Drought and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja)This may seem a rather peaceful, edenic-looking photo. Trust me, it’s not. This pond is withering away rapidly. I’ve never seen it this low my entire life. It’s easily three or four times lower than it should be. It’s highly saline and the spoonbill feeding in it is a stressed animal, which should normally have a relatively different color set this time of year, a brighter, almost magenta hue to it’s pinkish wings.

This is going on all around the Coastal Bend this year. Salt levels are three hundred percent higher than normal in the bays (think of them as giant estuaries). Blue crab populations are collapsing. Oyster catches are falling and on and on. A large fight is shaping up between environmentalist and chemical companies. There is so little fresh water flowing into the bays–much of it being used for fracking, refining and very necessary agriculture upriver that the survival in the wild of the last flock of Whooping Cranes is once again being called into question.

In an average year a visitor should see at least twenty to thirty different species of birds in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. I was exceptionally lucky to have seen only ten. There should be kites and kestrels and caracaras all along the roads, perched on the telephone poles hawking field animals running around in the cotton fields. But not this year. Cotton yields on the Coastal Bend are well below normal and the crop was harvested a month early. There should be swarms of orioles, both Bullock’s and Baltimores in the trees eating the abundant early fall berries. There should be herons and egrets and pipers and all other manner of shore birds. There should be warblers galore: Nashville Warblers, Prothonotary Warblers, Black-and-Whites, Canadians etc. . There were few, if any.

Of course, one benefit to the deep plowing farmers are doing (they plow and turn over the soil deeply to catch the meager rains when they come) are the bugs which leads to a lot of flycatchers. But other than that? Nothing. What happens once all those bugs have been eaten?

Destroy the bottom of the foodchain and you also destroy the top of it.

Cattlemen in the Coastal Bend are deeply culling their herds. We saw few cattle and the ones we did were drought stressed, thin and the absence of cattle egrets was palpable. The drive from Rockport to the Refuge was a surreal concatenation of dried marshes, brown reeds and bone dry creek beds, normally full of water and meandering languidly down to the bays. Sure, it was humid. But it was also 104* degrees there Sunday. That’s simply too hot this time of year, with a strong wind coming in from the Gulf every gets dried out even more. Everything is dying.

I was in no way prepared for what I saw down there this year. It was brutal and gut wrenching.

Light

Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Or maybe it just happened that suddenly. The last time I was in Austin was August 30. I went down to San Antonio to see my father for a few days, hang out, catch up, eat some fresh drum and speckled trout from Baffin Bay.

It’s still frightfully hot–101* today and 100* yesterday. It’s not going to abate any time in the next ten days, either.

But while I was outside a few moments ago, watering and feeding the birds I saw it: there was an edge to the light, just the hint of the equinoctial: the blue a bit bluer and the clouds running across the sky with an almost mirror-like reflectiveness.

Gone was the bleached out, fiery, white-washed sky.

It’s the kind of light that reminds me summer is almost over and that cool air will begin arriving from Canada soon.

For that I am grateful.