Life at the center

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/

Read more

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!

Read more

Center Welcomes Ranger to Staff

Ranger (pictured at right) with a group of Spring Break Campers at Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary.

NDC staff are pleased to welcome a new team member to the Center. Ranger has joined us to help with the day to day management of Russ Pitman Park, our nature park and outdoor classroom, as Park Steward Apprentice. Ranger will be working closely in this role with Mary Ann Beauchemin, our Park Steward and Senior Naturalist. In addition to her work with park maintenance, Ranger will also draw on her experience in environmental education to assist with programs at the Center from time to time. In fact, Ranger just taught our Wild Weather Spring Break Camp last Friday.

Her whole life, Ranger hoped to work at a nature center. She grew up on the outskirts of Kalamazoo, Michigan, next door to corn fields and sheep pasture, making frequent trips to the local nature center. Ranger studied biology (BA) and entomology (MS) as well as animal behavior (PhD work) and Library and Information Science (MLIS), so as a naturalist she is always ready to research and learn more about plants and animals. She worked as the birthday party naturalist and camp teacher at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary for six years and has many more years of experience teaching, both in the classroom and in outdoor settings. She is excited to continue her study of native plants and to add to her knowledge of Houston insects and other fauna. Ranger has a fondness for wasps and all creatures buzzy and slithery. She enjoys running, walking her dogs, gardening, reading, and playing board games.

Please join us in welcoming Ranger to the Center!

Read more

Wildlife Wednesday: Eastern Screech Owls

Wildlife Wednesday:  Screech Owls – Predators in Your Backyard

When we lead people through the park at night, the star of the show is usually the diminutive and active Eastern Screech Owl. Many visitors are enraptured, and tell us that it’s the first time they’ve seen an owl in the wild. In fact, most people don’t even know that we had owls here in Bellaire… that they had owls right in their own backyards.

I felt the same way, when I was starting my career as a naturalist. I didn’t realize that owls were living their lives, nesting, hunting, and raising their young right in the midst of where I was living and working. In fact, Screech Owls are very common urban/suburban owls, making a living wherever trees and small prey are available.

The Eastern Screech Owl is the smallest owl species you’ll see in the Houston area, and the most common. As you’d expect with owls, they’re nocturnal and predatory. These owls feed on a wide variety of small prey; such as lizards, snakes, small birds, and large insects (including large flying cockroaches). Much of this small prey is surprisingly abundant in urban areas, and so are Screech Owls.

They nest in tree cavities; usually abandoned woodpecker nests or holes formed from broken branches. Screech owls also take well to nest boxes, placed in trees by helpful humans. They’re territorial birds, establishing a zone around their nests from which they’ll attempt to exclude other screech owls. The mothers stay in the nest during the day, while the father finds a secluded roost in a tree nearby. At night, both parents hunt for prey to feed the chicks. In some parts of the screech owl’s range, the parents may add a live blind snake to the nest, to help control ants and other small insects.

Here in our 4 acre park, we usually get 3 breeding pairs. They begin nesting as early as January, and may care of their young as late as the Summer, though the young usually fledge from the nest around May.
We more often hear Screech Owls, than we see them. Though we may think of owls hooting, many species of owl don’t hoot at all. Screech Owls make long soft trills, ghostly whinnies, and piercing screeches. Once I learned their calls, I realized that I had heard them calling from the trees near my apartment for years. And that’s the way it is with a lot of urban wildlife… We may encounter them in one way or another all the time, but may be totally unaware of sharing our environment with them.

If you want to encounter screech owls, you can go out at night in your neighborhood and listen for them. Perhaps you’ll even see one sitting on a tree branch, looking for prey. Have a look at these YouTube Videos, with common Eastern Screech Owl calls:

 

You can also join us here at the Nature Discovery Center for a guided night hike, looking for owls and other nocturnal animals in the park: a Family Night Hike on May 4th and an Adult Night Hike on May 19th.

