Texas Flooding Impacts Area Flora and Fauna

The recent flash floods in Texas have most certainly changed lives, displacing hundreds and destroying homes, roads and bridges.  While donating clothes, food and toiletries to a shelter yesterday, the human toll was very clear as the faces of those effected told stories that words could not convey.  We have been very fortunate and want to thank the many that have called, texted and emailed to make sure we were ok.  As we live up on a hill, the flooding hasn't come near our neighborhood and we are grateful.  Let me be very clear when I say this, our main concern continues to be with the individuals and families who lost so much, especially the families who have lost loved ones.

As I stood along the blown out banks of the Blanco River below the I-35 bridge, I was taken aback at the change in the scenery before me.  There were bales of hay scattered great distances from fields down the road, large pipes on the roadside that belonged to construction sites and companies well away from where I stood.  I cross over this bridge on my way to and from the airport a couple times a month, not to mention each time I head into Austin.  I drove over this bridge just a few days ago and almost didn't recognize where I was now.  It may sound cliche, but it looked as though a bomb had gone off.  I stood in a scoured area where once lush vegetation had been.  What vegetation remained was bent over and now laid on its side and, when you surveyed the area, you could use it as an indicator of just how far the Blanco spilled from its banks.  There were massive cypress, sycamore and elm trees splintered and tossed aside, revealing the sheer force and power of the raging waters.  

Blanco River at I-35 bridge, San Marcos, TX, after flash flood. (Click to enlarge)

This river always seemed so sluggish and shallow, staying about 5 feet deep.  Just hours before I stood there, it was above 42 feet in places.  It went well above the bridge over my head, some 15 to 20 feet higher than it was even at this moment.  There was debris jammed underneath the bridge, illustrating the height of the flow and the amount of material washed downstream.  As I struggled to comprehend the changes, I heard Cliff Swallows as they flew around.  It was then I realized there were more victims of this flood than just my fellow Texans.  I set out to at least get an initial determination of the impact to the breeding birds and other fauna.  

Debris under the bridge, even lodged underneath the bottom.  (Click to enlarge)

Having not done a pre-flood population assessment of the flora and fauna of this specific location, I offer these post-flood accounts having a firm grasp of what should be there.  The Cliff Swallows that flew over my head were a fraction of the numbers I'd noted driving over the bridge in the days and weeks before.  As I walked under the bridge, I was able to see exactly why.  There were nests only on one part of the bridge, the lee side of the very outside of the bridge, away from the river current.  These surviving nests had been somewhat protected by the barrier of the concrete bottom wall of the bridge.  Upon closer look, all nests that had been on the front side of the bridge, facing the current of the river, had been washed away.  There were a few outlines showing evidence of the mud nests that had been there the night before, but most had been completely washed away.  Based on what I saw, there were probably over a hundred nests lost.  My focus soon turned to noting the condition of the nests that remained on the back of the bridge.

What remained of the Cliff Swallow nests was feverish with activity.  Birds flew in with mouthfuls of mud, shoring up the entrances to the ceramic jug-like nests still there.  We were smack in the middle of breeding season and nesting was still going on for many pairs of swallows.  Those that had already fledged chicks and those that had not begun nesting yet were in the best shape.  They still had all of their efforts behind and before them.  Those that had eggs may be able to renest.  There is still much of the spring left. Those that had chicks in the nest here were not so fortunate.  I watched an adult Cliff Swallow perched above the remnants of a nest, with the lifeless body of a chick dangling from the nest above the racing waters.  The vocalization was not one I'd heard before.  It was plaintive and it conveyed a universal message. Though we communicate differently, I understood the tiny swallow completely.

As you can see in the video above, there are dozens of Cliff Swallows, but nothing compared to the scores I'd noticed before the flash flood.  The sounds of House Sparrows began to join in and I noticed a few opportunistic individuals looking to get a free house, as these invasives often do.  What I did not hear; however, were the songs or calls of other species of birds.  There should've been more species singing.  There should have been notes from several other species singing.  There were none.  The reason was obvious, the river washed the trees and vegetation that would have contained nests away.  Let us not forget that there was more destruction here... more than we initially recognize.

The power of the river.  (Click to enlarge)

This flood is part of the larger climate change issue surrounding us all.  Last year, the hill country was parched and dry.  Most of the plains were brown and thirsty.  We've already gotten more rain this spring than was recorded all last year, with some places seeing more rain just this month than all last year.  Wimberley is a lovely town that I enjoy visiting, just 20 minutes from here.  Wimberley was hammered by this flood.  San Marcos, Austin, San Antonio and Houston have seen flooding after historic rainfalls.  Extreme swings in precipitation are indicators of climate change; droughts followed by deluges and vice versa.  

This morning, I went back to survey for birds and I am pleased to report that, along with the Cliff Swallows, I heard a Yellow-billed cuckoo, a Belted Kingfisher, two Red-winged Blackbirds and a Blue Grosbeak.  Nature has begun to recover, just as my fellow Texans have.  It will be quite some time before the vegetation will rebound and it will be generations before those giant trees can be replaced; but, nature is constantly working and it marches forward.  Like the citizens of the hill country, it is resilient and it will recover.  It may not be today, but it  has begun.

Sunset after the storm.