Center

Wildlife Wednesday: Common Snakes of the Discovery Center

Last Week, we started our 3 week look at the common reptiles of the Nature Discovery Center. This week, we’re looking at the only 3 species of snake that have been seen in the park with any regularity.

The Rough Earth Snake (Haldea or Virginia striulata) is the most commonly encountered snake at the Nature Center. This small small all-brown snake only reaches a length of up to 10 inches, and only larger older females reach that length. Earth snakes are fossorial (spending most of their time underground), and are found under leaf litter, logs, and rocks. They are often found in home gardens. Earth snakes feed mainly on earthworms, but also take other small soft-bodied invertebrates.

Gulf Coast Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis sauritus orarius) are easily recognizable, with long black and yellow stripes. They have thin bodies, and reach a maximum length of up to ~20 inches. They prefer to live near bodies of fresh water, like lakes, ponds, and small streams. Ribbon snakes are live bearing, like vipers and non-venomous water snakes. They eat a wide variety of things; such as small fish, frogs and salamanders, small reptiles, and earthworms.

The Eastern Hognose (Heterodon platyrhinos) is one of the few creatures that can eat toads (with their toxic skin). Hognoses are (mildly) rear-fanged venomous, and use those fangs in the rear of their mouths to pop the toads which they eat (toads inflate themselves with air to keep from being swallowed). These snakes are known for spreading their hoods, like a small cobra, and hissing loudly when threatened. If that doesn’t drive away a potential predator, they flip over and play dead (even letting their tongue hang out and emitting a foul death like odor).

Thanks for joining us for another Wildlife Wednesday. Come back next week for another look at the park’s reptiles. Come out to the park sometime soon, and see if you can find some of these commons snakes.

See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

 

Photographs: Earth Snake by Kyle Weiring | Wikipedia; Earth Snake by Eric Duran; Gulf Coast Ribbon Snake by TheWanderingHerpetologist | Flickr; Eastern Hognose by Peter Paplanus | Flickr; Hognose by Marvin Smith | Flickr

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Wildlife Wednesday: Common Lizards of the Discovery Center

Wildlife Wednesday: Common Lizards of the Discovery Center

Recently, we’ve noticed a marked uptick in reptile activity at the nature center. While walking around the park, we’ve seen box turtles, earth snakes, and lizards wandering around, hunting, and even mating all over the park. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll look at the snakes and turtles here, but today, we’re going to take a look at the 3 most common species of lizard found in Russ Pitman Park.

The Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) is the most commonly seen native lizard in the park. Also called Carolina Anoles, they are sometimes called “chameleons”, because of their ability to change skin color (various shades of green and brown). However, they are not true chameleons, which are found in Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe. Green Anoles are conspicuous lizards and excellent climbers, often sunning, fighting, feeding on insects, courting and mating on the sides of houses, fences, trees, bushes, and yard furniture. The males are easy to identify with their pink dewlaps (throat fans) which they extend when trying to court a female or making territorial displays to other males.

Cuban Brown Anoles (Anolis sagrei) are, as the name suggests, originally from Cuba. They were introduced into the Houston area, possibly in the early 80s or late 70s, from Southern Florida, where they were introduced unintentionally from Cuba. These non-native invasive reptiles are considered to be somewhat deleterious to our native Green Anoles, out-competing them for food resources and eating their young. Brown Anoles are able to change various shades of brown, but unlike Green Anoles, are unable to turn green. The dewlap of the male is a reddish-orange.

The Ground Skink (Scincella lateralis) is a small snake-like lizard, with tiny legs and dark shiny scales. They live beneath leaf litter, rocks, and logs. As with most of our native lizards, they are insectivorous. Though most small lizards can shed their tails, if they are bothered or grabbed, skinks can readily and easily shed their tails off, with very little prompting.

The next time you visit, keep an eye out for these reptiles, all over the park. We hope you get a chance to come out and see some of these adorable and dynamic lizards for yourself.

Thanks for joining us!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Top photo of male Green Anole by PiccoloNamek | Wikimedia; Green Anoles mating by Tom Adams | Wiki; Brown Anole by Hans Hilleweart | Wiki; Ground Skinks by Patrick Coin | Wiki (2)

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Wildlife Wednesday: The Beetles Return

Wildlife Wednesday:  The Beetles Return

Another group of animals that return in the warmer weather of Springtime is the beetles. Now there are a ridiculous number of beetle species around the Houston area, but I wanted to focus on some of the more noticeable species that we’ve seen around the park this week during our classes and nature hikes.

