I am sure that all of us in the Hill Country are pleased to hear the sound of thunder once again and that we are receiving much needed rain. After we got the fall rains that were to get many of the wildflowers up and preparing for the winter season, the rains seemed to stop. The weather forecasters often tempted us with forecasts that included "chances for rain" in the 30 to 60 percent range, but on rain day many of us were left holding a dry bucket. A few fortunate folks did get some relief, but most of us, not so much.
I just completed six Christmas Bird Counts, three in the coastal area and three here. The conditions in all six were much the same - dry ground the normal. The coastal area needs rain to keep the salinity levels in the bays and estuaries in check and fresh water for ponds and creeks. I wrote about the Whooping Cranes' need for fresh water to give the principal food source, blue crabs, a chance to survive and the wolfberries, another food source, to produce fruit. Similarly, the puddle ducks need natural rain in the marshes to give them food and cover.
Here in the Hill Country, it is a common sight to see dry stock ponds, or in the better scenario, stock puddles. For us bird counters to find any waterfowl, it is necessary to find one of those puddles. This counting season was better than last year when there were no puddles, only parched, cracked pond floors. We can be hopeful that there will be enough heavy rains to allow some of the rainwater to reach these tanks and ponds. Fortunately, waterfowl and waders have the means to travel until they find conditions suitable for food and cover.
Winter rains are critical for the forbs and grasses to build their root systems to allow the plants to grow and flourish when spring rains come. In 2011, the spring rains did not come, leaving these plants to wither up and vanish, thereby leaving the dependent wildlife with neither food nor cover. As plants are on the low end of the food chain, their demise significantly reduces the birds' and mammals' chances to survive. Livestock, in times of stress, further remove any available food and cover resources, leaving birds and smaller mammals with essentially "bare cupboards."
The current rains will allow moisture to move deeper into the soil profile giving some reserve should we continue in this drought period. The best scenario will be to have the soil profile to reach saturation and let the excess flow to our creeks, stock ponds, lakes and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico coastal region. It might be wishful thinking, but at least we are receiving enough rain to allow us to hope for more to come in the near term. On a larger scale these rains will also be helpful for area farmers to salvage their winter crops.
I have not read that we are moving from La Nina to El Nino conditions any time soon, but we can hope that there might be a little respite with wetter times for the upcoming year. As we live near the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, we have to understand that prolonged rain times are not the norm and be grateful for what we receive. Every day we read in our newspapers or hear on radio and television about problems related to our dwindling water resources. We can help in the process of water conservation by limiting water use and utilizing rainwater harvesting. We can help our feathered and furry friends by making sure they have water sources available.
Will the current rains be enough to quench our thirst? Not likely, but it buys us more time to have a good spring bloom for our wildflowers and grasses. If they have a good bloom, that insures seeds and cover for our wildlife. More importantly it provides us with another reminder that our water resources are extremely important and we should take all necessary steps to conserve our most precious treasure. In the meantime, do not put away the rain dance gear as we do not know when the next rain will fall.