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

Plant for pollinators this spring!

At first glance, a pollinator garden may look like any other pretty flower garden. But for a garden to be a haven for native bees, butterflies, and moths, it needs to meet their needs for all life stages. And the most important ingredient are plants rich in nectar and pollen to feed adult pollinators and host plants specific to butterfly species. Here are simple guidelines for creating a pollinator garden that will reward you with three seasons of garden visitors and help protect these vulnerable insects.

Choose a sunny spot.

Most blooming plants require sun. Four hours of sun is ideal, but a minimum of two to three hours will work too. Some great nectar and pollen plants thrive in part shade (two hours of sun with dappled shade the rest of the day).

Plant natives.

Native plants support more than 29 times the number of insect species than non-native plants. Aim for at least 70% of native plants in your garden. (Print the PDF for recommended plant list.)

Plant host plants.

Host plants are where the female butterfly will lay her eggs and her young caterpillars will feed. Some butterfly species—like the monarch and some swallowtails—only have one host plant. It is vital, therefore, to include some of these plants to support these species. Most of our host plants are native, but some are non-natives well adapted to our area. By including these host plants, you’ll welcome more diversity into your garden. (Print the PDF at the bottom for recommended plant list.)

Plant variety.

Adult bees and butterflies like some variety in their diet, just like us. By including different varieties of plants, your garden will attract a diverse assortment of pollinators.

Plant for three seasons.

Pollinators that overwinter in our area start emerging as the weather warms, and that could be late February to early March. As the weather turns cool, bees and butterflies go into hiding. As a general rule, they can’t fly when temperatures fall to 55 degrees. Bumblebees and some solitary bees will hibernate underground; other solitary bees will hibernate in nests they create in rock crevices and dead wood tunnels . Honey bees don’t hibernate, but buzz all winter keeping the hive warm—only the queen hibernates.  The monarch butterfly is the only migrating butterfly in North America and usually leaves its overwintering site in central Mexico in March, returning in November. You can track their migration each season at journeynorth.org.

With pollinators active and needing food spring through fall, it’s important that your garden provide blooms each season. (Print the PDF at the bottom for recommended plant list.)

Plant in dense color blocks.

Avoid planting different plant varieties singly. Go bold! Group a minimum of five to seven of the same plant to create large swaths of color in your garden. This helps pollinators find them. A dense planting has another advantage. When host plants especially, are planted densely, the young caterpillars have a better chance of survival by hiding from predators.

Include a puddle.

If there’s a low area that holds water after a rain in or near your pollinator garden, leave it! These “puddling” areas are great for providing certain butterfly species (like male common buckeyes) with necessary minerals and nutrients. You can create your own puddle by filling a shallow pan or plate with soil, some rocks, and pieces of a kitchen sponge and keeping it wet.

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A simple butterfly “puddler” is easy to add to a garden.

Provide shelter.

Shelter can take various forms, from a nearby fence or trellis, dense shrubbery, or a man-made bee house for solitary bees. It can also be as simple as leaving a pile of fallen leaves and pine needles in a nearby spot. Shelter provides safe places for caterpillars to pupate, and for overwintering pollinators.

Use no pesticides.

In your garden or near it. Period.

 Print a PDF of these tips and recommended plants.

Register your garden!

Register your pollinator garden with The Woodlands Township as part of the Plant for Pollinators program and receive a window cling for recognition and appreciation.

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Learn more about registering your pollinator garden.

Important note about tropical milkweed

If you already have tropical milkweed in your garden, be sure to cut it to four to six inches of the ground every October to prevent the spread of OE and interference with normal migratory behavior. Consider planting native varieties of milkweed. Learn more about OE and tropical milkweed, and native milkweed species for our area in our recent blog post.

Fascinating snakes

Herpetophobia is the morbid fear of snakes. While they may provoke phobia in some, snakes are amazing animals with some pretty striking (please pardon the pun) attributes. Check out the list of some of them below. And for a closer look at the more common snake species in our area (yes, live specimens will be there for the viewing), attend the next week’s Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture.

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Nathan Wells will present, Snakes of The Woodlands
Thursday, November 8th, 6:00 to 7:30 p.m.
Recreation Center at Rob Fleming Park
Registration is required.

Where you’ll find them…

Snakes can live in almost any environment, ranging from jungles and deserts to lakes and mountains. They live everywhere on Earth except Ireland, Iceland, New Zealand, and the North and South Poles.

