After the dormant appearance of winter in North Texas, spring is an exciting and invigorating time. This is especially true in the wild and natural places, particularly here on the Heard sanctuary. The little furry creatures are more active now as they anticipate more plentiful and green meals to replace the meager fare they have subsisted on during the winter months.
The tree buds push out their leaves and flowers and the herbaceous plants begin emerging from their soil beds. Meanwhile, the insects and other invertebrates awaken from their protected crevices or crawl out of the envelope they created last fall, within which they have metamorpasized into spectacular winged creatures.
The emergence of these flying or crawling creatures exactly coincides with the return of all of our feathered companions from their winter vacations in the south, providing them sustenance on the long journey home.
Likewise, the herpetological fauna (reptiles & amphibians) are warming up from their winter retreat to consume the invertebrates (or those creatures that feed on them) and the web of life again accelerates into high gear.
The woods, swamps, and prairies are once more alive with activity as Mother Nature recommences her annual cycle. What might the visitor to this Eden expect to experience—it’s much more than just “see”—during this time of resurgence? At this time of the year, every day is different and every time of day reveals new experiences as spring evolves from the first pioneer flora and fauna, willing to risk a late freeze to take advantage of the lack of competition, to the more conservative life that regularly inhabits this area during the spring and summer months. One thing is certain: more than one visit to the Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary is necessary to observe even part of this sequential parade of wildlife or fully appreciate the big picture of what “spring” really is!
Here are a few denizens of the Heard to look for this spring:
Early Spring – Of course, early spring at the Heard is synonymous with Trout Lilies! Emerging in February or March, before almost anything else has budded out, their spotted leaves and delightful small, white, down-turned flowers are a must for all nature lovers. But, you have to catch them quickly, because within a few weeks they disappear again. Another small woodland flower, the Golden Groundsel begins displaying its bright yellow flowers at the same time, a striking contrast to the dull browns of the leaf litter. Its relative, the Prairie Groundsel, likewise brightens up the grasslands at the same time. Not long thereafter, the Spring Herald, or Elbow Bush, displays its greenish-yellow blooms. Normally they would not be considered to be very showy, but at a time before most plants have any leaves, they can be quite striking! At the same time, its cousin the Swamp Privet (not one of those nasty, invasive privets) shows off in our wetlands. Early spring is also when many of our bulb-type perennials emerge. Crow’s Poison and several Wild Onion species are commonly seen everywhere. But you’ll have to search a bit to find the beautiful Wild-Hyacinth hidden in pockets of our sanctuary! From winter into spring, the wild mustards, including the interestingly named Stinking Wallrocket, brighten open areas and waste places. In the prairies look for the exotic purple blooms of the Ground Plum. The related legumes with similar flowers, the Milk Vetch and Loco Weed, are found on the calcareous escarpments, along with the delightful green clumps of Barbara’s Buttons.
Mid-to-Late Spring – Spring in North Texas is punctuated by several flowering trees and shrubs. Redbud and the Mexican Plum are popular, well known trees. Less familiar are the Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum with its large white flower clusters, the delicate pink blooms of the Eve’s Necklace, and the very interesting dark purple spikes of the False Indigo. Out on the prairie numerous wildflowers show off their spring colors. Several Thistles and the thistle-like Basket Flower are pink, the Gaura species and the False-Gaura are white, the Wild Indigo (Baptisia), Baby Blue Eyes, and Blue Flax are blue, Spiderworts are purple and the Missouri Primrose, the Corydalis and the Narrow-leaf Gromwell (Pucoon) are yellow. The two most spectacular prairie flowers are the pale bluish to pink trumpet flowers of the Wild Foxglove and the Standing Cypress’ thin delicate stalks topped with clusters of crimson trumpets. The most unusual spring bloom would be the curious green pitcher of the Green Dragon, which is found in the wet streambeds along the Wood Duck Trail.
