Bats! Old Tunnel State Park

It’s bat time at Old Tunnel State Park!

Old TunnelIf you plan a summer visit to Texas Hill Country, be sure to reserve an evening for nature. In this case, viewing the night exodus of three million Mexican free-tailed bats from an old railway tunnel near Fredericksburg.

Mexican free-tailed bats

The bats arrive in March from their winter homes in Mexico. Two different types of colonies form: smaller male bat colonies, and larger maternity colonies like the one you’ll find at Old Tunnel. The mother bats give birth in June to a single bat pup. By August, the pups join their moms in the nighttime flight for food. It’s during August and September you’ll experience the most massive emergences.

Aerial river

The little Mexican free-tailed bat is less than five inches long and weighs about 14 grams (that’s just half an ounce). By itself, a bat is a tasty bite to its predators, hawks and owls. By emerging en masse, the bats increase their odds against the birds lying in wait outside the tunnel opening. For onlookers, we see a streaming black river flowing under the tree canopy as the little critters make their way south towards the Guadalupe River. Viewing a bat emergence is a must on any nature lover’s bucket list. My husband and I were transfixed in awe as the river of bats continued for almost ten minutes, and intrigued by the scent left in the bats’ wake. Yes, you can smell the bats! It’s like an umami scent.

Bat viewing tips

Old Tunnel has two viewing areas. You’ll have the best experience from the lower level. However, space is limited. To ensure a lower viewing spot, be sure to arrive at Old Tunnel at least half an hour before the earliest posted emergence time. The lower level is only open Thursday through Sunday.

The upper viewing area is also a wonderful option. This area is free and available seven days a week. Be sure to bring a set of binoculars if viewing from the upper level. On Thursday through Sunday, a docent talk is given at both viewing locations. The docents are exceptionally good and full of great bat trivia.

Alamo Springs Café

Why not have dinner before seeing the bats? Texas Monthly bestowed “third best burger in Texas” fame to Alamo Springs Café, located adjacent to Old Tunnel State Park. It’s a funky café that looks like a house with a few too many additions on it. We ate there on a Saturday night and were treated to tunes from a local band. The café and patios are packed at dinner time, so be patient. The service is friendly and efficient. The burgers are great, but my favorite were the onion rings….awesome!

When you go

Old Tunnel State Park is at 10619 Old San Antonio Road, Fredericksburg. Lower area viewing is $5 a person (the upper viewing is free). Bats don’t use alarm clocks, so you need to call the Old Tunnel hotline at (866) 978-2287 to get the latest emergence time. Alamo Springs Café is at 107 Alamo Road. The café is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. There are also a few outdoor tables at Old Tunnel if you want to bring your own picnic.

Be careful driving home. The area is chocked full of deer, we almost hit a buck making our way back to Fredericksburg.

Tip

Frankie the Free-tailed Bat is a cute book for older kids. It’s loaded with information about the bats. You can download a free copy courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Roses and Tigers inTyler

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This weekend, Tyler celebrates its 83rd Rose Festival with a parade, rose show, arts and crafts fair, and guided rose garden tours. If you visit Tyler, be sure to stop by the Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge and support this nonprofit that provides a home to rescued big cats.

Tyler and roses

Nicknamed the Rose Capital, Tyler’s agricultural industry shifted from growing peaches to roses in the 1920s. By World War II, Tyler grew over half of the rosebushes sold in the United States. Tyler’s market share has decreased to about 15 percent, however, roses remain a major, area industry. Each October, Tyler celebrates its rose history with the Texas Rose Festival. The Tyler Rose Museum, open year round, tells the region’s story with rose festival memorabilia, video, and a computerized catalog of 250 rose varieties.

Tyler Municipal Rose Garden

The garden is at its height during the month of October. You’ll find 500 different rose varieties with fanciful names like Cinderella’s Song, Summer Wind, and Freckles. The rose garden contains over 38,000 rose bushes. I also recommend visiting in early spring when the garden is ablaze with blooming azalea displays in pink, salmon, magenta and red.

Tiger Creek

Located just outside Tyler, Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge’s stated purpose is “to provide rescue and rehabilitation to big cats that have been abused, neglected, or displaced.” The tiger-creek-800x800refuge spans 150 acres and houses over 40 big cats from tiger to bobcat. Several of the cats were victims of the exotic pet trade of the 1990s. Some cats were relocated when other refuges closed. And many of the cats have physical problems, like Babs. A bobcat, Babs is blind, most probably due to poor nutrition when he was kept as a pet.

Each big cat has its own story. There is a tiger rescued from a man who abused her and had her fight dogs when she was a cub. The tiger, Sierra, was once owned by Michael Jackson. Then there is Tin Cup, a mountain lion. A farmer’s dog brought the cub (the size of a tin cup) to a farmhouse porch in New Mexico. Efforts to locate Tin Cup’s mother failed, so the farmer contacted Tiger Creek. Tin Cup, a handsome, playful, and photogenic cat, is my family’s favorite.

When you go

The Texas Rose Festival is October 13 through 16. Most events are free. Both the Tyler Rose Museum (420 Rose Park Drive) and the Tyler Municipal Rose Garden (624 North Broadway) are open year round.

Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge (17552 FM 14) is open most days. While more expensive, I strongly recommend the guided tour, or the combo tour. The docents are extremely knowledgeable about the cats and their stories.

Texas Dinosaurs and Mammoths

Calling all North Texas dinosaur lovers and would-be-paleontologists! While you wait for the DVD release of Jurassic World, why not check out two local dinosaur (and mammoth) venues?

Dinosaurs Live!

North Texas Ramblings - Dinosaurs Live Heard Natural Science MuseumBeware! Beasts not seen for millions of years stalk the Heard Natural History Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary in McKinney from now through mid-February. Dilophosaurus, Stegosaurus, and the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex roam the trails at the wildlife sanctuary – almost like Jurassic World. These life-sized replicas roar and move delighting young dinosaur enthusiasts.

Billings Production in McKinney makes the animatronic creatures. The Heard dinosaurs are part of over 200 Billings’ dinosaurs found at zoos and museums throughout North American. The robotic dinosaurs are uniquely adapted to operating outdoors. A hinged steel structure within the fabricated body allows dinosaur heads and limbs to move. A computer program further enhances dinosaur movements, making these monstrous creatures look and act almost real — Jurassic Park Texas style.

While the dinosaurs draw the crowds, there is much more to the Heard Natural History Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary. Once you’ve explored the dinosaur trek, take a stroll through The World Conservation exhibit to see modern day animals. Some animals are native to North America and others like the lemur are from exotic locales. Many exhibit animals imprinted with humans and can’t be released into the wild. Seized from an illegal animal breeder, some animals found new homes at the wildlife sanctuary. There are mongoose and capybara, the world’s largest rodents. An albino raccoon found a home here too.

The Heard Natural History Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., and on Sunday from 1 until 5 p.m. Pets are not allowed in the sanctuary and there is an admission fee. The trails around Dinosaurs Live are accessible with a stroller, however all trails within the sanctuary are on natural, unpaved surfaces — challenging for wheel chairs and strollers. Picnic areas are available. The Heard Natural History Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary is at 1 Nature Place in McKinney. Contact them at 972-562-5566 or through their Dinosaurs Live website.

Waco Mammoth National Monument

This past week, a mammoth found in a Michigan farmer’s field gained national attention. But, did you know that one of the largest herds of mammoth ever discovered in North America is right here in North Texas?

Visit Waco Mammoth National Monument and travel back in time 68,000 years. It’s the Ice Age but without the ice. Instead, grassy plains cover North Texas; and ice age animals like the Columbian mammoth, camel, and saber-tooth cat wander the grasslands.  A nursery herd of mammoth (cows and calves) peacefully graze along a creek bed until a flash flood buries the entire herd. Fast forward to 1978 when two teenage boys, looking for arrowheads, spot a bone embedded in the dry creek bed. The boys’ find yielded the largest nursery herd of Columbian mammoth (19 mammoths and a camel) ever discovered.

Baylor University paleontologists worked the site for years, uncovering mammoth from three separate floods that trapped these prehistoric animals over thousands of years. The Baylor scientists have found over two dozen mammoth, camels, and a young saber-tooth cat.

Baylor University and the City of Waco opened the Waco Mammoth Site to the public in 2009. Just this summer, the mammoth site became a National Monument. Docent-led tours give visitors fascinating facts about Ice Age Texas and its inhabitants. You also gain insights into a paleontologists’ world. While most bones were jacketed and transported for further study, many have been left in place. A climate-controlled building surrounds the dig site and a boardwalk pathway winds through the building allowing visitors to see mammoth bones as they were found. Tiered excavations stair-step the dig site displaying finds from all three major flood events. Wall murals illustrate the Colombian mammoths’ size and appearance.

The visitors center and dig site are located within a scenic parkland along the banks of the Bosque River. The Waco Mammoth National Monument is at 6220 Steinbeck Bend Road in Waco. The site is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is a fee for the guided tour.

You can find more Waco attractions at our Waco Day Trip post.

 

 

Perot Museum of Nature and Science

If you are looking for the perfect family escape from the heat, try the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. The PerotPerot Museum (480x640) takes science and makes it fun. Packed with five floors of adventure, discovery, and mystery; Perot is everything a science museum should be.

Texas-centric

One of the features I particularly enjoy about Perot is how, whenever possible, the exhibits relate to life here in Texas. The Discovering Life hall boasts dioramas and information about Texas ecosystems, like the Blackland Prairie. Our own Edwards Trinity Aquifer illustrates water cycles, and the Shale Voyager (a 4-D theater experience) takes you into the heart of the Barnett Shale. Even the dinosaur exhibit highlights critters who once roamed our area. The Texas linkage helps kids understand the science on a more personal level.

Encouraging the next generation

In each exhibit hall, you’ll find monitors featuring scientists telling their story. Many of the scientists talk about a middle school class or science project that ignited their passion. It’s a fantastic way to inspire kids to think about a career as an astrophysicist or pedologist (that’s a soil scientist). Several of the featured scientists include women, subtle encouragement for girls to pursue STEM careers.

