The Armadillo and the Bobcat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exiting the back doors of the Science Center, I headed out for a walk. To my right was a Texas persimmon, bordered by layers of the scarlet turk’s cap, a beautiful plant with flowers deeply red. The large stone steps escorted me down to the level of the trails.

Overhead hung vines, whose mustang grapes quietly tumble to the ground and are squished by herds of wandering feet. I walked further, passing the American pokeweed, a plant which hides its toxicity behind its blueberry-like appearance. To my left, a forking trail leads to an alleyway of poison ivy, appropriately labeled so that onlookers can observe without risk.

Finally, I reached my destination – the pedestrian bridge, whose sturdy wooden panels are upheld by the strength of red metal framing. Beneath this bridge flows Snider Creek, which on this day was dry from weeks of Texas heat and drought. I leaned over the edge to look.

Along the dry creek bed I saw movement. What was this bizarre creature? A medium-sized body, slender, coated in a thin layer of light brown fur. I struggled to identify it. But as it turned its head upward, facing me, the uniqueness of its facial structure with its tufted ears, disclosed its identity. I was looking at a bobcat, my first time seeing one in the park.

I was mesmerized by this sighting; I’d wanted to see a bobcat for quite some time. But as the cat ran away, and I began to excitedly return to the building, I heard another noise, this time along the bank that lines the creek. I looked to my left to see an armadillo just beside the bridge digging in the dirt, slowly heading in the same direction as the bobcat.

What an incredible walk this had been. To see a bobcat in the park is a rare privilege, but to see one within 50 feet of an armadillo is remarkable. These creatures are vastly different. Both are mammals, but that concludes their overlap. One is lengthy and thin, walking with the elegance of the feline family. The other is spherical and armored, trudging along. How strange, then, to see these incredibly different animals in such close proximity.

But this is what one encounters along the River Legacy trails. Each walk is different. Some are calm and quite; others are filled with the humming of cicadas and the chirping of birds. During some, one sees young turtles, ribbon snakes, or eastern cottontail rabbits. On a rare occasion one might spot a beaver wading in the pond, its uppermost layer of fur made dark by the water. And on some lucky days, as I was fortunate enough to experience, you may see the astounding variation of the natural world displayed in front of you, as bobcats and armadillos wander along the same creek.

Come visit our trails and let us know what you find.

Written by Josh Ripple, a Summer Intern at River Legacy Living Science Center and student at Stanford University.

Meet a Few of Our Wildlife Ambassadors!

Smokey the Western Rat Snake

Hi guys!! I am Smokey, a Western Rat Snake. I am the newest Animal Ambassador to River Legacy Living Science Center and the latest resident to our public exhibits. I was brought from the Fort Worth Nature Center because I needed a larger home.

I am 6 years old with a beautiful yellowish, tan color and irregular blotching from head to tail. I am active during the day, especially when I’m hungry! Hey, you can come see me eat every Friday at 4:30! Sometimes when I get disturbed I let out a hiss, but not to worry, I‘m not venomous, merely voicing my opinion.

Actually, my relatives and I get confused with rattlesnakes because we look alike and we both shake our tails, but Western Rat Snakes do not actually have a rattle. Generally, though, I am a nice girl so come on over and see me! I am so excited that I just got a larger home with lots of room to climb! I might be hiding up high, so look closely.

 

 

 

Poppy the Virginia Opossum

Poppy the Virginia Opossum found her way to River Legacy Living Science Center after she was rescued and rehabilitated from being hit by a car. Due to the injuries sustained, she was not able to be released back into the wild. This is unfortunate due to the many positive benefits opossums provide to an ecosystem.  She is very sweet and curious about her new home. She loves eating hard-boiled eggs, crickets and strawberries.

When people encounter this ambassador in the wild, the feelings are a mixed bag. Some think this nocturnal creature is either cute or ugly; others think it looks like a giant rat. The Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is a very unique creature. It is North America’s only marsupial, which means it has a pouch. Average life span of a wild opossum is 1 to 3 years; life span of a captive opossum is 2 to 5 years.

Opossums have a remarkably robust immune system and show partial or total immunity to the venom of rattlesnakes, copperheads, and other pit vipers. (Remember, North Texas only has two venomous snakes, the rattlesnake and copperhead.)  Opossums are about eight times less likely to carry rabies than wild dogs. This is due to the fact that their core body temperature is lower than most mammals and the virus cannot live in this cooler environment.

Another benefit from having opossums in your neighborhood is that they will eat and therefore kill ticks that are in their fur.  Opossums are fastidious groomers.  A study by the Cary Institute for Ecosystem shows that an opossum may eat up to 5,000 ticks in a season. Ticks can cause a variety of issues for humans, including Lyme Disease.  Now, the opossum is not single-handedly stopping Lyme Disease, but if the opossum takes care of ticks in its own body, then those are less ticks in our yards and natural areas.

Mistletoe Plants: Fascinating Group

Have you ever wondered why, during winter, some deciduous trees (trees that let their leaves fall to the ground) still have a clump of leaves on a branch? It turns out that these leaves do not belong to the tree; they actually are a different plant, a mistletoe. Mistletoe plants occur in every continent on the planet and they belong to different families and genera. The most common found mistletoes in North America, including here at River Legacy, are species that belong to the genus Phoradendron.

Mistletoe plants are hemiparasitic plants, meaning they are parasites of trees most of the time but can still undergo photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the regular process through which the majority of plants produce their own food, using sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to produce nutrients. They attach themselves to the tree at the stem and start absorbing from the tree or shrub. Though they are considered pests and can damage significantly and even kill trees, mistletoe plants may not be all that bad. Research suggests that some mistletoe species can actually help the tree disperse its seeds, as it attracts birds that eat the fruit of the tree.

