Maura Denman

Fall Changes to take NDC Discovery Rooms Back to their Roots

Over the next month or so, staff at the Nature Discovery Center will be making mission driven changes to our Discovery Rooms that will take the rooms back to the Center’s roots as a place of exploration and discovery. Visitors will notice a shift in focus from indoor nature play to hands-on learning at activity and observation stations designed to ignite curiosity, understanding, and respect for nature. While we still want to encourage nature based imaginative exploration upstairs, we want to move away from indoor play for play’s sake and hopefully discourage the misuse of specimens and Discovery Room tools that have too often been incorporated into the play-based experience our visitors have had in recent years.

We are excited by these changes, and we can’t wait to see our visitors make new discoveries as they interact with natural objects, explore with kid friendly tools of the trade, “research” areas of interest in resource books, create simple nature crafts, and engage with volunteers and naturalists at themed demo and activity tables. We know there will be a period of adjustment as our visitors acclimate to our new Discovery Room philosophy, but we also know that the changes will be rewarding and worth it! Connecting kids with nature and igniting their curiosity through hands-on discovery is our passion!

What can you expect:

  • removal of the Backyard Habitat house and most of the toys that have been upstairs
  • a focused area for imaginative interactions with a smaller selection of puppets and stuffed animals
  • a general local wildlife theme in the large discovery room with activity and observation stations
  • a more focused bones, skulls, and skeletons theme in the small discovery room
  • an interactive naturalist table staffed by volunteers on weekends at posted times with themed activities and/or hands-on animal encounters
  • more accessible tools of the trade so that kids can explore specimens with hand lenses, rulers, microscopes, and balances, and observe wildlife through the windows with binoculars
  • a “Stars of the Park” exhibit space where kids can bring in and display small curiosities and interesting objects they have discovered while exploring the park
  • increased respect for our specimens and tools by staff and visitors alike
  • an expectation that our visitors will help us keep the rooms clean by helping their children learn to put things back where they belong
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We’re Partnering with Houston Audubon and others for Bird Week

We’re excited to be an official partner with the Houston Audubon in the first-ever Houston Bird Week, in honor of their 50th anniversary. Equal parts fun, education, and celebration, experience firsthand the important role Houston plays in the journey of billions of migratory birds, and the everyday life of our urban-dwelling birds. Led by Houston Audubon’s Young Professionals Advisory Council in collaboration with local conservation partners, we have a flock of fun planned for all.

Don’t miss the kick-off party, where an official Bird Beer will be unveiled! From pop-up birding stations to park clean-ups and bioblitzes, your participation and excitement will help us continue to be a welcoming home for Houston’s birds.

We hope you can join us at our birding activities already planned for September 21 – 28.

Let’s get chirping on social media. Use #HoustonBirdWeek to share your excitement! Check out the jam-packed list of events at www.houstonaudubon.org/birdweek

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Fall Planting Season is Coming

It’s almost fall planting season! Visit these two great native plant events hosted by our partners at the Native Plant Society and the Garden Club of Houston!

Wildscapes Workshop
Saturday, September 21
8 am – 3:30 pm
Anderson-Clarke Center at Rice University
https://npsot.org/wp/houston/event-overview/wildscapes-workshop/

Bulb & Plant Mart
Thursday – Saturday, October 3 – 5
The Church of St. John the Divine
https://www.gchouston.org/bulb-plant-mart/

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June 2019 Wired to Nature

Duran, E. (6/2019) Why bats and wasps matter: Debunking myths about pollinators.  Essentials, p. 18

 

Wired to Nature is the Nature Discovery Center’s regular column in Essentials, a monthly magazine published by InstantNewsNetwork that covers the Bellaire and West University communities. Essentials may be read online at https://current.essentialsmagazines.com/

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New Snake Species for Russ Pitman Park

By Eric Duran, Staff Naturalist

On Tuesday, May 7, 2019 during a light rain, I went out flipping logs to add a couple of species to the previous day’s bio-blitz, and found quite a surprise… a Brahminy Blindsnake (Indotyphlops brahminensis).

These non-native (introduced) snakes are not only extremely rare in Texas, but are only recently known from a few records in Harris County. It was an exciting find! Also known as the “Flowerpot snake,” it is believed that they spread around the tropical and semi-tropical areas of the world through in the loose soil of flowerpots. They are originally from somewhere around the coastal areas of East Africa and South and SE Asia, along the Indian Ocean.

