Exploration Green Plant & Species Guide

Explore this page to learn about the plants and animals found in the Exploration Green area and those that are native to Texas. Be sure to visit at different times of the year to see animals, insects, and plants that vary in population or appearance during the different seasons.

The information and images are derived from local naturalists as well as several organizations, particularly the National Audubon Society, Wildflower.org, Texas Parks & Wildlife, Texas A&M Forest Service, and Britannica. When possible, citations and links to specific external pages are made for further educational opportunities.

Looking for some fun while you visit Exploration Green?  Challenge yourself to the Scavenger Hunt for Exploration Green Phase 1!

 

Click a link below to explore:

Trees and Shrubs

Wetlands and Plants

Grasses and Forbs

Insects

Animals

Birds

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The contents of this page were created by Ms. Amanda Morse as part of a Girl Scout Gold Award Project

Trees and Shrubs

Trees

Many trees around Exploration Green were generously provided by Trees For Houston.

 
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Oaks

There are up to 7 species of Oak; Blackjack Oak, Live Oak, Southern Red Oak (also called Shumard’s Oak), Bur Oak, Swamp Chestnut Oak, Water Oak, and Willow Oak. Each type of oak tree has its own characteristics, such as how bur oaks have large acorns. Below are photos of a large Live Oak tree and leaves of a Southern Red Oak tree. More info: National Audubon Society

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Maple

Maple trees are widely known for their classic bright red leaves that mark the season of fall. When it is full grown, the red maple has a spread of about 40 feet. These trees provide homes and resources for wildlife such as birds, moth, and deer. More info: National Audubon Society

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Bald Cypress

Bald cypress trees have needle-like leaves that grow individually from each twig. This means that in the fall, the bald cypress will lose all of its leaves. Typically, a bald cypress can grow up to a height of 120 feet. When identifying a bald cypress, look for the “knees” it has because of its submerged roots! Check out the picture of a bald cypress below. A cypress variation called the Montezuma cypress has no “knees.” These trees are easy to spot due to their abnormally large circumference. Did you know that Montezuma cypress trees are called the pride of Mexico City? More info: Texas A&M Forest Service

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Pine

The short-leaf pine has needle-like leaves that appear in bundles of two or three per twig. When fully grown, pines can be 50-100 feet tall. Pine trees are often marked by their pinecones that work to encase and protect the seeds so that new trees can grow in the future. More info: National Audubon Society

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American Elm

The American elm, one of the several species of elm trees, serves as a host for numerous butterflies and birds. Most of the population of American elms were wiped out by the Dutch elm disease in the 1930s. Cedar elms, another species of elm trees, can grow to be 90 feet tall, with its fruit budding from small-winged seeds. Cedar elms were not as impacted by the Dutch elm disease, as they were partially resistant.  Leaves of the American elm are shown below. More info: National Audubon Society

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American Sycamore

The American sycamore tree can grow up to 70-100 feet. These trees provide a safe shelter for many species of birds to live in, as they are resistant to deer who may be foraging nearby. More info: National Audubon Society

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Sweet Gum

Sweet gums are native trees of North America and Asia. In moist lowlands, sweet gum trees can reach heights up to 105 feet. Throughout the past, sweet gums have been used in several medical applications, including the treatment of coughs and ulcers, and the development of Tamiflu. The sweet gum flower is a distinctive ball. More info: Yale Nature Walk

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Cottonwood

The cottonwood is named for its cotton-like seeds. These trees are adaptable to many climates, and can be found cottonwoods in the eastern, southern, and southwestern United States. Did you know that “alamo” means Poplar in Spanish, which is another name for the cottonwood?  More info: Arbor Day Picture from: National Park Service

Shrubs

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American Beautyberry

The American beautyberry shrub grows to about 3 to 5 feet. Its most distinctive feature is the small pink and purple flowers that provide a good source of food for surrounding wildlife. The flowers of American beautyberry plants bloom both in the summer and the fall. More info: National Audubon Society

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Senna

Senna shrubs have yellow flowers with five petals each. Although they are native to the tropics, in the United States these shrubs can grow up to 4 feet tall. Senna shrubs have many applications, such as in medicine or the preparation of leather. More info: Britannica

