We’ve all set! Covered areas in case the rain falls west of 281, a fire pit to keep us warm, really cool activities, and a grill for the hot dogs. New activities added: Robert, the reptile guy who’s bringing some of his favorite pets, Craig the “butterfly guy” and Robyn, the bee keeper who’s bringing some tasty treats. Hope to see you there!
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.
When you spot a lovely, long-legged bird, wading thru shallow water, with elegant plumage, munching on an insect or small fish, do you know whether it is an egret, a heron, or maybe even a crane? Inquiring minds want to know! It is all about shape (beaks, wings, body), color (feathers, legs, head), size, song, flight patterns, habitat, and feeding habits
It’s amazing what you can see in nature if you listen carefully and look all around you. This lovely creature was spotted protecting her nest in an old tree on the ranch where the nature center is located. Notice how beautifully her coloring helps to camouflage her against the colors of the old wood.
This is a great horned owl. These majestic birds have the widest range of any owl species, ranging from Alaska and Canada to Patagonia in South America.
Naming these birds is easy. The “great” is because they can be up to two feet in height, with wing spans of up to five feet. The “horned” part is because of their ear tufts that look like horns. They are also known the tiger of the skies because they are so large and fierce. This owl is certainly at the top of its food chain!
As with other creatures this time of year, the owls are busy raising their young, nesting in tree holes, rock crevices, or even old squirrel nests. Owls select their mates through a ritual that includes hooting, bowing, and rubbing beaks. These youngsters have yet to grow into their final plumage that will help hide them in the woods during the day.
Did you know that these owls are the only animals that actually seek out and feed on skunks? Can you imagine that? Fortunately, there are other delicacies for owls to choose from such as other birds, mice, fish, snakes, lizards, rabbits and other small mammals they find out and about at night.
Like the screech and other owls, the great horned owls have amazing eyesight capable of spotting a tasty morsel even in the lowlight of the nigh time forest and meadows. The owl can turn its head a full 270 degrees without moving the rest of its body to help pinpoint its target. (Compare this to what us mere humans can do. Keeping your eyes still, see far can you turn your head to the right or left.)
If you spot a great horned owl tilting its head to the left, to the right, it is probably trying to find the source of a sound, and perhaps a little snack. Their hearing is far better than humans. Their ears are placed differently on their heads, with the right one usually higher than the left and at a different angle. This helps them quickly locate the source of a sound, above or below, left or right, in front or behind, close or far. (Think about how you hear sounds such as a bird in a tree, or your friends calling you to play. Do you tilt your head too?)
Go out early some morning or late in the evening and see if you can hear a great horned owl. You will know who, who, whooo that is!
A new member of the nature center family arrived via cardboard box and was released at dusk to fly off into the trees and establish his new home. The screech owl is one of the smallest owls. Its call can sound like the whinny of a horse or a deep trill. Like other owls, they eat primarily birds and small mammals. They live mostly in wooded areas and nest in tree cavities. This screech owl has only one working eye. It had been hit by a car and suffered damage to both his eye and ear on the left side of his head.
This particular screech owl came to us courtesy of Arlene Pearce and her rehabilitation work with wild birds. Some have been hit by cars, found abandoned in their nests, attacked by family pets or even electrocuted from outdated electrical wiring. Most come to the center thanks to concerned citizens such as yourselves. Since 1999, she has mended countless wings, hand-fed fledglings and even raises mealworms to feed her patients. Working closely with local Texas Parks and Wildlife rangers, veterinarians and local ranchers, she treats and releases over 100 birds each year. In 2013, she rehabilitated and released 20 screech owls like ours.
Stay tuned as we will be releasing another screech owl when the girl scouts visit next month. We are looking forward to making Arlene and Richard’s rehabilitation work an on-going part of the nature center activities.
Author: Lynn Wolheim.
Driving thru the hill country, you may have seen collections of white gourds or multi-level bird houses positioned high above the ground on a tall pole, with a pulley system similar to that used to raise and lower a flag. They are usually positioned out in a field or meadow. These structures are designed to attract purple martins and give them a safe place to raise the next generation of these beautiful birds.