There is an island in Brazil known as the Snake Island that arguably has the highest occurrence of snakes in the world. It’s estimated that there is one snake every 11 square feet.

The most common snake in North America is the garter snake.

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Garter snake

They come in all sizes…

The smallest snake is the thread snake that lives on the island of Barbados. It is about 4 inches long and “thin as spaghetti.” The longest snake is the reticulated python which can reach over 33 feet long. And the heaviest snake in the world is the anaconda, weighing over 595 pounds.

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Green tree python

Eating habits…

All snakes are strictly carnivorous. Depending on their size, however, their prey differs considerably. The smallest snakes feed on insects, snails, and mice while the largest snakes kill and eat anything from an antelope, pig and even a jaguar.

Most snakes need to eat only six to 30 meals a year to stay healthy.

To keep from choking on large prey, a snake will push the end of its trachea, or windpipe, out of its mouth, similar to the way a snorkel works.

Snakes don’t lap up water like mammals do. Instead, they dunk their snouts underwater and use their throats to pump in water.

Some snakes have over 200 teeth. The teeth aren’t used to chew—they point backwards to prevent prey from escaping the snake’s throat. And only venomous snakes have fangs.

Snake biology…

Most species of snakes lay eggs, and some species are ovoviviparous (they retain the eggs within their bodies until they are ready to hatch), but it was recently found out, that several species (such as the boa constrictor and the green anaconda) are fully viviparous (giving live births).

Snakes are completely covered with scales—even their eyes. Instead of eyelids, they have a brille, which is a transparent, disc-shaped, immobile scale that covers the eye for protection.

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Scales completely cover a snake, including its eyes

While snakes don’t have external ears, or eardrums, their skin, muscles and bones carry sound vibrations to the inner ears.

To accommodate their narrow bodies, snakes’ paired organs (such as kidneys) appear one in front of the other, instead of side by side.

Pit vipers, pythons, and some boas have infrared-sensitive receptors in deep grooves on the snout, which allows them to “see” the radiated heat of warm-blooded prey.

Snakes have one of the highest occurrences of polycephaly—a rare condition of having more than one head. There have been many cases of two-headed snakes. The heads might fight each other for food.

Species with super-powers…

The brahminy blind snake is the only snake species made up of solely females. It’s also the most widespread terrestrial snake in the world.

The death adder has the fastest strike of any snake in the world. It can attack, inject venom, and return to striking position in under 0.15 seconds.

There is a genus commonly known as the flying (or gliding) snakes. Native to Southeast Asia, these snakes are capable of gliding over distances as great as 330 feet through the air. Watch the video below to see how they do it.

The muscles that cause a rattlesnake´s rattle to shake are some of the fastest known, firing 50 times per second on average, sustained for up to 3 hours.

The black mamba is the world’s fastest snake. It’s found in East Africa and can reach speed up to 12 miles per hour.

Backyard birds

Whether you have a home with a backyard or an apartment with a balcony, the fun of birding can be enjoyed by all. There are over 800 bird species in North America, and as many as 500 can be found in Texas alone. This rich diversity of birdlife is a testament to Texas’s diversity of habitat.

The state’s biodiversity is easily grasped when the high number of ecoregions in Texas—ten to be exact—are taken into account.

An ecoregion denotes a geographic area of similarity in its mosaic of flora, fauna, and ecosystems.

Gould ecorregions of texas

 

Texas’s geographic location is a crossroads where eastern habitats meet western ones and southern subtropical habitats meet northern temperate ones. Adding to the state’s super-birding aspects is the fact that it’s situated smack dab in the central flyway. During the spring and fall migrations, birders are apt to see species that aren’t generally seen otherwise. The Woodlands is situated in the Piney Woods ecoregion.

Attract birds to your landscape

By providing the essentials:

  • feeders and native food-producing plants,
  • water, and
  • shrubs, trees and birdhouses for nesting and shelter

in home landscapes, backyards can be transformed into bird wonderlands.

What’s growing in a backyard is key, and there are many native plants you can add to your property to attract birds and other wildlife. Here’s a short-list of some excellent ones for the Piney Woods. And remember—the best habitats address all four layers of your landscape—canopy, understory, high ground, and ground.

Plants for Birds Chart

Birds of the Piney Woods

Here’s a look at some common and less-common birds that visit The Woodlands backyards—either year-round or seasonally during migration. See how many visit your backyard feeder this season.

