Bird winter migration is here!

Late fall and winter are perfect opportunities to go birding and see species not seen typically at other times during the year. Several species of birds are now migrating south to spend winter in warmer places. River Legacy sits right in the heart of the Central Flyway, which is one of the main bird migratory routes in North America.

Some of the birds that can be seen this time of year include the cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula), yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata), lesser scaup (Aythya affinis), northern shoveler (Anas clypeata), and hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus), among others.

In addition to these birds, other common species such as the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis), and  great blue heron (Ardea herodias) can be seen this time of year as well.

River Legacy is the perfect place to check some winter species off your list.  In fact, from December 14th to January 5th, thousands of people around the nation are engaging in bird counts for the annual Christmas Bird Count. In addition, we encourage you to visit us February 17th for our Great Backyard Bird Count Festival. River Legacy is proud to participate in this global count, hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. There will be bird counts, games, crafts, and activities celebrating the avian world.

Lastly, make sure to keep up with the latest bird sightings at River Legacy by following our Birding Blog, which can be accessed through the link to the left of Nature Notes Blog on our website. Happy winter birding!

Downy Woodpecker
Female Lesser Scaup

Beautiful Autumn Colors

As we welcome December, the end of fall is fast approaching. In fact, there are only 17 days left of autumn. While River Legacy and North Texas in general do not see much traditional autumn foliage, there are a few trees that exhibit some fall hues. By now, most of the leaves have begun to fall to the ground, but there are still some trees with their green, orange, brown, red, or yellow foliage.

But, what drives the leaf color change? It has to do with the chemistry inside the leaves and how it responds to seasonal changes. Leaves contain many pigments, including chlorophyll as well as carotenes, xanthophyll and others. Chlorophyll is probably the one most of us are familiar with. This is the pigment that gives leaves their green color. When a plant undergoes photosynthesis, the process by which it creates its own food, chlorophyll takes center stage. It absorbs energy from the sun’s rays to be used in creating this food. As autumn approaches, the temperature gets cooler and the length of sunlight the leaves receive shortens. This causes chlorophyll to break down, making the green color go away. So, leaves are left with the other pigments and these become visible. Carotenes and the other pigments give leaves their yellow to orange colors in the fall. There are other chemical processes at work that add the red hues that are commonly seen as well.

Eventually, the leaves break off the tree. Since trees will no longer be able to make their food during the winter, they go into a state of dormancy where their metabolism slows down. It is a process that is very similar to animal hibernation. The trees are not dead during this time, contrary to what it might seem.

Before all of the leaves fall in a few days, come take a walk at River Legacy to catch a glimpse of some of the beautiful tree color changes in the park and Science Center grounds.

 

What is basking?

Whenever you take a walk through the woods, you might see lots of reptiles and amphibians enjoying a sunbath. Turtles usually gather on top of a log, all lined up neatly one behind the other. Sometimes, they decide to take in the sun just off the side of a creek or river. Snakes and lizards usually like to receive the sun’s heat just off the side of a trail or on top of a log or surface. Amphibians, likewise, exhibit similar behavior.

But, have you ever wondered why these particular animals do this? What reptiles and amphibians are doing is called basking. Basking is the action of receiving warmth directly from a heat source, such as the sun or a heat lamp, by simply standing or sitting under it. Both reptiles and amphibians are ectotherms, which means that they are not able to regulate their own body temperature in the same way that other vertebrates, such as mammals or birds, can. Sometimes, this is also referred to as being “cold-blooded.” Their body temperature basically depends on their environment. Basking allows these animals to be able to obtain the energy that they need in order to move about, find food, mate, and all the other things that they need to do. This is the reason why, if a reptile or amphibian gets cold, it starts acting in a very sluggish manner.

Next time you visit River Legacy Living Science Center, take a close look at our pond. In it, you will find a small island in the middle that is a very popular spot for basking turtles. You can also search for basking lizards on any surface where the sun is hitting.

Have you seen box turtles yet?

Box turtles are small turtles in the genus Terrapene. They have a dome-like shell that has a hinge at the bottom, allowing the turtle to close its shell completely in order to escape predators. Males are characterized by having usually red or orange eyes while females have brown eyes. River Legacy Park and the woods adjacent to River Legacy Living Science Center are home to two species of box turtles: the three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) and the western ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornate ornata).

