Scientists measure damage to endangered species' habitat (w/video)
Sept. 21, 2017 at 9:51 p.m.
Updated Sept. 21, 2017 at 10:12 p.m.
AUSTWELL - When Hurricane Harvey made landfall last month, a game camera at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge snapped pictures about 5 miles from the eye of the storm.
The camera, facing a pond on the southern end of Blackjack Peninsula, monitors whooping cranes in the winter.
This week, Elizabeth Smith, senior whooping crane scientist with the International Crane Foundation, found the camera unscathed and replaced it with another.
She climbed into her car and eagerly opened her laptop to pop the SD camera in.
"It's got 10,000 pictures on it, so there's got to be something good," she said.
She and other scientists refer to the pond as Dry Hole.
But the pictures she pulled up on her laptop showed it was anything but dry a day after Harvey made landfall.
While the camera didn't snap any photos overnight while the storm was making landfall, the photos in the morning showed 2 to 3 feet of water.
"You could see water lapping up in the whole area and actually small waves," said Wade Harrell, whooping crane recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Harrell said because there are no tide gauges at the refuge, Smith's pictures, along with the debris line, will help scientists estimate the height of the storm surge there.
He said that could help determine which habitat is most resilient to storms and sea level rise in the future.
Last winter, the almost-5-foot-tall endangered birds spent more time at Dry Hole than at any other pond the scientists were monitoring: an average of 24 minutes per visit drinking and foraging for food.
During the summer, the International Crane Foundation kept the camera up to see how wildlife that call the refuge home year-round reacted to Hilcorp Energy Co. drilling an oil well nearby.
Whooping cranes live in pairs and are not used to humans.
If other wildlife are bothered by the drilling, the whooping cranes will be, too, Smith said.
Before reaching the camera at Dry Hole, the two scientists tested the salinity of at least three other freshwater ponds on the northeast side of the peninsula the whooping cranes have used before. The tests showed that the ponds contained 10 parts of salt for every thousand parts of water - which is higher than normal.
"That certainly isn't typical here, even in droughts," Smith said.
She explained whooping cranes can use a pond as long as the salinity does not exceed 18 parts of salt for every thousand parts of water.
If it doesn't rain between now and when the whooping cranes arrive from Canada, the freshwater in the ponds will evaporate and the salinity will increase.
"It sounds counterintuitive, but honestly, the best thing that could happen over the next month is for us to get a good 3- to 4-inch rain event," Harrell said.
Some of the ponds can be replenished with well water, but more than 20 wind- and solar-powered wells were damaged by the hurricane.
Historically, the wells were powered by windmills, but over the years, through a project called "Water for Wildlife," they have been outfitted with solar panels and more solar-powered wells have been drilled as money became available.
Harrell said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is applying for a grant through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. If awarded, repairing some wells would be just one of the things that grant would cover.
Harrell didn't know yet how costly it would be but said repairing the wells would be a priority regardless.
Smith also measured the salinity of the San Antonio Bay on Wednesday and found that it was fresher than the ponds. The surrounding bays supply the whooping cranes with one of their favorite foods, blue crabs.
Harrell marveled at the shoreline erosion along San Antonio Bay at the refuge.
At least 26 feet eroded with what they estimated was a 9-foot storm surge.
"You hear that phrase, 'We lost a lot of ground.' Well, here's where we lost a lot of ground," Harrell said.
Also this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked to reopen the refuge to the public.
The about 115,000-acre refuge - which is also home to reddish egrets, piping plovers and aplomado falcons - has been closed to the public since Aug. 24.
Reddish egrets and piping plovers are listed by the state as threatened, while aplomado falcons are listed as endangered. The falcons liked to nest on towers on Matagorda Island that were downed by the hurricane.
Refuge Manager Joe Saenz stood beneath live oak trees that a few weeks before were stripped of their leaves. Even though he was without a permanent office because it sustained rain damage, he was encouraged by the trees' regrowth.
"Nature is resilient," he said.
Saenz said he hopes to have the tour loop and all the trails on the refuge open to the public by Monday.
There are normally 18 employees at the refuge, but employees from Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico came to help with the reopening.
"For us to be able to share what we do out here and why we do it is really important," Saenz said.
If they can't open the entire tour loop, then visitors can go to at least the observation tower at no cost.
He and Harrell said man-made debris appears to be concentrated in what's called the Tatton Unit of the refuge, and they'll work to remove it after consulting with contamination specialists.
The Tatton Unit is thousands of acres of coastal grassland between SH 35 and St. Charles Bay.
"There's some issues," Harrell said for the whooping cranes and other wildlife, "but it can be addressed."
The Refuge, which was established in 1937, sees about 60,000 visitors annually, and that includes those who come on tour boats, Saenz said.
The whooping cranes are one of the main draws, so the Refuge will see a spike in visitors when they arrive.
"Here in about a month or so, we are going to see more," Saenz said.
Day 1: Here comes Harvey
Day 2: Brace yourself
Day 3: 'Prayers protect us'
Day 5: 'At least God let us live'
Day 6: 'It's the luck of the draw'
Day 10: The Long Road Ahead (w/video)
Day 12: For some, normal still far away
Day 15: FEMA frustrates Harvey victims
Day 16: Displaced and in disarray
Day 18: Nature interrupted (w/video)
Day 19: 'It was like we had been bombed'