For more info about Screech Owls or our programs and hikes, give us a call at 713-667-6550.

Eric Duran

Staff Naturalist
Nature Discovery Center

Photographs by Don Verser and Eric Duran

Read more

Wildlife Wednesday: Gardening With Native Wildflowers

Wildlife Wednesday: Gardening With Native Wildflowers

By the time you sit down to read this, Spring wildflowers will already be in bloom. Blessed as we are with temperate short winters, we are also blessed with an early and long blooming season for wildflowers in the Houston area. This is important to a wide variety of pollinators, animals who feed on flower nectar and pass pollen between flowers.  It’s Important to resident animals to sustain themselves, and to migrants on their migratory journeys North. This not only happens in the wild, but is something we can contribute to, by planting and maintaining native wildflowers in pollinator gardens around our homes and businesses. With that in mind, lets have a look at a few species you can easily grow in the garden.

First, let’s define the terms discussed here. “Wildflowers” refers to plants that normally grow on their own out in nature, without needing our care, and not flowers whose current forms have been developed in the nursery industry. For our purposes, if a flower is generally unchanged from its wild form, even if bought at a nursery, we’ll call it a wildflower.

“Native” simply means that its from this region (ie. “Texas native”). Native, and generally unchanged in form (unlike some nursery trade cultivars) is important, because many of our native pollinators already know how to use and feed from native plants, and may not know how to navigate certain flowers from elsewhere. This renders some garden plants as pretty, but generally unhelpful to wildlife.

Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella) aka Firewheel is a colorful relative of  daisies and sunflowers. Popular with bees and butterflies, these showy flowers bloom from late February through December. The long blooming period of this annual, hardiness, and wide appeal to a variety of pollinators make it perfect for home gardens. They only grow 1 – 2 ft tall.

Butterfly Gaura (Gaura lindheimeri), as the name would suggest, is popular with a number of butterfly species. They grow tall flower stems topped with delicate white and pink flowers. It goes well behind other shorter plants, and is tolerant of full sun and part shade. Guara blooms from April to November.

Lemon Beebalm (Monarda citriodora) and  (Monarda punctata) are both very popular with large bees and butterflies, and they are gorgeous complex flowers. Beebalms grow from April – July. They’re in the mint family, and have a history of medicinal use. They are perennials, coming back from root stock the next season.

Winecups (Callirhoe involcrata) are native ground creeping mallow (Hibiscus) that grows open shallow wine colored flowers that are appealing to a wide variety of bees, beetles, an smaller butterflies that may not be able to feed from some larger or deeper flowers. Each plant grows 8-12 inches tall and spread out to 3 feet. Its a perennial that grows through the Spring, and again in late summer and early fall.

March is a good time to get these plants in the ground, or plant seeds for flowers coming up in late Spring, Summer, and Fall. Check your locally owned nurseries for native plants, and check out the leftover plants from last weekend’s Bellaire Garden Club plant sale, still available in our back 40 area, at the Nature Discovery Center.

Also, call the Center for more details about upcoming nature hikes at 713.667.6550.

Thanks for joining us, and see you out in the park!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Photographs by Eric Duran (Top-most image is of Aquatic Milkweed, Asclepias perennis, a native milkweed, that is beginning to bloom at the edge of the pocket prairie garden in the park. It’s difficult to find for sale, but its worth planting for the Monarchs, if you do find it!)

Read more

Wildlife Wednesday: The American Parrots

Wildlife Wednesday: The American Parrots

We don’t usually think of the United States as a place where you can find parrots. We think of them as tropical birds, flying around, squawking, and eating fruit in a lush humid rain forest far away. However, this country has parrots, here and there. At one time, we had at least 2 native parrots within what is now the borders of the U.S., one of them being common and widespread across 2/3 of the country. Currently, we are left with only a few introduced species scattered across various small areas. And so, today, we have a look at a few of these species of American parrots, past and present.