Early Spring – Some early spring butterflies that overwinter as adults are the Question Mark and the Goatweed. Some butterflies can only be found for a few short weeks in very early spring, including a small hairstreak called Henry’s Elfin, whose caterpillars feed on the spring blooms of the Redbud and Mexican Buckeye. The most interesting is the small white Falcate Orange Tip, named for the orange on the wingtips of the males. Some of their offspring may emerge the next spring, but some may wait for the following spring or the year after that, insuring that even if a year or two passes without many of its foodplant, the species can still survive. There are also some strikingly beautiful day-flying moths that only appear in early spring when their food plants, Grapes, Virginia Creeper, and related vines are just emerging. Both are small black moths; the Spotted Grapevine Moth has two large yellow spots on the forewings and two large white spots on the hindwings, while the Grapevine Epimenis has one large white spot on the forewings and one large red spot on the hindwings.
Mid-Late Spring - Just as spring produces bountiful flowers, numerous insects time their emergence to coincide with all of the available nectar they produce. This is of mutual benefit, as the flowers produce the nectar to attract the insects to spread their pollen. Thus, spring is literally abuzz with flowers and their pollinators. Look closely at the flowers and you will see many hairstreaks like the Red-banded Hairstreak and the unbelievable blue Great Purple Hairstreak sharing a flower with several species of Bees and species of Syrphid Flies that often mimic bees but have only two wings A common day-flying moth in the spring is the Snowberry Clearwing, which looks just like a bee as it hovers from flower to flower. Many other species of moths emerge early to mate and lay their eggs on food plants while the leaves are still young and tender. So, too, their caterpillars can begin to be found in spring, especially since many species go through several life cycles during a season. Spring is also when hordes of Boxelder Bugs can be seen congregating on the trunk of a tree or grouped together under a piece of bark or other object.
Early Spring – During the early spring, most of the migratory birds that flew to Central and South America haven’t arrived yet, but most of those that spent the winter here like Robins, Hermit Thrush, Cedar Waxwings, Orange-Crowned and Yellow-Rumped Warblers, Kinglets, Brown Creepers, Phoebes, Goldfinches, most Sparrow species, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, the Flicker, and numerous Ducks, and Shorebirds are still around. Additionally, there are the resident birds that never leave, like the Mockingbird, Bluejay, Cardinal, Red-headed, Red-bellied, and Downy Woodpeckers, Chickadees, Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Bluebirds, House Finches, Mourning and White-winged Doves, Wood Ducks, and many others.
Mid-Late Spring – Beginning in late April or early May, the migrants begin arriving. Many, if not most, of the brightly colored Warblers that live throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada travel through this area, perhaps stopping for a day or two, or, if the south wind is strong, don’t stop at all! Some we see fairly often, including the Black-Throated Green, the Common Yellowthroat, the Yellow Warbler, the dainty American Redstart, the Tennessee and Nashville Warblers, the Northern Parula and the Black-and-White Warbler. The beautiful yellow Prothonotary Warbler arrives to stay and nest in our wetlands. Other striking migrants we often see are the gorgeous Summer and Scarlet Tanager, the vivid blue Indigo Bunting and its gaudy cousin the Painted Bunting, Blue-headed Vireo, the delightfully musical Swainson’s Thrush, the striking Rose-Breasted Grosbeak and the vividly colored Orchard and Baltimore Orioles.
REPTILES & AMPHIBIANS:
The reptiles and amphibians have been inactive most of winter, but with the advent of spring many can be seen sunning themselves to raise their body temperatures since they don’t have internal heat production like us. Turtles, like the Red-Eared Slider, which can be seen on logs in our wetlands even on warm days during the winter, are now regularly visible. Likewise, the Yellow-Bellied and Diamondback Water Snakes sun on debris in the water or on land adjacent to water. Woodland reptiles, like the Texas Brown Snake or the little Ground Skink, a shiny lizard, sun themselves in the leaf litter and are more difficult to observe. Early in the spring when the water is still cold, frogs begin calling. The Bullfrog is often sunning himself conspicuously, but you may only know that the Leopard Frog is present when you hear its odd bird-like call.