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Especially for birders…

For aspiring and dedicated citizen scientists of all ages, take part in this year’s Project FeederWatch, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University. The project kicks off in November. FeederWatch data help scientists track broad-scale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

Another great resource for birders is also brought to you by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird, where bird enthusiasts can connect to and contribute to the world of birding.

 

 

The way of the future: sustainable landscapes

Community resilience. Sustainable landscapes. These terms are becoming more commonplace and heard more often. Why? Because our collective and growing knowledge and experience tells us that global climate change is the impetus for increased catastrophic weather events.

What do these terms mean, exactly?

Taken one at a time, community resilience is the ability to anticipate risk, limit impact, and bounce back rapidly through survival, adaptability, evolution, and growth in the face of turbulent change, as defined by the Community and Regional Resilience Institute.

Turbulent change can include severe threats such as sea level rise, hurricanes, wildfires, drought, economic down-turns, social unrest, and other disruptions.

Environmental threats make up just one component—though significant—to the whole of turbulence that impacts resiliency, and designing landscapes that are sustainable is one way to help manage them.

The American Society of Landscape Architects defines sustainable landscapes best: “Sustainable landscapes are responsive to the environment, re-generative, and can actively contribute to the development of healthy communities. Sustainable landscapes sequester carbon, clean the air and water, increase energy efficiency, restore habitats, and create value through significant economic, social and, environmental benefits.”

It’s worth noting too, that a sustainable landscape is designed to be both attractive and to require minimal resources in terms of cost and ongoing maintenance.

Attend The Woodlands Township’s upcoming event:

Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture Series 

Thursday, October 11
6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
at HARC, 8801 Gosling Rd, The Woodlands
Lisa Gonzalez, President and CEO of HARC, will present:

Working with Nature to Build Resilient Communities

Registration is required.

A sustainable landscape can include:

  • Reduction of stormwater run-off through the use of bio-swales, rain gardens and green roofs and walls
  • Reduction of water use in landscapes through design of water-wise garden techniques (sometimes known as xeriscaping)
  • Bio-filtering of wastes through constructed wetlands
  • Landscape irrigation using water from showers and sinks (known as gray water)
  • Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques for pest control
  • Creating and enhancing wildlife habitat in urban environments
  • Energy-efficient landscape design in the form of proper placement and selection of shade trees and creation of wind breaks
  • Permeable paving materials to reduce stormwater run-off and allow rain water to infiltrate into the ground and replenish groundwater rather than run into surface water
  • Use of sustainably harvested wood, composite wood products for decking and other landscape projects, as well as use of plastic lumber
  • Recycling of products, such as glass, rubber from tires and other materials to create landscape products such as paving stones, mulch and other materials
  • Soil management techniques, including composting kitchen and yard wastes, to maintain and enhance healthy soil that supports a diversity of soil life
  • Integration and adoption of renewable energy, including solar-powered landscape lighting

That’s a lot. Let’s take a closer look at just two aspects of a sustainable landscape.

FIRST: Enhancing wildlife habitat.  Habitat loss, and the corresponding loss of biodiversity, can be curbed when we connect properties into networks of attractive, wildlife-friendly neighborhoods, cities, and regions. Starting with the home landscape, fragmented habitats can be rewoven together, creating spaces that are not only healthier for wildlife but also for people.

Watch this informative, short (4-minute) video produced by American Society of Landscape Architects, Designing Neighborhoods for People and Wildlife.

 

 

SECOND: Reduction of stormwater run-off.  In many communities, rain water flows into combined stormwater and sewer systems, which channel both sewage and rainwater together through underground pipes to central treatment facilities. Storms can quickly overrun these combined systems, leading to flooding with pollutant-laden water and even backed up sewage.

Watch this informative, short (4-minute) video produced by American Society of Landscape Architects, Leveraging the Landscape to Manage Water.

 

When these approaches are viewed with a wide scope and on a large scale, the potential impacts of sustainable landscaping are pretty powerful. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that change often starts on a small scale. And there might be no better place to start than in your own back yard.

For further reading, that’s as fun to read as it is informative, get Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Doug Tallamy, Timber Press, 2009.

Walk in the Woods fall series takes off

Join the fun on September 13th for the fall’s first lecture and get a close-up look at some fascinating birds. The folks at Wildlife Revealed will present Birds of Prey and thrill the audience with a flight demonstration featuring vultures, hawks, falcons and owls. Enjoy an evening outdoors at the Amphitheater at the Recreation Center at Rob Fleming Park and get ready to be amazed.

