Bird is the word

Grab your binoculars and guide.  Winter on the Texas Coast is a great time for bird watching.

With more than 600 species of birds documented in Texas, an afternoon outside in the Lone Star State can easily provide a rewarding bird watching experience for all. Whether you’re a novice or have decades of experience, bird watching offers something for everyone from an excuse to spend time outside, travel more or practice your photography skills. More than 20 million Americans enjoy this hobby; now might be just the time to try it out yourself.

In 2016, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that 45 million people nationwide purposefully watched birds, making roughly 1 out of 7 Americans birdwatchers

Consider yourself warned, though; birding can be addictive.  “Birders” spend $41 billion annually on travel, lodging, food and equipment. Many travel great distances just to see that one elusive species, plan vacations around migration patterns, trek through difficult landscapes, and invest in the best equipment. If you’re new to bird watching you probably aren’t ready to splurge on high end binoculars or hop on a plane at a moment’s notice to chase a lead. Don’t despair, there are plenty of opportunities to view our feathered friends at your own pace and price. Simply walking outside and observing can offer plenty of reward.

That said, a few simple tools will make your birding more effective, even a cheap pair of binoculars will make a big difference. As leaves fall off of trees, take advantage of the bare branches which provide great perches for resting birds. What’s that?  A small red bird, with a black mask, hopping from branch to branch.  Can you identify it?  Take some photographs  or write down details, like size, color and distinct markings or make a quick sketch in a notebook.  Identification apps like Merlin Bird ID and Audubon Bird Guide are great tools for identifying birds and collecting data that can then be shared as part of citizen science efforts. Now that you’ve identified your red bird as a male northern cardinal, you are officially a birdwatcher!

Houston Audubon has a great resource on local and migratory birds around Houston

If you build it, they will come

Birdwatching can be as simple as observing with the naked eye. It’s fun as an individual or with groups. And it can range from casual hobby to fierce passion.  When you‘re ready to go beyond just ‘watching’ know that there are several ways to actively bird right in your own community.

Create a bird-friendly environment in your yard, patio or balcony. Providing food, water and shelter for winged visitors provides an ecological benefit while also creating great birdwatching opportunities right outside your window. Depending on the species you wish to attract, the habitat should include a variety of trees, grasses, and shrubs to create an inviting space for birds to live, hunt, and raise their young.  A general rule of thumb is “more native plants mean more insects, which leads to more birds” (ecology professor and author, Doug Tallamy). If using pesticides in your garden to control the insect population, you are removing the main food source for many birds.  Adult bluebirds will eat up to 2,000 insects in one day and gather more when they have a nest of chicks to feed.  A yard full of insects is like an all you-can-eat buffet for birds.

Providing shelter and food are two very important considerations if you are hoping to attract specific species to your yard. For example, did you know that red-bellied woodpeckers are attracted to suet feeders? For more tips on attracting local birds to your yard, check out this article on the Environmental Services blog. Looking for the right bird house to attract purple martins? Plans to build the perfect birdhouse  to attract your favorite feathered friends can be found here.

December is a great time to get your Purple Martin houses prepared for their arrival in January

Beyond the back yard

Filled with local and migratory birds in search of winter sustenance, southeast and coastal Texas offers a number of prime bird watching spots, several within a short drive of The Woodlands.  When you’re ready to venture out, be sure to check with the Houston Audubon’s Bird-Friendly Map for nearby birding hotspots.

Hit the road early to enjoy a full day of birding and be sure to remember the essentials for a day of birdwatching: binoculars, sunscreen, hat, water, snacks, a notebook and pen. 

Don’t forget that the annual Texas Christmas Bird Count takes place December 14, 2019 – January 5, 2020.  For more information on how you can participate and take part in this long standing holiday program that collects data from around the state, be sure to check out this year’s event page.


The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department presents ‘An Introduction to Bird Watching in The Woodlands’. Join us Thursday, November 14 at 6 p.m. at Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) for a presentation by Alisa Kline, naturalist at Buffalo Bayou Park. To register online, view here.

