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!

Frost  Plant

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! 

Goldenrod Gall

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 beautiful parasite. 

Bois d’arc

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.


The striking seed-heads of red fuzzy berries compliment the crimson fall foliage, but are even more distinct through the winter after the leaves have dropped. 


Although the berries are small and almost all seed, the thin skin is quite sweet (hence the common name “sugarberry”).

Rough-leaf Dogwood

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 poisonous.

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 eradicate!


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.

Eve’s Necklace

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.

Goatweed Butterfly

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 solid red!

Alfalfa Butterfly

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


This 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.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  

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 overwintering butterflies!

Brown Creeper

You will have to look hard to see this tiny brown bird creeping up the trunks of trees.


Cedar Waxwings  

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 else.

Hermit Thrush

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.

American Robin

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 too!

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.


Carolina Wren

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.

Winter Wren

The Winter Wren is a small, darkly colored bird characterized by a thin, pointed bill.

House Wren

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.


Look for 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.


Greater Yellowlegs  

Walking along the shores of our wetlands you might spy this bird with yellow legs and a long thin bill bobbing his tail frequently.

Spotted Sandpiper

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 spring.

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:

Field Sparrow

Reddish crown with pink legs and feet, buffy breast.

Chipping Sparrow

Bright reddish crown, distinctive white eyeline, unmarked breastFox Sparrow   Large reddish sparrow, breast with large reddish spots.

Savannah Sparrow

Mottled sparrow with yellowish eyeline, speckled breast

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Buffy breast with fine streaks, belly clear white, grey eyebrow.

Song Sparrow

Fairly large with strong moustache, breast streaks converge to a dot.

Harris’s Sparrow

Black chin and forehead with a pink bill.

White-throated Sparrow  

Most common ground sparrow, white throat, white crown and eyebrow, yellow between eye and bill, beautiful call.

White-crowned Sparrow

Similar to the White–throated Sparrow, this bird has a broad white crown and pink bill.

Dark-eyed Junco

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.

Northern Shoveler  

Green-headed like a Mallard, but they have huge bill and red side patches.

Green-winged Teal

Small ducks, chestnut brown head with green ear patch.

Blue-winged Teal

Small with blue-gray head, large white crescent on face.