As we approach the final days of winter, walk the trails at River Legacy and take a look at the leaf-less trees and see if you can spot any mistletoes on a tree or shrub.

The Great Backyard Bird Count Is Here!

Did you know that most birds’ bones are hollow and filled with air sacs? Did you know that the fastest member of the animal kingdom is a bird, the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus)? Did you know that birds are actually descended from dinosaurs? Did you know that River Legacy is home to more than 225 species of birds for all or some parts of the year? There are countless of interesting facts about birds and this weekend is the prime time to learn more about them.

Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). River Legacy is found within the bald eagles’ migration range.

That is because the Great Backyard Bird Count is here! The Great Backyard Bird Count is a global, annual event that takes place usually around this time in February. It is a project sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. Citizen scientists are encouraged to take at least 15 minutes (can be more though!) to count birds from today, Friday, February 16 through Monday, February 19, 2018 and submit their checklists online. Anyone can join in, from amateur birders to experts and researchers in the field of ornithology. You can find more information about how to submit a checklist by visiting gbbc.birdcount.org or the National Audubon Society website.

The River Legacy Living Science Center is proud to participate in this global effort and, to that end, we are hosting our annual Great Backyard Bird Count Festival tomorrow, Saturday, February 17 from 10 A.M. to 2 P.M. This event for the entire family is free. You can learn more information about birds and take part in bird hikes and counts and enjoy crafts, games and activities to celebrate our feathered friends. Find more information here. We hope to see you tomorrow!

Interesting Facts About Great Blue Herons

Great blue herons (Ardea herodias) are River Legacy native birds that can be seen year-round. Though they are a rather common sight near bodies of water and most people are familiar with them, did you know these interesting facts about them?

  • Great blue herons are the largest North American herons! They can be up to 54 inches tall and have a wingspan of up to 79 inches.
  • Despite these measurements, they barely register a weight of about 5 to 6 pounds. This is mainly due to the fact that their bones are hollow, a characteristic they share with most birds.
  • Because of special neck bones, they can be incredibly fast hunters at a distance. This is especially striking when they are hunting for fish.
  • They build their nests usually on trees in colonies. These large colonies can, sometimes, have up to 500 nests!

Next time you are taking a walk through River Legacy, be on the lookout for great blue herons in a pond or creek. In addition, our annual Great Backyard Bird Count Festival is coming up on February 17th from 10 A.M. to 2 P.M. There will be bird hikes throughout the event and perhaps a great blue heron can be spotted that day! You can also learn more interesting facts about other species of birds. More information about the event can be found here.

Great blue herons and their nests
Great blue heron showing its characteristic, S-shaped neck

The beauty of Frostweed

When the thermometer drops to below freezing, there is a plant found at River Legacy that forms captivating ice structures on its body. The aptly named frostweed or the white-crowned beard (Verbesina virginica) forms ribbon-like ice structures when the stem opens up during a freeze and the sap comes out of the plant frozen. This only seems to occur at the base of the plant, near the ground. These formations are sometimes also referred to as crystallofolia, meaning “leaves of crystal.” There is no evidence to suggest that the plant is permanently damaged by this phenomenon. These past couple of weeks, as the area succumbed to one of the coldest winters in years, some frostweed ice “ribbons” were observed in the woods of River Legacy. Winter is not over yet. If there is another freeze, it is possible that these plants could display their ice structures once again. But, if you do miss them this winter, do not forget to come back next winter and take a walk through the trails at River Legacy to see them!

Winter At River Legacy

Winter is in full swing at River Legacy and plants and animals have to adapt to the changing season. Winters tend to be mild in North Texas but temperatures still drop to freezing and below, as it has been the case for a few days in the past couple of weeks. How do the animals and plants survive the cold?

It turns out that many species have unique adaptations that allow them to survive the harsh conditions of this season. Let us take plants, for example. Annuals, plants that live for only one growing season (usually spring to fall), survive the winter as seeds in the soil. The soil tends to be warmer than the surface, which allows for the seeds to survive. Perennials, plants that live year after year, survive in a different manner. They can go into a state of dormancy (trees losing their leaves, for example), which is akin to mammal hibernation. In addition, if it gets too cold, some plants can produce chemical substances that lower the freezing point of the fluid inside their cells and in between their cells, so that ice crystals do not form and kill the plant from the inside.

Animals too have to cope with the freezing and sub-freezing temperatures. Some mammals hibernate, meaning they basically shut down for the entirety of winter and sleep in a warm place. Others can find a nice den and stay there most of the time for the coldest part of the winter. Fox squirrels (Sciurus niger), a very iconic River Legacy mammal, will build dreys and also share their dens with other squirrels to keep each other warm. They also prepare in advance by increasing their food consumption and caching in the fall so that they have enough from which to survive in the winter. Reptiles, being cold-blooded, cannot survive drastic drops in temperature so they find a warm shelter and go into a state similar to hibernation called brumation. The difference is that reptiles can wake up from this state if a warm winter day happens to arrive. Aquatic reptiles and fish will hang out at the bottom of their habitat (creek, pond, river, etc.), where it is warmer and slow down their metabolism. Birds will either migrate, hunker down, get together in groups, shiver to increase body temperature, and cover their feet with their downy feathers when sitting down.

Next time you use the walking trails at River Legacy when it is cold, think about the animals and plants all around and their incredible adaptations that enable them to survive!

Animal tracks in snow from a couple of years ago at River Legacy Living Science Center.
Top layer of Snider Creek frozen. Clump of leaves frozen in place can be seen underneath. January 2018

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.