Questions? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov or call 281-210-3800

Give a hoot

Mysterious, spooky, wise, lovable. Depending on who you ask, owls have quite the reputation. With four of the 19 North American species found in our area – Eastern Screech, Great Horned, Barred and Barn – , it’s likely there are a few living in the woods near you. But what do we really know about these birds of prey? Here are 10 fun facts to unravel some of the mystery surrounding these amazing creatures.

Hunting Facts

Fact #1 Incredible hunters, owls have super-powered hearing that allows them to track prey under leaves, dirt and snow. Their hearing is especially sensitive to high-frequency sounds, like rodent squeaks. Studies have shown that Barn Owls are able to catch their prey in absolute darkness just by picking up the sound of rustling leaves.

Fact #2 Owls can turn their neck up to 135 degrees in either direction – 270 degrees of rotation! 14 neck bones – 7 more than humans – allow owls to swivel back and forth effortlessly. Most mammals would be hindered by the lack of blood flow to the brain and eyes, if they were able to rotate that far. However, owls have a unique type of reservoir system at the base of their head which prevents damage to blood vessels while rotating.

Fact #3 Owls make virtually no noise when they fly. Their wing feathers have comb-like serrations that break turbulence into smaller currents and reduce sound. The soft down feathers also help to muffle noise.

Fact #4 An owl’s eye is not a true eye “ball”. Instead, its tube-shaped and doesn’t move which requires them to rotate their entire head to look to the side. This inconvenience comes with an advantage, though. The binocular vision helps them focus on their prey and boosts their depth perception. Owls may have the most efficient vision of any animal. Depending on the species, their vision is 35 to 100 times greater than humans.

Watch this video to see why owls are such excellent hunters

Food Facts

Fact #5 Owls swallow their food whole and then cough up the carcass. Using their strong talons to crush their prey, owls swallow small animals whole. If too large, they use their beaks and talons to rip prey into smaller pieces. Nourishing parts are digested and parts that can’t be digested, like fur and bones, become compacted into a pellet which the owl later regurgitates

Fact #6

Great at pest control. A single barn owl family will eat up to 3000 rodents within 4 months. A single owl can eat 50 pounds of gophers in a year. Farmers frequently install owl nesting boxes to help with pest control. It’s cheaper and safer than poison, which kills many owls and other predators each year as the poison passes on from the prey.

Fact #7 Rodents aren’t the only thing on the menu. Owls eat insects, earthworms, fish, crawfish, amphibians, other birds and small animals. Occasionally, owls will attack and eat smaller owls. Larger owls, like the Great Horned Owl will attack a Barred Owl, which have been known to attack the Western Screech Owl.

For more ways to help owls, visit here

Fun Facts

Fact #8 Owls have been depicted throughout history, from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to the 30,000 year old cave paintings in France. Ancient Greece recognized owls as a symbol of learning and knowledge and were often seen as a companion to Athena – goddess of wisdom. Unfortunately, owls were seen by many cultures throughout history as a symbol of impending death or evil and affiliated with witches or the unnatural. This fear led many cultures to attempt to rid themselves of nearby owl populations.

Fact #9 Not all owls hoot. Barn Owls make hissing sounds, Eastern Screech Owls whinny like a horse and Saw-Whet Owls are named after the sound they make which is similar to the sound of a whetstone sharpening a saw. To hear the various sounds and calls from owls across North America, check out the Audubon Owls Guide for your phone and I.D. owls on the go.

Fact #10 Owls come in all sizes. The largest owl in North America is the Great Gray Owl which can grow as tall as 32“. The smallest is the Elf Owl – 5-6” tall and about a mere 1 ½ ounces in weight. Here in east Texas, you may come across one of the largest owls in North America, the Great Horned Owl. At almost 2’ tall, the Great Horned Owl is adaptable to many habitats, including city neighborhoods, forested areas, coastal areas, deserts and mountains. Listen for the deep, low hoo, hoohoo, hoo that sounds similar to a dove’s call but is deeper in tone.

To contact Environmental Services Department, email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov or call 281-210-3800

Just in time for Halloween: vampires, zombies and other ghoulish bugs.