Ladybugs are all over the park right now, but we’ve seen mostly Asian Many-spotted Ladybird Beetles in our wildflower gardens and Pocket Prairie. This week, we finally spotted some of our native Convergent Ladybird Beetles (Hippodamia convergens) skulking around various plants, preying on aphids. They are best known for converging in large numbers on logs, rocks, and even the sides of homes in autumn and through the winter.

photograph by Drobibcorvette | Wikimedia

The Texas Eyed-Click Beetle (Alaus lusciosus) grows to about 2 inches long. They’re known for the loud clicks they make when they pop their bodies and jump suddenly. They’re quite noticeable, because of their size and the prominent false-eye spots on the pronotum, the exoskelatal shield covering the thorax. The large plump larvae feed on other insect larvae, and the adults feed mainly on nectar and other plant juices.

The Hardwood Stump Borer (Mallodon dasytomus) grows to about 2 1/2 inches long, and can deliver a painful bite with their large sharp mandibles (though this is not an aggressive species, and only bites when grabbed). They live in and around dead rotten stumps and logs, where they prey on a variety of other insects, especially ants and their larvae. the wood boring larvae (grubs)  may take 3-4 years to mature into adults!

Well thanks for joining us again this week for Wildlife Wednesday. If you found these beetles interesting, please come out to the park, and see if you can find some out along the trails!

 

See you soon,

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Top photo of Convergent Ladybird Beetle by TJ Gehling | Flickr

 

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Wildlife Wednesday: The Skippers

Wildlife Wednesday:  The Skippers

Spring brings butterflies back to the park, and the Skippers (family Hesperiidae) are one of the first groups to show up. These small butterflies are named for the fast darting manner in which they fly, as if they’re skipping around from flower to flower. There are over 3,500 spp. of skipper around the world, and a couple of dozen of those species are found in the Houston area. Many of the skippers look remarkably similar to each other, and can often be very difficult to identify. Many of the species are also rather drab, being various shades of brown, and can be misidentified as moths (but they are of course diurnal, and have the clubs at the tip of the antennae, which are indicative of butterflies).

Here are a few of the skippers that are found here at the Nature Discovery Center:

Fiery Skippers (Hylephila phyleus) are one of the more common species found here, visiting our wildflower gardens, wildflowers on the front lawn, and the Pocket Prairie. The males are a bit showier, with bright orange and dark brown on the wings (pictured left and top), and the females are a light yellowy brown with brown spots. The tiny greenish caterpillars feed on a variety of grasses, including Bermuda grass and St. Augustine grass. You may notice that this skipper keeps its forewings and hindwings separated at a right angle, with the forewings held up, when it’s resting. This is a small butterfly, measuring only about 1 in long.

 

The White Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus albescens) is easy to tell apart from most other skippers with its white and dark gray/black checkered pattern. There is however, another checkered skipper that is very similar to this species, the Tropical Checkered Skipper, which is also found in our area. They visit a wide variety of small flowers close to the ground, and their caterpillars feed on a variety of small mallow/hibiscus species, like Sida. They may attain a wingspan of up to 3.8 cm in width.

 

Juvenal’s Duskywing (Erynnis juvenalis) is one of 2 species of Duskywing (dark colored skippers that keep their wings open and flattened when on a perch), found in our park. The other is the very similar Horace’s Duskywing, though there are many other species of Duskywing across the country. The caterpillars of these skippers feed on oak leaves. They are similar in size to the Checkered skippers, ~3.8 cm wingspan. Duskywings can make themselves rather conspicuous with their darting, climbing, and diving flight patterns, and their habit of sunning out in flat open meadows in plain sight.

We hope you enjoyed our profile of a few skipper butterflies common to our park. Come out and walk around our wildflower gardens, Prairie Wetlands, and  Pocket Prairie, the next time you get the chance, and see if you can spot these delightful little insects.

 

Thanks so much, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

 

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Wildlife Wednesday: Spring Migration

Wildlife Wednesday: Spring Migration

When people think of Spring migration, they usually think of bird migration. During Spring Migration, we see wood warblers, orioles, tanagers, buntings, thrushes, and other birds, returning from the neo-tropics (Central and South America) to their breeding grounds in North America. We refer to birds from temperate regions of North America, who overwinter in tropical America to the South of us as “Neotropical Migrants.”

Bird migration is well known, but what many may not know is that various species of butterfly and dragonfly also migrate South in the Fall, and return North in the Spring. Here’s a look at 3 species of migrants that pass through the park every Spring.

  

Photographs via: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Park Service

Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) are bright citron yellow wood-warblers that nest in tree cavities, unlike most other species of warbler, which make more typical nests out of vegetation on tree branches. However, like most new world warbler species, they feed mainly on insects and other small invertebrates (caterpillars are an especially popular food item). These birds are usually associated with forested wetlands (swamps), where they nest and feed. During the breeding season, they’re found in the Eastern U.S. and SE Canada, and they overwinter in Northern South America, and the central Caribbean coast of Mexico. They are found nesting in swamps East and North of the Houston area, but we only get them in Russ Pitman Park during Spring Migration.

