Back to School Calendars: Scheduling Time for Nature

It’s that time again, time to update your calendars with your child’s schoolyear commitments, whether they be music lessons, sports practices, afterschool art or robotics programs. Our children are busier than ever! As you work on penciling it all in, consider scheduling time for nature. Exposure to the natural world plays a critical role in child development and acts as an important de-stressor (www.texaschildreninnature.org/resources/research) but yet is often overlooked as we commit our children to other activities.

What does scheduling time for nature look like? What does it mean to commit to nature for an hour or so once or twice a week? For every family and every child this commitment may look different. The specifics may change from week to week as you and your children dabble and explore abundant opportunities to get outdoors around Houston and learn what catches your interest. What is important is that spending time in nature or appreciating the natural world becomes a priority as we fill our children’s (and family) calendars. Penciling in time for nature and treating it as a commitment just as we would soccer or drama or coding classes will not only benefit our children’s development, and reduce their stress, but it will also ensure that they grow up understanding, respecting, valuing, and hopefully protecting the natural world.

So, what are the possibilities? Here are some ways we suggest your child, or even your whole family together, might commit to nature:

  • Signing up for structured classes or scheduled programs at a local nature center. The Nature Discovery Center offers Curious Kids for preschoolers and Junior Scientists for elementary aged students.
  • Spending time outside at a nature park – playing, exploring, observing. Russ Pitman Park offers shady trails, ponds, a nature play area, interpretive signage and has abundant local wildlife. Try taking informal “field trips” to other area nature parks like Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, the Houston Arboretum, Jesse Jones Park and Nature Center, or Brazos Bend State Park and the George Observatory.
  • Volunteering for neighborhood or park clean-up with an organization or simply picking up trash as a family.
  • Participating in citizen science and making valuable contributions to science by observing and recording local bees, butterflies, birds, or plants via a free SciStarter.com account.
  • Gardening together in your own yard or in a community garden.
  • Getting a little dirty with messy outdoor nature play. The sandbox and loose parts play materials in the Nature Play Area in Russ Pitman Park offer great opportunities to get a little dirty!
  • Hiking or bike riding on local trails. The Newcastle Trail is a nice, wide trail for family bike rides. With the new bike pump and repair station and bike racks, Russ Pitman Park makes a great pitstop for bike riders of all ages. The Bayou Greenways trail projects along Brays Bayou and White Oak Bayou are also worth exploring and may provide glimpses of our urban wildlife.
  • Trying out geocaching (geocaching.com) as a family. It’s like a scavenger hunt that the whole world is always playing (in secret).
  • Requesting a behind the scenes tour of a local recycling center or wildlife rehabilitation facility. The Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and Wildlife Center of Texas have a wealth of experience caring for orphaned and injured animals and can offer great advice about what you can do if you encounter wildlife that may be in distress.
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Venomous Snakes in Houston

First of all, there’s really nothing to be afraid of. Venomous snakes in the Houston area are not as dangerous as people think they are. Keep calm. Now, I’m not saying you should go pick up a venomous snake, and kiss it on the lips, but they’re really not that aggressive. Venomous snakes get a bad rap. Very few people actually die in the U.S. from snakebite. The best ways to deal with venomous snakes, is to give them their distance (when you can) and to educate yourself about the common species of local venomous snake.

The most potently venomous snake in our area is the Texas Coral Snake, which is in the cobra family. Sounds scary, right? You definitely shouldn’t touch one, but they are shy snakes, that prefer to hide out under rocks and logs, in rodent burrows, and will flee, rather than hiss or strike, when surprised. Texas coral snakes have a distinctive red-yellow-black color pattern, which could also be described as alternating red and black sections separated by “gold rings.” They are thin snakes, that are usually only 2 – 2.5 feet long. These beautiful little reptiles eat mostly other snakes and small lizards, and they spend most of their time underground.

Southern Copperheads are most likely to be found in areas with trees. They can be very well camouflaged on forest floors covered in leaf litter. They are also rather shy snakes, have relatively milder venom than other area venomous snakes, and are not usually likely to bite. As with all venomous snakes though, give them some distance. Compared to other venomous snakes, they have an unusually wide variety of prey items, including: rodents, frogs, fish, lizards, birds, and large insects. Unlike coral snakes and most non-venomous snakes, Copperheads have elliptical “cat-like” pupils and heat sensing pits located between the eye and the nostril on each side of the head.

