The Birds of Moody Gardens – Spring is in the air

Although it seems Mother Nature isn’t fully committed to allow the spring breeze to bathe us with balmy Gulf air, this week has started to show significant changes in the birds on the Island. It seems most of the waterfowl and raptors have left the Island and I haven’t seen a single Sandhill Crane since March 1st. The shorebirds and wading birds are migrating through in larger numbers and early purple martins and swallow species are showing up. Several species are already showing off flashy breeding plumage, exhibiting courtship behaviors or even nesting. White-winged Doves (pictured above), Mourning Doves and Eurasian Collared Doves started showing up in higher numbers and on a consistent daily basis in my property surveys since about mid-February. Their abundance and activity has been very noticeable over the past week with increased courtship behavior across all 3 species.

Most bird species go through a profound plumage change as their hormones surge with the inceasing daylight hours in the spring. They transition from the more drab coloration known as basic plumage to the more colorful alternate (or breeding) plumage. In addition to more brilliant pigmentation within the feathers, many birds will develop brighter colors on their exposed skin like their legs and feet and the skin around the base of their bill and around their eye. The WW Dove pictured shows bright blue skin around the eyes and at the base of the bill and more brightly contrasting black, white, gray and brown feather coloration than during winter.

Since most birds see color differently than humans and their visual acuity drifts further into the ultraviolet spectrum, much of the alternate plumage may appear more iridescent or reflective to us rather than having eye catching visual color. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. To other birds they appear eye popping, but to most of the rest of the animal kingdom that might find them tasty, they may still have a natural camouflage appearance.

Be mindful of our early nesting species as you continue to hack down all those cold-killed landscapes around your home.

The Moody Gardens property surveys continue twice daily as my schedule allows and through 9 March I have tallied 96 species for our main property with an additional 10 species at the Golf Course. Since the last blog post I’ve seen Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Turkey Vulture, Dunlin, Western Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Tern, Black Tern, Barn Swallow, and Sedge Wren here on our main property and added Ring-necked Duck, Greater Scaup and Bronzed Cowbird at the Golf Course.

Birds of Moody Gardens – Goodbye Winter, finally!

The birding trip this past Saturday morning (24 February) was a welcome break from the foggy, drizzly, cold, windy weather we’ve experienced through February.  After the two brutal cold snaps that severely challenged our tropical landscape, Islanders have been hacking down dead foliage, clearing beds and beginning the process of replanting.  As each of you reimagines your personal surroundings, I’d encourage you to consider thinking of resident and migratory birds in your master planning process.  Houston Audubon Society offers great suggestions in their Creating Bird Friendly Communities section of their website.  Planting native species of grasses, plants, shrubs and trees creates habitat and supports the naturally occurring food webs that benefit wildlife.  Adding a clean water source like a bird bath, fountain or drip adds serenity to your environment and benefits wildlife.   Reducing risks such as reflective window situations, bright artificial lighting at night and pets that act as predators when birds are at their most vulnerable after making the 500 mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico can save countless migratory bird lives.  Where birds thrive, people thrive.

We’re seeing some of our winter visitors winging off to the north to start their courtship, breeding and nesting activities and they’ll be replaced by spring migrants that have been spending the winter farther south.  Waterfowl species like the Red-breasted Merganser pictured above are leaving our coastline in large flocks.  This lone male was patrolling the Lake Madeline channel on the east side of the Learning Place this morning.  Just last week I counted more than 75 of them in a flock in Offatts Bayou beginning to raft up prior to flying off to Northern Canada or Alaska to start their 2018 families.  Over the next few weeks we’ll see most of our winter waterfowl, raptors and sparrows disappear with shorebirds, swallows and early songbird migrants flying up the coastline from the west to replace them.  Many of the species we’ll see between now and mid-May will continue past Galveston to points farther north and east as their summer homes.

The buzz of spring migration is building.  Every day I drive or walk the property I’m on the lookout for new species to check off a list or photograph.  Many of those that will be flying through may only stay for a day or two, so I’m keeping my eyes to the skies so I don’t miss any.  Through late February I’ve logged 87 species of birds either using Moody Gardens’ habitats, or flying over.  There were another 7 unique species that were seen while surveying the Golf Course for a total of 94 species to include in the Birds of Moody Gardens project.  The new species encountered in February include Pacific Loon, White-tailed Kite, Bonaparte’s Gull, Horned Lark, Purple Martin, Tree Swallow, Cedar Waxwing, Seaside Sparrow and Vesper Sparrow.