At one time, believe it or not, we had a common and colorful parrot, found across the central and Eastern United States, ranging from Southern New England, west to Colorado, and south to Texas along the Gulf Coast to the tip of Florida. The Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) could be found in temperate and sub-tropical areas of the country, and was the Northernmost parrot in the Americas. They ate mostly large seeds and small fruits. Its thought that their habit of eating poisonous cocklebur seeds may have made the birds themselves poisonous, protecting them from predators. These parakeets were gregarious, living in groups of 200-300 birds. They nested in old hollow trees, using species such as Sycamore and Bald Cypress, in old growth forests, along the edges of wetlands.

We could have seen this bird right here in Houston, if you had been here 150 years ago. Sometime in the mid 1800s though, the birds began to decline, and by 1918, the last known bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo… America’s gorgeous, gregarious, and relatively common parrots were extinct. The cause of extinction is thought to be a combination of factors that came along with European settlement and increasing population across the country. Logging of old growth forests and over-hunting for the millinery trade (feather’s for women’s hats)  were the driving forces that lead to losing this beautiful bird.

Another bird that we have lost in the United States is the endangered Thick-billed Parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha), which thankfully still persists in the Sierra Madres of North-western Mexico. This large green and red parrot was once found in mixed oak and conifer forests in Arizona and New Mexico, and wandered occasionally to Utah and west Texas. Deforestation, general habitat disturbance, and over-hunting lead to dramatic declines, and the last reports of the birds in the U.S. (in SE Arizona) were in the mid 1930s. In the 1980s, the government attempted to reintroduce them to SE Arizona, but dramatic changes in habitats and intense human settlement doomed the project to failure. Most of the introduced birds fell victim to predators or left for Mexico, and the project of bringing them back to the U.S. was abandoned.

Today, parrots present in the United States are mostly introduced species, released and escaped pets. Here in Houston, as well as in NY, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and other urban areas across the Eastern half of the country, Monk Parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) aka “Quaker Parrots” have taken a foothold. This is our most common introduced parrot, and it fills some of the niches of the extinct Carolina Parakeet, feeding on seeds and grain, and nesting in large colonies. Their huge group nests can be seen in power line towers around the city, including right here in Bellaire. They can be seen feeding at bird feeders and on lawns nearby, as well as on Green Ash seeds here at the Nature Center.

Besides Monk Parakeets, and the occasional escaped Budgie, released Red-masked parakeets live in San Francisco, and various species of Amazon parrots live in South Texas and Southern Florida. Red-crowned parrots and Green Parakeets nest in the most Southern parts of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, though its not clear if they are released pets, or whether Mexican populations have begun to creep slowly into the U.S.

Though you can no longer see Carolinas or Thick-bills in the U.S., you can see Monk Parakeets here in the park, in the trees in front of Whole Foods in West University, and in the power line right of way between Newcastle and Weslayan on Bellaire, on warmer days. If you get a chance, get out and experience these delightful little parrots for yourself.

Thanks for joining us, and see you in the park!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

If you’d like to know more about local birds, or birds int he park, feel free to email: eduran@naturediscoverycenter.org

images: Illustration by John James Audubon (1833); Carolina Parakeet – James St. John | Wiki; Thick-billed Parrot – Tim Lenz | Wiki; Monk Parakeets – Tamara K. | Wiki; Red-crowned Parrot – Roger Moore | Wiki

Read more

Wildlife Wednesday: Houston’s Winter Mushrooms

Winter Mushrooms Are a Delight in the Cold of Winter

Winter is a time when a lot of local wildlife goes away or goes dormant. The reptiles and amphibians go into brumation (the cold-blooded version of hibernation). The wildflowers die back, and many of the trees have lost their leaves. Many of the birds have migrated through and left for warmer climes. However, not everything has gone away. If you walk through your local park or woodland, you may find mushrooms still offering you a burst of color here and there, even in the coldest part of winter. This month, we’ll have a look at a few common local mushrooms willing to show up in February.

