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.

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 dsalinas@moodygardens.org.

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 lhuff@moodygardens.org. 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 www.moodygardensgolf.com 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.

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!

Enjoy a PSL, Save a PSL

Moody Gardens is once again joining forces to bring awareness and protection to Pygmy Slow Lorises this fall with its PSLs for PSLs campaign.

Guests can enjoy a Pumpkin Spice Latte while doing their part to protect Pygmy Slow Lorises in the wild. Moody Brews, located inside the Moody Gardens Hotel, serves Starbucks drinks. Through Jan. 7, a portion of proceeds from each PSL sold at Moody Brews will be donated to Little Fireface Project, the world’s largest running project that aims to protect lorises from extinction through research, education and conservation.

PSLs for PSLs, along with Little Fireface Project, hopes to bring attention and awareness to the plight of this small group of endangered primates.

Pygmy Slow Lorises are small, nocturnal prosimians native to Southeast Asia, specifically Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. They have a vice-like grip, move slowly and have a venomous bite – which is unique for a mammal. Some believe lorises have healing powers. This, combined with the issue that they are perceived to make good pets, has led to the capture of many lorises and their numbers in the wild are dwindling.

So, head over to Moody Brews to grab a drink and participate in PSLs for PSLs now through Jan. 7.

After you help the cause be sure to stop by the Rainforest Pyramid to see the Pygmy Slow Lorises that Moody Gardens biologists have the pleasure of caring for. You can also head over to http://www.nocturama.org/en/welcome-little-fireface-project/ to learn more about the Little Fireface Project.

Dig deep with Jurassic fun this summer at Moody Gardens

Moody Gardens is taking you on a Jurassic adventure this summer when the Dinos Alive Exhibit comes to Galveston Island.

This fun outdoors exhibit features life-like animatronic dinosaurs, including a full-size Tyrannosaurus, as you become part of a rescue team sent back in time to search for a missing plane and its crew.

Along the way in the adventure, you get an up close and personal experience with some of the most feared and amazing creatures to ever roam Planet Earth.

Discover treasures of your own as you explore an archeological dig site in the exhibit. In addition to the dig site, the attraction will include a gift shop and photo opportunity. Explore all things dinosaurs June 3-Aug. 13.

Celebrate Mother’s Day with fun at Moody Gardens

Treat your mom like the queen she is with a day of pampering, fun, and time not spent in the kitchen, this Mother’s Day at Moody Gardens.

Join us for two mouth-watering buffets at the Garden Restaurant and Moody Gardens Hotel. Feast on omelets made to order, Belgian waffles, hatch pepper crab cakes, red snapper, carved prime rib with rosemary jus and horseradish and more!

And the best part? We do the dishes, too. Click here for the Garden Restaurant menu and here for the Moody Gardens Hotel menu.

While you’re here, explore all that Moody Gardens has to offer. Journey through our Rainforest Pyramid where you’ll meet free-roaming monkeys and free-flighted birds. Take in more than 1,000 exotic plants from the rainforests of Asia, Africa and the Americas. You’ll also find an ocelot, komodo dragon and, if you look closely, a sloth or two.

You can also set sail aboard the Colonel Paddlewheel Boat, be adventurous on our Ropes Course and Zip Line, relax in our MG 3D theater to watch a film or discover dinosaurs and set sail in Bikini Bottom at our Discovery Pyramid.

Want to treat mom to a day of pampering? Be sure to check out the Moody Gardens Hotel spa packages online. Whether it’s a deep tissue or Swedish massage, pedicure, nourishing facial or manicure, you’ll find it all at the hotel spa.

Explore vibrant Flower Gardens Banks at Moody Gardens

Journey to new depths to take in a unique tropical coral reef system found in Galveston’s front yard in the Gulf of Mexico, all without leaving dry land.

Your voyage to the Flower Garden Banks is just around the corner as Moody Gardens reveals the new exhibit – and so much more – this summer as part of our $37 million enhancements to the Aquarium Pyramid.

Explore this unique tropical coral reef system found 115 miles offshore from Galveston in the Gulf of Mexico. Moody Gardens partnered with the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary to highlight this gem in our front yard and replicate the diversity in the reef systems of the East Flower Garden Bank, West Flower Garden Bank and Stetson Bank.

See first-hand how Brain and Star coral dominate the reef system. Vibrant coral and sponges add pops of color deep underwater. Our exhibit also highlights Elkhorn and Staghorn coral. While not currently located in the banks, the sanctuary found that Staghorn Coral was once part of the reef system thousands of years ago. Some species of Star, Elkhorn and Staghorn coral are listed as threatened species on the endangered species list.

These banks are some of the healthiest reef systems, thanks to being far removed from manmade pollutants. Nationwide, coral reefs are facing pressures from manmade pollutants. It’s been estimated that up to 70 percent of the corals in the Gulf of Mexico are in trouble.

Get Up Close!

In addition to the Flower Garden Banks Exhibit, Moody Gardens is enhancing its touch tank in this area to give guests a fully immersive experience while crossing the air/water border. The tank showcases invertebrates including sea stars, hermit crabs and pencil urchins, all of which guests will be able to touch.

Renovations will offer guests a spectacular aquarium experience including a new Gulf of Mexico Oil Rig Exhibit and Mangrove Exhibit. Moody Gardens will unveil enhancements made to the Aquarium Pyramid to the public with a grand reveal May 27. Travel from the Gulf of Mexico to the South Atlantic, the South Pacific and the North Pacific. Each ocean exhibit highlights different marine sanctuaries.

We’re also adding jellyfish and tropical penguins at the Aquarium Pyramid, all ready for you to explore starting May 27, 2017!