I girded myself for a second day in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Every part of my body itched from mosquito bites. And where mosquitoes had yet to nibble my flesh, deer flies had graced me with a polka-dot pattern of damage. Still, I refused to slather anything on the wounds to salve the constant discomfort just as I refused to apply chemical armor for the fight ahead. Wildlife seemed so uncomfortable already, so displaced by lack of fresh water, food and shelter, hence marching into the refuge cloaked in a noxious cloud felt like an even worse idea than it normally would be.
A light rain had fallen the previous afternoon and evening, nothing more than a sprinkle blanketed across hours. I held little hope that it proffered anything more than a tease for this parched and dying retreat.
Two killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) made a brief appearance in what had been a brackish pond, one of a handful separated from salt marshes by ancient oyster shell ridges. The birds bathed atop aquatic vegetation exposed by too little water. As I watched the plovers tend to their hygiene needs, I wondered about the plethora of white feathers scattered over the surface. Then I realized the blanket of white didn’t come from birds: it was crystallized salt. This slough should be mostly fresh water but never recovered from Hurricane Ike’s storm surge. As the water continued to retreat, the high saline content became a sort of tropical snow spread over the landscape.
Like other whiptails, the prairie racerunner (a.k.a. prairie six-lined racerunner; Cnemidophorus sexlineatus viridis) is both diurnal and insectivorous. I saw a few of them in the coastal woodlands and an individual in grasslands near the swamps and marshes. Those in the oak & redbay forest had gathered to feast on a swarm of flies hovering over the sandy ground. The small dark cloud of buzzing arthropods brought the lizards out from all directions. As for the racerunner in the grasslands, it seemed desperate to find food and chased anything that moved—which was very little. In previous years I’ve tripped over the army of whiptails scampering about at high speed. But not this year.
Common raccoons (a.k.a. northern raccoon, washer bear, or coon; Procyon lotor) were out in force. I spotted this one at noon hunting in the surf whilst trying unsuccessfully to keep its feet dry. While they don’t have to be nocturnal, so many individuals active throughout the day leads me to wonder if their behavior has changed in response to ecological pressure. I saw no armadillos and no opossums; likewise, I saw no squirrels and no chipmunks. Groups of wild boar and javelina moved further inland such that I only saw them from great distances as they hid in mottes. Their numbers have been greatly reduced.
White prickly poppy (a.k.a. bluestem pricklypoppy; Argemone albiflora) is drought tolerant. Or so it should be. Few of these native plants were flowering; all of them—like this one—showed a growing number of withering leaves. Wildflowers and grasses in the refuge look stunted at best and dead at worst. Yet lack of fresh water in the ground explains only half the problem. The high salt content not flushed by local and upstream rainfall has damaged the soil chemistry, an issue that won’t soon disappear given the amount of dry salt left behind as water evaporates. Even heavy rain will not easily wash that away given the volume of salt and how much moisture the soil can now absorb. And it wounded me to see so many trees that never returned from winter slumber…
The alligator viewing area. A fence stretched along the swamp keeps little children and stupid people from becoming lunch. A few years ago this place crawled with large reptiles bathing in sunshine, floating at the surface, hiding in the reeds and perching along the banks. This year? Not one alligator seen over an entire weekend, at least not here where they should have been numerous. Then again, I saw not one turtle and not one frog, and only one species of snake throughout the whole refuge—throughout the whole weekend.
A white peacock butterfly (Anartia jatrophae) perched only long enough for a single photo, after which it flitted away through the barren landscape. The distance from flower to flower, at least from its perspective, must have seemed gigantic. Of more than 700 plant species within the refuge, many are dead or dying while the rest struggle to hold on to what little life they have left. And of more than 100 wildflower species, perhaps 20-30 bloomed this year.
This will be the last of my personal observations from the refuge. The final installment of this series will include a few more images along with quotes from various sources about the changed climate in this part of the world.
[cross-posted to The Clade]