The three-toed box turtle is a subspecies of the common box turtle (Terrapene carolina). As the name indicates, this turtle has three toes on its back feet. These turtles can be found walking through the forest looking for food including vegetation, small insects, mushrooms, fruits, earthworms, and snails. The males of this turtle can sometimes exhibit orange or red spots on its throat and head. Three-toed box turtles will bury themselves underneath the leaf litter during the dry season to try to conserve moisture.

The other River Legacy box turtle, the western ornate box turtle, is a subspecies of the ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata). It is characterized by ornate patterns on its shell, which are usually bright yellow. In contrast, the three-toed box turtle does not have these patterns. Males of this species tend to be a bit smaller than the females and also tend to have a thicker tail. Ornate box turtles tend to prefer grassland or prairie habitats rather than dense forest though they will also venture into the woods.

Box turtles can live up to their 30’s, which is fairly long for a small animal. As you walk through the trails of River Legacy, keep your eyes open and you might spot a box turtle walking through the woods. In addition, do not forget to visit River Legacy Living Science Center to see a three-toed box turtle in our exhibit hall!

Three-toed box turtle

Osage Oranges: Ancient Dwellers Of River Legacy

As you walk the trails at River Legacy, you probably have already noticed large orange-looking fruits on the ground. They are typically green in color.

These fruits belong to the Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera). It is a relatively small tree (reaching about 30 to 50 feet tall) that is native to this area of the state. Despite its appearance and name, this plant is not related to oranges at all. In fact, it is a member of the mulberry family, the Moraceae. It is named after the Osage Native American tribe of Missouri.

Nowadays, it has been spread by people to 39 states in the United States and parts of Canada but its natural range only included the Red River drainage in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. River Legacy sits right in the heart of this tree’s natural range. There is evidence that in prehistoric times, its range included a much larger area in the central part of the North American continent. In fact, some scientists have proposed that it once relied on megafauna animals that lived hundreds of thousands of years ago such as giant ground sloths (genus Megatherium) and perhaps even Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus columbi) to disperse its seeds. The large animals would eat the fruits and disperse the seeds via their droppings.

Next time you take a walk at River Legacy and see Osage oranges on the ground or squirrels feeding on them, just think to what the park might have looked many hundreds of thousands of years ago with giant ground sloths and/or mammoths feasting on them. In fact, fall is a great time to come and see Osage oranges on the ground. As you walk from the parking lot to the inside of River Legacy Living Science Center, there are a couple of Osage orange trees that you can appreciate!

Osage Orange Tree Bark
Osage Orange Fruit

Snake Sightings On The Rise Again

Most species of snakes breed in the spring and summer, which is why most people see them during these two seasons. But, snakes can also be a common sight in the fall. With fall upon us, it is important to know what to do if you encounter a snake in the wild.

But first, it is worth knowing why snake sightings are a common fall occurrence as well. There are a few reasons for this. One, baby snakes usually are born in the summer. Fall is the perfect time for those that survived to start looking for their first meal before winter comes.

In addition, both adult and baby snakes start to search for safe places to hide where they will spend most of the winter in brumination, which is a term for the slowing down of their metabolism.

Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)

Lastly, some species of snakes also breed in the fall. A couple of examples include the rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus) and the copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix).

If you encounter a snake along a trail, be sure to observe from a distance. Most snakes will move quickly off the path while others might stay as still as possible. If you can, walk around the snake, giving it a wide berth.

The best course of action is to leave it alone and observe or take pictures from a distance. Most snake bites occur when people try to pick up, move or kill a snake, all of which are unnecessary. Another way to avoid snake bites is to always be mindful of where you are stepping or placing your hands while hiking a trail that is either paved or off-the-beaten path. Be sure to look where you are walking and never reach down to grab something unless you have complete visibility.

Be sure to learn more about snakes at River Legacy Living Science Center!

Nature At Night

Most of our encounters with nature occur during the day, whether it’s hiking, or walking in a park and seeing plants and animals all around us. But, did you know that nature is just as active, if not more active, at night?

There are several species of animals that are strictly nocturnal. In August, we talked about why certain animals have evolved nocturnal behaviors. After Dark In The Park is coming up here at River Legacy Oct. 6th-8th. So, we think this is a good time to revisit the topic of nocturnality a bit more in depth with a couple of examples.