Good night, sleep tight; don’t let the bed bugs bite

While this rhyme has been sung to loved ones since the 1880’s, the nocturnal creatures it refers to have been feeding on sound sleepers since the time of the pharaohs.

Sheltering in the nooks and crannies of baseboards, floorboards, or even along the seam of the mattress, bed bugs emerge at night to feed on unsuspecting dreamers. Lured by carbon dioxide and body heat, the little wingless vampires crawl along your body in search of uncovered skin to draw their weekly feast. Ten minutes later, engorged and sated, they return to the shelter of the box spring, or a loose flap of wallpaper, and digest. Take a Deep Look at these bloodsuckers if you dare.

Attack of the body snatchers

The prospect of being fed upon in the dead of night might make your skin crawl, yet it is a far sight better than what can happen to a tomato horn worm in broad daylight.

A teeny, tiny wasp – only an eighth of an inch long – will lay eggs just under the hornworm’s skin. The eggs hatch inside the caterpillar and start eating its insides while it’s still alive! Larvae chew their way to the outside and spin cocoons that look like white insect eggs along the hornworm’s back. Weakened, the hornworm soon dies, unleashing 50 or more wasps to parasitize other tomato-destroying caterpillars. Purdue University has produced a brief look at the “alien encounter” for your viewing displeasure.

Photos used with permission from the Galveston County Master Gardener Association

Superhero bugs to the rescue!

For everything that creeps and crawls, there is another thing that stalks and eats it. Spiders are a formidable foe, ensnaring flies in sticky webs, chasing down crickets, or ambushing ants.

Whatever the method, most spiders end the fight by injecting venom into their hapless prey through fangs at the end of their “jaws”. All spiders are on a liquid diet – that narrow waist makes it impossible for solid food to pass into their abdomen. Just like in Arachnophobia, these eight-legged predators must pump their prey full of enzymes to suck the resulting juices, leaving behind an empty husk. Fortunately, if you are not a fan of spiders, there are even spider-eating spiders such as the cunningly clever, Portia.

For more spectacularly spooky tales from the creepy crawly world of bugs, join us for Walk in the Woods, October 10, 2019. Registration is required for this FREE lecture.  For more information or to register, visit the Walk in the Woods website here.

For more information on programs offered by The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department, visit www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment

Under Dark of Night

Bats! Superhero crime fighters, blood-sucking vampires, quirky animated characters, and quintessential fixtures of Halloween décor. These creatures of the night are thoroughly intertwined in American pop culture. Yet, these cultural characterizations often lead to misunderstanding, fear and certainly under appreciation.   Read on for 5 fascinating facts about how bats really are heroes of the night.

1. They Live Among Us

There are more than 1,300 species of bats worldwide, inhabiting nearly every part of the world except the most extreme deserts and polar regions. Ten species of bats call the Greater Houston Area home. They range from the more common Mexican Free-Tailed Bat, the official bat of Texas, which emerges on warm nights in masse from under bridges, to less common species like the Silver-haired bat, one of the slowest flying bats and a solitary forest dweller.

Learn about the various bats that can be found around Houston here.

2. Bats Have Very Few Natural Predators

Owls, hawks, and snakes will eat bats. However, the biggest threat to colonies is White-Nose Syndrome. Millions of bats have died from this disease since it was first identified in 2006. Named for the white fungus that grows on the muzzle and wing of hibernating bats, this disease causes bats to become overly active, including flying during the day. This extra activity burns up their fat reserves which are needed to survive the winter.  There is no cure for white-nose syndrome, but scientists are working to control the spread of the disease. White-nose syndrome can persist on clothing, shoes and hiking gear so, if you’re going to enter a cave, be sure to decontaminate first to prevent the spread of this deadly disease.  Decontamination procedures recommended by the National Parks Service can be viewed here.

3. Bats Are Pollinators

More than 300 species of fruit, including guavas, mangoes, bananas, peaches and avocados, and over 500 species of tropical flowers depend on nectar bats for pollination. The Mexican Long Tongued Bat, found in western Texas and throughout the Southwest and Mexico, is responsible for pollinating the iconic Saguaro cactus and the raw material for tequila, Agave plants.