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Yaupon Holly

The yaupon holly is an evergreen shrub that typically grows 25-45 feet in height. The shrub attracts several birds during the late winter due to its bright berries. Due to its dense growth of leaves, these birds find excellent shelter in the yapon holly. More info: Audubon

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Turkscap

The turkscap is a shrub with an overall green appearance and a woody base. This shrub has heart-shaped leaves that are relatively large, reaching lengths up to 5 inches. The turkscap attracts many pollinators and hummingbirds. More info: Wildflower

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Buttonbush

Buttonbush plants reach heights of about 6-12 feet tall. This shrub has a curvy trunk and branches. The name “buttonbush” comes from the plants’ flowers, that are spherical in shape and resemble buttons. More info: National Audubon Society

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Baptisia

Baptisia plants have purple, white, or yellow flowers, depending on the specific species of baptisia. These shrubs are native to eastern and midwestern United States. The name baptisia originates from the Greek word, bapto, which means to dye because the flowers are commonly used to produce indigo dye. More info: Clemson

Wetlands and Plants
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Rushes

Rushes are flowering plants that have hollow, cylindrical stalks and stem-like leaves. Common rushes, such as those in the Juncus genus, are often used for weaving chair bottoms, mats, and baskets.

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Sedges

Sedges are grass-like plants with triangular stems and flowers. They typically grow in wet grounds in temperate to cold regions. One common sedge, the Scirpus cyperinus (also called Woolgrass), has flat grass-like leaves and clumps of brown flowers. Other Scirpus sedges inhabit wet and damp locations as the genus can survive most floods. More info: Wildflower

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Iris

Iris plants have sword-like leaves with flowers of all colors that bloom in the spring. Because irises can survive through weeds and other grasses and plants, they are able to inhabit most of the Northern hemisphere. There are numerous species of Irises, and each have a bright flower, resembling the rainbow. Did you know that the Iris got its name because it means rainbow in Greek? More info: Clemson

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Water Lilies

There are several kinds of water lilies, including yellow lilies, white lilies, spatterdock lilies, spider lilies, swamp lilies, and many more. Water lilies are native to the temperate tropical parts of the world and provide food and shelter for wildlife. If too many water lilies occupy an area, they can cause a drainage problem as water lilies have long roots that attach to the soil. More info: Britannica

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Pickeral Weed

The pickerel weed plant is around three feet tall with heart-shaped leaves. This plant only produces one spike of 6-inch-long small blue flowers. The stalk of pickerel weeds can be cooked and eaten as greens and the seeds can be eaten as nuts. More info: Wildflower

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Sagittaria

Sagittaria grows above the water level to a height of three feet with while petals for flowers. Saggitaria, more commonly known as arrowhead, gets its name from its leaves that are shaped like arrow spears. In fact, its genus name, sagitta, is Latin for “arrow.” More info: Wildflower

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Burhead

Burhead is an aquatic plant that grows in shallow ponds and swamps in North and South America. These plants are small, reaching only one foot tall, causing them to sometimes be completely submerged underwater. Burheads have round bristly fruit, giving them the name “burhead”. More info: Britannica.

 
Grasses and Forbs

The grasses at Exploration Green are limited to about 4-5 feet so that it does not look overgrown. In nature, the grasses would grow much higher.

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Big Bluestem

Big Bluestem is a grass found in the middle and eastern United States. Typically growing in warm, dry plains, this grass often fuels periodic burns. Big bluestem provides a range of benefits, including stability for sandy soils and food for grazing livestock. More info: USDA

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Little Bluestem

Little bluestem is a grass that appears in bunches two to three feet tall. Although it has mahogany seeds and an overall red color, the little bluestem gets its name from the base of its stems, which are blue. Little bluestem grasses have long seed heads that resemble a turkey’s foot! More info: Wildflower.

