Texas Nature Challenge Mission: Bob Jones Nature Center

We are still participating in the Dallas area Texas Nature Challenge. However, we have been so busy with traveling and other activities that we haven't completed nearly as many missions as I had planned to. Even so, we were excited to take the challenge presented at the Bob Jones Nature Center today. It was definitely my favorite one so far!

Let me just say that there were grasshoppers EVERYWHERE! These two...um...very friendly grasshoppers greeted Nicholas as soon as we got out of the car.

Mommy: "Yes, dear. That's what they are doing. They're hugging each other. Isn't that sweet?"

At the Nature Center, Nicholas was given a backpack of supplies that he needed to complete the mission...a hand held GPS unit, the mission guide listing the GPS coordinates where each challenge along the trail was located as well as questions and activities that needed to be completed at each location, an empty journal to record his answers to the mission questions and to collect stamps for each completed mission, a map of the trails, a magnifying glass, an empty container for catching bugs, and a collection of colored pencils for writing and drawing in his journal.

We had barely gotten out all of our supplies when Nicholas found a cool turkey feather. Wow, grasshoppers and a turkey feather and we haven't even started our nature walk yet. Cool!

The first Mission took place in the butterfly garden. We reviewed how a good butterfly garden will have two types of plants - those that caterpillars like for their leaves, and those that butterflies like for their nectar. Nicholas' challenge was to identify two of each type of plant.

Well, the butterflies on the lantana made this one a little too easy.

Nicholas sat down and drew his discoveries in his nature journal.

There were also butterflies found on some marigold so Nicholas drew a picture of marigolds in his nature journal.

Nicholas then looked for plants that had bites taken out of the leaves. One such plant was rightly named a butterfly bush.

For Mission #2, Nicholas learned about wildlife observation skills - "Observe, but don't disturb". Use your 5 senses to study nature, keep a nature journal with drawings and writings about the things you discover, and use books and the internet to learn more about them. He noticed the big box on the pole. At first he thought it was a bat house but then he realized that it was close to the butterfly garden so he correctly guessed that it was a butterfly house.

Nicholas has had nature journals in the past where he drew pictures of bugs that we found but this was the first time that he actually seemed excited about filling up his journal. He was very serious about documenting his findings. It made this nature-nerd mom proud!

Hmmm, Nicholas used his wildlife observation skills to determine that some kind of small animal was recently visiting this spot. Wonder what that could be from?

Nicholas used the GPS to locate his third mission which took him to the beginning of the hiking trail. He really loved being in charge of the GPS!

Here he learned about trees found in the Cross Timbers region of our area, particularly the Post Oak. This tree is one of the most common in our area. It was not used back in the early 1900's when there were 660 sawmills in Texas because the tree grows too slowly and too crooked. However, it did become useful as fence posts once barbed wire was invented because it does not decay quickly when exposed to the elements. Of course, the acorns provide a great food source to wildlife. Notice the injury on the tree to the right? What do you think might have caused that?

Rachel enjoyed watching all the grasshoppers around her. They would jump so much that several of them landed on her stroller. She loved it. She also seemed to enjoy helping Nicholas keep us with his mission guide.

For Mission #4, Nicholas learned about bird homes. He learned how many birds have lost their homes because of trees being cut down. As a result, people have tried to recreate homes for birds by creating bird houses to put on poles or hang from fences, etc.

We have found so many cicada shells lately that we have quite a collection at home. But we left this one alone so others could discover him too.

Nicholas kept us on track with the map and GPS.

Follow me.....

Nicholas loved collecting stamps from each of the mission stations. Each station had a corresponding stamp and ink pad (such as butterfly stamp for the first mission at the butterfly garden) and the nature journal had boxes for each stamp.

Mission #5: Touch Allowed Here. We studied some horsemint and felt the stem. It's a square! I did not know this but apparently all mints have square stems. Interesting.

And did you know that if you looked at horsemint under a UV light, you would see tiny "runways" lit up that direct the bees where to land to gather nectar and pollen? Cool!

On to Mission #6: Touch Not Allowed Here. This picture really says it all.