The bright red Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is perhaps the most iconic of mushrooms. Ask a lot of people to draw a mushroom, and this is the species that may come to mind, though not everyone may know the name. This mushroom is famously hallucinogenic, but can also be somewhat toxic (so I would avoid consuming it). The name comes from the old practice of using this mushroom to ward off flies. Fly agarics are symbiotic with pine trees, and have a wide range across the Northern Hemisphere. One of the varieties that grows in our Texas pine forests may be a pale yellow.

One of our more conspicuous edible mushrooms is the well-known Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus), which can sometimes be found in supermarkets. Unlike the fly agaric, which grows out of the soil, Oyster mushrooms grow out of dead wood, usually hardwood stumps and logs. The mushrooms is only the” fruiting” reproductive body of the fungus. The rest of the fungus lives inside the wood, feeding and growing. As with most edible mushrooms, you should be very careful before eating mushrooms from the wild though, only doing so if you are expert at mushroom identification, as the Oyster Mushroom has some toxic look-alikes.

A rather strange looking mushroom that may pop up in your yard is the Columnar Stinkhorn (Linderia columnatus). They usually grow from soil with a lot of dead organic matter or hardwood mulch, so they’re usually seen in flower and landscaping beds. Besides the distinctive white egg like structure from which they seem to emerge, the spongy orange squid like tentacles, joined at the top, are rather unique. When the mushroom forms its slimy dark green spore mass inside the columnar arms, it takes on a nasty odor, reminiscent of feces and rotting carcass. The various species of stinkhorn fungi (ie. Columnar, Lattice, and stinky squid) attract flies with these odors to spread their spores to new locations.

While mushrooms may not be as dynamic as blue jays, nor as showy as a field of bluebonnets, they are beautiful and fascinating, none the less. If you get a chance, get outside into your garden or nearby park or nature center and see what you can find growing on logs, on lawns, out of mulch beds, and tree stumps. You may be pleasantly surprised. And head into the park, so see how many you can find out on the trails!

Thanks for joining us, see you again next month!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist, Nature Discovery Center

Photographs by Eric Duran (top header: hairy hexagonia fungus; bottom: stinkhorn, turkeytail fungus,underside of oyster mushroom, wood ear fungus)

        

Read more

Wildlife Wednesday: Winter Birds at Russ Pitman Park

Wildlife Wednesday: Winter Birds at Russ Pitman Park

We have finally entered our winter bird season here on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and here at the Nature Discovery Center (in Russ Pitman Park). Most of our Fall migrants have flown through and moved on to South Texas, Mexico, and Central America, and many of the birds that spend the winter in our area have begun to arrive. On today’s Winter Bird Walk, and in previous days, we’ve seen some of these much anticipated birds feeding and singing in the park, many right out in the front yard area. Today, we take a look at a few of these recently seen wintering bird species.

Pine Warblers (Dendroica pinus) breed in the Eastern United States from East Texas to New England, but we don’t really have them here in the Houston area until winter. As the name would suggest, the bird is heavily associated with Pine Trees, where they nest and search for food under pine bark and in pine cones. They have a varied diet of seeds, berries, and insects. As with most new world wood warblers, the males are more vibrantly colored than the females.

Orange-crowned Warblers (Oerothlypis celata) are another winter warbler for the Houston area. They nest and raise young in the Western U.S., Canada, and Alaska. The yellowish males are fairly dull colored for wood warblers, and the females are even drabber in coloration. The western populations are somewhat less colorful even than the more yellowy Eastern populations. The male does occasionally show off a small dark orange patch on the top of the head, when excited, but the orange crown is usually unseen. Orange-crowned Warblers feed on berries, insects, and flower nectar. We sometimes see them feeding at hummingbird feeders in the park during the winter.

