by Greg Whittaker
New Year’s Day always seems to have an air of renewal even though it’s an artifact of our own making. This year was particularly poignant with a bright sunny morning, calm winds and a comfortable temperature in the high 50s as I did my perimeter birding survey on the familiar route. Something was strikingly different however, as my “410-acre year” had officially ended the day before and I no longer was looking for that last elusive species to boost the property total. I found myself spending more time looking at what the birds were doing, not minding that I didn’t see a Spotted Sandpiper along Offatt’s Bayou, or the Belted Kingfisher on the tower in the marsh. I will be continuing the daily surveys at least through January to create some overlap in the seasonal diversity and provide the abundance data for the eBird listings, since I only included presence/absence with my January 2018 numbers.
I found myself being more contemplative on this first unofficial survey. Stopping to notice a secretive Pied-billed Grebe lurking in the shadows under the Hope Blvd culvert connecting Schlitterbahn with the Lake Madeline Channel. Watching the mixed species group of wading birds pictured above as they collaboratively fed in the slough near the mulch pile area. The Snowy Egret shuffling its yellow feet in the muddy water to spook prey items off the bottom, while the Tricolored Heron did a chaotic dance to chase down its breakfast. All the while, the quartet of White Ibis probed their foot-long curved bills into the marsh mud looking for tasty invertebrates. We should all take note how these different species can all peacefully co-exist in the same place at the same time, each deriving sustenance without adversely affecting those around them.
It struck me that 2018 was a year of awakening for me with regards to birding, with a tremendous amount of observational learning both in the field, through books and helpful colleagues. 2019 seems to be starting off with a more mindful awareness. Removing the competition aspect of attaining a year-long species total has given me more personal freedom to enjoy the birds I’m watching. 2019 should be less birdy for me: a promise I made my family as we moved out of the “Year of the Bird”. I’ll continue to do weekly property surveys and will work on building a cache of photos to document the diversity that the Moody Gardens property supports.
2018 ended with a total of 210 species seen here on Moody Gardens 240-acre property. We also tallied 138 species at the 170 acre Golf Course property with 14 being novel to the main Moody Gardens surveys, yielding a grand total of 224 species for the 410-acre year. There were a total of 290 daily surveys of Moody Gardens and 26 episodes of “chasing birdies” at the Golf Course. According to the eBird data for the Moody Gardens hotspot, we boosted the site total from 190 up to 249 over the course of 2018. Clayton Leopold, a fellow Moody Gardens biologist, was responsible for adding 10 of those new species. As an excellent birder, he texted me with updates and hints throughout the year when new migratory species showed up, or oddities were present. Fellow Island birders Mort Voller, Alice Anne O’Donnell and Jim Stevenson provided valuable guidance in species identification. Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council’s Executive Director, Julie Ann Brown, helped spread the word about this project to the broader nature tourism community. Clayton, Mort, Alice Anne, Jim and Julie Ann were on my group emails when I nailed some exciting new species or had a particularly cool day birding. David Sarkozi and Mike Austin provided guidance on species identification as eBird reviewers. They caught several mistakes in photographs I’d submitted and requested additional information for species IDs that were rare or needed better descriptions. Greg Miller (of “The Big Year” fame) provided motivation to finally pursue this project after many years of toying around with the idea.
Ultimately this project will yield a book to showcase the avian diversity that the Moody Gardens property supports, including those more exotic species that are in our care in the Rainforest, Aquarium and Conservation Education programs. A property map showing the various hotspots where migratory and resident birds tend to be seen, accompanied by a species ID reference will also evolve from this 410-acre year. We also intend to look at the species’ use patterns and provide habitat improvement features to benefit the birds, and viewing improvements to benefit the birders.
It was fitting to add #209 with Alice Anne O’Donnell’s Christmas Bird Count group and then finish out the year birding with Jim Stevenson and check off #210. Thank you both for your mentoring through this process.
Here’s to a birdy 2019!
Greg Whittaker, Author
Greg Whittaker is Moody Gardens’ animal husbandry manager and a birding enthusiast. He chairs the Galveston County Audubon Group and serves on both the Houston Audubon and Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council Boards of Directors