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Eastern Gamagrass

Eastern gamagrass commonly attracts birds, butterflies, and deer. The grass grows 2 to 3 feet, and at the end of each of its stems, the male and female flowers are produced separately. However, it is hard to differentiate between male and female flowers, as both are orange. Photo: Audubon

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Switchgrass

Switchgrass is one of the most common grasses in prairie regions. Throughout the year, switchgrass has reddish-purple seed heads that turn into a pale yellow in the fall. When it is not cut down, switchgrass can grow up to six feet. More info: Wildflower

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Yellow Indian Grass

Yellow Indian grass has broad blue-green blades of grass. This grass gets its name from its seed heads which start as yellow and turn a deep orange to purple during the fall. Yellow Indian grass is drought-resistive, meaning it can live in poor and well-drained soils. More info: Audubon

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Longspike Tridens

Longspike tridens is a warm-season bunch grass. As its name suggests, this grass has long seed heads that can be 4-12 inches in length while the entire grass is usually only two and five feet tall. Longspike tridens have been coined a pioneer species, meaning that it is able to tolerate harsh environmental conditions. More info: Wildflower

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Gulf Muhly

Gulf Muhly is a shorter grass, only reaching 1-3 feet when fully grown. It has purple seed heads that take on a deep pink color in the fall. The genus for gulf muhly, Muhlenbergia, is named after Henry Muhlenberg, an expert in the field of botany. Be sure to check out the gulf muhly around the parking lot on Diana Lane! More info: Wildflower

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Prairie Lovegrass

Prairie lovegrass, also called plains lovegrass, has long and narrow leaves. The base of the grass is very thick, as it supports the seed head that is half as long as the entire plant. Plains lovegrass can be found throughout Texas. More info: Wildflower

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Knotroot Bristlegass

Knotroot bristlegrass has long blade-like leaves with fuzzy seed heads. Unlike many of the other common grasses at Exploration Green, this grass does not occur in clumps. Knotroot bristlegrass is commonly found throughout South Texas and Louisiana. More info: USGS

 

Forbs

Forbs are non-wooded flowering plants. Forbs can also be considered wildflowers.  Some common forbs are highlighted below.

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Texas Coneflower

The Texas coneflower grows up to 4 feet tall that has flowers that bloom from May to November. Several butterflies and small birds eat the seeds of the flower as food. The Texas coneflower gets its name from its dropping yellow petals that are surrounding a dark cone. More info: Audubon

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Sunflower

In urban settings, sunflowers can grow to be 1-10 feet tall, but in the wild, most are 4-6 feet tall. Many sunflowers are annual, meaning they only live for one year. Throughout the day, sunflowers turn their heads towards the sun. More info: Wildflower

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Indian Plantain

Indian plantains grow to be 3-5 feet tall and are found all over the eastern united states. This forb has clusters of white flowers at the top of its stems. The plant has fanned out leaves that are a pale-white color in pale Indian plantains. More info: Wildflower

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Bushmint

Bushmint has small white flowers that are spotted with purple throughout the summer and fall. This forb is heat and cold resistant, making it adaptable to several environments. If you get close enough, bushmint will smell like mint! More info: Audubon

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Blue Salvia

Blue salvia, also known as blue sage, grows up to five feet tall and can be found throughout central America. This plant has beautiful blue flowers that attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Its name, salvia, means “healer,” referring to the plant’s medicinal applications. More info: USDA

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Missouri Ironweed

Missouri ironweed has a large number of petals on each flower and fuzzy stems and leaves. Its flowers, that are usually a magenta color, bloom from mid to late summer. Because of the hairy stems and leaves, the overall appearance of the plant looks gray. More info: Missouri Department of Conservation

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Blue Mistflower

The blue mistflower forb usually grows to slightly under three feet tall with triangular leaves. This flower’s ability to spread quickly can make it become a nuisance if uncontrolled. Blue mistflower, as the name suggests, has blue flowers that are about a fourth of an inch long. More info: Wildflower

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Gulf Penstemon

The gulf penstemon is native to southeastern and eastern Texas. Its foliage is around one foot tall, but its flower spikes can make the plant two to three feet tall. The gulf penstemon is also known as the Brazos penstemon. More info: TX Native Plants

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Liatris

Liatris, also known as cattail, grows to be 2-5 feet tall. Most of this height comes from the flower spike, which resembles a cat’s tail. However, unlike a cat’s soft tail, the liatris’ flower spike is very coarse. More info: Audubon

Insects
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Bees

As you walk around Exploration Green, be on the lookout for several bee boxes that have been built as a habitat for bees! Honeybees, leaf cutters, and mason bees are some of the most common bees for our area. Honeybees, although they are not native, are a natural species, meaning they do not take on the characteristics of an invasive species. All bees serve a multitude of purposes, including the pollination of plants and the production of honey. Did you know that no bees are native to the Americas?

