by Greg Whittaker
April 2020 was fantastic for birding in Galveston. Remember? I spent the entire month, all 30 days, plus a few before and a few after, birding Moody Gardens property. In the early days of the COVID spring we all found ourselves hiding away in dark places avoiding the scary virus outside. I endeavored to use my daily commute to and from work to try and bring a little nature to those that couldn’t make it outside. I think I did a pretty good job up through my third week update, but then missed the end of month hoorah. And then the May doldrums and that persistent virus thing kept me distracted. Then May was over and I thought “I’ll just do a belated April summary”. Nope. Then June was half over and it was impossible to find an appropriate link back that that glorious spring birding fun.
Finally, the perfect opportunity emerged. As I watched my daughter cross the stage for her diploma at Ball High School, figuratively finding her wings, late June offered me the perfect segue back to those good ole birdy days in April. This morning I was able to confirm the fledging of three Cooper’s Hawk chicks from an avian family saga I’d been documenting since way back on April first. No joke. I captured the moment when the awkward, fluffy, fledgling chick pictured above was first conceived. Today I visited the oak grove in a drizzling rain and watched as all three juveniles explored the greater oaky world around their nest, with their mother keeping a close eye on me below. Dad was in his usual spot in the oaks across the trail to the south. Not clear if that’s a strategy to avoid drawing attention to the nest site, or if mom’s still a bit cranky with him for having had to sit on that nest through all those hot afternoons. Having no doubt delivered more than a couple meals to the hungry clan already, he was resting before heading back out for another “shopping” trip.
For a birder, this is a bitter-sweet drama. I thought for sure the least developed of the trio hadn’t made it through the past 10 days since I’d last seen all three fluffy white heads in the nest. It wasn’t until this morning when I saw all three clumsy adolescents exploring the tree around them that I knew this was such a successful first family for this young mom. That’s the sweet aspect as everyone loves to see the cute babies survive. The bitter part is that Cooper’s Hawks are nature’s perfect avian predators. Both because they are birds, and also because they eat birds. Death from the sky. They are keenly adept at planning, scheming, rehearsing their stealthy approach through an alley, under a hedge, around a shrub for the perfect kill on the unsuspecting birds feeding at a backyard feeder. I’ve watched our dad in this story figure out how he can disorient and ambush birds in an oak grove adjacent to a bank of mirrored office windows to trap and catch them. Often at the desk of our CEO, General Manager or Marketing team as I’ve heard from multiple people over the past 2 months.
So kudos to our very young mother and her beau on their healthy family, but watch out birds, “chicken” is on the menu.
So what did happen in April? After birding every day from March 30th through May 2nd, I logged a total of 109 miles surveyed over 57 hours. I tallied 189 species of birds on Moody Gardens’ main property just in April. That number goes up to 192 with the single survey at the Moody Gardens Golf Course on 30 April. If you add on the 2 days at each end, the number hits 195 species for our little 410 acres of birdy habitat on the Gulf Coast. My top day was 19 April, when I saw an astounding 120 species in just over 5 hours of birding. Throw in the 5 other birders’ lists for property for that day and our list hit 149 species! That’s unbelievable for a 240-acre plot. April’s a great month for birding. You should plan to get out and enjoy it in 2021. I hope to be there with as many of you as possible exploring our tropical Island paradise.
Stay safe, socially distant and sane. Wear a mask – it’s for the public good. Wash your hands often – it’s for your own good. Hug those you can and let those you can’t know you’re thinking of them.
Get outside as often as you can and let nature heal your soul.
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