The aquatic Cottonmouth, which is also a pit-viper, also has the heat pit and slit-like pupils. The Cottonmouth is strongly venomous, and has a bad reputation for being aggressive, but recent scientific studies into their behavior has shown that they are actually not that likely to bite when encountered. Their fearsome hissing gaping mouth display, and occasional habit of fleeing in the direction of someone who has cornered them, have led many to believe that they are more aggressive than they actually are. Cottonmouths are almost always found in or near water. They sometimes climb onto low branches to sun themselves and keep an eye out for prey in the water below.  They prefer to feed on frogs and fish, but they are one of the few snakes that will scavenge various dead animals, as well.

Venomous snakes are rightfully a source of fear and fascination. They’re helpful predators that keep rodent populations in check, and are therefore an integral part of local eco-systems. Also, they’re not usually that dangerous if given a respectful distance. However, if you should be bitten by a venomous snake, don’t attempt any home treatments, just get to a hospital as quickly and calmly as possible. Do not kill the snake. If you’d like to learn more about them, visit the nature center and talk to one of our naturalists.

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Frogs in Your Backyard

The warm weather of summer brings out all kinds of creatures that had remained hidden during the cooler months. One such group of animals, that has recently become active, are frogs. A lot of people think that you need to visit a pond or a stream or a marsh to see frogs, but they are right here, all around Houston. We can see many species of frog right in our own backyards. Let’s have a look at a few species that are most commonly encountered.

The Gulf Coast Toad is the most common frog found in yards around the Houston area. As with most toads, they are primarily terrestrial, only heading to bodies of water and rain puddles to drink, mate, and lay eggs. They have bumpy skin, but those bumps aren’t warts, not like the kind that we get on our hands or feet (those are caused by a virus passed between people). Toads do have, however, poison glands on the sides of the head which produce a milky toxin, that helps protect them from predators. After heavy rains, listen for a loud trill call from ditches, ponds, and wetlands.

The Green Treefrog, despite its name, is found in wet areas away from trees, even in gardens on the sides of houses. This large bright green, waxy looking tree frog, is active on warm summer nights, when it can sometimes be heard making a loud nasal KWAK KWAK KWAK call. In wetlands, the chorus of dozens and dozens of males may be deafening. As with that vast majority of frogs, it is the males that call, to attract females to mate. Also, as with most frogs, they require standing water to lay their eggs. There is a similar small treefrog that can be either green or brown, called the squirrel treefrog, that you may encounter around your house as well.

Rio Grande Valley Chirping Frogs were introduced into the Houston area accidentally in potted plants brought up from the Valley. The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas is the Northernmost extent of their native range, the area around Brownsville and Harlingen. Chirping frogs do not require standing water to lay their eggs, so they lay them in moist soil.  Their offspring go through the tadpole stage inside of the egg. Basically, the conditions in the soil of a potted plant, and in the leaf litter of your garden are ideal. Though you may not see these tiny frogs often, you will hear them squeaking and chirping after rains, next to your home.

If you want to encourage some of these frogs to live in your yard, you need to make your yard and garden a good habitat for them. Try not to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Make sure to leave leaf litter under bushes and other plants. Try to have a variety of native plants that will attract tasty insects. If you have space for it, try to have a small pond that frogs can soak in.

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Center Seeks Head Counselor for Summer Science Camp

We are looking for a Head Counselor for our Summer Science Day Camp for children (ages 5 to 11). Our camp runs weekly from June 4 to August 20th, and is Monday through Friday from 8:30 to 5:30. You may apply for the job even if you cannot commit to all camp weeks. (We may have two Head Counselors during the summer.)

The Head Counselor helps the camp teacher manage camper behavior and engagement in camp activities and helps guide volunteer teen counselors (age 13 to 17). The teacher and campers may need help with crafts, hikes, snacks, play time and clean up. The teacher will be in charge of the camp curriculum, but the Head Counselor will be in charge of all the activities for our after care program from 3:30 to 5:30. This job responsibility includes coming up with group games, supervising nature play and Discovery Room visits, and more.


Head Counselor requirements:

Some experience at a camp or school for children.
Ability to delegate to other counselors.
Willingness and ability to create activities for aftercare.
Patience, energetic and upbeat attitude, leadership skills, and ability to multitask.

Head Counselor Pay: $10 per hour

To apply for this position: submit a cover letter and resume to the attention of Anne Eisner, Program Coordinator at Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle, Bellaire, Texas 77401. Applications will be reviewed as they are received starting today. Please submit your application by May 1, 2018.

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Making Compost is Like Baking a Cake

Build a Compost Pile this Winter

Winter in Houston is a great time to start an outdoor compost pile because leaves (a carbon source) are plentiful. Making compost is like baking a cake: mix your 4 ingredients (carbon, nitrogen, water, and oxygen) in the correct proportions, and then let it cook!