Learn more about bats that pollinate here.

4. A Bat Can Eat Their Body Weight In Insects Every Night

Bats help control the insect population, and in our part of the world, that includes mosquitoes!  Feeding on moths, beetles and other flying insects, bats contribute an estimated $1.4 billion annually in insect control in the state of Texas.  Mexican-free tailed bats have been recorded flying up to 100 miles round trip in a night, reaching speeds up to 60 miles an hour and reaching heights of 10,000 feet when hunting for food. There aren’t many insects that can outmaneuver those flying skills.

Read the Texas Senate Resolution recognizing the Mexican free-tailed bat as
the Official Flying Mammal.

5. Bats Aren’t Blind

In fact, bats have excellent eyesight.  Their sensitive vision helps them see in the darkest of nights.  The common misconception that bats have poor vision likely comes from their renowned echolocation ability which allows them to hunt more efficiently at night and has no connection to blindness. So the old adage of being ‘blind as a bat’ doesn’t seem that bad, does it?


To learn more about habitats, behaviors and threats to bats living in urban areas, attend Our Neighborhood Bats, led by Urban Wildlife Biologist, Diana Foss from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Registration is required for this FREE lecture. For more information or to register, visit the Walk in the Woods website here.

For more information on programs offered by The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department, visit www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment

Mark your calendars!

The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department has a packed schedule this fall with something for everyone. Always wanted to grow your own vegetables or interested in what it takes to compost in your own backyard? Curious about the fascinating world of bugs, bats and birds? If you have been looking to learn more about reducing your water usage, adding native plants to your yard, or you’re ready to recycle the odds and ends around the house, then read on.

Invasive Species Task Force Volunteer Training
Saturday, August 10, 2019 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) 8801 Gosling Road

Learn how non-native plants are impacting our local ecosystem and what actions you can take to keep them at bay. Dr. Hans Landel from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center will provide training on the identification and removal of invasive plants and the critical functions of native vegetation. Trained volunteers will be able to join the ongoing effort to tackle invasives in our area.

Free workshop. Registration required. Register here.


Fall Organic Vegetable Gardening Class
Saturday, August 24, 2019 from 9 a.m. to noon
The Woodlands Emergency Training Center (16135 IH-45 South)

Beginning and veteran gardeners alike will gain valuable information at this free, three-hour seminar. Learn about the latest gardening trends, soil preparation, planting techniques and the best plant varieties for the area. Join Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Agents Emeritus (retired) Tom LeRoy and Bill Adams as they share their many years of vegetable gardening experience and expertise. Books authored by both Tom and Bill will be available. Montgomery County Master Gardeners will be on hand to answer your gardening questions.

Free class. Registration required. Register here.


Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture Series: Our Neighborhood Bats
Thursday, September 12, 2019 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) 8801 Gosling Road

Join this FREE lecture series, led by Diana Foss from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Diana will discuss habitats, behaviors and threats to bats living in urban areas. Come learn the benefits bats provide to The Woodlands and where you can observe bats year-round in the Houston area.

Free lecture. Registration required. Register here.


22nd Annual Woodlands Landscaping Solutions
Saturday, September 28, 2019 from 9 a.m. to noon
The Recreation Center at Rob Fleming Park

This event is FREE!

Don’t miss this year’s event at its new location—the Recreation Center at Rob Fleming Park. Learn from area gardening and landscaping experts at over 30 booths. Shop the marketplace. Pick up FREE plants at the Montgomery County Master Gardener’s pass-along plant booth.  Take a composting class. Guest speaker Lauren Simpson will present, “Gardening for Pollinators” and Tom LeRoy will present on “Lawn Care”. Enjoy live music by Andy McCarthy, kids’ activities and food vendors. See you there!

Visit www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment for more information.


Smarter Choices Seminar: Healthy Landscapes = Healthy Waterways
Saturday, October 5, 2019 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The Woodlands Emergency Training Center (16135 IH-45 South)

Learn how simple steps can result in greener lawns and healthier waterways. Practical methods for maintaining your lawn and landscape, as well as alternatives to chemical use will be offered. 