If you are fortunate enough to have erected one of these purple martin houses, or live nearby someone who has, you are in for a real treat during the next 6 months. The pair-bonded martins began arriving around Valentine’s Day. Several have already been spotted soaring, swooping above, landing on, and going in and out of apartment style houses or colonies of gourds, checking out the neighborhood.
Martins, North America’s largest swallow, rarely nest in the wild, preferring man-made structures in close proximity to water and people. Note the metal hooks placed in front of the entrances to the gourds to keep out owls.
As the weeks progress, the martins will find mates, occupy houses, build nests, lay and incubate eggs, have babies, feed them, and watch them fledge. Notice how the cozy nests are made of leaves, grasses to provide a soft bed for the eggs.
Around the Fourth of July, they will gather together in mass and begin their journey back to South America, only to fly back to the hill country again next February. We’ll be ready for them at the nature center, and you can be too!
- Purple Martin Conservation Association
- Purple Martin Society
- Nature Society
- Texas Parks and Wildlife
- Texas A&M Agrilife Extension/The Texas Breeding Atlas
- Purple Martin Book: The Complete Guide to Attracting and Housing Purple Martins, by D. Stokes, L. Stokes, and J. Brown
- “The Purple Martin and its Management in Texas.” by James D. Ray, written for Texas Parks and Wildlife
If you never thought you’d spend a day looking for flakes, you’ll get a whole new appreciation for that term after spending a day in the field with folks from the Llano Uplift Archeological Society (LUAS). On a beautiful February morning, we hiked up the peak at Reveille Peak Ranch, and found history under a rock overhang.
Noting the site location on their GPS, the team dug holes, carefully measuring the dig levels as they went. They quickly uncovered debitage, small flakes of stone, which indicated that someone had inhabited this area and had made tools at this location. The tools might have been scrapers used to skin animals or points for projectile devices. This technique is called knapping and flakes are a bi-product of that process. So, finding flakes is a good thing!
We also found pock-marked chips that gave evidence of stones that had been heated to make the shaping easier. It was hard to drag the scientists away. Their hard work was rewarded with a number of interesting artifacts that will be showcased in the new Nature Center building scheduled to be completed later this year.
To give you an idea of how eagle-eyed and diligent these scientists are, we’ll close today’s post with a photo of a tiny projectile point, a Perdiz point (called a bird point ). These were in use 700 to 800 years ago or younger to 300 years ago (about the time the Spanish were coming through). We also found pieces of Nolan points (Atl Atl point) which were in use 4500 years ago (about the time the pyramids were being built). What an amazing day!
Several members of the Nature Center volunteers worked in the cold and drizzle on the morning of February 2nd to insure that at our bluebird friends would find a warm welcome. If you’re hiking the trails, you’ll see 5 new houses installed. Notice that they are placed in open areas with easy access for the bluebirds, are spaced far apart as the males are territorial, and with baffles installed on the poles to prevent predators such as snakes, racoons and others from gaining access to the nests. As spring approaches, keep an eye out for the males, who will stake out their claim on a nesting box, and then try to attract their mates with their courting behavior of flapping their wings and serenading their potential partners.
For your awareness, National Nest Box Week (NNBW) runs from 14th February to 21st February.
For more information on bluebirds and how to attract them to your backyard, check out the Texas Bluebird Society.
January and February are busy months here at the Nature Center! Top items on our list include installing new blue bird boxes, beginning the work on the new bird blinds and preparing for an upcoming April visit from Brownies from across central Texas eager to work on their bug (aka entomology) and hiking badges. Additionally, folks have begun working on other topics such as mammal habitats, wildflowers, and trees in preparation for a visit from the Girl Scouts in May.
Stay tuned as we build out additional resource kits for areas such as reptiles, vermiculture (worms), anglers, geology, ecology, bats, bees and even geo-caching. In addition to leveraging the Master Naturalist community, we will be collaborating directly with other organizations such as the Master Gardeners, Native Plant Society, Birds and Wildflower Society, and the Friends of the Fish Hatchery to bring these and other topics to visitors.
As always, the Texas weather will have a hand in shaping our efforts. Let us know if you’d like to help or if you have groups that you think would enjoy an outing at the Center.