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Gulf Fritillary

The Gulf Fritillary butterfly is bright orange with black spots, not to be confused with a monarch. Its host plant is the passionflower, which the butterfly uses to lay its eggs on. When the eggs turn into larvae, the passionflower plant is quickly eaten. More info: University of Florida.

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Giant Swallowtail

Living up to its name, the giant swallowtail butterfly is one of the largest swallowtails with an adult wingspan reaching up to six inches. The butterfly has black wings and yellow markings. The giant swallowtail’s host plant is citrus, although citrus is native to southeast Asia, rather than the Americas. More info: Texas A&M University

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Black Swallowtail

The black swallowtail butterfly slightly resembles the giant swallowtail butterfly with its black wings and yellow markings. However, the black swallowtail is smaller with a wingspan only reaching four to five inches. Its host plants are carrot, dill, and parsley, all from the family Apiaceae. More info: Texas A&M University

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Pipevine Swallowtail

The pipevine swallowtail butterfly’s wingspan measures two to five inches with black, gray, and blue colorings on its wings. The leaves of pipevine plants are toxic to other animals, meaning that the pipevine swallowtail butterflies who eat these plants become toxic to animals. More info: USDA

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Spicebush Swallowtail

The spicebush swallowtail butterfly resembles the pipevine swallowtail, giving it some protection against predators. However, unlike the pipevine swallowtail, the spicebush swallowtail has two rows of orange spots on its wings. Additionally, like the swallowtail birds, the spicebush swallowtail butterfly has “tails” at the tip of its wings. Its host plant is the spicebush plant, which has a lemon scent. More info: Butterfly Atlas

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Cloudless Sulphur

The cloudless sulphur butterfly has large yellow wings with a wingspan of about two to three inches. Male sulphur butterflies are usually solid yellow; however, female sulphur butterflies have brownish-black spots around the border of its wings. One of its host plants is a member of the pea family. More info: USDA

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Monarch

Monarch butterflies are one of the most well-known butterflies. Every year, the species travels 1,200-1,800 miles from the United States to Mexico. Adult monarch butterflies have red-orange wings with black lines that resemble veins, and their host plant is milkweed. Did you know that monarch butterflies only live for four to five months? More info: Texas A&M University

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Red Admiral

Red admiral butterflies are mostly black with splotches of red-orange. Although they don’t have the same pattern, because of these colors, red admiral butterflies are often mistaken for monarch butterflies with a quick glance. The red admiral butterfly use all plants that are members of the nettles family as host plants. The nettles plants are commonly found in urban areas, making red admiral butterflies a frequent sight around people. More info: USDA

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Buckeye

The buckeye butterfly is brown with orange and black “eyes.” The eyes on its wings, which are just spots of color, help to protect the butterfly against predators. The buckeye butterfly’s host plant includes plants from the snapdragon, toadflax, and plantain family. More info: Texas A&M University

 
Animals

Reptiles

 
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American Alligator

American alligators have 5 toes on their front feet and 4 webbed toes on their back feet. In the wild, these alligators range from 6-14 feet when they are fully grown. The most common time to spot an American alligator is from March to May, as it is their nesting period. From mid-October to early-March, American alligators are mostly inactive. So far, two alligators have been removed from Exploration Green. One was 4.5 feet and the other was 6.5 feet! More info: TPWD

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Red-eared Slider

Red-eared sliders are the most common aquatic turtle in Texas. The term “slider” comes from their habit of sliding off rocks and logs into water when the turtles are startled. The name “red-eared” originates from the distinctive red stripe behind the eyes of red-eared sliders. More info: TPWD Picture from: Nature Discovery

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Snapping Turtles

Snapping turtles are well known for their powerful jaws that are used as a defense or hunting mechanism. These turtles have a large head, long neck, and a sharp tail. From afar, snapping turtles can blend in with their environment as their carapace, the top of their shell, varies from black to light brown. More info: Herps of NC

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Spiny Softshell

The spiny softshell turtle has a soft and rubbery shell, like its name suggests. Spiny softshell turtles are among the largest freshwater turtles in North America and can be found throughout most of the United States. This turtle has fully webbed feet, helping it efficiently glide through water. More info: National Wildlife Federation