Birds of Prey

Bottom row, left to right: American Kestrel; Red-shouldered Hawk; Black Vulture; Eastern Screech Owl.

Birds of prey, also known as raptors, include several species of bird that are carnivorous. They embody the seemingly opposing qualities of both grace and power—their very name comes from the Latin word rapere, meaning to seize or take by force. While many birds are carnivorous, the raptors are set apart by their:

  • Keen eyesight
  • Powerful, curved talons
  • Hooked beaks

Yet all raptors are not created equal. Each type of raptor has its very own unique features:

Vultures.  They almost always have featherless heads, which help reduce infection when feeding on carrion, their usual diet.

Hawks. There’s a reason they are the root of the saying, “Watch like a hawk.” Their vision is eight times greater than our own.

Eagles. These guys are BIG with a wingspan ranging from six to eight feet.  And their nests are no small matter either. They can measure up to six feet wide and weigh 100 pounds.

Falcons. Falcons are easy to differentiate from other hawks by the distinct stripes below their eyes. They are the most acrobatic of the raptors and can fly at incredible speeds.

The Peregrine Falcon is the world’s fastest bird, flying a whopping 240 miles an hour.

Kites. They appear falcon-like, but have distinctive tails that, like their wings, are long and pointed.

Owls. These nocturnal predators have eyes that are fixed in their sockets—in order to take in their surroundings they have to turn their heads. And most can up to 270 degrees.

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Make this a great night out and join the fun.

Walk in the Woods, Birds of Prey

September 13, 2018
6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Recreation Center Amphitheater at Rob Fleming Park

This event is free.
Registration is required.

Rob Fleming Amphitheater

To learn more about Houston-area birds including raptors, download Houston Audubon Society’s Common Birds of Houston guide.

Learn more about owls at Houston Audubon Society’s Owl Prowls.

To see the full fall line-up for Walk in the Woods lecture series, view and print the event flyer. To register for this event, click the Register Here link on the event details page of The Woodlands Township website.

Plant for Pollinators and Water Savings at Free Workshop this Sat!

 

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Plant with a Purpose!

Join us for this free workshop and learn how to create habitat in your landscape while saving water at the same time.

We’ll delve into:

  • Importance of keeping invasive species at bay – 8:15 a.m.
  • Wonders of pollinators and how to attract them – 9:45 a.m.
  • Many benefits of native plants including water conservation – 10:45 a.m.
  • Best methods for seed collecting and propagation of the plants you love – 12:45 a.m.

Attend one or more FREE sessions – click here to save your spot.

Experts from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Texas Master Naturalists will lead each session.

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DETAILS:

  • Saturday, June 23 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
    • Join us for all or part of the program
    • Lunch provided
  • HARC Building, 8801 Gosling Rd, The Woodlands
  • Free but registration is required – click here to save your spot 

 

Thank you to our sponsors:

Houston Advanced Research Center, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Texas Master Naturalists, Woodlands Joint Powers Agency

 

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Nature Exploration Walks are good for you!

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Getting outside is a good thing. Learning about local nature is great! This fall, the Environmental Services Department is offering a new series of Nature Exploration Walks at The Recreation Center at Rob Fleming Park. Residents are invited to come out for a leisurely walk along the nearby trails with a trained naturalist to learn more about the most common wildlife in our area.

Did you know?  “There is a rapidly growing body of studies which show that people are healthier when they spend time in nature. Connecting with the natural world – whether it is in your backyard, out on the lake, or exploring a forest – has been shown to improve a wide range of mental and physical conditions. Conditions such as dementia, asthma, depression, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, diabetes, and many others respond to time in nature. Physicians are rapidly learning about the benefits and have begun prescribing nature to their patients as a component of treatment and wellness.”  Daniel Porter, Medical Director, Lone Star Family Health Center.

Join in for the health of it!  Bring the family and discover what nature has to offer! The walks are FREE, but registration is required.  Click on the links to learn more and register today!

  1. September 16, from 9 to 11 a.m.: Who Lives in the Woods?
  2. October 14, from 9 to 11 a.m.: Wings and Things: Tree Dwellers
  3. November 4, from 6 to 8 p.m.: Wet-footed Friends: Frogs and Toads 

Discover nature at your backdoor with a full schedule of lectures and outdoor experiences, please visit Gardening and Nature Classes and Events offered by the Environmental Services Department.

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