Wildlife Wednesday

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

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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

 

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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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Wildlife Wednesday: Stinging Caterpillars of Autumn

Wildlife Wednesday: Stinging Caterpillars

Autumn is time for all kinds of natural phenomena in the Houston area: bird and butterfly migration, many trees and bushes bear fruit, and leaves change color. The one common fall occurrence that most people could do without, however, is the emergence of stinging moth caterpillars. The stings of these larvae can range from mild annoyance to extreme pain, with some other mild health effects.

Caterpillars have a few ways to protect themselves. Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars have foul smelling horn like osmeteria which they use to dab nasty chemicals on potential predators. Some caterpillars can jump and wriggle wildly to escape predators. Some caterpillars have copious hairs and spines that are hard for predators to swallow. The caterpillars of some moths and butterflies have urticating hairs and spines (spines and hairs connected at the base to sacs of venom kept under the skin), that can deliver painful stings. We take a look at a few of these locally found stinging moth caterpillars today.

The most infamous of our stinging caterpillars is the Asp or the caterpillar of the Southern Flannel Moth (Megalopyge opercularis, pictured right). Asps usually emerge from their eggs in mid to late Autumn, and are commonly found in or near hardwood trees, shrubs, and vines. They feed on the leaves of these plants, and wander around constantly, looking for food, and eventually for decent locations to make their cocoons. They may be various shades of brown and gray, with a fur ridge down the middle of the back.

The infamy of these furry little larvae lie in their incredibly painful sting. Hidden in the fur ridge on their backs is a line of sharp little venomous spines. Stings from these spines may cause severe pain, nausea, light-headedness, swelling and redness of the sting site, burning sensation, and shortness of breath.

Of course, if you experience an extreme of any of these symptoms, or several of them for an extended period, you should see a medical professional for treatment. Home treatment includes removing the spines from the skin with scotch tape and topical treatment (with calamine lotion, baking soda, anti-histamine or pain relief lotions). Similar methods are recommended for other caterpillar stings, as well.

The Spiny Oak Slug (Euclea delphinii) is the caterpillar of an adorable furry little green and brown cup moth (pictured above right). While the caterpillar is really quite beautiful with its intricate designs of yellow and green or brown and orange, the pain from the stings is not at all adorable. These small spiny larvae (growing to only 2 cm long) feed on a wide variety of leaves from deciduous trees, bushes, and vines. In the South, they have 2 generations, one in the Summer, and another active in Fall.

The Saddle Back Caterpillar (Acharia stimulea) is the larva of another small and furry shiny brown cup moth (down and right) with bunches of sharp rigid stinging spines, found in bunches at the front and back and along the sides of the caterpillar’s body. This is another caterpillar with an extremely painful sting, that may cause other aforementioned symptoms. As with the other two species, they feed and are found around a wide variety of deciduous hardwood tree, bushes, and vines. They may reach a length of up to 4 cm.

Well, we hope this little mini-guide to stinging Fall caterpillars helps you stay safe out in your yard, garden, and out in area parks in the coming weeks. Though painful at times, they are important herbivores in our native ecosystems, and they really can be quite beautiful and even endearing.

Thanks for joining us again, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Photographs: Top Asp – Rain0975 | Flickr; Flannel Moth – Patrick Coin | Wikimedia; Asp – Amizrachi | Wiki; Slug moth – Eric Duran; Oak Slug Caterpillar – Shaina Noggle | Wikimedia; Saddleback Caterpillar – Gerald Lenhard/LSU | Wiki; Saddle back moth – Andy Reaggo and Chrissy McClarren | Flickr

 

 

 

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Wildlife Wednesday: Fall Bird Migration

Wildlife Wednesday: Fall Bird Migration

Autumn is a great time to head outdoors and experience all kinds of migrating animals, creatures heading South for the winter. This week, we thought we’d focus on fall migrating birds that we’ve seen recently at the Nature Discovery Center. It really is an excellent time to head outside to find birds that we don;t normally see around the Houston area.

Fall is a time when many more northern hawks return to the Houston area, and one of the hawks we see here in great numbers is the Broad-wing Hawk (Buteo platypterus). Broad-wings nest and raise young across the Eastern United States, and then funnel through Texas during the fall to overwinter in Mexico, Central America and South America. These predators feed on a wide variety of smaller animals, like rodents, birds, snakes, frogs, and large insects. We usually see them flying high over the park during fall migration, but they occasionally perch on a high branch to rest for a bit, as well. They’re best seen from the open areas of the park.

