Autumn is Here and So Are the Birds!

Autumn is in full swing at River Legacy and life in the forest is experiencing some changes. We have covered in previous posts what some of those are. Today, we will primarily focus on the fall bird migration and the species you can enjoy seeing!

Autumn migration typically starts in late summer, around the middle to end of the month of August. The reason why many species migrate during this time is their need to find suitable temperatures and food sources in order to survive. North America is slowly entering the coldest part of the year and many species would not do well in that type of condition. Food becomes scarce so birds are forced to go back to warmer, more rich places in the southernmost parts of the U.S. (including northern Texas), Mexico, Central America, or even South America. River Legacy is fortunate to be located right in the middle of the Central Flyway, a migratory route that spans a wide swath of the central United States, Canada, and Mexico.

So what are some of the species that people can start to see this autumn and are expected to stay through the remainder of autumn and winter?

Several waterfowl are included in this group. Species such as the Canada goose (Branta canadensis), wood duck (Aix sponsa), blue-winged teal (Anas discors), and northern shoveler (Spatula clypeata) are fairly common sights.

Another group with several autumn and winter representatives are the sparrows. Some of those are the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), the white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), the eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), and the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), among many.

Some woodpeckers, birds of prey, and other song birds also start to appear this time of year. These include, but are not in any way limited to, the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), the northern flicker (Colaptes auratus), the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula), the cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), the brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), and the sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus).

Lastly, in addition to these birds moving in, you can still enjoy some of the birds that live at River Legacy all year-round. Among the common year-round species that live here are the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), the northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus), the barred owl (Strix varia), the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), the Bewick’s wren (Thryomanes bewickii), the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), the downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), and the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis).

Have you had some exciting bird sightings around River Legacy Park? Snap a picture and show us what you’ve seen by tagging us on Facebook @riverlegacyparks or on Instagram @livingsciencecenter!

Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)
Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)
Blue-winged teal (Anas discors)

Great Backyard Bird Count

Do you have 15 minutes to spare? If you answered yes you can help scientists collect data on the distribution and abundance of birds through the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). The GBBC started in 1998 by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. This year (2020) the GBBC is February 14-17. Participants can count from any location around the world and for any amount of time no less than 15 minutes. All you need to do is create a tally of the different birds observed. Not to worry if you’re not an expert birder; all levels are welcome! 

Bird populations are forever changing, which makes it important for scientists to track their numbers. This is a huge and difficult task for a handful of people to conquer. That is why scientists need the help of citizens to collect information. The data collected from the GBBC can help scientists understand if certain bird species are increasing or decreasing over time. Any big changes are indicators of environmental changes that are affecting the birds. GBBC information also provides a snapshot of the different kinds of birds that live in different areas. In 2019, GBBC participants from 100 countries helped to count over 6,800 species on more than 200,000 checklists.

If you’re interested in participating and need more information on how to create an account and how to submit observations visit the link here: https://gbbc.birdcount.org/get-started/ 

River Legacy will be holding a GBBC festival on February 15th from 10 am – 2 pm. Come join us for guided family bird walks/group counts, live animal presentations and plenty of owl-some crafts and activities! We will also have some im-peck-able exhibitors such as Fort Worth Audubon Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Fal-Tech Inc. with live birds! Come and fla-mingle with us. We hoot to see you there!

Shedding Snakes

Most animals (including humans!) shed their skin. As humans, we usually shed our skin in small pieces and we hardly ever notice it, but snakes sometimes shed theirs in one piece – kind of like how we take off our socks! As humans grow, our skin stretches with us and continues to grow as well. As a snake grows, it’s skin stays the same size and eventually, new growth is not possible and the snake is forced to shed. Snakes also shed their skin to get rid of any parasites on their skin. Parasites are organisms that steal their food from the organism they are living on or inside of. 

How can you tell when a snake is going to shed? A snake’s eyes will turn a blue/milky color when they are ready to shed. Why do their eyes turn this color? Snakes have a protective scale over their eye and when the old eye scale starts to separate from the newly formed scale it has fluid buildup and causes the blue/milky color we see (Image 1). During this time period at River Legacy, we try not to handle our snakes because they cannot see and this can sometimes cause distress in the snake. When snakes are in the wild and are close to shedding they usually hide to avoid being attacked by predators. 

Snakes shed for their whole life, but as they get older it slows down. How often a snake sheds depends on the type of snake as well as their age. Young snakes may shed 1 to 2 times a month and older snakes may only shed 2 times a year. If you’re interested in learning more about snakes, please join us for our Spring Break Activities: Reptile Day, during the week of March 9-13! Stay tuned for more information about specific times.

This post was written by Samantha King, River Legacy Living Science Center naturalist.

Image 1. Raj, the corn snake with blue/milky eyes

Beautiful Beetles

Beetles. Everyone is familiar with them. From the time most of us start hearing about bugs and insects, beetles usually come up among the first groups we learn about. This makes perfect sense as there are roughly 400,000 species of them worldwide. To put this in perspective, this means that about 40 % of all insect species, and 25 % of all animal species are beetles!