We also find Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula) feeding on sugar water from hummingbird feeders in our park during the winter. The small gray birds are easily recognized with their black and white wing bars, but the small ruby colored crest on the top of the head is not always easy to spot. When the birds are active and excited they may raise it up for you. They are bold little birds, often approaching birdwatchers out of curiosity or to scold them away. They’re common here in the winter, but during the breeding season, they completely disappear from this part of the country, as they breed in the Rocky Mountain corridor of the Western United States, through much of Canada, and Alaska. They feed on flower nectar, insects, tree sap, and berries.

One of our favorite winter woodpeckers is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), which feeds on tree sap by making holes or sap wells in a variety of trees. They maintain these patches of sap wells, pecking at them occasionally to keep them running, and defending them from other birds. The males are more colorfully marked than the females, and they can be somewhat territorial, even in winter. These lovely woodpeckers also feed on the insects that come to consume the sap from the wells. Sapsuckers know to make different shaped sap wells for different species of tree, as various saps have different viscosities and flow rates.

So, those are a few of the winter birds we’ve seen more recently at the Nature Center as of late, and hopefully, you can come out to the park soon and see some of them for yourself. Remember, its not just parks that have wintering birds, you probably have them visiting your yard, as well. Birdfeeders and bird baths are a great way to invite them them close to your home.

Our next two guided Winter Bird Walks are January 10th & February 7th, from noon to 1:30 PM. (Find out more here.)

Thanks for joining us this week. See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photos: Top – Eastern Bluebird and Pine Warbler by John Flannery | Flickr; Pine Warbler – Andy Morffew | Flickr; Orange crowned Warbler – Andrew Reding | Flickr; Ruby crowned Kinglet – Fyn Kind | Flickr; Yellow bellied Sapsucker – Dominic Sherony | Wikimedia

Read more

Wildlife Wednesday: Turtles Around Houston

Wildlife Wednesday: Turtles Around Houston

While we really only encounter 3 species of turtle here at the Nature Discovery Center, there are actually a number of other species that occur in lakes, ponds, rivers, bayous, swamps, and marshes all over town. We have several freshwater turtles, and only a few species of land turtles. Today we’re going to cover a few species that are not seen in the park, but are easily encountered elsewhere around town. If you’d like to see an article about our 3 species: read here.

Turtles are reptiles, so like most other reptiles, the following applies. 1. They hatch out of eggs on the land, eggs with shells. 2. They are cold blooded, and so they must move into or out of the sunshine to warm up and cool down. 3. Turtles are covered with scales, made out of keratin. 4. Regardless of how aquatic they may be, they breathe air with lungs, at all times of their lives, outside of the egg. 5. They are vertebrates, with a full bony skeleton.

Pallid Spiny Softshell Turtles (Apalone spinifera pallidus, above right and left) often look like large pancakes laying on the sides of lakes and bayous around town. Their flattened shells are made mostly of cartilage, and have rubbery feel, instead of being made of bone, and being hard. The skin of softshells is without scales, and the the skin on the shell if actually rather smooth. The females, which reach the size of a serving platter, are much larger than the males, which only grow as big as a mall dinner plate. They are mainly carnivorous, and have a strong sharp beak inside of the soft rather non-threatening looking mouth. Be aware, these turtles can deliver a severe and painful bite! In some areas, their numbers have gone down from being over hunted for their meat, and disturbance to their freshwater habitats.

A rather herbivorous turtle sometimes found in the Houston area is the Texas Tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri). Texas Tortoises are actually from the Rio Grande Valley of Southern Texas and Northern Mexico, but people often pick them up to keep as pets, and then release them in our area. This is not something that we recommend, as many turtles that are removed from their native habitats and placed into different habitats often perish, before they can adjust. In the wild, Texas Tortoises feed on a wide variety of fruits, flowers, greens, and even the occasional prickly pear cactus pad. It’s the only true tortoise native to the state of Texas, though it has 3 close relatives in North America: Bolson’s Tortoise in Mexico, the Desert Tortoise in the desert SW of the U.S., and the Gopher Tortoise with lives in the extreme SE of the U.S. As with most terrestrial turtles, the males grow larger than the females, which is reversed in most aquatic turtles, with the females growing to a larger size.

