Life at the center

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 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:


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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Rainforest Exhibit – Now Open in Discovery Rooms

Visit the Central American rainforest at the Nature Discovery Center! Discover the diversity of plants and animals in the rainforest, relate rainforest plants to products we use, and learn about indigenous neo-tropical rainforest peoples. Large painted panels, twisty vines and tropical plants will transport you to a tropical oasis full of fun learning opportunities!

Participate in fun activities including :

  • Starting your own tropical band
  • Put on a puppet show
  • Build a Mayan temple
  • Learn about rainforest layers
  • Investigate rainforest products
  • Discover rainforest plants and animals
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Wildlife Wednesday: Birds Nesting in the Park

Wildlife Wednesday:  Birds Nesting in the Park

Spring is a time when flowers bloom, deciduous trees re-leaf, and the insects emerge from their winter hiding places. It’s also the time of year when we notice birds nesting and laying eggs. Today, during our hikes with students and birdwatchers, we noticed 3 sets of birds nesting in the park.

Eastern Screech Owls (Megascops asio) actually started nesting here in mid-winter, as they have for several years. Owls have to train their young to hunt, so they start the process of nesting earlier than other groups of birds, so they can spend more time getting them ready to live out in the world on their own. Our owls are most likely deep into the process of incubating eggs. Screech Owls are small, and a eat a wide variety of smaller animals (such as small snakes, lizards, birds, large insects, and spiders). In the evenings, you may hear them singing soft trills, whinnies, and less commonly, screeches, from the trees around the park.

They nest in tree cavities, like abandoned woodpecker holes and hollow branches. In our park, they raise their young in nest boxes, made specifically for them. We currently have 3 pairs of nesting Screech Owls in the park, and with 2-4 young per nest, we could end up with 12 young owlets fledging out this year!

Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) have been nesting in the park for 3 seasons now. These thin agile hawks, specialize in hunting other birds in wooded areas. You can often see them sitting on a tree branch, pulling apart and eating a White-winged Dove or an American Robin. They are also conspicuous by their call, a loud high pitched KEK KEK KEK KEK KEK KEK KEK echoing out through the canopy of the trees.

They start courting and mating in late winter, and construct their stick nest high in a tree in late winter/early spring. It appears that the Cooper’s Hawk pair in our park have finished their nest, and are now incubating eggs.

Finally… the Purple Martins (Progne subis) have returned to Russ Pitman Park! We did see a few, here and there, in mid-February, flying over the park, but this week we noticed them returning to the colonial Purple Martin house next to the playground. They appear to be entering the nest holes and setting up shop. So far we have seen 3 pairs of North America’s largest swallows here. Today (3/22) they were very active, fluttering above the South end of the park, singing and catching insects on the wing. Purple martins are active and able hunters of dragonflies, flying grasshoppers, and other insects that go high up into the air.

We invite you to come out, and look for all 3 species in the park. If you need help finding them, a helpful naturalist can give you direction.

Thanks, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Above Photos: Screech owls by Roland Groenenboom, Cooper’s Hawk by Don Jewell, Purple Martin by JJ Cadiz | Wikimedia


photo by Teresa Connell                                        Photo by Sean Sun                                      Photo by Mike Carlo, USFWS              

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The Gateway Project

  • The Gateway Project is committed to preserving the character of the historic Henshaw House and surrounding grounds while providing for its current function as a premier science and nature education facility. By creating a more open and inviting physical presence for the center and making needed repairs, Gateway renovations will enhance our ability to serve the needs of all visitors. 

In November 2013, City of Bellaire residents voted for a bond referendum for $500,000 to be used for improvements to the Henshaw House and Russ Pitman Park, operated by the Nature Discovery Center. Generous funding from community groups and foundations totaling $760,000 also transformed the Gateway Project dream into a reality. 

To purchase an engraved brick, check out the Donor Brick Campaign page.

Gateway Phase One – Complete

Phase One of the Gateway Project, the renovation of the 1925 Henshaw House that serves as the nature center, was successfully completed in spring 2014. This included new interior and exterior paint, new wall coverings, new blinds, new office furnishings, refinished floors, and much, much more!

Gateway Phase Two – Underway Now

Phase Two will create a bright, fresh, and welcoming feeling in the one acre surrounding the Center by renovating animal enclosures, adding a new outside restroom, redesigning the native landscaping, and building new sensory gardens.

The redesigned animal enclosures will provide enlarged space for our outdoor animals in a more natural environment making viewing more accessible for kids of all ages. The new restroom will help us better accommodate large groups. The deck of the new outdoor bathroom will feature a trough sink at child height that will allow 4 kids to wash their hands at the same time, and added bathrooms will reduce strain and wait time for our three current restrooms.

The Center will remain *OPEN* to visitors throughout the project, which is expected to be complete in March 2017. Save the date for our renovation reveal event “Gateway to Nature” on Saturday May 6th at 10am.

Thank you for your patience as we make exciting changes to serve you better!

Landscape Architects: SWA Group
Contractors: Horizon International Group, LLC.

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Winter Break Camp Registration is Now Open!

Winter Break Camps entertain kids while they learn about animals, habitats, and the natural world around them through crafts, games, outdoor exploration, animal encounters, and more!  And they give parents a much needed break too! Sign up for individual days or for them all.

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