River Legacy Parks is home to countless beetle species but there is a group of them that is particularly intriguing and special. These are the bess beetles, which belong to the Family Passalidae. They are a bright dark color and usually measure about 1 inch a half in length. Though most bess beetles are found in the tropics, there are some North American representatives. The River Legacy woods are among the places where they can be found in Texas. Bess beetles can be found inside of rotting logs or stumps. They are found there for two main reasons: 1. They consume decaying wood as part of their diet and 2. the females have to get into those tunnels and lay their eggs.

One of the most fascinating things about these beetles is they take care of their offspring. Bess beetles are considered to be presocial. This means that they exhibit some aspects of a social structure beyond just mating but are not fully social insects the way ants, bees, wasps, and termites are. The vast majority of insects do not take care of their offspring so this aspect sets the bess beetles apart.

Due to their color, sometimes they are hard to spot. But, if you look closely around a decaying log, you might be able to spot them. Any time of the year is a good time because decomposition is happening all the time. However, several have been spotted lately by our River Legacy staff. See if you can find it as well!

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Are Some River Legacy Trees Haunted?

After a brief late summer hiatus, we are back! Fall is fast approaching and one of the many things people anticipate with fall is Halloween! Though it is only September, if you walk around the trails of River Legacy, you might notice that some trees look like they are covered in spider webs, and a lot of them. Is the forest getting ready for October 31st? While we would like to thing so, these webs are a really cool natural phenomenon.

Often confused with spider webs, these webs are actually made by the caterpillar of the fall webworm moth (Hyphantria cunea). These caterpillars can produce webs that sometimes cover huge swaths of trees. They measure about 1 inch long and start eating leaves immediately after they hatch from an egg mass. The web is produced to form a cover the areas where they are feeding. Host trees include mulberry trees, oak trees, pecans, sweetgum, redbud, willow, and many other fruit-bearing trees. Late summer and early fall but it seems to depend on the location. For example, trees in the southern part of Texas start appearing with these webs as early as April.

Right now, the easiest place to find these webs is in areas alongside Snider Creek on the eastern side of the trail adjacent to our new parking lot on Margaret Drive, at the main entrance to River Legacy Parks. But, keep your eyes open, because they have appeared in many other parts of our forest in previous years. So, while you might think, these trees are Halloween decorations, they are just mother nature’s work for all of us to marvel and learn!

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Baby Praying Mantis!

Students in 3rd and 4th grades will be learning some amazing facts about insects in our Insect Investigators Summer Class this July! Did you know that summer is a very important time for the life cycle of many insects, especially the praying mantis.

Baby mantis seen against the backdrop of a leaf

Mantises (order Mantodea), first lay their eggs in autumn, which start to hatch in the spring. Late spring and summer, the nymphs (baby mantises) are in a period of growth and development and they tend to be seen more often because of this.  The babies hatch from an egg sac that is produced by the mother mantis using a special secretion from her abdomen. This egg sac is known as the ootheca. Color typically varies, but babies tend to be a different color than the adults. As the nymphs keep growing, they molt their exoskeleton. Depending on the species, some mantises can live from about 4 to 6 months but smaller species average a lifespan of only about 4 to 8 weeks.

When you visit the Science Center, look around the Turk’s cap plants on the outside terrace. Nymphs will tend to be underneath leaves or sitting on stems and they are fairly difficult to find due to their size and great camouflage. Nevertheless, with some patience, it is very possible that you will come across one. In addition, if you have children that would be interested in learning more about mantises and other amazing insects, our Insect Investigators summer class from July 15th to the 19th still has some open spots. Call 817.860.6752, ext. 102 to register or visit our website!

Spectacular Spiders: The Dark Fishing Spider

Dark fishing spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus)

River Legacy Park is home to hundreds of spider species. One very common spider species is the dark fishing spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus). This spider is primarily found on trees and it is most often seen in the month of May, although it can also be spotted all the way until September. Despite the fact that it is called a “fishing spider,” it does not live near water or fish. It is in fact, the most terrestrial, of the fishing spiders. It is quite big: females can measure anywhere from 15 to 26 millimeters whereas the males tend to be smaller, from 7 to 13 millimeters. The female produces egg sacs that can contain up to 1,000 baby spiders inside!

Spiders serve many purposes in the ecosystem at River Legacy, mainly prey control. It is estimated that all of the world’s spiders consume about 400 to 800 tons of prey each year! Spiders are also a great group of organisms for learning a wide array of concepts: predation, invertebrate biology,  how venom works, the amazing design abilities of the animal kingdom, etc.. Learning about spiders can help in reducing arachnophobia.

During our Spectacular Spiders Summer Class, students will learn all about spiders and why they are cool and interesting. Space is filling up quickly though so visit our website to sign up and learn more information. We hope to see your child there!

 

 

 

 

 

Update On Mexican Buckeye Tree!