The New World Warblers aka Wood Warblers are one of the groups that birdwatchers most look forward to seeing during Spring Migration, with their bright colors. Warblers don;t migrate through in the same concentrations in the Fall, but we do get plenty of them on good migration days. Wilson’s Warblers (Cardellina pusilla) have been passing through the park the last couple of weeks. These bright yellow warblers are fading into their drabber winter plumage now, but are still adorable. They nest in Canada, Alaska, and the Pacific NW of the United States, and pass through our area during Spring and Fall migration.

The wintering woodpeckers have begun to pass through our area as well, with the recent sightings of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Northern Flickers () in the park. Though Flickers do nest to the East and North of the city, we really only get them here in the park during migration and in the winter. These large brown un-crested woodpeckers are easily told apart from other similarly sized woodpecker species. They spend more time on the ground than other native woodpeckers, looking for food, and can be heard loudly rapping on dead wood and calling ki ki ki ki ki through the forest and across neighboring yards.

Thanks for joining us this week to have a look at a few birds that have recently passed through the park as part of their Fall migration. If you get a chance, come out some day, and wander the park with a pair of binoculars and have a look for yourself.

 

Thanks so much, see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs: Top hawk – Patty McGann | Flickr; Hawk – Brian Henderson | Flickr; Warbler by Michael Woodruff | Wikimedia; Flicker by Jerry McFarland | Flickr

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Wildlife Wednesday: The Glory of Mistflower

Wildlife Wednesday: The Glory of Mistflower

Purple Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) aka Blue Mistflower is a common late summer and autumn blooming wildflower, found over much of the state of Texas. This bushy showy wildflower is extremely popular with pollinators and other insects, because of the copious amounts of nectar it produces on its bounteous small flowers. Recently, our naturalists have been watching a wide variety cool and interesting insects visiting the plant, which has been blooming in the Pocket Prairie and wildflower gardens around the Nature Center. Here’s a little review of some of the creatures we’ve found out on our Mistflower.

People don’t usually think of beetles as pollinators, but we’ve recently found Spotted Cucumber Beetles (Diabrotica undecimpunctata) flying between the flowers in the park, feeding on nectar and pollen from a variety of Fall wildflowers, like Mistflower, Sunflowers, and Goldenrod. The tiny leaf beetles are only about .64 cm (.25 inches) long. There are 2 generations per breeding season in the South, and we are currently enjoying the 2nd generation of adults for the year. These adults will most like overwinter in forest and garden leaf litter. The name “cucumber beetle” comes from the larva’s habit of feeding on the roots of cucumber plants, as well as other gourd and melon species.

The tiny flowers of mistflower are very popular with smaller butterflies, like Skippers and Little Yellows (Pyrisitia lisa). This small butterfly is aptly named, reaching a wing span of only 4.4 cm (1.73 inches). We seem to get an influx of them this time of year, because of the eclosion (emergence from the pupal case/chrysalis) of the last brood of the season in this region, and migration of more northerly populations to the South. The caterpillars feed on Partridge Pea, a native legume that grows in prairies and grassy fields.

Wool Carder Bees (Anthidium maculosum) are solitary bees, and are just a bit shorter than honeybees, but thicker-bodied. Unlike honeybees, the males males are larger than the females and territorial, and they survive after mating. The females mate with various different males, and establish a nest to lay eggs and raise young by themselves. They are referred to as “carder bees”, because of their habit of gathering plant hairs and fibers to construct their nests.

Tiny little moths, like this Coffee-loving Pyrausta (Pyrausta tyralis) are also covering. These dainty colorful moths only reach a wingspan of 1.7 cm (.67 inches). Their numbers suddenly jump this time of year, here in Houston, along with many other newly emerging and migrating moths. This species gets its name from the larval host plant, Wild Coffee. They have many other similarly patterned and similarly sized relatives in the same genus.

Well, we hope you enjoyed our mini review of some of the insects that have been visiting our Mistflower, here at the Nature Discovery Center. Also, we hope you will consider this beautiful and robust plant for your own home garden, both as decoration and food for wild pollinators.

If you get a chance, come out to the park on a sunny day, and see for yourself whio is visiting the mistflower!

