Life at the center

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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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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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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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!

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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

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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!)

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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

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