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Water Moccasin

Water moccasin snakes, also called cottonmouths, have triangular heads, a dark line through their eyes, and inconsistent full-body coloring and patterns. Moccasins are venomous and will go after threats or prey. But don’t be scared when you go around Exploration Green, no venomous snakes have been spotted! More info: University of Georgia

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Copperhead

Copperhead snakes have a dark body with hourglass-shaped cross bands and distinctive yellow eyes. These snakes will grow to about 24-26 inches when they are adults. Copperhead snakes have heat-sensing pits, allowing them to be classified as vipers. More info: Animal Corner

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Diamond-backed Water Snake

Diamond-backed water snakes are non-venomous but can easily be confused for a rattlesnake due to their similar gray-brown coloring. Diamond-backed water snakes will usually avoid contact with people and pets unless they feel threatened. So, if you see a diamond-backed water snake, leave it be! More info: Florida Museum

Mammals

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Eastern Fox Squirrel

The eastern fox squirrel is a large tree squirrel that is most active in the morning or late in the afternoon. In order to save food for later times, a single squirrel can bury several thousand pecans over the course of three months. Did you know that eastern fox squirrels received their name due to their close resemblance to gray foxes? More info: TPWD

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Gray Squirrel

Gray squirrels are medium-sized, with a tail that can grow to be 8-10 inches. Gray squirrels experience two molts per year, resulting in a slightly yellow coat for summer, and a silver coat for winter. Although they do not hibernate during winter, gray squirrels exhibit less activity during the winter. More info: Wild Adirondacks

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Cottontail Rabbits

Cottontail rabbits have adapted to habitats ranging from deserts to grasslands, however the often prefer brushy areas with burrowing places already established by other animals. These rabbits can raise 1-6 babies in two or more litters per year. Newborn cottontail rabbits are born hairless and blind, so you may not recognize one if you see it! More info: TPWD

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Swamp Rabbit

Swamp rabbits are larger than other cottontails, but they have smaller ears. These rabbits also have thick fur that prevents water from reaching the skin. Because they are herbivores, swamp rabbits eat a variety of grasses, sedges, shrubs, and twigs at night. More info: National Wildlife Federation

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Striped Skunk

Striped skunks have two large scent glands near the base of their tail that work to produce the famous unpleasant skunk smell, also called musk. These skunks are largely nocturnal and are more active in winter rather than in the summer heat. Lastly, striped skunks have a lifespan of about two years. More info: TPWD

Mollusks

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Apple Snail

Apple snails can become quite large, with an ability to grow up to 6 inches; however, most apple snails will only reach around 1.5 inches. The 2,000 pink eggclutches, called pomacca, produced by a snail each time it reproduces, will remain long after the eggs have hatched and will eventually fade to be a white color. The eggclutches also have an ability to travel up plant stems. Apple snails are an invasive species that were first introduced through aquarium trade, and due to their ability to produce large amounts of eggs each reproductive cycle, apple snails severely damage surrounding native plants that the snails feed on. More info: Texas Invasives

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Asian Mystery Snail

Asian mystery snails commonly grow up to 1.5 inches and have a uniform greenish-brown color on their shell. These snails are invasive, meaning that they compete with other native snails for food and habitat. Additionally, the Asian mystery snail affects humans, as they can translate parasites and clog water intake pipes. More info: Stopping Invasives

Birds

Raptors

 
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Red Shouldered Hawk

As the name suggests, red shouldered hawks have red shoulders, but also a rust-colored breast and black and white stripes on its underside. When fully grown the hawks typically have a wingspan of 36-46 inches, while females are slightly larger than males. In Texas, it is illegal to harm or kill red-shouldered hawks. More info: TPWD Photo from: Audubon

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Mississippi Kite

Mississippi kites are gray-black raptors with gray-white heads. Despite its name, the Mississippi kite is most commonly found in the Great Plains region. If you see a bird that can glide, circle, and swoop, it might be a Mississippi kite, as they are very graceful fliers! More info: Audubon

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Swallow Tailed Kite

Swallow tailed kites have a unique v-shaped tail, which help distinguish this raptor from other birds due to its graceful flight style. Although they used to be commonly found in the summer in the southeast, swallow tailed kites are now mainly found in Florida and the deep south. More info: Audubon