The Stinkpot or Common Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) is a small, mainly carnivorous turtle that is mainly aquatic, spends most of its time walking on the bottom of its aquatic habitat, rather than swimming through the water column. Though, it is a capable swimmer, when necessary. It is easily recognizable, as its shell resembles a black or dark brown egg (being oval in shape). The stinkpot/musk turtle gets its name from a smelly musk that it can release onto predators and curious humans when seized. Though they eat mainly aquatic invertebrates and smaller vertebrates, they do supplement their diets with algae and aquatic vegetation. They are usually found in still relatively shallow bodies of water with muddy substrates.

Well, we hope you enjoyed a look at a few of the many turtles that you may encounter around Houston. The next time you get a chance, wander down to your local pond or bayou and see which species you can find.

Thanks for joining us, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs: Top – Chicken Turtle by Chris Quinn | Flickr; Softshell Turtles by Tom Benson | Flickr and Don Henise | Flickr; Texas Tortoise by NPS; Common Musk Turtle by Ontley | Wikimedia

 

Read more

Wildlife Wednesday: Insect Friends in the Garden

Wildlife Wednesday: Insect Friends in the Garden

A couple of were working out in the herb garden behind the Nature Center building (the Henshaw House) a few days ago, digging in the soil and pulling out weeds, and we noticed several animals living or spending time in the garden as well. This week, we thought we’d give you a little survey of some of the creatures that are currently moving around the herbs.

Most people who grow Mexican Milkweed in their gardens expect Monarch Butterflies, and even the tiny yellow milkweed aphids, on their milkweed plants, but we were surprised to notice, a couple of years ago, that our herb garden milkweed had also attracted bright yellow and black Milkweed Leaf Beetles (Labidomera clivicollis). Like monarch caterpillars, these round conspicuous beetles feed on the poisonous leaves of the milkweed, and are therefore toxic to predators, as well. The beetles come on black and yellow, black and red, and black and orange.

There were a number of butterflies, but the 2 that were the most conspicuous were the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae, above) and the Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae, right), as well as a few Monarchs. Gulf Fritillaries are not related to other fritillary butterflies, but are actually a kind of Heliconian, or longwing butterfly. The larvae feed on passion vines, and they keep emerging through the summer and fall in this area until low temperatures prevail. Cloudless Sulphur caterpillars feed on legumes, and both migrate here from the North and continue to emerge here into the Fall.

Eastern Leaf-footed Bugs (Leptoglossus phyllopus) are one of 3 common leaf-footed bugs that are found in our park throughout the year. We’ve seen the adults, and the red wingless nymphs prowling around plants in the garden. They feed on plants by piercing them with a straw-like proboscis and sucking juices out of the plant. The inject chemicals into the plants to aid in feeding, and these secretions may be somewhat toxic to the plant. In small amounts, this isn’t harmful, but in large numbers may kill the plant.They are harmless to people, but they may release a foul smelling substance when bothered.

Another small creature that we found all over the herb garden were Asian Many-spotted Ladybird Beetle (Harmonia axyridis) larvae. They of course look nothing like their red black spotted parents, but just like their parents, they are voracious predators, feeding mainly on aphids and other tiny plant sucking insects. They are a non-native invasive species, and negatively impact native ladybug populations. As with most ladybugs, they are toxic, and this is one of the few ladybugs (even as larvae) that may bite if handled.

Though the temperatures are dropping, its still possible to see some of these creatures in our gardens, and perhaps even in your own garden at home. If you get a chance some time soon, drop by and see what you can find.

Thanks for joining us this week, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Photographs by Eric Duran

 

Read more