Every wild specimen that has ever been collected or observed has been found to be female. They seem to reproduce asexually through a process called parthenogenesis, in which they lay eggs (or give birth, we’re not actually sure) to identical copies of the mother, each baby a clone of a clone. They live in leaf litter, loose soil, and under rocks and logs. Their diet consists mainly of ants, ant eggs and larvae, and termites.

Blindsnakes are very thin and small, and have barely functioning eyes housed under translucent or even opaque eye scales (eyes are not generally important, if you spend most of your time under cover or underground). They have a depressed lower jaw that helps it keep dirt out of its mouth while it’s burrowing. As with other species of burrowing snake, they do not have wide belly scales for moving across the ground efficiently.

Upon finding this snake for the first time at the Nature Center, we had to make sure that it wasn’t one of the native species. In Texas, we have 3 native species of blindsnake, the Texas blindsnake being the closest native species to Harris County (occurring here only sporadically). Our closest native blind snake can be pinkish-brown to dark brown, and the Brahminy can be dark black to dark brown… so we couldn’t just use coloration to determine the species of our little friend. A couple of us got to do some real herpetology, and dig into the Texas snake books. The Brahminy has up to 20 rows of mid-dorsal scales, while the native species has only up to 14. Also, the vent (back opening) and the tail tip are whitish on the Brahminy. A little macro-photography helped us to zoom in on these characteristics, and determine confidently that we had what we thought we had.

This was an exiting find for the naturalists on staff, and added another species to our park snake list; along with Rough Earth Snake, Gulf Coast Ribbon Snake, Eastern Hognose Snake, Texas Ratsnake, Diamondback Watersnake, Broad-banded Watersnake, and Yellowbelly Watersnake (which we only recently found living near the Cypress Pond at the South end of the park).

Let us know if you photograph any snakes in our park, or if you have seen any cool snakes in your own yard!

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117 Species Spotted on Spring Migration Field Trip

Last Friday, April 27, 2019, a group of senior members of the Nature Discovery Center traveled to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and High Island for our annual Spring Migration Field Trip, a birding trip we offer during the height of spring migration. The bird list reported here includes species seen in Russ Pitman Park before and after the trip, species seen along the roadsides and at pit stops during the trip, and at the two primary birding destinations. In the photo above, birders are gathered at Boy Scout Woods at High Island.

Stopping to look at about 300 migrating Mississippi Kites overhead.

Mary Ann Beauchemin, Senior Naturalist, reports that one of the highlights of the day actually came at a pit stop at a gas station. The group witnessed about 300 Mississippi Kites migrating overhead with some Broad-winged Hawks mixed in!

  • Neotropic Cormorant
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Anhinga
  • Least Bittern
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Tricolored Heron
  • Cattle Egret
  • Green Heron
  • Yellow-crowned Night Heron
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • White-faced Ibis
  • Roseate Spoonbills
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black-bellied Whistling Duck
  • Fulvous Whistling Duck
  • Gadwall
  • Mottled Duck
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Osprey
  • Mississippi Kite
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Broad-winged Hawk
  • Swainson’s Hawk
  • Crested Caracara
  • Northern Bobwhite Quail
  • Purple Gallinule
  • Common Moorhen
  • American Coot
  • Killdeer
  • Black-necked Stilt
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Lesser Yellowlegs
  • Solitary Sandpiper
  • Western Sandpiper
  • Long-billed Dowitcher
  • Laughing Gull
  • Forster’s Tern
  • Rock Dove
  • White-winged Dove
  • Mourning Dove
  • Inca Dove
  • Yellow-billed Cuckoo
  • Eastern Screech Owl
  • Common Nighthawk
  • Chuck-will’s-widow
  • Chimney Swift
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee
  • Alder Flycatcher
  • Great Crested Flycatcher
  • Western Kingbird
  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Blue-headed Vireo
  • Warbling Vireo
  • Philadelphia Vireo
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Blue Jay
  • American Crow
  • Purple Martin
  • Tree Swallow
  • Cliff Swallow
  • Barn Swallow
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Gray-cheeked Thrush
  • Swainson’s Thrush
  • Wood Thrush
  • Gray Catbird
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • European Starling
  • Blue-winged Warbler
  • Golden-winged Warbler
  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Northern Parula
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Blackburnian Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Bay-breasted Warbler
  • Blackpoll Warbler
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • American Redstart
  • Prothonotary Warbler
  • Worm-eating Warbler
  • Northern Waterthrush
  • Kentucky Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Hooded Warbler
  • Canada Warbler
  • Summer Tanager
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Indigo Bunting
  • Painted Bunting
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Western Meadowlark
  • Common Grackle
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Great-tailed Grackle
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Orchard Oriole
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • House Sparrow
  • Cedar Waxwing
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SNAIL INVASION!

