Earth Day Is Here!

Earth Day is an annual celebration that occurs worldwide on April 22nd. Starting in 1970, the purpose of this day is to celebrate our planet and all of the organisms with which we share it and to raise awareness about the importance of environmental conservation. Earth is a really unique but fragile planet. To date, it is the only planet where life can be found and that makes it all the more important to take care of it.

Here at River Legacy, we are celebrating Earth Day a little early. Our annual Earth Day festival is going to be this Saturday, April 14th from 10 A.M. to 2 P.M. We invite you to come and celebrate with us. There will be crafts, games, animal explorations, nature walks, and many more fun activities. It is free admission and all ages are welcome!

On Earth Day itself, be sure to visit the trails at River Legacy Park and appreciate the plants and animals that make River Legacy Park their home. River Legacy Living Science Center will not be open that day but the park will be. To get acquainted with the wonderful wildlife you might expect to find as you explore, we encourage you to read previous posts in this blog!

                                                             

Mushrooms All Around Us

Shelf Mushrooms
Jack-o-lantern Mushrooms

Mushrooms are really interesting organisms. They are neither plant nor animal but rather belong to an entirely different kingdom of life called fungi, which actually also includes pathogens (such as athlete’s foot), molds, and yeasts. Despite being very distinct, they do share characteristics with both animals and plants. They are sessile like plants but do not produce their own food, something they have in common with animals.

The mushrooms themselves are really only the spore-producing (fruiting) body of the organism. Lurking beneath the mushroom is a network of filaments that compose most of the fungus. They are very important decomposers and can also be a great food source for a lot of animals. Spring is a really good time to find mushrooms because they start appearing everywhere once there is enough water around. Here at River Legacy, there are many species to be found, from oyster mushrooms to turkey tail mushrooms, jack-o-lanterns, puffballs, shelf mushrooms, carbon ball mushrooms, and many more. As you can see, mushrooms are a very diverse group and some can be quite beautiful. We invite you to come out to the trails at River Legacy this spring and look for mushrooms growing in the forest!

Spring!

Flowers blooming

Spring time is here! Spring officially started on March 20. This is the time when the landscape will be changing slowly but surely. Expect to see more flowers blooming, deciduous trees regrowing their leaves, and more green overall. Reptiles and amphibians will start to come out more and more. This will likely mean an increase in the number of turtles found walking on the forest floor or on logs, in ponds, creeks, and other bodies of water as well as an increase in lizards found on trees, logs, and fences. This can also mean more snake sightings and encounters. Please refer to earlier posts in this blog for what to do if you see a snake. Different birds will also start to appear across River Legacy as spring migration is beginning to take shape.

The reason for all these changes mainly have to do with temperature differences and water and food availability. Spring time brings about much warmer temperatures. This indicates to certain animals that their brumation (for certain cold-blooded animals) and hibernation (for certain mammals) times are over. Warmer temperatures also awake certain plants from their dormancy. Normally, spring also brings more rain, sometimes in the form of storms. Water helps with seed germination, causing more plants to start appearing. More plants mean more food for herbivores, which means more food for omnivores and carnivores as well.

Spring is a perfect time to enjoy and learn about nature with us at River Legacy Living Science Center. We invite you to all of our spring events coming up:

  • Our FREE Earth Day festival is Saturday, April 14 from 10 am to 2 pm . This is a family festival, open to the public, where you can learn much about Earth Day and why conservation is important while enjoying nature walks, crafts, activities and hands-on demonstrations.
  • Nature Walks are held on the second Saturday of every month and are great opportunities to explore the seasonal plant and animal changes in the park. Our next Nature Walk will be Saturday, May 12th. Space is limited, so please call 817.860.6752 to reserve your spot.
  • We are partnering with the Arlington Water Utilities Department to host a rain barrel making workshop from 6 to 8 pm, May 8 at River Legacy Living Science Center. This program covers the basics and benefits of rainwater harvesting and the effects stormwater has on the environment. Participants will learn how to collect and utilize rainwater at home and have the opportunity to construct their very own 55 gallon rain barrel. Cost is $50. Register online here. 

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.