I also discovered and joined the world of eBird.  It’s an online resource that Cornell Ornithology Lab established to help collect a huge amount of bird population data by providing an easy to use bird checklist app for phones and computers.  Moody Gardens is listed as a hotspot, so the species accounts that are entered are viewable by anyone that uses eBird.  Get out and enjoy spring’s arrival and look out for birds literally and figuratively as you improve your post-winter backyard habitat.

Hearts Melt as New King Penguin Chick Hatches at Moody Gardens

Indeed, there has been so much to love at Moody Gardens during the month of February. A King penguin chick hatched earlier this month and is being well cared for by its single mother.

“This was certainly an exciting way to kick off the month of love,” said Assistant Curator Diane Olsen. “We completed the renovation of our Aquarium Pyramid last year, including tweaking the exhibit to provide the best environment possible for the birds’ breeding success and this just shows that all that dedication has paid off.”

King penguin mating season usually begins with a series of courtship rituals including different calling and “parading.” King penguin males work to impress females by standing tall and showing off their physique. Females choose the male they like and they will call and parade with each other before mating. King penguins incubate their eggs on their feet, so no nest is needed.

Typically once an egg is laid both the male and female will stay with the egg and take turns incubating it; however this was not the case with this particular chick and penguin mom Simone. This three-year-old penguin is a first-time mother who came to Moody Gardens a year ago from Sea World San Antonio and nurtured the egg by herself until it hatched. The mother continues to rear the chick on her own, leaving all to wonder who and where the father is.

“Simone is doing a great job caring for this chick. While we are keeping a watchful eye on it and her, I have full confidence that she will continue care of her chick,” Olsen said. King penguin eggs usually take about 54 days to hatch and the chick will become full grown after about 10 months.

Soon after this chick hatched, Moody Gardens held a naming contest with names selected by the Moody Gardens Penguin Biologists. The name selected for this new addition was “Astro,” in honor of our World Series Champion Houston Astros.

Stay tuned as we continue to monitor and post updates about Astro’s life in the South Atlantic Penguin Exhibit at Moody Gardens.

The Birds of Moody Gardens – February @ Golf Course

When I mentioned the property census project at a Nature Tourism Partnership meeting late in January, the suggestion was made to include the Golf Course.  It seemed like a no-brainer, but I had simply not considered adding this piece of relatively adjacent landscape to the surveys.  The golf course is only about ¾ mile away from the western side of the main Moody Gardens property with open airport space between and a marsh and woody scrub fringe connecting the north end of both areas.  I took a few hours on the afternoon of 31 January and rode around in a golf cart surveying the course and some of the natural surroundings.  I followed this initial survey up with a second trip on 9 February.

The golf course includes about 170 acres of open, manicured grass landscape mixed with some low dividing shrub tree lines and several freshwater pond habitats.  There is also a 25 acre wild scrub field bordering the north margin that connects with Offatts Bayou as well as the large open expanse of the airport property.  A large extension of tidally influenced brackish water known as Sydnor Bayou runs up the center of the course.  A fairly dense scrubby tree grove located at the very southeast end of the course bordered by the corner of the airport property and Stewart road offers a neat pocket of wilderness that has proven rich in bird species through these two surveys.

The combination of open grass areas with freshwater ponds are habitats that we don’t see on the main Moody Gardens complex.  These areas offer the opportunity to see many waterfowl species as well as the open ground foraging species like the White Ibis pictured above.  This large flock included at least 3 juvenile birds that showed a nice progression of feather change from their first year brown plumage through the second year white plumage.  Their long curved bills are perfect for probing down into the ground looking for tasty invertebrates.  A couple similar species; Long-billed Curlew and Marbled Godwits are also likely to be seen using these open grassy fields as their forage grounds.  The large, iconic Sandhill Cranes also forage across the open grassy habitats much to the dismay of the golf course groundskeeping crew as their methods are much more destructive than the smaller probing bills.

The waterfowl diversity through the winter months is a great draw for anyone interested in these other “birdies” on the course.  Through the two surveys thus far I’ve logged 9 species of waterfowl with 4 new species in the totals. Through the 2 trips I counted 49 species with 10 that have not been seen in the main property surveys.

The species seen at the golf course through mid-February are listed below with the novel species in bold:

Gadwall, Mallard, Mottled Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Lesser Scaup, Red-breasted Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Neotropic Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Common Moorhen, American Coot, Sandhill Crane, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Willet, Long-billed Curlew, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Rock Pigeon, White-winged Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Wood Peewee, Loggerhead Shrike, Carolina Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Savannah Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Great-tailed Grackle, and Brown-headed Cowbird.

