During winter in North Texas, one might think that the hiking trails at the Heard Natural Science Museum &
Wildlife Sanctuary would be uneventful. Because the plants have lost their leaves or turned brown, many of our birds
have migrated south, and most insects have either died or gone into
hibernation, one might assume our woods and prairies would not have much to
offer those interested in looking for wildlife. However, life goes on, even in
the “dead” of winter. A few interesting winter sights are listed below.
The plants aren’t decked out
in their green finery, but without the leaves obstructing our view, many other
things become visible! Now is the time to really see the interesting form
of all the trees and bushes, not to mention their beautiful bark patterns and
each species’ unique bud shape and leaf scars. And, now you can see all
the vines and how each species wraps around trees, bushes, and each other.
Also, don’t forget to use all your
senses in the woods, because the aroma of all the fallen leaves decaying on the
forest floor is a pleasant gift!
If you are lucky enough to be out
right after the first freeze, look for the Frost Plant. As the fluids exude from the base of the plant, it freezes and forms very interesting shapes
and ribbons of ice!
Winter is also the time to look for the Goldenrod
Gall. These swellings in the goldenrod stems contain a small white grub – long
used by boys for fishing bait!
Perhaps the most striking winter plant
attraction is the berries. Attractive to birds, squirrels, and
other seed dispersers, berries are likewise very beautiful to us!
Possum Haw Holly
Hollies are known for their bright red berries, but our native species is
deciduous, so its berries show up much better in winter!
The “kissing” plant of Christmas-time fame is everywhere in our trees.
You can’t miss the evergreen clumps now that the leaves are gone!
Hopefully, you can find a bunch growing low enough to examine their white
berries. When squeezed, the mistletoe berries exude a sticky material that
sticks to the beaks of the birds that try to eat them, inducing the birds to
instead wipe the berries off on a branch. Then the mistletoe can send a root
into the tree, tapping into the host tree’s sap to feed itself! What a
Commonly known as “horse apples”,
these large chartreuse green fruits are really composed of multiple fruits like
other members of the mulberry family. Paleobotanists theorize that the
huge fruits evolved to be swallowed whole by the large, now-extinct, prehistoric mega-mammals
that roamed the plains millions of years ago.
These attractive clusters of
black berries are not really tasty (The new shoots are delicious!); however, I
heard once that they were once called “stretch berries” because they were added
to the gummy sap of Chittamwood to improve the texture.
striking seed-heads of red fuzzy berries compliment the crimson fall foliage,
but are even more distinct through the winter after the leaves have
Although the berries are small and almost all seed, the
thin skin is quite sweet (hence the common name “sugarberry”).
The striking white berries that
contrast nicely with the purple fall color of the leaves are mostly gone by
winter. As a general rule, berries that are white are considered
Carolina Moonseed Vine
Perhaps the most beautiful berries
found in our area are the clusters of the red, translucent fruit of the
moonseed vine. You might be tempted to plant some of these vines your
home garden, but this vine becomes a persistent weed that is hard to
The beautiful clusters of translucent yellow
berries of the soapberry tree are ideal for flower arrangements. Don’t
confuse them with the opaque yellow berries of the non-native and invasive
chinaberry tree. Although the tree gets its name from the saponins in the
berries, not many suds are produced from the juice.
This small tree with berries gets its name from the long chain of seeds that look
like a necklace of black pearls.
Most insects survive
over winter either as an egg or pupae of some kind. Winter is a good time to look for the cocoons because there are no leaves to hide them. Nonetheless, it is surprising to see how many species spend the winter as
adults. Most of these insects find a protective place to escape inclement
weather (like crevices in the bark of trees or under a fallen log). On
mild days some of these insects can be found taking advantage of the lack of
competition from other insects and the presence of fewer predators during this
part of the year. Following are notable insects to look for.
Question Mark Butterfly
On the mild, sunny days of
winter, the Question Mark can be found sunning itself on the bark of a tree or
drinking sap oozing from its upper limbs. This butterfly will catch your
attention with the bright orange-red colors of the top of its wings, then
disappear by lifting its wings up, exposing only the underside, which is
camouflaged with mottled grays and browns and jagged leaf-like edges.
The Goatweed takes the Question Mark’s trick to a whole
new level! One of the “Leafwing” butterflies, the underside of this
butterfly’s wings look exactly like a dead leaf while the upper surface is
One of many “Sulphur” butterflies, so
called because of their yellow or orange colors, the Alfalfa Butterfly has
adapted to withstand very cold temperatures. This enables it to take advantage
of the many winter blooming plants like mustards and dandelions. A white
form of this species usually only occurs in winter.