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Great Horned Owl

Great horned owls have a barrel-shaped body, yellow eyes, and depending on what environment the owl lives in, great horned owls can have a whitish, pale gray, or dark gray color. Being a top predator, these owls prey on rabbits, hawks, snakes, skunks, and porcupines. In order to catch these animals, great horned owls use their ability to fly up to 40 mph! More info: Audubon

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Barred Owl

Barred owls are quite large, with a rounded head and gray-brown color. They have a very low-pitch hoot and are commonly found in southern swamps. Although they are only a little smaller than great-horned owls, they are much less aggressive. More info: Audubon

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Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern screech owls are most active at dusk, while residing in holes or dense cover during the day. Although they are called the “screech owl,” their voice resembles whines and soft trills. When identifying an eastern screech owl, look for an overall gray or reddish-brown color with various spots to help the owl blend in with its habitat. More info: Audubon

Waders

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Great Egrets

Great egrets live up to their name, as their large size and bright white feathers easily distinguish them from other egrets. In the 1800s, the feathers of great egrets were used in fashion, leading to a dramatic decrease in the number of great egrets in America. After conservation efforts stopped the great egrets from being hunted, the birds made a comeback, and are now common in southern areas. More info: Audubon

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Snowy Egret

Snowy egrets are known for their bright yellow feet. Like the name “snowy” suggests, the rest of the egret is bright white. Similar to the great egrets, snowy egrets were also hunted for fashion, but are now one of the most widespread egrets. More info: Audubon

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Little Blue Heron

When little blue herons are young, they look like white snowy egrets, but then turn a dark blue when they become an adult, warranting the name “little blue.” Little blue herons ten to nest in colonies that are commonly found in the lower Mississippi valley. More info: Audubon

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Great Blue Heron

The great blue heron is the largest heron in North America. Its adaptable diet allows the species to live in various locations, even places where the water may freeze. To spot a great blue heron, look for a bird with long legs, and a blue-gray color! More info: Audubon

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Roseate Spoonbill

When finding food, roseate spoonbills will wade into shallow waters, where they swing their heads from side to side in hopes they catch something to eat. Similar to “rose” in their name, the roseate spoonbills are pink birds, and actually get their color from their diet consisting of shrimp and other crustaceans. More info: Audubon and All About Birds

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Cormorants

Cormorants have a unique ability where they are able to dive into water. This feature allows the birds to search for fish and other aquatic life to eat underwater, while using their feet or their wings to swim through the water. More info: Audubon

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Anhingas

Anhingas are able to control whether they sink or swim in water, so sometimes only the head and neck of the bird are exposed above water, thus giving anhingas the nickname, “snakebird.” When the anhinga is perched, it is easy to mistake it for a cormorant. To differentiate between the two, look at the birds fly! An anhinga will have a spread-out, long tail. More info: Audubon

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Muscovy Duck

Muscovy ducks can be found in North America year-round, but they are most populous from April to November. Many people are used to the domesticated version of the ducks; however, in the wild, Muscovy ducks are fast flyers. If you see a Muscovy duck on Exploration Green, even if they are friendly, please don’t feed them! More info: Audubon

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Black-Bellied Whistling Duck

Black-bellied whistling ducks are known for their loud personalities and pink bills. Originally found in America near the Mexican border, human interactions with the species through feeding and built habitats for the birds, called nest boxes, have encouraged the black-bellied whistling ducks to move more towards coastal Texas. More info: Audubon

Songbirds (perching/insect catchers)

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Bluebirds

Bluebirds have a very round appearance, and their bright blue head and back are their most noticeable trait. In the past, the number of bluebirds decreased significantly, but the introduction of many manmade bluebird houses has allowed the species to bounce back. If you look for the bluebird Houses throughout Exploration Green, you may be able to spot a Bluebird (especially from mid-March to mid-May, which is the time they are most commonly found)! More info: Audubon

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Chimney Swift

Once nesting in hollow trees, chimney swifts now commonly nest in chimneys of houses, or in specific towers built for the birds, called Audubon swift towers. In summer, when the birds are most populous, hundreds to thousands of swifts may nest in one specific location. Exploration Green has many swift towers! More info: Audubon

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Barn Swallow

Barn swallows are most commonly found in rural areas, as they often use manmade structures to nest, such as garages and barns. Barn swallows have a low, graceful flight, and gravitate towards fields, farms, marshes, and lakes. More info: Audubon