Thanks for joining us, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs:  Eric Duran | NDC; Little Yellow by Charles J. Sharp | Wiki; Wool Carder Bee by Jerry Friedman | Wiki; Pyrausta Moth by Thomas Shahan | Flickr

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Wildlife Wednesday: Nocturnal Creatures of the NDC

Wildlife Wednesday: Nocturnal Creatures of the NDC

Most of us hike and amble around the Nature Discovery Center during the day, but there is plenty of life afoot and active at night. On some of our night hikes, with flashlights in hand, we’re able to find some of these nocturnal animals. This week, we’ll take a look at a few species that we find in the park at night, and you may be able to find around your home, as well.

Southern Flying Squirrels (Glaucomys volans) usually pass underneath our radar, as the only nocturnal tree squirrel in our area. That’s right, a nocturnal squirrel! Flying squirrels don’t actually fly, the way that bats, birds, and insects can, but rather they glide using skin flaps between the front and back legs. They are incredibly adept at controlling the direction of their glide by adjusting these flaps. Each flap is called a patagium. Like other tree squirrels, flying squirrels eat mainly seeds and nuts, and supplement their diet with insects and small vertebrates occasionally. they nest or shelter in tree holes, like old woodpecker nests and natural hollows formed from the scars of fallen branches. They’re our smallest squirrels, with a body length of only about 5 inches.

Two-striped Stick Insects (Anisomorpha bupestroides) leave marks on the Buttonbush leaves and other plants they eat from, all over the park. However, unless you uncover them under a rock or a log, you won’t see them during the daytime. If you find them, climbing through the bushes at night, you’re likely to notice that a smaller one appears to be riding a larger one. The males will actually attach themselves to the females while mating, for up to 2 weeks, to ensure that no other males mate with the female. This practice gives rise to the colloquial name in the South of “Devil Riders”. You should be careful when approaching these insects, as they are capable of releasing a caustic and toxic liquid from their back ends that may burn the skin and severely irritate the eyes. It’s best to admire them from a bit of a distance.

Mediterranean Geckos (Hemidactylus turcicus), as the name would suggest, are not from around here, but rather are originally from the Mediterranean coastal region of North Africa. Through shipping and international trade, they have been spread from there to coastal areas around the world. They have an especially vibrant population in the Houston-Galveston area of Texas, but can be found in larger cities around the state, like San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas, as well. They are our only nocturnal lizard. As with most geckos, they climb exceptionally well, and feed on insects and other invertebrates.

Chuck-Will’s-Widow (Antrostomus carolinensis) isn’t always found in the par all year round, but often stop over in the park during Spring and Fall Migration. These very well camouflaged birds, in the nightjar family, are heard more than seen. They are of course known for their loud CHUCK WILLS WIDOW call (listen here). These enigmatic birds fly through the night, feeding on flying insects by scooping them up in their huge mouths. They usually appear on the Western fence line of the park.

Thanks for joining us for another Wildlife Wednesday. Keeping in mind, that the park closes to the public at 9 PM, feel free to come out after dark sometime, with a flashlight, to check out our nocturnal wildlife for yourself. Also, you could join us for a group night hike, or with a group of 5 or more, schedule one with a staff naturalist for yourself.

Cheers, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs: Top Flying Squirrel by Ken Thomas | Wiki; Flying Squirrel by Judy Frederick | Flickr; Stick Insects by Bugenstien | Wiki; Gecko by Zoofari | Wiki; Chuck-will’s-widow by Dick Daniels | Wiki

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Wildlife Wednesday: Those Magnificent Moths

Wildlife Wednesday: Those Magnificent Moths

Moths don’t get quite as much attention and adoration as their showier day time counterparts, the butterflies, but they are just as fascinating and often just as beautiful. While most moths we think of are drab colored browns and grays, some moths can be quite colorful and frankly quite adorable. Moths and butterflies are both members of the insect order Lepidoptera, and have a lot in common. They both have an egg-caterpillar-pupa-adult life-cycle. They usually both have long extendable curled straw like sucking mouth parts (though some moths do not have mouth parts at all). Also, both groups tend to have large wings with scale like structures on them that give them their coloration.

There are differences, of course. Moths are usually nocturnal, while butterflies are diurnal (daytime). Butterflies have antennae with a small club like structure at the end, while moths have simple thin or ornate feathery looking antennae (both without clubs). Moths sometimes encase themselves in a silky cocoon as a pupa/chrysalis, while butterflies never do. The difference between the two groups is actually somewhat more complicated than night/day and coloration, as moths actually have varied bodies and lifestyles. Therefore, scientists group some families of Lepidoptera together and call them “moths”, and do the same for some families which they call “butterflies”. So there aren’t always hard and fast rules for considering them into one or the other, but more a history of conventional thinking.

