Tag Archives: black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge – Part 3

“A top climate scientist warned [in October 2007] that Texas faces a dual threat from floods and drought if global warming is left unchecked.”  Additionally, “scientists’ computer models indicate that the pattern of drier weather has already begun.”

Texas almost certainly faces a future of perpetual drought as bad as the record dry years of the 1950s because of global warming, climate scientists said in a study published Thursday [April 5, 2007].

The trend toward a drier, hotter southwestern U.S., including all of Texas, probably has already begun and could become strikingly noticeable within about 15 years, according to a study led by Richard Seager of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Drought conditions are expected to resemble the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s and Texas’ worst-ever drought of the 1950s, Dr. Seager said.  Unlike those droughts, however, the new conditions won’t be temporary, the study found.

The warning is bleak: Prepare for an “imminent transition to a more arid climate.”

“In 2006, drought-related crop and livestock losses were the state’s worst for a single year, totaling $4.1 billion.”  In July 2007, “the state was declared drought-free for the first time in at least a decade” following the “wettest January to August period on record…”  By February of the following year, however, and despite “hurricanes Dolly, Gustav and Ike soaking Texas in 2008, almost every part of the state — nearly 97% — [was once again] experiencing some drought…”

Just this past week “it was noted that the most recent rains over the last several months have had little to no impact on the hydrology in the state, with rivers, streams, and reservoirs lagging as some locations have had improvements.  Many changes were made across the state this week, with [abnormally dry and moderate drought] expanded in the northern panhandle, [severe drought] improved in the southern tip of the state, [severe drought, extreme drought and exceptional drought] expanded in south central Texas, and [abnormally dry] expanded in central Texas.  Even in areas where some good rains fell during the spring months, agricultural and hydrological concerns are still having issues related to the long-term dryness in the region.”

In fact, “drought conditions … are so bad cattle are keeling over in parched pastures and dying.”  State agriculture officials pointed out in March 2009 “that ranchers in the nation’s largest cattle-producing state [had] already lost nearly $1 billion because of [the] ongoing drought.”

But what of nature’s own, the flora and fauna in the state?  Of more than 800 bird species in the U.S., “the official Texas State List [contains] 632 species in good standing,” and of “the 338 [bird] species that are listed as Nearctic-Neotropical migrants in North America (north of Mexico), 333 of them (or 98.5%) have been recorded in Texas.”  The state provides the only migratory route for the entire eastern population of monarch butterflies.  More species of North America’s wild cats live in Texas than anywhere else north of the Mexico border.  93 endangered species reside in the state.

Black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) hunting in what remains of the freshwater ponds (2009_05_16_018789)

“The lack of rainfall means freshwater marshes … that were inundated by Hurricane Ike are not being flushed of salt water.  That lack of flushing is killing plants and damaging soil chemistry.”

“…[W]ildlife die-offs of whooping cranes and deer have been reported.”  This past winter “the only migrating whooping-crane flock that exists in the wild lost 23 of its 270 members to hunger and disease brought on by the dry weather, said Tom Stehn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping-crane coordinator.”  And that loss came despite “the fact that the cranes’ diet was supplemented for the first time in 60 years…”

“…[L]ittle fresh water is available for use by mottled duck broods, and that will likely lead to a very low production of mottled ducks this season. […] They’ve been declining for the past 30 years due to habitat loss and other factors, so drought effects are adding stress to an already stressed population.”

American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) trying to remain submerged in what has become a salty mud puddle (2009_05_16_018767)

“…[A]lligators and amphibians are unable to recolonize areas inhabited before Hurricane Ike because of the salt water, and populations of these animals will likely remain depressed for the next several years.”

“Lack of salt-flushing winter rains along the upper and middle Texas coast have much delayed recovery of wetlands hit hard by Hurricane Ike and could … negatively impact health of estuaries crucial to marine life.”

“The coastal fishing industry also has been hit hard as salty conditions shrink populations of shellfish such as oysters and crabs.”

“Siltation from Ike smothered approximately 60 percent of Galveston Bay’s oyster beds.  Increased salinity caused by lack of freshwater runoff from rivers allows salinity-loving predators such as oyster drills and ‘dermo’ to prey upon remaining oyster beds.”  “Any further loss of oysters will have a hugely detrimental impact on the bay’s ecosystem…”

Male chital (a.k.a. cheetal, chital deer, spotted deer, or axis deer; Axis axis) searching for food on barren ground (2009_05_22_020413)

“…[T]here were reports of non-native axis deer dying from starvation coupled with cold weather earlier this year.  TPWD wildlife biologists report range conditions are in poor shape, prickly pear is thin because of the lack of water and feral hogs are looking very thin and drawn down.”

“…TPWD wildlife biologists observed a considerable drop in the pronghorn antelope population…”

Pregnant white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) grazing (2009_05_16_018596)

“Dry conditions threaten to negatively impact wildlife because of a lack of forage and cover from which to avoid predation.  Lack of ground cover could significantly limit nesting efforts of ground-nesting birds such as turkey and quail and reduce survival of deer fawns.”  “Native whitetail deer still appear in decent condition but may not last long if the situation continues.”

“If parts of Texas remain parched, particularly the south, experts say Rio Grande turkey breeding activity and nesting effort will be greatly reduced or nonexistent.”

Female pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor) laying eggs on a dying sprout (2009_05_16_018875)

“[T]he bare ground — a lot of it covered only with dirt and rock — can’t support the microorganisms and insects that form the base of the food chain.”

Yellow-bellied bee assassin (Apiomerus flaviventris) in search of food (2009_05_16_018907)

This spring has resulted in “minimal rebounding of the ‘good’ vegetation necessary to support thriving natural systems.”

“Even weeds are having a hard time flourishing.”

Great southern white butterfly (Ascia monuste) feeding from bushy seaside tansy (a.k.a. sea ox-eye; Borrichia frutescens) (2009_05_16_018862)

— — — — — — — — — —

Houston Chronicle (1, 2)
Associated Press (1, 2, 3, 4)
U.S. Drought Monitor
Dallas Morning News
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (1, 2)
Texas Birds Records Committee
Wild Cat Species of North America
The Wall Street Journal


[1] Black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) hunting in what remains of the freshwater ponds; the newly exposed ground is covered with crystallized salt

[2] American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) trying to remain submerged in what has become a salty mud puddle; a dozen alligators once occupied this brackish pond; now there’s barely room for one—and a juvenile at that

[3] Male chital (a.k.a. cheetal, chital deer, spotted deer, or axis deer; Axis axis) searching for food on barren ground; half the trees in this area are dead

[4] Pregnant white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) grazing in front of the refuge’s administrative buildings; I worry for her offspring’s future

[5] Female pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor) laying eggs on a dying sprout; no pipevine (Aristolochia sp.) could be found by me or by the butterflies, so her eggs will probably give rise to caterpillars that will starve

[6] Yellow-bellied bee assassin (Apiomerus flaviventris) in search of food; with so few insects at a time when they should be plentiful, this predator will have a hard time locating sustenance

[7] Great southern white butterfly (Ascia monuste) feeding from bushy seaside tansy (a.k.a. sea ox-eye; Borrichia frutescens); the shrub now fills what used to be a salt marsh full of blue crab

[cross-posted to The Clade]

[Update] David Crossley brought to my attention an incorrect date reference in the original text.  That reference has been corrected.

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.

— — — — — — — — — —


[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]