Free workshop. Registration required. Register here


Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture Series: Vampires, Zombies and Body Snatchers
Thursday, October 10, 2019 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) 8801 Gosling Road

Join this FREE lecture series led by Megan McNairn from The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department. Megan will dive into the creepy crawly world of bugs where monsters come to life and ghoulish creatures go bump in the night.  

Free lecture. Registration required. Register here.


Pollinator Gardening
Saturday, October 26, 2019 from 9 a.m. to noon
The Woodlands Emergency Training Center (16135 IH-45 South)

Lauren Simpson, area pollinator gardening expert, will share her experience of creating her own suburban pollinator garden. Lauren will offer practical gardening tips, pollinator information and simple home garden design strategies. Pollinator gardening resources and research-based gardening information will be available. Montgomery County Master Gardeners will answer your gardening questions.

Class is free. Registration required. To register, visit www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment


Backyard Composting Class
Saturday, November 2, 2019 from 10 to 11 a.m.
8203 Millennium Forest Drive

Learn how simple and easy it is to turn kitchen waste, yard trimmings and leaves into rich, handmade compost. Try out the variety of composting tools and equipment. Find out how compost benefits plants, gardens and lawns.
Our outdoor composting class is taught by certified, experienced Montgomery County Master Gardeners. Composting resources, problem-solving, trouble-shooting and tips are provided at each class. High-quality collapsible compost bins are available for purchase at a reduced price.

Free class. No registration required.


Drip Irrigation and Rainwater Harvesting Workshop
Saturday, November 2, 2019 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The Woodlands Emergency Training Center (16135 IH-45 South)

Save water, time and money.  Hands-on training teaches you everything you need to know to set up a rainwater harvesting barrel in your yard and to convert automated sprinkler systems to water-efficient drip systems. Additional rainwater harvesting options, such as rain gardens, will be discussed.  Sign up for this water-saving workshop today!

Free workshop. Registration required. Register here.


3R Bazaar at The Woodlands Farmers Market
Saturday, November 9, 2019 from 8 a.m. to noon
The Woodlands Farmers Market at Grogan’s Mill (7 Switchbud Place)

Celebrate America Recycles Day and explore the 3R Bazaar at The Woodlands Farmer’s Market at Grogan’s Mill Explore the 3R Bazaar and discover opportunities to reduce, reuse and recycle.  Shop from local artists featuring repurposed materials or create your own upcycled masterpiece.  Enjoy live music, kids’ activities and bring the following items to be recycled:

  • Batteries: Alkaline, AA, AAA, C, D, and 9V
  • Textiles: Overly worn clothing, shoes, linens and other unusable textiles
  • Oral care products: Toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes and floss containers
  • Eyeglasses: Plastic and metal frames and cases
  • Document Shredding: $5 or 5 canned food donations to benefit Interfaith of The Woodlands Food Pantry

Free event. No registration required.


Walk in the Woods Nature Lectures Series: An Introduction to Birds of The Woodlands
Thursday, November 14, 2019 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) 8801 Gosling Road

Join this FREE lectures series led by Alisa Kline from Buffalo Bayou Park. Explore the vital role that birds play in our community’s ecosystem. Alisa offers tools and techniques for observing birds and behaviors and the benefits of documenting observations through iNaturalist.

Free lecture. Registration required. Register here.


Backyard Composting Class
Saturday, December 7, 2019 from 10 to 11 a.m.
8203 Millennium Forest Drive

Learn how simple and easy it is to turn kitchen waste, yard trimmings and leaves into rich, handmade compost. Try out the variety of composting tools and equipment. Find out how compost benefits plants, gardens and lawns.
Our outdoor composting class is taught by certified, experienced Montgomery County Master Gardeners. Composting resources, problem-solving, trouble-shooting and tips are provided at each class. High-quality collapsible compost bins are available for purchase at a reduced price.

Free class.  No registration required.


For more information on these events, visit www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment or call 281-210-3800.