Call to action

Throughout the museum, placards challenge you to explore even further with projects you can do at home. Interested in astronomy? Check out SCOPE, a citizen scientist project where you classify stars based on the spectrum of light they emit. Concerned about climate change? As a citizen scientist, you can help monitor the budding and blooming of plants at Project BudBurst. There are over a dozen citizen scientist projects highlighted throughout the museum – what an awesome way for kids to participate in real scientific research!

Hands-on

Each exhibit hall combines information with hands-on activities. Make a rainbow, play the Prey/Predator video game, or experience an earthquake. Kids (and adults) don lab coats and goggles before conducting experiments on fruit flies in the Bio Lab. A real kid favorite is the Robot Arena where you can build and program robots.

More is less

My family found the Perot overwhelming. It is five floors. And it is packed with exciting activities — too many activities. Sensory overload set in for my family after exploring two floors of exhibits. Limiting your visit will improve your experience. If you have older kids, the top three floors work well. For little tots, the Moody Family Children’s museum is ideal. If your kids love video games, interactive activities in the Texas Instruments Innovation and Engineering hall will be a sure winner. My advice is not to try to see the entire museum in just one visit.

Samsung tablets

For all you techies, a digital visitors guide is available from Google Play. Bring your android phone or check out a Samsung tablet in the museum lobby. If borrowing a tablet, you’ll need to leave a personal id, like a driver’s license.

Museum admission discounts

The Perot Museum of Nature and Science does not have a free day, but Perot does have numerous discounted admission programs. They include free admission for military and military veterans, and educators. You must present documentation at time of purchase (see the Perot website for more details). During summer months (Monday through Friday), admission is $10 after 4 p.m.

When you go

The Perot Museum of Nature and Science is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from 12 to 6 p.m. Paid parking is available in nearby lots.Perot Frog (640x480) There is an outdoor children’s play area for little kids — though even adults may be tempted to play leapfrog in the frog park. An onsite Café is open daily serving pizza, burgers, and sandwiches.

 

Bethany Lakes Park

Bethany Lakes ParkIn our quest to explore attractions and seek out the unusual, we sometimes forget to look in our own backyard. Bethany Lakes Park falls into that category of overlooked gems. Like any good community park, Bethany Lakes has a playground with small climbing wall for the little kids. There are covered and open picnic areas, and trails to hike and bike. Bethany Lakes Park offers even more with a disc golf course, fishing ponds, and summer concert series.

Disc golf

How about a round of golf? At Bethany Lakes, you’ll find a nine-hole disc golf course. Similar to traditional golf, you play disc golf with a Frisbee instead of club and ball. You throw your disc from the tee, aiming it for the ‘hole.’ At Bethany Lakes, the hole is a raised pole with a chain basket. Just like in golf, your score is the number of throws it takes to land the disc into the basket.Disc Golf

It’s more difficult than it first looks, as many holes require throws over or near water. The first tee is just north of the parking lot. Bring plenty of Frisbees as you might lose a few in the ponds!

Ponds make all the difference

The ponds, and what’s swimming in the ponds, differentiate Bethany Lakes from other community parks. On any given day, you’ll likely find fisherfolk casting their line into one of the parks four ponds. Many set up camp chairs along the water’s edge. Others fish from the fishing pier at Pond C.

Each year, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) stock Bethany Lake with rainbow trout. Most trout stocking occurs between December and March. The trout fishing is best during the cooler months. However, you aren’t restricted to just trout at Bethany Lakes. Other ponds contain blue gill and bass, with fishing even during warmer months. TPWD fishing rules apply at Bethany Lakes. While the ponds are not exclusively ‘catch-and-release,’ you’re unlikely to snag a big enough fish to eat, so please release your catch.

Fishing Tips

Did you know that kids under 17 do not require a license to fish in Texas? Or that the first Saturday in June is Free Fishing Day, when everyone can fish in Texas without a fishing license? Fishing is a great way to get the kids off the couch and outdoors. Here are some tips for first time family fishing:

  • Keep the equipment simple. Little anglers need a child-sized fishing pole, hook, bobber and easy bait like earthworms dug from the garden.
  • Think safety. Position children at least a pole length apart for safe casting.
  • An adult should bait the hook and remove fish for young children.
  • Combine other activities with fishing.  A short fishing trip coupled with a picnic will likely be more successful than a marathon fishing session.

If you want fishing tips specific to Bethany Lakes, check out a website by fisherfolk at www.stockertroutfishing.com. You can find out what fish have recently been caught and with what type of lures.

Summer Sounds

The City of Allen hosts Monday evening outdoor concerts from late May to the end of June at Joe Farmer Amphitheater in Bethany Lakes Park. Concerts cover all music types from classical to country. What a great way to enjoy a summer evening — and best yet — the concerts are free! Light refreshments and snow cones are available for purchase. While the city does not prohibit lawn chairs, they prefer blanket seating for concert goers.

When you go

Bethany Lakes Park is located at 745 South Allen Heights, Allen. Operated by the City of Allen, the park is open dawn to dusk. The Summer Sounds concert series begins May 25 and runs through June 22. Concerts begin at 7 p.m.