Compost is a dark, nutrient-rich organic material that is the result of decomposed garden and kitchen waste. The two main benefits of composting are:

  • responsibly disposing of your kitchen scraps (nitrogen), and;
  • using free materials to create “black gold” to improve the quality of your soil and help grow healthy plants.

The most important thing to remember is that composting is a natural process. It is going to happen anyway, we are just trying to speed it up a little and control the end product (compost).

What You’ll NeedWire Compost Bin

Bin: While not absolutely necessary, compost piles in bins have a neater appearance and heat up faster, speeding up the composting process. You can buy a bin, or build one inexpensively from simple materials like old pallets or welded wire.

Dedicated space: Place your bin anywhere that is convenient. A sunny location will help speed up the “cooking” (hot compost piles need to heat up) and will require more water than a shady location.

Tools: You probably already have all the tools you need! A shovel, garden hose, wheelbarrow (for transporting), rake (for keeping the area tidy), and a pitchfork or similar tool (optional, but useful for aerating and turning your compost).

4 Essential Ingredients & Why It Works

This aerobic (with air!) composting is powered by microbes that require oxygen. You make compost by combining the right amounts of 4 ingredients: water, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen.

Water and oxygen: Make sure your batch is thoroughly moistened. The pile should be moist but no water should come out if you squeeze a handful, like a wrung out sponge. Oxygen is provided by turning the compost or by including chunky materials such as twigs and Sweet Gum tree gum balls.

Carbon: This is the “brown” material you add to your batch. One of the easiest (and cheapest!) sources is fallen leaves, which can be collected in the fall and winter and stored for multiple compost batches throughout the year.

Nitrogen: This is the “green” material and is what heats up your hot compost pile. Sources include fresh manure from farm animals, grass clippings (be careful about including clippings from a lawn sprayed with insecticide or herbicide), and raw vegetable kitchen scraps (no meat or dairy!). Coffee grounds, though brown, are actually “green material.” You can also use purchased organic materials such as alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, or blood meal.

Starting Your Compost Pile Compost BinTube

Layer the raw materials, following this sequence 3 or 4 times until your bin is full:

  1. Add about one foot of leaves (about 3-4 bags in the simple bin described above). Pack it down with a rake and soak the leaves.
  2. Add nitrogen (food scraps, cow manure, grass clippings, etc), spreading it evenly over the surface of the leaves.
  3. Add one shovelful of rich soil or finished compost (to introduce beneficial microorganisms that will break down food scraps and leaves.)
  4. Mix well with a garden fork while watering until the layer is soaked.
  5. Repeat until the bin is full. Be sure to end with a layer of carbon to reduce odors that could attract pests.

Upkeep Directions

Turning the Hot Compost Pile: To maximize the hot compost pile, turn it roughly once per month. Turning the pile consists of remixing the material in the bin. If you do not turn the hot compost pile, you have a cool/passive pile and that’s okay; it will simply take longer to get rich compost.

Adding Food Scraps: Save your family’s food scraps and add them to your bin each week. Fresh food scraps should always be buried in the carbon material to avoid fruit flies and other unwanted pests!

Worms! Nightcrawler worms can be added to compost piles to help speed up the rate of decomposition. This is also a great way to get kids involved in your new composting hobby! You can buy bait worms or dig in the dirt on a worm search.

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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


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Volunteer Opportunity: Field Trip Guides Needed

Make a difference in kids’ lives, volunteer with our field trip program this year!

We are gearing up for our school field trip programs and are looking to recruit a few volunteer “Field Trip Guides” to help lead small groups of elementary school students through our nature park. This is a weekday morning volunteer opportunity.

This is a great opportunity for you to make an impact on children’s lives by helping them to connect with nature through our field trip program.


Primary Responsibilities:

  • Co-teach our discovery-based field trip program Nature at Your Doorstep.
  • Provide interactive hands-on experiences in our science based Discovery Rooms.
  • Volunteer Teachers will lead a tour of the nature center and park to a small group (8-12) of early elementary students and their adult chaperones.
  • Training is provided.
  • Field trips are scheduled weekday mornings. Volunteers are needed for 2-hour time blocks.
  • Frequency is flexible, weekly or monthly.


Please see this role description for more details. And view this short video to learn about the impact of the Nature Discovery Center from one of our NAYD School Field Trip Volunteers.

If you feel called to volunteer in this way, please email Anne Eisnerand we will schedule a time to bring you in for an interview and training.

