Have you ever wondered why animals look the way they do; why there are so many small brown birds; why a fawn has white splotches on its sides; why a zebra has black and white stripes? Nature has given each a coloration and shape to help them survive and produce future generations.
After a winter that included a polar vortex in November and record-breaking cold in February, we are so happy to see spring finally get here. Texas spring brings our favorite bluebonnets and other early wildflowers.
If you had to name the most successful hunter in the animal kingdom, which animal would you pick? the lion? the shark? The lion captures its prey only about 25% of the time. Those gazelles are fast! Even with their huge mouths and all those teeth, sharks miss over 50% of the time. Those fish may be small but they can swim quickly and dart behind coral. Continue reading Nature’s Most Efficient Predator→
On our website, in our projects and nature bytes, we usually focus on native plants and species. These are plants and animals that occur naturally in our ecosystem here in the Texas Hill Country. They are well adjusted to our soils, weather, and fit in nicely within our self-sustaining ecosystem, our Texas flavoured biodiversity.
Unfortunately, invaders can sneak into the mix and overwhelm our natives to a point where they cause significant damage to our ecosystem. They can be introduced into our environment by birds carrying seeds, by strong winds, but most often it is people who bring these invaders to our shores. They can cause damage by (example species):
Introducing diseases or new predators our native species are not equipped to handle (feral pigs, ash borer and longhorned beetle)
Competing with natives for scarce resources such as water and food, or even soil in which to put down roots, often providing no or little nutritional value to our native creatures (chinaberry tree, star-thistle and grass carp)
Causing changes to native habitat (giant reed and zebra mussel)
Causing damage through loss of crops and trees, damage to electrical systems and other economic impact (Asian long horned beetles, gypsy moths, and crazy ants)
To learn more and to find out what each of us can do to help, we met with Justin Bush, the Plant Conservation Invasive Species Coordinator from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The official definition of an invasive species is one that is a non-native introduced into an ecosystem that causes economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.
Invasive species are a form of biological pollution, that change and decrease biodiversity by threatening the survival of native plants and animals.
They may be introduced accidentally or on purpose, from produce, nursery stock, ships, recreational vehicles, and packing materials, pets/aquariums, and agriculture, to name a few.
They are spread by the elements, wildlife, flight, or by humans using ornamental plantings, erosion control, mowing, vehicles, firewood, and boats.
Invasive species can even damage the environment by hybridizing with native species to the point where native species are threatened with extinction.
Of all the invaders, Mr. Bush named “The Dirty Dozen”, the nine most unwanted plants and three most unwanted pests.
With the help of the Wildflower Center, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and other similar organizations across Texas and in cooperation with other states, they are trying to educate the public to control and even stop these invasions. A first stop for more information about these invaders, their economic and environmental impact, and what is being done is the website for Texas Invasives.
Everyone can do their part, even if it’s just cleaning your sneakers or hiking boots to make sure you’re not carrying invasive seeds home from your hike or camping trip, washing down your boat or jet ski after a fun trip in a lake or river, and double checking those nursery plants before you plant them — do they really belong in Texas?
To really roll up your sleeves and get involved, the Citizen Scientists Program provides training for those who want to actively participate. You will learn how to detect and report invasive species, and how to collect and submit data about the what, when, where and how many to the official tracking sites.
A special thanks to Justin Bush for a most interesting conversation and a call to action for all of us!
The nature center recently had the pleasure of hosting fifth graders from Highland Lakes and second graders from Lago Vista, along with parents and teachers. Led by nature center members, they hiked along the lake and trails, hunting for beaver signs, lovely song birds (such as the bluebird above), interesting water birds, unique rock formations, wildflowers and other cool Texas plants.
For the day, they became the naturalists, complete with filling in their own field guides, exploring the wilds of the Texas hill country.
They even found an usual resident for this time of the year: a pair of Canadian geese nesting on an island near the lake shore.
These young naturalists also spent time at different nature stations. They learned about beavers and their habitat, including a model of a beaver den, which they could explore.
Did you know that a beaver’s teeth continue to grow their entire life and that the black willow is their favourite tree? Did you know that the entrance to their home is under water but the living quarters is nice and dry? Want more? (link)
At another station, they learned about how animals become masters of camouflage to survive. Some blend in with their environment such as rabbits whose fur blends in with the shadows in the forest, or walking sticks shaped like the branches and twigs they climb. Swallowtail caterpillars actually mimic a common green snake to discourage those who may think they’re a tasty morsel. For more, try this link.
At the third station, bees were the sweet topic. They discussed the importance of bees in the environment, how they pollinate plants, make honey, and build their hives. Sadly, honey bees colonies are endangered, and are less than half of what they were in the 1940s. Did you know that more that 85% of plant species require pollinators, and that one of every three bites of food we eat comes from plants that depend on honey bees and other pollinators? Without bees, how would we feed our families? While scientists are still trying to figure it all out, there are some simple things each of us can do (link).
Miss Arlene, our friend from the wildlife rehabilitation center, showed the children baby opossums whose mother had been hit by a car. They were still too young to be released.
She also brought young bunnies who were ready to be released back in to the wild, which she did. She taught the children how a mother rabbit builds its nest, and brought a nest roof made of grasses. She showed them how to use flour and a sieve to see the tracks of creatures who visit their yard.
As always, the children were excited to learn about these wild creatures and how to be kind and careful when around them.
By the end of the day, the children, parents and teachers were tired but full of all they had seen and learned. One student commented that he thought it was going to be boring, but he’s really glad he came and wanted to know when he could come again! All in all, a very good day!
Brownies braved a chilly April morning to visit the nature center to learn about entomology (the study of insects) and basic hiking. According to Phil Wyde, the nature center’s chief bug-guy, insects account for more than two-thirds of all known organisms and have been present on the earth in some shape or form for more than 400 million years.
The Brownies were not the least bit squeamish, finding bugs under logs and rocks, in the grasses along the trails, catching them in nets, and studying them thru magnifying glasses.
With the help of the nature center’s Hollis Zender, the girls created their own bugs, a walking stick (see photo below), and learned about how bugs have specialized mouth parts to allow them to pierce, chew, bite, suck, or sponge up their food.
For the hiking portion of the day, the girls learned how to be safe while out on the trails. This included what to pack in your backpack: plenty of water, first aid supplies, gorp to munch on, a trail map, flashlight, etc. and to make sure someone knows when and where they are going.
While hiking, the girls discovered old bones and talked with Billy Hutson, their guide, about how to determine what kind of animal it might have been, from turtles to armadillos, from deer to cows, from the hollow bones of birds to fish. All were nicely scrubbed clean thanks to our friendly bugs.
To top off the day, Arlene Pearce, our friend from the bird rehabilitation center, showed baby opossums whose mother had been killed by a car, and a screech owl with a back injury that she had nursed back to health. Unlike humans, the large eyes of owls have no muscles attached to move them. Instead, they have an extra vertebrae in their neck so they can move their head to find their prey. While the baby opossums were too young to release, Arlene let the Brownies help with the release of the screech owl.
At the end of the day, everyone was exhausted and all the girls had earned their badges. Congratulations ladies!