The Birds of Moody Gardens – Fallout!

During the spring migration here on the Gulf coast, there is a phenomenon known as a fallout.  If you’re a birdwatcher and you find yourself along the Texas coast in April, you keep your eyes to the sky and watch the weather forecasts.  If you are lucky (and the birds are not), a fast moving frontal boundary moves south at the exact time that flocks of migrating songbirds are winging there way north across the vast open water expanse of the Gulf of Mexico.  Under perfect circumstances these dainty warblers, vireos, buntings and orioles catch favorable winds and make the 500 mile flight from the Yucatan Peninsula to our coast in about 18 hours and have ample energy to find shelter, food and water someplace on the coastal plain.  If however, they make that commitment and leave the sight of land to our south and then run into strong head winds, the crossing quickly turns into a life and death struggle with many not making it to the northern shoreline.  Those that do arrive are completely depleted of energy and collapse in exhaustion in the nearest safe cover they can find.  This is called a fallout as the birds will literally drop from thousands of feet in the air over the first piece of solid ground they encounter.

If you’ve been outside on property over the last couple of days, you most probably have noticed a LOT of small, colorful, chirping birds moving around in the trees and shrubs all across the project.  The combination of the strong cold front that arrived overnight Saturday and the continued northeast winds through Sunday have stopped thousands of birds here on the Island.  They are resting and foraging for any quick nutrition and energy they can get including bugs, berries and seeds.  The diversity of species through the entire spring migration is truly amazing, but when you see it suddenly over the course of a few days it’s exhilarating.

The very colorful bird pictured above is a male Painted Bunting.  These guys look like something imagined by a creative child and the super-deluxe Crayola box.  Often in mixed flocks with their equally brilliant cousins, the Indigo Bunting, they work along hedges and the edges of wooded lots picking seeds and insects from the leaves and grass.  Normally the males of these migrating birds will move north first to stake out prime nesting habitat and await the arrival of the females.  It’s critical that they wing quickly north to find the perfect balance of food, water and shelter and defend those resources.

In the first 9 days of April, the property species count jumped from 112 to 139 with 17 new species in the last 4 days alone.  The species additions listed in order of sighting are; Semipalmated Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Chimney Swift, Eastern Kingbird, Cliff Swallow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Moorhen, Gull-billed Tern, Common Grackle, Orchard Oriole, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Summer Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Worm-eating Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Nashville Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, Prothonotary Warbler, Northern Parula, Wood Thrush, Kentucky Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-winged Warbler and Least Flycatcher.

As favorable weather conditions return and these birds refuel, they will be moving on to the north towards their nesting grounds.  The spring migration will continue through the next 4-6 weeks, so there should be a continual rotation of individuals and species moving through our area.  If you get a chance to get out on property over the next few days, please take advantage of this rare spring fallout.  The number of individuals and diversity of species isn’t something to take for granted as this type of event is something that occurs every few years when the exact conditions coincide.

This morning as I walked in to work I was distracted by hundreds of individuals of dozens of species flitting amongst the foliage.  I was reminded that just as these lovely songbirds make their way north following the food resources; they bring with them a cadre of Avian predators that reap the bounty of this moving buffet.  I was just framing a picture of a nice male Painted Bunting just like the one pictured above when an American Kestrel whizzed past and scooped him up for breakfast. As the saying goes “a bird’s gotta eat”.  I saw a Merlin yesterday hunting around the north marsh near the tree farm terrorizing a similar group of Buntings.  The falcon species are specialists at hunting fast moving prey, especially birds.

Nature sometimes seems cruel, but it’s sooo kewl at the same time

Get Out and See the Birds on Galveston Island

Galveston Island is teeming with birds as those that wintered here prepare to fly north and we get ready for the spring migration season.

If you are curious about the many different types of winged creatures you have seen inhabiting our island over the last few months, birding might be just the hobby for you.

Here a few basic tips to get you started.

  1. Invest in a good pair of binoculars. You want to make sure that are getting bright and crisp pictures through your lenses.
  2. Pick up a field guide so that you can identify what species you are finding in your excursions.
  3. If you want the birds to come to you, invest in a bird feeder.
  4. Have your camera handy. The pictures you take can help you identify a bird, and have beautiful images to enjoy for years to come.
  5. Get connected with your local birding club to find out about future bird outings.

Happy Birding!

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.

Celebrate Mother’s Day Weekend at Moody Gardens!

We’ve got a fun-filled Mother’s Day weekend ahead of us! Join us for any of the following events and activities:

FRIDAY – SUNDAY | Red Cat Jazz Festival:

Red Cat Jazz Festival 2015Red Cat Jazz Preservation Society, Inc. presents the 5th annual Red Cat Jazz Festival at the Moody Gardens Hotel! There will be four days of non-stop live jazz concerts featuring a variety of local and international jazz artists. Invited guests include Grammy winner Kirk Whalum, Ronnie Laws, Rick Braun, Norman Brown, Mindi Abair, Peter White, Hiroshima, Jazz in Pink, Mike Phillips and a host of others.

The 2015 festival will feature the following:

  • Friday, May 8: Celebrity Golf Classic hosted by Mike Phillips at the Moody Gardens Golf Course, Veteran’s Luncheon, VIP All-White Attire Poolside Party and After Party
  • Saturday, May 9: Red Cat for Pink, Women Empowerment Conference, T.E.A.M. Scholarship Workshop and Live Jazz Concerts
  • Sunday, May 10: Red Cat Jazz Legends Awards Breakfast and Live Jazz Concerts

CLICK HERE for more information

SATURDAY | 9 A.M. | Birding 101
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Presented by Moody Gardens® and Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council, Birding 101 is a series of free classes designed to educate and excite people about the tremendous variety of bird life routinely seen around Galveston Island. Classes are from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. and meet at the Aquarium Pyramid lobby.