Thank you for partnering with us to make a difference in kids’ lives.


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Wildlife Wednesday: Houston Area Salamanders

Wildlife Wednesday: Houston Area Salamanders

Salamanders are an underappreciated and overlooked group of amphibians. That’s because they often lead secretive lives underground, down in the mud, and underwater. As with frogs, salamanders undergo metamorphosis, in which their shell-less eggs are laid in a wet location (often in a pond), they go through an aquatic larval stage (the tadpole stage), and then become air-breathing adults. Also like frogs, they have semi-permeable skin that allows water to pass in and out, so they can dry out easily, but can also drink through their skin. Some adult salamanders “breathe” or respire using lungs, while others use gills, and a group called the “lungless salamanders” breathe through their skin and the lining of their mouths.

Though they are seldom seen around Houston, there are several species of salamander found in the area. Here’s a survey of 3 of the more common species.

The Central Newt (Nothophthalmus viridescens louisanensis) is a small aquatic salamander that lives in still freshwater habitats. They actually have 4 life stages:  1. The eggs are laid on vegetation in the water.  2. The gilled tadpoles/larvae stay in the water while they develop. 3. After a number of months, the larvae change into a reddish orange terrestrial stage called an “eft”. They live in forested habitats for 1 – 3 years like this. 4. Eventually, they change to their adult yellow-olive brown coloration, and go back into a pond to live out their adult lives in the water. The Eastern newts of North America (which this is a subspecies of) are the only salamanders which go through this terrestrial eft stage, though some newts in other parts of the world are terrestrial as adults. As with all salamanders, Central Newts are carnivorous, eating a wide variety of small invertebrates.

The large 3-Toed Amphiuma (Amphiuma tridactylum) doesn’t even look like a salamander! You’d be forgiven for thinking it was a eel. They are long bodied (up to almost 4 ft), aquatic, and their 4 tiny limbs are so small, that you’d only see them upon close inspection. They are highly carnivorous, eating a wide variety of fish, other amphibians, reptiles, and large invertebrates. Though salamanders are basically tooth-less, amphiumas have a sharp bony ridge in their mouths, which they use for defense and predation. Also unlike other salamanders, they are known to emit a squeaky bark noise, when molested.

Another fully aquatic eel-like salamander is the Lesser Siren (Siren intermedia), which grow to about 18 inches in length. They have 2 tiny front legs, no back legs, and a flattened paddle-like tail. Sirens are easily identified by their feathery gray and red external gills, which extend from the sides of the head. Much like the amphiuma, they are very carnivorous and can deliver a painful and bloody bite. However, instead of a sharp bony ridge, they have a sharp horny beak-like structure. Also similar to amphiumas, they have extremely smooth slimy skin. Both sirens and amphiumas are believed to guard their eggs in mud nests under the water or in burrows next to their ponds, lakes, and bayous.

Thanks for exploring a few of the local salamander species with us this week. While you may not encounter any wild salamanders in our park, many of our larger and wilder Houston area parks and nature centers offer chances to find these 3 species. And if you’ve never seen a live salamander up close, we invite you to visit the Nature Discovery Center some time, and get to know Sherman, our friendly Barred Tiger Salamander.

See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photos: Adult newt – Psyon | Wikimedia; Newt eft – Corey Raimond | Flickr; Amphiuma – Ashley Tubbs | Flickr; Siren – Andrew Hoffman and Zeke Franco on Flickr

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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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Help Wanted: City Nature Challenge Pits Houston Against Austin & Dallas

Join nature lovers across the city of Houston as they compete with residents of Austin and Dallas to document as many species as possible during a fun City Nature Challenge!

Texas Parks & Wildlife, the Audubon Society, Texas Master Naturalists and lots of volunteer citizen scientists like yourself will compete in this fun challenge to see which city can document a grater diversity of species. No prior experience necessary!

Challenge organizers say “It is easy to participate by joining an event, or making observations on your own using the iNaturalist app. With the iNaturalist app, you just take a picture of a plant or animal, and the community will help identify which species it is.”

Any observation in the greater Houston Area will count during the five day challenge. You can participate by exploring the life in your backyard, or anywhere you visit outside in Houston between April 14 – 18. But we’d love for you to make observations right here in our nature park and record them with iNaturalist.  So come out, enjoy our new park improvements, and record the plants and animals you find!

Let’s show Austin and Dallas what we’ve got here in Houston, and show our fellow Houstonians just how wildlife rich Russ Pitman Park is!

For more information about how to get involved visit:

Houston Challenge Page: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/city-nature-challenge-2017-houston

Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/257551441366716/

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