Today, we have a look at 3 of the more common and noticeable moths in the Houston area.

The Luna Moth (Actias luna) is a large nocturnal green moth in the silk moth family Saturniidae. As with most moths in this family, they do not have mouth parts, and thus do not feed as adults, having received all the nutrients they need to carry out their lives, as larvae (caterpillars). This is indeed a large moth, with a wingspan of up to 4.5 inches across. They have long tails on the hind-wings, which give them a swallowtail like appearance. The plump green caterpillars, with small soft spikes and red bumps, feed on a wide variety of tree leaves. They spin a silken cocoon in leaves, where they turn into pupae, and later emerge from, Spring through Summer in the Southern U.S.

The Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea) is a colorful micro-moth, in the ermine moth family Yponomeutidae,, active during the day and night. They are quite small at only about 1 – 1.5 cm long. This moth is not historically native to the United States, but has moved into the Eastern U.S. as people have planted non-native host plants for their larvae (though not intentionally) across the country. The caterpillars feed on Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus sp.), a landscaping plant from China, as well as Paradise Tree from the American Tropics. Ailanthus Webworm Moths have seasonal movements, and often appear in Houston in great numbers in mid to late Autumn. The adults feed mainly of flower nectar.

The White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyla lineata) is a large thick-bodied moth that is often mistaken for a hummingbird, if one is not looking closely. They are in the Sphinx Moth/Hawk Moth family Sphingidae. Unlike most of the moths you may know, this is a daytime (diurnal) moth, which spends its days flying amongst flowers and hovering while it feeds on flower nectar. They are found flying from early Spring to late October in the Southern U.S. Northern populations of this Sphinx Moth will migrate to the South to finish out their lives or overwinter. Though moths are known to make cocoons, this family of moths does not. The White-lined Sphynx caterpillars, which feed on a variety of tree and vine leaves, burrow into the soil or under logs or dead leaves, and turn to a pupa/chrysalis there in their subterranean lair. Maintaining ample leaf litter under trees and bushes around your home can help out Sphinx moths to complete their life cycle. Also, just as are butterflies and bees, nectar feeding moths, such as this species, are important pollinators, and contribute important services to human agriculture, home gardens, and natural eco-systems.

There is actually an incredible diversity of moths that occur in the Houston area, some throughout the year and some only in the fall or spring, as they migrate through. Many of these species are active at night, so we may not notice them and what they do for us as much as we would more obvious daytime creatures. They are however, just as important.

(Find out more: Gardening for Moths)

Thanks for joining us today, come out to the park some time and see if you can spot some our Houston area moths! tag us on Instagram (#naturediscoverycenter), if you photograph any moths in the park or in your own yard at home!

See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Photos: Luna by Rob Swatski | Flickr; Luna by Jim Mullhaupt | Flickr; Ailanthus by Predi | Flickr; Sphinx by Larry Lamsa | Flickr; Giant Leopard Moth by Ronnie Pitman | FlickrPuss Moth by Patrick Coin | Wikipedia

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Wildlife Wednesday: Mosquito Eating Animals

Wildlife Wednesday: Mosquito Eating Animals

Certainly, one of the hardships of living along the Gulf Coast of Texas in Summer is enduring the large and numerous mosquitoes. The nuisance and potential threat of mosquito borne diseases drives us to seek solutions, some of which are deleterious to local eco-systems and non-harmful native wildlife. There are already a number of native animals who help us everyday with mosquito control. We just need to help them out, and provide them with habitat near our homes and workplaces to get them to make our warmer months a little more mosquito free. Today, we take a look at 3 species that help keep mosquito population under control.

Bats eat an incredible number of insects every night, and one of the better known species of bat in the Houston area is the Mexican Free-tailed Bat (Tadarida brasiliensis). Along with other species, like the Evening Bat and the Little Brown Bat, they emerge from their daytime roosts every night to feed on a wide variety of insects. Mexican Free-tails in some part of the country are migratory, and go as far South as Brazil to spend the winter. Most of population in Houston stays for the winter and goes dormant when temperatures start to drop into the lower 50s. They roost in attics, cracks in the sides of buildings, and under bridges, amongst other places. A good place to see 1000s of them at once, is at the Waugh Bridge Colony (click link to find out more) off of Allen Parkway, where they will make a nightly emergence, again, as along as temperature are above the low 50s.

