MIDLOTHIAN, TX — It was a dark and spooky night — well maybe not really spooky, but when you have words like dark and night, spooky slips right in, particularly when some of the animals you might hear and see are night creatures such as owls, bats and coyotes. There is a way in Midlothian to enjoy a nocturnal visit with wildlife on a beautiful fall night. Because the Texas Master Naturalist Program seeks to preserve and protect nature as well as educate the public, it has scheduled day and night hikes at Midlothian’s Mockingbird Nature Park.
Although Elaine Ruby, member of the Texas Master Naturalist Program Indian Trail group, has not yet participated in one of the night hikes, she has a good idea of what one might experience. “You’re walking along with your flashlight and being very quiet on these nature hikes at night, and you’ll see owls and other nocturnal animals that come out and hunt. When you’re walking, you’ll see stars and some flying creatures.”
Elaine is a lover of nature. Growing up in Ohio, she could appreciate the many gardens her grandmother cultivated. It was a big horticultural shock when she moved to Texas in the early ’80s. “Everything grows in Ohio,” she said. “We had cold weather, so tulips came back every year. The only thing I knew about Texas was Gila monsters, so growing things in Texas was a huge challenge,” she said.
Elaine and her husband found their perfect home with enough acreage for three ponds, ducks, chickens and hummingbird feeders. “People in town might not hear coyotes at night, but we do. We periodically see bobcats, and roadrunners regularly run across our driveway,” she said.
Elaine took a Master Gardener course in 2002 and was able to put much of what she learned into practice on their property. But wanting to learn more about the environment, she also took a course in the Master Naturalists Program. The group studies the archaeology, geology, fauna and flora
of a region for the purpose of helping to restore nature and keeping it ecologically balanced. “What is really inspiring to me about the Naturalists Program is it sustains nature,” Elaine shared. “We only use the plants that are natural to this area. For example, don’t plant your East Texas Cedar here, because most of the time, it won’t grow. Blueberries won’t grow here, because the soil is not acidic enough.”
In her classes, they studied the animals that live in the water, submergent plants and emergent plants. A submergent plant is vegetation that is completely beneath the surface of water with its root system in soil. Emergent plants typically grow in wetlands and they grow in the water, but the top of the plant is above the water. Other areas studied in the program were the ecological regions of Texas: wetland ecology, entomology (insects), ichthyology (fish) and ornithology (birds).
There are alarming signs that much of our native wildlife is already in a steady decline. “There is very little prairie left,” Elaine said. “Many animals no longer exist because of dams that breakup the natural flow of the rivers. Urbanization has occurred, so there are not as many animals as there used to be to maintain the ecosystems.” For example, per Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Texas horned lizard is listed as state threatened or endangered.
Some believe this is at least partially due to fire ants, which have depleted the horned lizard’s food supply. Although there is reason for concern, there is also reason for hope. Mockingbird Park here in Midlothian is brimming with hope and good deeds, all of which have turned the park into something the community can enjoy. According to the comprehensive planning manager for Midlothian, Ryan Spencer, “Holcim Inc. donated 62 of the 124 acres in August 2008. It is a great feeling to know that in Midlothian there is now a place for citizens to take a walk, fly a kite, go geocaching [a type of treasure hunting game using GPS] and observe native plants and animals. Despite the semirural nature of Midlothian, there was never a public place in town that was oriented toward nature before Mockingbird Nature Park.” When the city of Midlothian teamed up with the Master Naturalists in 2010, Mockingbird Park was chosen to become one of the Naturalists main projects. Since then, other groups have volunteered to help enhance the experience at the park. Aaron Gritzmaker, one of the members of the Indian Trail group, recalled one of the first improvements they made. “One of the first things we did was to start a wildflower and butterfly garden near the front entrance. The garden attracts large numbers of Monarchs, Queens, and other butterflies in the spring and fall. There may be 50 to 100 butterflies around the garden at any one time.” Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have logged many hours in the park’s development.
“The Cedar Hill Boy Scouts are building a bird blind at the quarter mile mark on the trail,” Aaron said. “When finished, we are going to install a bird bath in front of it to attract more birds. The Boy Scouts have also installed mileage markers and other signage on the trails. The local Girl Scouts built and installed bluebird houses in the park. Many of the houses now have bluebirds nesting in them. When you are out on the trails, there is a good chance you will see the little bright blue guys.”
There are many benches located throughout the park where visitors can sit, relax and enjoy nature. Other areas of interest in the park are two small bodies of water. One is a man-made lake, and the other is a seasonal creek in the wooded area. “In the past two years, the lake and creek have gone from empty to full to almost empty again, but that is the nature of our North Texas environment,” Aaron said. Mockingbird Park is a beautiful example of the message Elaine and the Master Naturalists want to convey to the public. “We want to educate as many people as we can and encourage them to restore native Texas trees, grass, animals and fish,” Elaine said. “We need to communicate to the children about why you shouldn’t litter. This is our Texas, and we want to take care of what we’ve been given. There is a balance to everything if you understand where it came from and what it takes to keep it. There are some things we can grow here and some things we can’t. We must learn to respect what God has given us.”
Written by Betty Tryon.