Thus far, my previous blogs have been exploiting some of my old camp journals that are just collecting dust at home. I’m going to be a bit radical this week and write about a recent topic rather than an event that occurred a decade or two ago. Today’s blog involves some brief anecdotes I jotted down regarding the recent Hurricane that struck our beloved Houston early in the morning (dark) on 13 September 2008.
When friends and relatives asked me how it went post-hurricane, without power and many of the creature comforts our society has grown so used to, I replied, “it feels balmy and tranquil, much like my old study site in Amazonia” (which, incidentally, will be the focus of next month’s entry). A long-time friend of mine named John described the events at his house as ‘Hurrication,’ where the teens were forced to interact with the rest of the family through playing board games, consuming massive quantities of perishable food during marathon cookouts, and everyone generally having a great time despite circumstances. With no power, roads blocked by downed trees and electrical lines, and lines to purchase gasoline not worth the struggle, it was a great time to deflate and smell what remained of the flowers. My family and I went on many walks to cool off since the outside was overall cooler than the inside the house. During this time we made various observations of how the storm affected the local urban wildlife, which I will attempt to recount below.
- Vegetation was mangled, or completely removed in many cases. Huge pine trees with a diameter exceeding a yard were snapped clean off at the base like a toothpick. The animals which depended on such plant communities to thrive had their lives thrown into complete chaos, through their habitat being mangled, or completely removed.
- It had been a couple of years since we had seen any Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) in our yard, yet several individuals passed through after the storm, trying to stake out a new territory. One pair even chased a large Buteo hawk into a tree in our front yard, where it rested briefly before being found and further harassed by the jays.
- We figured mosquitoes would be abundant from the rain that followed the storm, but not a one. Most wildlife was noticeably lacking. I was extremely disturbed at absolutely no sign of any of the four species of doves commonly found in the neighborhood, and you can guess my relief when they began to return six days after the storm. It is very likely that many of the birds left the region well in advance of the storm. Wildlife seems to have an internal barometric gauge. For example, prior to the massive typhoon in south-east Asia, much of the wildlife left the coastal forest for the higher interior forest.
- Whereas some wildlife left prior to the storm, other species stayed and were noticeably more active. An unusually high number of Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa sp.) were all over our house gardens, perhaps trying to find new resources since their former founts were now gone. Similarly, displaced Fox Squirrels (Sciurus niger) were actively scurrying about in search of a new dwelling in light of the huge piles of fallen trees and limbs.
- A Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta) was found dead on the road on the corner of Haddon and Morse. These aquatic turtles are not native to this region, but introduced through the pet trade. The fact that it was at least a mile or two from Buffalo Bayou was amazing. All the rain and mild flooding that followed the tail end of the storm may have transported this turtle from the bayou to the suburbs, where it sadly met its death. We knew it was a young turtle, as the carapace (upper shell) was only 12.5 cm (5 inches) in diameter.
- Another casualty from the storm involved a flock of approximately 20 House Sparrows (Passer domesticus). These were all over the sidewalk of a small alley by a Marble Slab ice cream shop in a strip shopping center near our house. Perhaps they had taken cover in the only thing they were able to find once the storm got really rough, where they sadly met their death. Like the turtle mentioned above, these non-migratory (i.e., annual resident) birds were also introduced to the U.S.
Without a doubt, for me personally, the most unfortunate aspect of Ike’s wrath was the devastation it did to various reserves that are crucial to migrating Neotropical songbirds. High Island, Bolivar Peninsula, Sabine Woods and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge are only a few of these sites that were hit really hard. However, with time and effort by loyal volunteers, these refuges will again be hotspots for Neotropical avian migrants passing through our beloved state of Texas.
-D.B., 13 October 2008
(1 month after Ike hit)