Aransas National Wildlife Refuge – Part 1

Hank Fox said this to me once: “The idea of waiting for days in a mosquito-infested swamp for that rare pic of a reticulated dingfoozle just boggles me.”  Although I saw no dingfoozles—reticulated or otherwise—I did spend days in mosquito-infested swamps, woodlands and marshes.  Mosquitoes and deer flies munched on me without pause.  Internal dialogue about the problem quickly turned to under-the-breath external dialogue punctuated by vulgarities that would strip paint off a wall.  “Ouch!” became the weekend’s key phrase.  Hank’s comment made me laugh through it all, so I dedicate the rest of this series to him.

The time I spent in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas left me with almost 100 mosquito bites and an innumerable collection of wounds inflicted by deer flies[1].  (Thankfully the horse flies left me alone.)  I even drove home with more than a dozen mosquitoes in my car, a collection that I began early in the morning on my first day and that grew throughout the weekend.  Many more perished than survived, I’m sure, given the heat in the car as it sat idle for hours, but I hurt myself chuckling as the six hours home turned into a quest to find—and perhaps agitate—the bloodsuckers riding with me.  Even the morning after I arrived back in Dallas, two of them escaped into the garage as soon as I opened the door.

The threat of anemia notwithstanding, I enjoyed every minute of my stay on the Gulf Coast.  All things considered—oppressive heat and humidity included—it could not have been more invigorating or eye opening.  And though the critical drought strangling Texas left an indelible mark on the Aransas NWR, one that changed a predictable visit into one of troubling discovery, I wouldn’t swap the experience for anything.

So in these next few entries let me share with you two things: (1) thoughts and observations on the worrisome condition of this area, and (2) photographs showing the undeniable magic that is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

I already discussed the ongoing drought’s impact on Aransas.  Prior to gaining that knowledge, I arrived at dawn and felt certain the effects of Texas’s sorry condition somehow had been tempered in this place.  I drove through the gate and stopped to soak up the first signs of life within the reserve’s boundaries.  Perhaps all I feared had been for naught; perhaps Aransas had escaped so much of the devastation the lack of rain had caused elsewhere in the Lone Star State.

A white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) grazing (2009_05_16_018618)

A large herd of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) openly grazed in the shadows.  Like this doe, they focused on breakfast and ignored me.  I rolled down the passenger window and took some photographs.  Throughout my visit I saw more deer than anything else—including birds—and that’s when I realized how much things had changed.  The cervids moved about even through the hottest part of the day.  I suspect the dwindling food supply and lack of fresh water caused this change in normal behavior.

An American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) resting in a clearing (2009_05_16_018626)

Near Thomas Slough, an American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) perched comfortably where sunrise would soon drop a sixpence of sunlight.  About ten feet/three meters long, it remained stationary when I rounded the treeline yet vanished the moment I tried for a second picture[2].  This area showed the most damage from lack of fresh water.  What had been a lush, verdant, tropical environment showed more browns than greens, more dry earth than ponds.  Where numerous alligators once filled every bit of water and carved lasting paths through dirt and foliage, I saw only four of the reptiles across a wide area of the refuge.

A ittle blue heron (Egretta caerulea) in breeding plumage perched in a treetop (2009_05_16_018640)

Little blue herons (Egretta caerulea) had a respectable presence—unlike most other birds.  Aransas NWR boasts more than 400 bird species with a maximum count of 33 species in 15 minutes (mileage varies depending on time of year).  While I saw birds at every turn, the number of species and number of individuals appeared muted.  Significantly.  Let me put it this way: I’m more than a photographer when it comes to nature and rare is the time that anything goes unnoticed by me.  Thus has been my success at locating and photographing a variety of life that others never see.  Yet within the confines of Aransas’s borders, I saw and heard no more than 18 avian species.  An older couple birding the area met me at the observation tower with binoculars in hand and put it more succinctly: “Slim pickings.”  Indeed…

A lone greater angle-wing katydid (a.k.a. broad-winged katydid; Microcentrum rhombifolium) resting on a roadway (2009_05_16_018652)

A lone greater angle-wing katydid (a.k.a. broad-winged katydid; Microcentrum rhombifolium) fluttered onto the service drive as I wandered deeper into the refuge.  Insect numbers shocked me.  Cicadas were hard to find.  Few butterflies moved about where vast numbers could be seen in years past.  Wasps and hornets seemed nonexistent.  Even horse flies and midges had a limited presence.  Mosquitoes and deer flies notwithstanding, the lack of arthropods made the refuge feel abandoned.

A black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) marching along the drying edges of a slough as two blue-winged teal (Anas discors) drakes rest in the background (2009_05_16_018681)

A black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) marched along the drying edges of a slough as two blue-winged teal (Anas discors) drakes sat in what amounted to a mud puddle.  Wading and aquatic birds were all but gone.  Only two heron species could be found where more than half a dozen should be common.  I saw no spoonbills, storks, pelicans, bitterns, ibises or other regular inhabitants.  Only one species of duck and one species of plover made appearances, and I saw only one white-tailed hawk and one crested caracara.  I expected more grackles, cardinals and sparrows, and I saw no vireos, warblers, flycatchers or woodpeckers.  There were more terns and gulls at my hotel than at the refuge.  Black and turkey vultures, on the other hand, seemed plentiful.

A close-up of Texas pricklypear (a.k.a. Texas prickly pear, Nopal pricklypear, Lindheimer pricklypear; Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri) with dry plants surrounding it (2009_05_16_018722)

Texas pricklypear (a.k.a. Texas prickly pear, Nopal pricklypear, Lindheimer pricklypear; Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri).  In many places it became a green boat floating on a sea of brown.  Cordgrass, bulrush and common reed all seemed stunted; for the first time in my life I saw Spanish dagger with wilted leaves.  The dwarf palmetto looked positively parched.  And so many trees remained barren and leafless, stark outlines made of empty promises.  Vast grasslands of mostly bluestem looked like raw kindling waiting for a match to set them ablaze.  Burn bans and the associated signs are ubiquitous.

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[1] For the obvious question, the answer is simple: No, I don’t use insect repellent when in the field.  Our standard issue human smell causes enough problems on its own, let alone if it’s coupled with shampoo, soap, deodorant, laundry detergent, and whatever else we carry with us without realizing it.  But insect repellent is a whole different story.  The chemicals used to keep insects from landing create a noxious cloud of toxic fog that surrounds us and follows us and whistles on the wind at every opportunity.  If you want nature to shun you and retreat before you even realize an animal is around, wear insect repellent.  Oh, and it was too hot and too humid for an insect suit, so I played commando and suffered the beating.

[2] That problematic twig of bluestem bothered me, that brown stick rising up in the foreground across the alligator’s snout.  I’m no photography snob, mind you; I don’t think “technically perfect” images are the only presentable images.  Still, I wanted a second chance at the photo.  So ever so slowly I took one step to the left and began to kneel down, but I was within the alligator’s charge radius and its comfort zone.  Surprising it the first time was one thing; adding to that invasive injury the insult of more movement caused it to spin on its hind legs and slide down the hill into the swamp.  I wanted to kick myself.

[cross-posted to The Clade]

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