Walking along a trail in the winter you see a whole different side of the woods and grasslands. Continue reading A Walk on a Winter’s Day
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 found different types of cactus, and even looked at bugs that spend their entire lives on cactus and produce an amazing red dye. They discovered a tree that makes Texas BBQ so delicious, the mesquite tree, and a plant whose berries make wonderful jelly, and whose leaves were used by Indians to make a tea for upset tummies.
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!
Over the course of a couple of weekends, 80 college students and professors from Austin Community College and Central Texas College recently explored the geology amphitheater, located just down the hill from the nature center. The amphitheater was created in the 2007 floods caused by the 20 inches of rain that fell over four short, wet hours. When the waters subsided, this treasure trove of geology was revealed. The nature center geologist described it as “reading postcards from the past.” In this case, the postcards dated from about 1.2 billion years ago!!
One of the students said it was like walking thru his text book, all of the geological rock classifications are present and within easy reach. From the core elements of nature’s mountain building process in igneous rocks, to the layering from the sedimentary period of development and the fusing and formulation of metamorphic rocks, it’s all there. Also clear is the destructive force of nature, with thousands of gallons of water a minute rushing thru the creek and eroding tons of materials, uncovering rocks that have not seen the light of day in tens of thousands of years.
In the photo above, the twisting, layering, faulting and uplifting visible in the rock face tells the story of the geological heart of Texas. Notice how the rock looks folded and is turned on edge so we can clearly see the layering. Also note the white stripe within the darker rock above, called a xenolith. It is amazing to think of the power required to force the one into the fault line of the other, and that the white material, in this case granite and quartz, is actually 300M years younger than the material surrounding it. Examining the size of the schist crystals, we can tell how quickly the material cooled, and we’re talking in terms of hundreds of thousands of years to cool and form these crystals!
As these student can attest, if you want to make your favorite geologist happy (especially your professor) just bring them out to the nature center and let them explore to their heart’s content. It was a wonderful way to make science real.
Just when you thought this cold weather would hang around forever, the sun came out and temperatures rose to the 60s and 70s. It was a hopeful sign that spring is on its way. We saw other signs on a recent walk along the nature center trails.
We found our first anemone of the season. It was all by itself but what a welcome sight!
Anemones come in a variety of colors ranging from white to pink to purple, and a variety of petal formations. (They are not related to the sea anemone which is actually a group of meat-eating animals. However, the sea anemone is named for the anemone flower.) The name Anemone comes from the Greek word for wind as it was thought that the flower opened in response to the spring wind. Containing a mild neurotoxin, anemones were used by some early natives to treat wounds. Blooming from February to May, look for more of these in the coming months and see how many different colors you can find.
Along the trails, in the gravel, in the low grasses, we also spotted a number of these small rosette clusters of leaves that reminded us that soon we would see Texas bluebonnets. In spite of the recent dry weather, the fall rains gave these beauties a head start. Stay tuned for more on bluebonnets as they begin to bloom.
The next time you’re out walking, look for signs that a change in seasons is coming. Are you seeing new birds as they begin their migration north for the summer? Are you starting to see the buds on the trees start to swell? Are critters starting to stir from their winter hibernation such as snakes sunning themselves on the rocks? What other small jewels are in and amongst the rocks and grasses that tell you our Texas wildflowers will be blooming in a month or so? There is so much to see and learn, just look around… and don’t forget to look up and down. You don’t want to miss anything!
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!