  

photographs: Dan Mullen | Flickr, Jim McCulloch | Flickr, and Henry Hartley | Wikimedia

Green Darners (Anax junius) are large dragonflies that leave their breeding grounds across North America to migrate South for the winter to Texas and Mexico. This is an exceptionally wide spread and common species of dragonfly, found breeding and feeding around still bodies of freshwater (mainly lakes, ponds, marshes, and swamps). They are highly predatory, taking wasps, spiders, butterflies, and even other dragonflies (including other Green Darners, at times). Large numbers of them are noticeable during fall migration, and they return to their breeding grounds during spring migration (though this late stage of the adult life cycle, and migration habits and patterns are not well studied nor well understood). Most species of dragonfly in North America do not migrate seasonally like this, but instead die off in the fall (leaving behind aquatic offspring to overwinter).

  

Photographs via: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Park Service

Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexipus) are famously migratory butterflies, overwintering in mountain forests in Northern Mexico. They return to the U.S. in April, and undergo an annual migration cycle that is completed over 4 generations (with no single individual completing the entire migration cycle). Their geographic distribution and patterns of movement are actually somewhat complex, as a population, but here is a simplified overview of their migration.

Generation 1 hatches out in the Southern U.S., migrates to the Central U.S. then mates and dies.
Generation 2 hatches out in the Central U.S., migrates further north, then mates and dies.
Generation 3 hatches out in the North, migrates further North, then mates and dies.

Generation 4 hatches out in the far North, and then undertakes the longest leg of the migration, spending the Autumn migrating 1000s of miles back through the U.S. and down to Mexico, where they will spend the winter. In the Spring, they will migrate back to the Southern U.S., where they will mate, lay eggs, and die.

Meadows, wildflower gardens, and prairie are very important to Monarchs while migrating, as they will only lay their eggs on Milkweeds (genus Asclepias), which are found in these habitats.

Sometime this April, head out to the Nature Discovery Center, and see if you can spot one or all 3 of these Spring Migrants. If you’re interested in learning about more species of migrating birds, dragonflies, and butterflies, ask one of our helpful naturalists on site or feel free to email me with questions.

Thanks and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Top photo of male Blackburnian Warbler by Laura Gooch | Flickr

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Wildlife Wednesday: The Frogs Have Emerged!

Wildlife Wednesday: The Frogs Have Emerged!

With warmer temperatures and recent rain events, frogs are once again making themselves known in the park. We’ve been hearing them call, and last night we spotted a few of them calling and mating in the center fountain pond. Here’s a look at 3 of the species of native frog that we see most commonly in the park.

Gulf Coast Toads (Incilius nebulifer) are the most commonly seen yard frog in our area, that’s because, like most toads, they are

terrestrial and comfortable in leaf beds and gardens around the house. They’re also the most commonly seen frog in our park, found underneath rocks, logs, and boardwalks.

After heavy rains in warm weather, toads emerge and make their way to still freshwater in ponds, ditches, and temporary puddles to breed. The males call to the females with a loud continuous nasal trill (listen here). If the male is successful in attracting a female, the female allows him to engage her in a mating embrace (called “amplexus”). The female then lays her eggs, and the male fertilizes them. The leave the eggs behind, and offer no further parental care. Toads lay their eggs in long gelatinous strands, unlike other groups of frogs that lay their eggs individually on vegetation or in large glob-like masses.   

Eastern Narrowmouths (Gastrophryne carolinensis) have emerged from under logs and their underground borrows to sing their nasal sheep-like Mehhhhhhhh calls (listen here). These small arrowhead-shaped frogs feed mostly on termites and ants (and their larvae), thus the small pointy mouth. They spend most of their time under cover or underground, and really only become noticeable after heavy rains.

Another frog that one hears calling in the park occasionally is the Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea), the only treefrog we really see in the park. Despite the name, these bright green frogs are found mainly in reeds, grasses, and other vertical vegetation along the edge of freshwater ponds and marshes. During warm Spring and Summer months the males sing a raucous chorus of nasal KWAK KWAK KWAK calls (listen here). We tend to hear and see them in the pocket prairie and along the edge of the Cypress Pond at the South end of the park.

If you’re willing to endure the rain and a few puddles, come out and see if you can find some our common frogs around the park!

Feel free to write me, if you have any questions about local frogs or any other wildlife: eduran@naturediscoverycenter.org.

 

See you soon,

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Photographs: Gulf Coast Toad  (Toadies1 | Wikimedia, all others – Eric Duran, Nature Discovery Center); Eastern Narrrowmouth (Wandering Herpetologst | Flickr); Green Treefrog and Toad tadpoles and eggs (Eric Duran, NDC)

 

 

 

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