This is Bull Nettle. The plants stings anyone who touches it and some people can have a severe reaction to it. The stinging hairs may contain formic acid, the chemical the fire ants use when they sting. When mowed, bull nettle particles can get into the air and cause asthma-like reactions when breathed. Bad stuff. Don't touch!

Mission #7 was quite fun! It involved the senses of sight, smell, touch, and TASTE. Nicholas followed the GPS coordinates which led him to the Hercules Club tree.

This is the only citrus tree that can survive our freezing winter days. The leaves smell and taste like lime, although Nicholas said they taste more like hot sauce.

The Hercules Club tree is also called the Toothache Tree because Native Americans and early white settlers used the leaves to make a poltice to numb toothaches. It has historically been used for treatment of many other ailments as well. In addition to it's medical uses, this tree is a favorite among giant swallowtail butterflies. All stages of the caterpillar like this tree.

Moving on, Nicholas caught a cool bug who just hopped right into his bug jar.

Mission #8 was another No Touch challenge...poison ivy! The plant contains an oil will cause many people to develop a bad rash. The oil can be picked up from any part of the plant, any time of the year. So most importantly, know how to identify it so you can avoid it. Nicholas already knew the saying, "Leaves of three, let it be".

There are several other plants that have leaves of three that aren't harmful but I've taught Nicholas to avoid them all, just to be safe. But one key way to distinguish poison ivy from its mimics, is that the center leaf will be on a longer stem away from the other two leaves. If you come in contact with poison ivy, quickly wash the area with warm, soapy water to reduce the irritation and be sure to wash your clothing as well because the oil can remain active for up to a year.

We stopped at some picnic tables for lunch. We completed Mission #9 here which was to use our ears to listen to the nature surrounding us while we rested. How many birds can you hear? What kind of insect is making that noise? Do you hear the wind blowing through the leaves?

While we were listening, Nicholas caught a grasshopper in his bug jar. Seriously, these guys were bouncing around everywhere!

Rachel enjoyed a special treat, Oreo cookies! I think more ended up on her hands, face and clothing than in her tummy. Messy girl!

C'mon guys! Time to find the next challenge!

Nicholas located Mission #10 at a Bois D'Arc tree. The name means "wood of the bow" because the Caddo and Osage Indians used this wood for make strong, powerful bows for hunting and fighting. Although not the original pronunciation for this name, most people simply call this a "bodark" tree.

During the Depression, hedge rows of this tree were planted across the Great Plains to keep cattle fenced in. Can you see why?

Other names for this tree include Osage Orange, Horse Apple, and Monkey Brain Tree. I think these names developed partly due to the fruit that the tree produces.

Nicholas was curious as to whether this giant fruit would float or sink. He guessed that it would float so he tested his theory in a nearby pond. He was right.

Mission complete. Time to stamp the journal.

Mission 11 was to use the GPS to locate some Smooth Sumac. This is the only shrub found in all 48 continental states of the US. Native Americans ate the sprouts as salad and the berries were chewed for their juice.

At the marker for the Smooth Sumac was tied some GPS coordinates for a hidden geocache at the end of the challenge.

Nicholas placed the final stamp in his nature journal and we were off to find the geocache.

More cicadas...

Back at the Nature Center, under a bench, Nicholas located the geocache.

Inside was a log book and lots of trinkets.

We logged about our day in the log book. Then Nicholas traded trinkets. He brought along a toy astronaut to add to the trinkets because of his recent trip to NASA and in exchange he took a smiley face bouncey ball to keep.

We spent some time cooling off in the Nature Center while looking at their awesome collection of animals and exhibits. Nicholas got to feed the turtle named Longitude.

Longitude is a type of turtle called a Cagle's Map Turtle. They get this name because of the swirling markings on their shell that resemble topographical map markings.

Rachel was fascinated with the turtles, and the frogs, and the books, and the pinecones, and the puppets. She was just a busy little bee into everything. I loved it :)

Sweet big brother helped baby sister down the stairs on the way to the car after a long hot day having fun while learning about nature.

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