The Birds of Moody Gardens – January

In an effort to showcase the tremendous bird diversity that exists on Moody Gardens’ property, I began to survey as much of the easily accessible areas on as frequent a basis as I could, beginning with the New Year.  Throughout the month of January I spent about an hour a day looking at the various habitats that our 242 acre property boasts.  From the waterfront wrapping more than a mile around our east and north shorelines through the wooded areas in the interior, the prairie and marsh on our northwest border and the man-made retention ditches between the Aquarium and the west parking lot there is a wide variety of habitat for birds to utilize.   I drove approximately 2 miles on my morning commute as many days as my schedule and the weather allowed.  I repeated this on any trips off property during the day and when I left in the afternoons to catalog as many species as I saw on or from property.  As the end of January approached, I spent a morning photographing birds and walking the areas that weren’t accessible by car.  I also took the advice of a colleague and surveyed the Moody Gardens Golf Course located just west of Scholes Field.  Through the end of the month I checked off 76 species for our main property with another 9 at the Golf Course.

Galveston Island, and Moody Gardens’ winter bird diversity skews towards Raptors like the Red-tailed Hawk pictured above, and Waterfowl.  Raptors sighted on property during January included Osprey, Northern Harrier, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Merlin and Peregrine Falcon.  A Sharp-shinned Hawk was seen at the Golf Course on the January 31st survey.  Additionally, a White-tailed Hawk was seen on the wires at the very south end of the airport property that would technically be visible if viewed through a scope from the mulch pile/tree farm area, although not included in the total species count.

Waterfowl diversity was primarily noted on the Golf Course with the pond habitat that these species prefer.  We did encounter Snow Geese, Gadwall, Mallard, Mottled Duck, Lesser Scaup and Red-breasted Merganser from our main property.  The Golf Course survey added Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, and Ruddy Duck to the list.  The Snow Geese are fly-overs that don’t typically utilize any habitat out here on Galveston Island.  The Mallard are almost certainly domestic strain as the few wild Mallard we see are spooked by humans and would not typically use ponds that have human disturbance.

A complete list of the 76 species encountered on Moody Gardens main property in January is listed here in Taxonomic order:

Snow Goose, Gadwall, Mallard, Mottled Duck, Lesser Scaup, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Loon, Pied-billed Grebe, American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Neotropic Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Osprey, Northern Harrier, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Clapper Rail, Sandhill Crane, Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer, American Oystercatcher, American Avocet, Spotted Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Lesser Yellowlegs, Ruddy Turnstone, Least Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Caspian Tern, Forster’s Tern, Royal Tern, Black Skimmer, Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared Dove, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Eastern Wood Peewee, Loggerhead Shrike, Blue Jay, Marsh Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, American Pipit, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Savannah Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Eastern Meadowlark, Great-tailed Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, House Finch and House Sparrow.

The additional 9 species encountered on the Golf Course survey include:

Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Common Moorhen, American Coot, Long-billed Curlew, and Red-winged Blackbird.

The spring migration should add dramatically to the diversity already encountered.  Monthly updates through 2018 will offer additional information on specific habitat areas on our property and some of the ecological premises behind migration and resident populations.

There’s more to love this Valentine’s at Moody Gardens

Delve into the Sea of Love inside the Aquarium Pyramid at Moody Gardens with a romantic Valentine’s dinner celebration on Feb. 10 and 17. Choose from dining options at the Gulf of Mexico Rig, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, South Pacific and Caribbean exhibits.

Packages range from $200-300 per couple and include a three-course dinner, bottle of champagne or wine, rose for your special someone, souvenir photo, Aquarium Pyramid admission and a meet and greet with one of our biologists.

For a complete dinner menu, click here, and for reservations, call 409-683-4202 or email

Continue your romantic getaway with a stay at the luxurious Moody Gardens Hotel. Be sure to inquire about the special room rate for guests when you make dinner reservations.

Sail aboard the Colonel Paddlewheel Boat

Enjoy a two-hour Valentine’s dinner cruise Feb. 10 aboard the Colonel Paddlewheel Boat. Feast on a buffet dinner while sailing Offatts Bayou with music, dancing and a cash bar. Boarding begins at 6 p.m. with the boat shoving off at 6:30 p.m. The cruise runs 7-9 p.m.

To reserve a space on board the Colonel, please call 409-683-4419 or email For a complete dinner menu, click here.

