June and July are the time of year where all the littles rush off to their weeks of camp. Most every kid we know is enrolled in some sort of VBS (“vacation bible school”), mostly enticed by the free factor and community. But I have to make the extra push to get my kids to our local Fort Worth Nature Center and Preserve and their priceless day camps. It’s their only chance to spend a couple weeks of the year with other naturalist kids under the tutelage of passionate college students in a truly magical place. They get to don their toughest boots and packs, and go on their own local safaris. The program is overseen by the very personable park staff who know my kids by name. It feels like a second home and a little bit of extended family, and although it’s not nearly as large as the national parks and BLM acres I was fortunate enough to grow up surrounded by, we are so very grateful for its existence.
It is a bit of a commute each way, but well worth the escape from suburbia where the littles study ecology of biomes, meteorology, pollination, and more specific subjects for the younger kids. The camps are grouped by age for kindergarteners, 1st-2nd graders, 3rd-4th, etc. The older age groups are encouraged to come back and help teach the classes of the younger groups which I think is great mentorship.
Every time we pull into its main drive we’re giddy over the immediate abundance of flora and fauna. It is an oasis for songbirds, deer, roadrunners, frogs, the only place we have seen signs of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, painted buntings, whiptails (which I haven’t seen since my childhood days in Utah), the list goes on. Tiger swallowtails are regular visitors soaring in and out of the forest. Antelope horn milkweed cover its sunny hilltops, and poison ivy dots the woods where we have fun looking out for it and it’s thrilling element of danger. They even have their own small herd of bison which is supported and owned by the Friends of the Fort Worth Nature Center (https://naturecenterfriends.org/). We observed the mothers and their tiny calves each day at drop off.
Our most recent daily excitement was being greeting by bouncing “daddy longlegs” or more appropriately “harvestmen” under the ledge of caprock in the center’s parking lot each morning. They were grouped together en masse and adorably bounced at any sign of anything. The kids just giggled and giggled. We also encountered them under rotting logs and climbing trees along the trails.
Wizzie Brown busts common myths in her article for Texas A&M’s Agrilife Extension site, “Harvestmen, Daddy-longlegs or that weird, pulsing blob on your front porch” by pointing out that harvestmen are not spiders though they are related, and they are NOT venomous as they are commonly rumored to be. They are actually very helpful by feeding on decomposing animal and plant matter. So referring to my last post on pesticides, research your bugs before you break out the spray and start sending detrimental chemicals into our web of life. This critter reminds me a lot of the “crane fly” which my daughters used to freak out about until I gave them a thorough education. Now we know the truth, they think them quite adorable. (Read this fun article by Leslie Mertz from Entomology Today: “Mosquito Hawk? Skeeter Eater? Giant Mosquito? No, No, and No.”)
On another note, the center used to be home to a community of prairie dogs, but due to the lack of biodiversity and really, the need for a larger community to sustain them through extreme weather and disease, it perished. My oldest had the chance to see them on hikes when she was just old enough to remember them. We speak of them often and why they are not there anymore. They were hit hard by flooding several years back, and the disease they experienced in the aftermath was too much for them to bounce back. It’s interesting to think that prairie dogs might be thought of as rodents and related to pests, but they are quite dependent on the integrity of the prairie ecosystem and each other to raise their young, and they are vanishing quickly from our landscape.
Huge prairie dog towns, such as one that covered 25,000 square miles and supported a population of approximately 400 million prairie dogs, once were reported from Texas. Although prairie dogs still locally are common, today less than one percent of the prairie dog population and habitat remain.-Texas Parks & Wildlife (https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/prairie)
To keep ourselves occupied on our inevitable commutes, we checked out some fun dare I say, old Bill Nye DVDs from our library. My kids adore his style and will watch a single episode over and over, gleaning it for every detail. Even my three year old is in on the action. The one on “buoyancy” really engaged him, and tonight at bath he explained to me how he would take his an empty Tic Tac® mints container and test its buoyancy in the tub. I watched as he let it float at the surface and tested its properties with different volumes of water. And of course he couldn’t just do this with one container. It was all self-motivated, and I have to thank the producers, and although I am not a big fan of overly commercialized children’s programming, Disney® for inspiring my child this wee bit. Boo to the cancellation of the show though. That’s an entirely different topic.
They also really enjoyed this episode on biodiversity:
And back to the nature center – my oldest is looking forward to her turn to “camp out” during pollinators week in July!