Although many of the beautiful birds found on our sanctuary, such as the
Painted and Indigo Buntings and the Scissor-tailed flycatcher, have migrated
south for the winter, others like the Bluebirds, Bluejays, Red-bellied,
Red-headed, and Downy Woodpeckers, Chickadees, and Titmice stay here all year
long. Some resident birds, like the Cardinals, Crows, and Red-tailed
Hawks, stay the winter but are joined by their Yankee cousins from the north,
thereby having greatly increased numbers here during the winter. But many
other species are only here during the winter and add greatly to our drab
landscapes with their vivid colors and cheerful song. Although this is
not a complete list by any means, some of our more interesting winter residents
to look for are below.
Woodpeckers and Creepers
large woodpecker with its yellow breast and black moustache can’t be missed
when it flies away because it flashes a large white rump patch.
A very interesting woodpecker, identified by the white
longitudinal bars on its wings, the Sapsucker gets its name from the row of
evenly spaced holes it drills on the trunks of trees. Although the holes
are unsightly, they do provide nourishment for late-migrating hummingbirds and
You will have to look hard
to see this tiny brown bird creeping up the trunks of trees.
A true sound of winter is the whistle of a flock of these
gregarious berry-eating birds. One of our most striking winter birds,
their yellow breast, black mask, and topknot can’t be mistaken for anything
This small bird can be found in the woods
shuffling through the leaves for worms or berries. Shaped like a small
robin, its relative, it is brown above with a white breast covered with
spots. This thrush’s tail is a reddish brown.
Many North Texans are very familiar with this dark gray bird with the red breast and white chin.
Don’t look for the bird you may have seen in pictures. The solid yellow
bird with black wings changes to a much more drab greenish gray bird with
darker wings with white wing bars for the winter. They usually fly in
groups and can be found feeding on the seeds of thistles and other prairie
plants. Luckily, we often have them feeding at our feeder
Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets
These very small birds
are probably the smallest birds that you will see in winter. Always on
the move, they can usually be identified more quickly by their constant
flitting than their colorful crowns that often don’t show! Look for them in the
trees and high bushes.
The Carolina Wren, with its white eye
stripe, is here all year, but it is joined by the short tailed Winter Wren and
House Wren during the winter.
The Winter Wren is a small, darkly colored bird characterized by a thin, pointed bill.
These energetic singers can be found hopping through tangles and low branches.
Both the Spotted and Eastern
Towhees can be found here, easily recognized by their dark hood and back
contrasted with the orange sides and white belly.
our resident hawks all year: Red-tailed, Red-shouldered (banded tail, and cries like it’s in pain), sometimes Swainson’s (Dark Bib), and the
Cooper’s, a grey hawk with a long banded tail that darts through
the woods. The Cooper’s smaller duplicate, the Sharp-shinned
Hawk is usually only here in the winter.
A sleek hawk with
long wings and tail, the Harrier is a hawk of prairies and marshes, flying low
over the fields in search of rodents and rabbits. Although the Heard’s
prairies are too small to provide a home all winter, we often have them
checking us out. Look for their conspicuous white rump patch.
Walking along the shores of our wetlands you
might spy this bird with yellow legs and a long thin bill bobbing his tail
Likewise, this bird is found in the
same area but is a smaller bird with a shorter bill. The sandpiper’s
spotted breast disappears during the winter but reappears late winter into
Sparrows & Juncos
Although most people think sparrows are common,
they may be thinking of the ubiquitous English or House Sparrow that is not a true
“sparrow.” The only sparrow that breeds on our sanctuary (and stays for
the winter) is the Lark Sparrow. It is easily recognized by the striking facial
pattern, the dark dot on its breast, and the outer white tail feathers you see
when it flies. All of the rest of the sparrows that you might spot at the Heard are only here for the winter:
Reddish crown with pink legs and feet, buffy
Bright reddish crown, distinctive white
eyeline, unmarked breastFox Sparrow Large reddish sparrow, breast
with large reddish spots.
Mottled sparrow with
yellowish eyeline, speckled breast
with fine streaks, belly clear white, grey eyebrow.
Fairly large with strong moustache, breast streaks converge to a dot.
Black chin and forehead with a pink bill.
Most common ground sparrow, white throat, white crown and
eyebrow, yellow between eye and bill, beautiful call.
Similar to the White–throated Sparrow, this bird has a broad white crown and pink
Ground feeder, solid gray head and back, white
belly, white outer tail feathers seen when in flight.
Other than the
strikingly beautiful Wood Duck, the less common Hooded Merganser (fancy black
and white “hair-do”), and possibly the green-headed Mallard, any other duck you
see is only here during the winter. Some ducks commonly seen on our
sanctuary only during the winter are below.
Green-headed like a Mallard, but they have huge bill and red side patches.
Small ducks, chestnut brown head with green ear
Small with blue-gray head, large white
crescent on face.