Golf Fore Two

Enjoy a day at the top-rated Moody Gardens Golf Course with your partner and take advantage of an incredible all-inclusive package that combines golf and dining for just $200 per couple.

Enjoy an 18-hole round of golf, cart fee included, as well as one dozen golf balls, one large bucket of range balls and a free replay (subject to availability) all topped off with unlimited food and drinks, excluding alcohol!

The all-inclusive Valentine’s package is available Feb. 10 and Feb. 17. To reserve a tee time, call 409-683-4653. You can also visit for more details on the course.

Enjoy a romantic dinner with stunning views

Experience premier fine dining at Shearn’s Seafood and Prime Steaks, featuring beautiful floor-to-ceiling views of the Gulf waters from the top floor of the Moody Gardens Hotel.

Shearn’s will offer a romantic Valentine’s dinner on Feb. 9 and 10 starting at 5 p.m. with a special menu just for the holiday. Advance reservations are recommended and can be made here. To view the special menu, click here.

Treat yourself to luxurious pampering

Indulge in a day of luxury, or give the gift of relaxation, with one of several spa treatments and packages, all offered at The Spa at Moody Gardens Hotel. Packages include a Romantic Retreat featuring a 50-minute Couple’s Swedish Massage with Scandle Candle Body Butter, a hot stone foot treatment and Hydrotherapy Soak for two. Relax in our private relaxation area and indulge in chocolate covered strawberries and two glasses of champagne. There’s also a Couple’s Massage performed in our private couple’s suite. For a complete list of services and menus, visit us online.

Cold-stunned Green Sea Turtles released after being cared for at Moody Gardens

More than 90 Green Sea Turtles that were rescued last week after suffering from cold-stun were safely released to warmer waters off North Padre Island Wednesday afternoon.

These beautiful turtles, ranging in size from 6 pounds to a whopping 70 pounds, called Moody Gardens home since last week following a dramatic drop in temperatures that left the turtles stranded in East Matagorda Bay, about 100 miles southwest of Galveston. 

In all, nearly 300 Green Sea Turtles were rescued along a five-mile stretch of the bay. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) led the rehabilitation mission. With an animal holding facility, complete with large holding tanks, Moody Gardens was happy to partner with NOAA to offer a home, and rehabilitation, for the turtles until it was time for their release.

NOAA released about 75 turtles off North Padre Island Tuesday with another 200 released Wednesday. Some turtles will remain at NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Lab here on Galveston Island until they are well enough to be released back into the wild.

Officials chose North Padre Island, just south of Corpus Christi, as the release site so that the turtles will enter warmer waters. Another cold front is expected to hit the Galveston area this Friday, and the goal is to release the turtles into warmer waters before that happens. The cold front shouldn’t impact North Padre Island and the surrounding area.

Green Sea Turtles feed on sea grasses found in the shallow bay waters. They were in the East Matagorda Bay area last week when temperatures dropped to freezing, leaving them cold-stunned and unable to retreat to warmer waters. Cold-stun can happen when water temperatures drop to 50 degrees. When that happens, the turtle’s metabolism shuts down and they respond by expanding their lungs and floating to the top of the water. Doing so can further expose them as they let cooler air into their lungs. Unable to swim, many are pushed up to the shoreline.

Turtles were triaged as they were rescued. They were measured, weighed and checked for any abnormalities and wounds. Those deemed healthy were sent to Moody Gardens while those who were wounded were cared for NOAA’s fisheries lab.

Staff and volunteers cleaned turtles, scrubbing off algae, debris, grime, barnacles, and in some cases even oysters. Tags were attached to the turtles’ front flippers. Internal tags were also placed so that the animals can be tracked in the future, if needed.

Moody Gardens’ mission has always focused on conserving natural spaces and resources. Looking at the natural habitat around Moody Gardens, sea turtles are probably one of the highest profile species that live in our native waters and are in need of our help.

Mangrove Lagoon touch tank welcomes rockin’ Guitarfish

A rockin’ new fish has joined the party inside the Mangrove Lagoon touch tank at the Moody Gardens Aquarium Pyramid and you don’t want to miss out on seeing this unusual addition.

You’ll have to look closely to spot our new Guitarfish, as it likes to blend in with its surroundings and even burrow itself in the sand.

With a tail that looks a lot like a shark and triangular head, it’s not hard to see how the Guitarfish got its name.  A cross between sharks and stingrays, Guitarfish are closely related to the latter and feature an elongated body with a flattened head and body with ray-like wings.

