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Greenery Provides Refuge for Animals

With much of Central Texas baked dry, the Lady Bird Wildflower Center has become a refuge for all kinds of wildlife as well as providing beautiful drought-tolerant plants for visitors to enjoy. Entomologists, staff, and visitors report that the regular maintenance and watering of over 650 different species of native plants makes the Center one of the few places around Austin able to support common multi-legged inhabitants and the newcomers.

Staff horticulturist, Elias Guerrero, said he has been seeing many unusual animals stray onto the grounds in search of water in recent weeks. "Just the other day, a bobcat came and drank from the pond by the Display Gardens," he said. "And we've seen a group of wild turkeys show up in the mornings to cool off.

Guerrero noted that when an American bison strayed into the Center's grounds last month, "Liberty" was merely following the scent of water -- an exciting find for the animal during a drought. "Water has been pretty scarce for months now, so they're not hesitating to come in and drink because we're one of the few accessible water sources for miles."

Mammals and birds aren't the only wildlife drawn to healthy, native plant habitat. Valerie Bugh, an entomologist who leads a group of volunteers through weekly animal surveys at the Center, has noted the drought's impact on insects and other animals on site. "We have noticed that certain animals, as would be expected, are hanging around the gardens more, such as rabbits," Bugh said. "And there are healthy numbers of dragonflies, wasps, and honeybees since they rely on the nectar of the regularly watered gardens."

The entomologist said that next to plants, insect population variations are the single biggest determining factor of the overall health of an ecosystem. Although dragonflies and honeybees are doing well, the persistent drought has caused a decline for other insect species.

"During this time of year, we're normally used to seeing at least 80 different species of butterflies, but now it's down to five or six," Bugh said. "We're also not seeing any yellow jackets and there are fewer caterpillars and moths. Everything that relies on a supply of those insects has also been affected, so there have been less bird sightings, and so it travels on up through the food chain."

While Bugh and her accompanying survey group have been regularly taking advantage of the Center as a resource for plant and insect research, Guerrero and other staff members noted that this dry year, an increasing number of people are coming to the Wildflower Center to research native plant alternatives for their gardens and landscapes.

"Before the drought, landscaping and gardening with native plants was more of a trendy thing to do, where as now, it has actually become a necessity," Guerrero said. "It just makes sense to know more about drought-tolerant plants, and we're the resource for that." Guerrero added, "We are going to continue with ongoing research, introducing different native plants to the public and providing realistic alternatives to water guzzling, non-native plants."

By Aine Carroll

© 2016 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center