When you are out in nature at night, you may be able to spot some species of nocturnal animals. Bats (Order Chiroptera) are well adapted to night life. Some bats have evolved echolocation to find their prey, which includes flying insects such as moths and mosquitoes. Echolocation just means that bats emit sound waves and are able to detect when they bounce off their prey to determine where it is. Some common species of bats in this area include the Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis), the Eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis), and the hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus). When you are attending After Dark In The Park with us, take a few seconds to look up, especially near light posts, and see if you can spot any bats!

Other nocturnal animals that you might see or hear while being outdoors at night are owls, raccoons, and opossums.

Be sure to come out to After Dark In The Park and do not miss the fun, which obviously includes experiencing the forest at night. For more information about the event, please visit www.riverlegacy.org.

Eastern red bat

 

Spiders are our Friends

Spiders (Class Arachnida) are animals that, often times, get a bad reputation. Some people find them creepy, dangerous, menacing, etc. While there are some species that do present a danger to humans due to their venom (black widow, brown recluse), most spiders are beneficial and a crucial part of the ecosystem.

Spiders are carnivores whose prey includes many species of insects, thus keeping their populations in check. This is especially important for agricultural crops. Simply put, without spiders, swarms of vegetable-devouring insects would overwhelm much of the world food supply. In addition, they also eat mosquitoes and flies, which can carry diseases. On top of that, many of the things that spiders produce such as venom and silk are being used in innovative ways in the medical and engineering fields, respectively.

Here at River Legacy, there are dozens upon dozens of spider species. As you walk around our trails, take a close look at the dozens of spider webs that can be seen throughout the forest. If you see a web that looks like a funnel and it is very close to the ground, it likely was made by a grass spider (Genus Agelenopsis). Orb weavers (Family Araneidae), including the yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia) (pictured), and wolf spiders (Family Lycosidae) are also very common.

Yellow garden spider

It’s Turkscap Time!

In addition to the incredible number of animals that make River Legacy their home, several equally incredible species of plants are also found in the park.

One of those plants is the Turkscap or wax mallow (Malvaviscus arboreus). This plant is a member of the Malvaceae family, a large family that includes okra, cotton, and hibiscus, among many others.

The Turkscap is native to the southeastern United States, including Texas, as well as Mexico, Central America, and South America. It is a shrub that grows to about 2-3 feet, though sometimes higher and has small red flowers that never fully open. Instead, the five petals overlap and form a small tubule, from which the stamen and pistils protrude. It flowers usually in the summer and the flowers resemble a Turkish turban, hence the name. Sometimes, hummingbirds, moths, caterpillars, spiders, butterflies, praying mantises, and other insects can be seen near or on the Turkscap!

Come check out the Turkscap shrubs growing just outside the western entrance in Mike’s Room of River Legacy Living Science Center!

 

 

Amphibians of River Legacy

River Legacy is home to a wide variety of animals. Though big mammals and such as armadillos, bobcats, raccoons and others are among the most iconic inhabitants of River Legacy, several equally-awesome amphibian species make this park their home.

But, first, what are amphibians? Amphibians are a class of vertebrates (animals with a backbone) that are cold-blooded, live semi-aquatic lifestyles, and have a moist and scale-less skin. There are three kinds of amphibians in the world: frogs and toads; salamanders; and caecilians.

Gulf Coast Toad

Here,  only two of those kinds can be found – frogs and toads and salamanders.

Frogs and Toads

Several frog species can be found in our forest. Frogs and toads will usually be found near or in a body of water or a moist area. Some can be seen hopping by the trails or in our pond. Here are some of the most common species: Gulf coast toads (Incilius valliceps) are native to Central America but they have become established in North-Central Texas, including River Legacy. Other common species include the southern leopard frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus) and the American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus). Additional species include the Texas toad (Anaxyrus specious), green tree frog (Hyla cinerea), gray tree frog

Blanchard’s Cricket Frog

(Hyla versicolor), and the Blanchard’s cricket frog (Acris crepitant blanchardi).

Salamanders

Salamanders look like lizards but they are not covered in scales. They are less diverse and common than frogs and toads. One of the common species found in River Legacy is the barred tiger salamander (Ambystoma mavortium).  River Legacy is part of the range of other species, but no records have been reported.

Visit River Legacy Living Science Center to see the amphibians in our animal exhibits!