Our Guitarfish is still young at about 2-3 years old and is only 1-2 feet long. When full grown, Guitarfish can reach 4 feet in length!

Guitarfish like to burrow in the sand so that the only things visible are their eyes and spiracles, small holes on the top of their heads. To breathe, Guitarfish pump water in through their spiracles, over their gills and out through gill openings. Their mouth is located on the bottom of their body and they use pebble-like teeth to crunch their food, which includes shrimp, clams and crabs.

Fun fact – Guitarfish can actually change in color from olive to a sandy brown, depending on the color of their sandy seafloor! Doing so helps them blend in with their habitat. You’ll notice our Guitarfish is very light in color, almost white, and that’s because the seafloor inside the Mangrove Lagoon is light.

Guitarfish are common along the East Coast, especially in mangrove areas found in the Florida Keys, so it made perfect sense to add this unusual and interesting looking fish to the Mangrove Lagoon exhibit at the Aquarium Pyramid where it joins stingrays, a couple of lobsters and other fish!

Go Green in 2018

Looking for a New Year’s resolution? Why not commit to doing your part for the environment. Check out these ten tips to get started.

  1. Turn off the tap when brushing your teeth. Leaving the water running for two minutes can waste up to five gallons a day.
  2. Take a travel mug to your favorite coffee shop instead of using paper cups. Replacing one disposable cup goes a long way; 58 billion paper cups are thrown away annually in the United States alone.
  3. Use a water filter to purify tap water instead of buying bottled water. (Also, use a reusable water bottle.) Americans spend about $1.22 per gallon on bottled water every year while tap water costs less than a penny per gallon on average.
  4. Bring your own reusable bags to the store when doing your shopping. A plastic bag can take anywhere from 15 to 1,000 years to break down, depending on the environment.
  5. Buy items in bulk. These larger containers reduce the amount of trash that ends up in landfills.
  6. Sign up for paperless billing. The average American uses about one 100-foot-tall Douglas fir tree’s worth of paper per year.
  7. Unplug unused chargers and appliances. The United States uses approximately 23 percent of the world’s energy, but only has about 5 percent of the world’s population.
  8. Wash your clothes in cold water whenever possible. As much as 90 percent of the energy used in a wash cycle goes in to heating the water.
  9. Try cooking meals using small appliances such as the microwave or toaster oven. These appliances use 30 percent less energy than a full-size oven.
  10. Try carpooling or taking public transportation to and from work. An average American spends 40 hours each year stuck in traffic, why not have some companions along for the ride?

Here’s to an eco-friendly 2018!

Give Back When You Give A Gift This Holiday Season

Christmas is just around the corner which means the countdown is on to find gifts for all those special people in your life. But in the spirit of giving, why not also give some love back to the environment at the same time with an eco-friendly gift. Moody Gardens is here to help with these suggestions.

Handmade (or Feet-Made) Gifts – Show you care by taking time out to make something from scratch, whether that be a recipe or craft. If you aren’t feeling so artsy yourself, did you know the Moody Gardens’ penguins are painters? As part of their enrichment activities, some of our penguins have become quite the established artists. Watch them hop across a canvas to create their masterpieces during a Public or Private Penguin Encounter, or simply pick up a piece of art in the Moody Gardens’ gift shop. The funds raised from these purchases goes toward animal conservation efforts.

Gifts That Benefit An Organization’s Conservation Work – Several agencies also allow you to purchase gifts or make donations where the money collected goes to help with conservation efforts. As a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Moody Gardens is a proud supporter of the Vaquita CPR effort, which seeks to provide safe habitats for the most critically endangered marine mammal in the world. Our own Animal Husbandry Manager Greg Whittaker even took part in AZA’s #Pied4APorpoise campaign earlier this year.

Recycled or Upcycled Goods – Whether it’s a wind chime made out of a wine bottle or a rug made from medicine containers, there has been a recent trend in giving discarded products new life. Several sites such as Etsy offer these goods direct from the artist who makes them and they are sure to be conversation starters with anyone who sees them.

Growable Gifts – Have someone with a green thumb on your holiday shopping list? Seedlings, planting kits or seed paper are all great ideas to ensure they have something to enjoy all year long.

Experiences – Instead of giving a tangible gift, make some memories with your loved ones with an activity. Moody Gardens has something for everyone to enjoy from adrenaline-filled adventures to romantic dinners and spa packages.

Happy Gifting!