This past April 13th, during our Spring Fling Festival, an unwelcome discovery was made. One of our volunteers was dip-netting in the pond with kids, as part of a pond study, and discovered a live Apple Snail in the Cypress Pond (along with a few bright pink egg masses).

Apple Snails are a non-native invasive species of  freshwater snail from South America. They are very common in the pet/aquarium trade as a display species. When some people want to break down their aquaria, they dump unwanted pets into local water bodies, like bayous, creeks, lakes, and ponds. Because of this, Apple Snails have become a part of aquatic eco-systems across the South, especially in Houston and Florida. They can be rather harmful to eco-systems where they have been introduced, eating up much of the native water plants.

We immediately sprung into action, and have been attempting to physically remove them from the Cypress Pond, as well as hunting down their egg masses and destroying them. Apple Snails lay their eggs in clusters above the water line, on emergent vegetation, so they are fairly easy to find (also they are a very bright pink). So far, we have removed 3 live snails from the pond, and destroyed around 12 egg masses. The snails now live comfortably in a volunteer’s aquarium.

We continue to check back at the pond every day. Thankfully, it’s a small pond, and easy to manage.  In other larger eco-systems where they are released, they are very difficult to manage for. We’ll keep you updated on our efforts to remove this invasive species from our park.

Eric Duran

Staff Naturalist

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Heather Sullivan Brings New Mindfulness Classes to Center

We’re pleased to announce a new “Mindfulness in Nature” class series being offered by Heather Sullivan at the Nature Discovery Center this spring. Practicing mindfulness in nature allows you to focus your awareness on the present moment, your thoughts and feelings, and your environment, and can help you reduce the stress that comes from leading a hectic life.

Heather, a trained Mindfulness Educator, is passionate about teaching kids and adults the tools to cope with stress and develop a more mindful approach to life in order to nurture a positive state of mind. She currently teaches a mindfulness class at Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary and is working with schools in Spring Branch ISD to teach mindfulness to teachers.

Heather’s Mindfulness in Nature series here in Russ Pitman Park will start on Friday, April 26 and will run for 4 weeks as a pilot program. Classes will start at 12:30 pm and will last for about an hour. You are welcome to sign up for individual dates or for the whole series.

Learn more and register online here.

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March 2019 Wired to Nature

Duran, E. (3/2019) Look! Up in the sky! Our spring bird migration has begun.  Essentials, p. 15

Wired to Nature is the Nature Discovery Center’s regular column in Essentials, a monthly magazine published by InstantNewsNetwork that covers the Bellaire and West University communities. Essentials may be read online at https://current.essentialsmagazines.com/

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New Small Mammal Added to our Menagerie

Our new male Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec at the nature Discovery Center.

We’re super excited to announce a new addition to our menagerie of live animals at the Center, a super adorable male Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec. Our little guy doesn’t have a name yet and we are open to suggestions! You can leave a comment here or look out for a Facebook Live video later this week and add your name ideas to the comments then. Note that he isn’t quite ready for visitors, but we’ll be sure to tell you when he is! 🙂

Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec (Echinops telfairi)

Tenrecs are found on the island of Madagascar. Though they look and act very much like hedgehogs, they are actually not closely related to them. They are nocturnal, wandering the night in search of insects, worms, and other small invertebrates. If bothered, they will roll into a ball, exposing only their pointy spines. Tenrecs are good climbers, and will make their dens in tree cavities, as well as in and under logs. They mark their territories and communicate by scent marking objects.

Many thanks to Charity Tutt (https://www.facebook.com/charity.tutt) for placing this sweet rescue animal with us!

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