SATURDAY | 10 A.M. | Demo Day at the Moody Gardens Golf Course

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Representatives from Titleist, Callaway and Ping will be at the Driving Range with all the latest technologies for you to try out! If you have been thinking about getting new clubs, or just curious about the new products available, this day is for you! For more information, contact PGA Professional, Rick Christ, at (409) 683-1201 or rchrist@moodygardens.org.

SUNDAY | 11 A.M. | Mother’s Day Buffets

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Treat mom to one of our special Mother’s Day Buffets this Sunday.

The Garden Restaurant will be serving a wide array of fruits, fresh greens, and scrumptious entrées like carved prime rib and hand-sliced Texas rope sausage from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. A special dessert spread of cakes, cookies and pies will also be included. Buffet prices are $35.95 for adults, $25.95 for seniors, $15.95 for children ages 5-12 and free for children 4 and under. For the full menu, CLICK HERE.

The Moody Gardens Hotel is also hosting their decadent Mother’s Day Buffet! Enjoy complimentary Bloody Marys and Mimosas as well as smoked prime rib, carved yucatan grouper, herb roasted chicken and more! Prices for the Mother’s Day Buffet are $52.95 for adults, $42.95 for seniors, $24.95 for children 4-12, and children three and under are free. Seating times for the Mother’s Day Buffet are available every half hour from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For Buffet reservations call 409-683-4466. For the full menu, CLICK HERE.

SUNDAY | Mother’s Day Special at the Moody Garden’s Golf Course

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Moms play FREE at the Moody Gardens Golf Course on Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 10) with a paid accompanying round! Limit one free green/cart fee round per paid green/cart fee. Call 409-683-4653 and mention this post to make a tee time.

SUNDAY | Last Day to Discover the Ice Age

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Be sure to visit Discover the Ice Age in the Discovery Pyramid before it closes its doors on May 10! This is an exciting and educational exhibition that invites you to travel back in time to discover a frigid world, covered in ice and occupied by mammoths, saber-toothed cats, bears, gigantic birds, cave people and more. The exhibit features life-sized animatronic animals, real fossils, some of which can be touched by our guests, and cast skeletons set within elaborate Ice Age scenery.

Notes from Birding 101: April 13, 2013

Brown-Pelican

by Greg Whittaker, Animal Husbandry Manager at Moody Gardens

Excellent weather – walked around Aquarium Pyramid and retention ditch to Colonel Paddlewheeler dock.  Then walked the path around Palm Beach and to the Lake Madeline channel. We went back past the Learning Place and ended at the hotel near the pool.

By my count we saw 33 species listed here in taxonomic order (not the order we saw them):

Mottled Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Common Loon, Brown Pelican, Neotropic Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Peregrine Falcon, Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, Solitary Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, Dunlin, Laughing Gull, Forster’s Tern, Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared Dove, White-winged Dove, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Barn Swallow, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Scarlet Tanager, Great-tailed Grackle and House Sparrow.

Birding 201 is next Saturday, April 20 and there is a limit to the number of people we can take.  We will leave Moody Gardens in a van and spend about 2-3 hours out in the field.  Please respond and let me know if you are interested in going so we can reserve a seat.  To reserve a spot, please call 409-683-4101 no later than Wednesday, April 17.

Get out and see the birds this week, there are lots of them here on the island and lots of other birders to help you identify things.  I just tallied what I’ve seen since Thursday when Featherfest started and have 103 species.

Explore Galveston Wildlife with Birding 201

By: Animal Husbandry Manager Greg Whittaker

Held on the third Saturday of each month, Birding 201 always seems to bring to light the natural beauty of Galveston. The recent Birding 201 trip was no exception, introducing the six participants we had to a great variety of wild birds.

The weather cooperated for this Saturday event. We visited Galveston’s 51st Street viaduct marsh and noted a few early waterfowl and some herons/egrets.  We then crossed over to Pelican Island to visit the TAMUG wetlands area.  The highlight here was a pair of scissortail flycatchers perched on the fence, making for some good photo opportunities before we even got out of the van. Some good looks at black crowned night herons and red-winged blackbirds before we headed east to the Pier 19 dock area, then onto the Corps Woods near the Ferry Landing.  A few smaller birds were there, but not a major hotspot.

We drove east down Seawall Boulevard to the very end, then south through Big Reef and onto east beach.  We completed the loop around Condo Road back to Seawall.  This section of the trip offered the best diversity of species and great behavioral observations of marsh and shore birds as well as a couple pairs of northern Harriers hunting as teams.  By my count, we saw all of 49 species on the trip.   In taxonomic order, we saw:  Pied-billed Grebe, Brown Pelican, Neotropic Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Osprey, Northern Harrier, Broad-winged Hawk, Clapper Rail, American Coot, Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Black Skimmer, Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared Dove, Mourning Dove, Common Nighthawk, Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Scissor-tail Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Cliff Swallow, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Great-tailed Grackle, and House Sparrow.

Since the trip, I’ve noted a big influx of migratory species showing up.  Osprey’s have moved in with good numbers, Sandhill Cranes and White pelicans have started to show up, some waterfowl arriving.

Someone also pointed out a Quaker’s Parrot nest on Avenue S just west of 53rd Street on the south side (adjacent to the old police station).  I drove by slowly yesterday and there were several parrots noisily eating the palm fruit in the adjacent tree.

Now is a good time to check out the bird population on the island. Get out and enjoy them while they’re here.

Greg Whittaker is Moody Gardens animal husbandry manager and, as a birding enthusiast, frequently leads free Birding 101 on the first Saturday and Birding 201 on the third Saturdays of each month.