Another winged animal friend that helps control mosquitoes, by feeding on them is the Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica). These little sooty black birds look very much like bats or little black boomerangs with heads, flitting around and squeaking overhead. Especially noticeable at the end of the day, as they fly lower and approach their night time roosts, they can sometimes be seen in great numbers together. As deforestation destroyed many of the hollow tree snags and dead branches where Chimney Swifts nested and roosted, they moved into nesting in chimneys and open towers, which for many years worked well for them. Continued deforestation and the practice of closing off chimneys and other open tower like structures has led to a marked decline in their numbers. Over the last several years, people have begun to help them out by building “Swift Towers” in parks and on private sites, to provide adequate shelters for them. Drop by the park some time in the evening, to see one of our swift towers, where you just might catch a glimpse of them returning home.

Mosquitoes breed in still water, so in our ponds we make sure to have robust populations of Western Mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis). This is a species of native live-bearing top minnow, which feeds on the aquatic larvae of Mosquitoes. If you have enough Mosquitofish in your pond, you can be sure that you won’t get any adult mosquitoes coming out of it! Mosquitofish are part of any thriving native pond eco-system, and they’re delightful to watch as they swim near the surface of the water and feed on various small invertebrates.

These 3 species are just are all important lines of defense against the threat of mosquito hoards, and they’re all native species, which are important parts of our local habitats. By insuring them healthy local natural areas  and adequate habitats near and in human settlement, we can be assured that they will continue to help us keep mosquitoes in check!

Thanks for joining us, head out to the park sometime and see some of these creatures for yourself!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs: Top bats by USFWS/Ann Froschauer; Mexican Free-tailed Bat by USFWS Headquarters; Chimney Swift by USFWS; Mosquito fish by USFWS

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Wildlife Wednesday: Life Under a Log

Wildlife Wednesday: Life Under a Log

One of the most popular activities we do with kids (and adults), in classes and on nature hikes, at the Nature Center is rolling over logs and rocks to see what creatures may dwell underneath. This week, we thought we’d have a closer look at 3 of the creatures we encounter out in the park and under logs, and consequently, creatures you may see in your own yard and garden.

Earwigs (order Dermaptera) are very common little insects, but are somewhat misunderstood. The common name comes from an old and common belief that earwigs crawl into people’s ears… this is not the case! Earwigs live in a variety of natural settings, and occasionally wander into our houses. They are nocturnal and omnivorous (feeding on a wide variety of small invertebrates and plant matter). Because of the pincers on the tail end, they are often misidentified as centipedes, which are not insects, and have longer bodies and many more than 6 legs. The pincers are used to seize prey and defend themselves from each other and other small predators.

Roly Polys (order Isopoda) also called woodlice, isopods. pill bugs, and sow bugs, are not insects, as some people would suppose, but are in fact terrestrial crustaceans (the group of animals that lobsters and crabs are in). Most species of isopods live in the ocean, but a group of them, that we call roly polys and pill bugs, have adapted nicely to various habitats on the land. These animals are detritivores (feeding on dead plants materials). They lose water easily, and therefore are usually most active at night.

Rio Grande Chirping Frogs (Eleutherodactylus cystignathoides campi) are more commonly heard around Houston, than they are seen. The males of these tiny brown frogs can often be heard emitting their chirp like squeaks on warm summer nights, especially after a rain. These frogs undergo do not need standing water to lay their eggs, and are fine laying them in damp places like flowerpots and under rocks and logs. The tadpoles stay in the egg, and hatch out as full formed tiny froglets. Rio Grande Chirping Frogs are native to Rio Grande Valley of Northern Mexico and far South Texas, and were introduced to the Houston and the Gulf Coast of Texas unintentionally in flower pots brought up from that region.

Well, those are just a few of the small animals we encounter all the time during hikes through the park, turning over rocks and logs. We hope you recognized a few of them from your own yard, and learned something new. Come out to the park some time, and join us on a guided nature hike to look for some of them in person.

Thanks for join us. See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs: Top earwig – fir0002 | Wikipedia; earwig – InsectsUnlocked | Flickr; Roly Poly by Franco Folini | Wikipedia; Chirping frog by Matthew Niemiller | EOL

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