Mexican Buckeye growing

Last November, through our brand new Saturday Conservation program, we planted a small Mexican buckeye tree (Ungnadia speciosa) provided by the City of Arlington with the help of some awesome volunteers. The tree was already roughly 4 feet tall and it was in a state of dormancy, meaning it had no leaves growing at the time. Fast forward to May and the tree is doing quite well!

Mexican buckeye is a small tree that grows in scattered places throughout central and western Texas, southern New Mexico, and northeastern Mexico. It grows to about 30 feet in height and produces beautiful, bright pink flowers. When pollinated, these flowers produce a capsule-looking fruit with 3 black seeds inside of it. Its seeds are considered poisonous for consumption. It is a great attractor for hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators!

 

Mexican buckeye seeds

The planting of this tree could not have been possible without the amazing help of a handful of participants for our Saturday Conservation program. This program aims to educate and engage the public in issues regarding conservation and preservation of nature all around us.

Join us for the last Conservation Saturday program for this Spring on May 18th at 11 A.M. The topic will be all about reptile conservation, what the status of reptiles is in our area and worldwide and some ways people can help in reptile conservation. It is a FREE event though space is limited. If you would like to attend, you may give us a call at 817.860.6752 to R.S.V.P. If you would like more information about the program, you may call 817.860.6752 extension 125. We hope to see you all there. Information for Saturday Conservation days for the 2019-2020 year will be posted in the summer. Stay tuned!

Diversity of Plants

Spring time is the perfect time to go out and discover the variety of plant species found in River Legacy Park. Most plants at River Legacy are contained within the flowering plants, as are most plants around the world. These are known as angiosperms. They produce flowers and a fruiting body to protect the seeds once pollination has occurred. Species include the saw greenbrier (Smilax bona-nox), poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera), Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana), etc. In addition to the flowering plants, there are 3 other major groups of plants with River Legacy representatives as well.

The mosses constitute a group of plants that like to grow in dense clumps on a typically moist surface. This could be a log on the ground, the bark of a tree, a bench, a boulder, etc.. They are non-vascular, meaning they have no system with which to transport a lot of nutrients and water. They are also very short and produce spores instead of seeds.

Ferns form the other major group of River Legacy plants. In contrast with mosses, ferns are vascular and are bigger. In addition, ferns have compound leaves divided into many leaflets. And, while ferns produce spores like mosses, these are located underneath the leaves of the plant instead of at the tip of the shoots. You might be able to find the bluntlobe cliff fern (Woodsia obtusa) along the trails near Snider Creek at the back of the Science Center parking lot. You have to look closely on the cliff itself to find this plant!

The gymnosperms is another group of plants that produce seeds instead of spores. The difference between them and the angiosperms is that gymnosperms do not produce a fruit to protect their seeds. Normally the seeds are in the form of a cone. One of the gymnosperms that makes River Legacy its home is the eastern juniper or red cedar tree (Juniperus virginiana). Look for a 16 to 60 foot tall tree with light reddish or brown bark with leaves that look like needles instead of a typical leaf shape.

Plants are awesome! We hope you will explore the trails surrounding River Legacy Living Science Center or in River Legacy Park so that you can enjoy them!

3 groups of plants are represented in this picture! Moss can be seen in the background, some ferns can be found at the top left-hand corner and in the middle right section, and a small flowering plant can be seen at the bottom right-hand corner!

 

 

 

 

Mammals, Reptiles, and Creepy Crawlers, Oh My!

Magnificent Mammals – Dec. 26!

Over the past couple of posts, we have talked about many of the mammals, reptiles, and other vertebrates that live in the woods of River Legacy. Often times, though, not enough attention is paid to the small critters (usually referred to as “creepy crawlies” or “creepy crawlers”) that often inhabit the forest floor. These include insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates.

Throughout history, these animals have traditionally been seen as scary, off-putting, or unpleasant for various reasons. But, in reality, the vast majority of them are just as fascinating as other more charismatic animals (mammals and reptiles), just as important to the healthof the River Legacy forest, and not aggressive. Many of these are decomposers and, thus, they form a key component of the energy flow in the forest. Several of them also prey on other animals that could be detrimental if their numbers got out of control. At the same time, many are important food items for other animals higher up in the food chain. The list of their attributions to the environment is endless. Join us to learn more about these Creepy Crawlers as well as mammals and reptiles during our Winter Break Family Fun Activities!

Radical Reptiles – Dec. 27!

As we wrap up another year (where did that time go!?) and we enjoy the holidays with time off work and in the good company of family and friends, it is a perfect time to learn more about these “creepy” critters (and other animals) and the very special place they occupy here at River Legacy Park and the Science Center. And, with that in mind, we invite you to River Legacy Living Science Center’s Winter Break Family Fun! From December 26 to December 28, you get to learn more about Magnificent Mammals, Radical Reptiles, and Creepy Crawlers. Get up close with some of our mammals, reptiles, and invertebrates followed by a related craft with time slots ranging from 10:30 am, 11:30 am and 1:30 pm. For more information on how to purchase your admission, you can visit www.riverlegacy.org/calendar or to check out a complete schedule of activities, click here. We hope to see you there!

Creepy Crawlers – Dec. 28!