The Perfect Storm

A trio of River Otters (Lontra canadensis)

8:00 AM – Monday, February 15, 2021

The world had changed overnight. Looking out our bedroom window I could see that our yard had transformed from browns and emerging greens to white. Pure white. Everything was covered in ivory powder, and snow descended from on high and settled in a thickening blanket over leaves, grass, and spring forbs. We we warned that the storm was coming, but it was still a shock to see such a marked change. Quickly we donned our warmest winter garb and set out into the cold. We measured the depth of the snow off our back porch – five inches and counting! We caught perfect snowflakes on our sleeves, which kept their unique forms in the frigid air. It was cold, concerning, and beautiful and serene.

Incredibly, this was the second winter storm to pass through the Pineywoods in as many months. The first came the second week of January and dropped over six inches of snow. We were soon to find that this second storm, named Uri, would be much more serious. For the moment, however, we were enamored with the winter wonderland around us.

The flooded Neches River Bottoms photographed in the second week of January during our first winter storm of the year.

Not wanting to squander an opportunity to observe wildlife and capture images in these unique conditions, Carolina and I set out to a nearby nature preserve. Slowly we drove over the roads, their asphalt coated in a slurry of snow, salt, and ice. The thermometer in my truck read 17°F (-8°C). Save a few nights winter camping in the high country of the Guadalupe Mountains, I do believe this is the coldest temperature I’ve experienced since moving to Texas from Chicago over 20 years ago. And it was soon to get colder.

The snowfall had mostly ceased by the time we arrived at our destination, save a few flakes that seemed suspended midair. Forsters Terns, Ring-billed Gulls, and American Tree Swallows were gliding over the surface of the park’s lake, where rafts of Double-crested Cormorants floated among wintering Canvasbacks, Buffleheads, Lesser Scaups and Ruddy Ducks. Killdeer and Wilson’s Snipes took refuge along snowbanks developing along the shore, and American Pipits ventured out to forage on the rapidly forming ice.

A Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) hunkers down amid a historic winter storm.

I trusted in my waterproof jacket and laid in the snow right at the water’s edge, in hopes that the ducks might venture a bit closer. The water was much warmer than the air, and a thin veil of steam rose from its surface. Ironically, the difference in temperatures also created heat distortion, which wreaked havoc on my autofocus, blurred the scene, and seriously hampered my waterfowl photography efforts. I was able to capture a single image of a lovely drake Bufflehead that I hope conveys the bleak mood of the scene. I watched the handsome duck as it dove repeatedly into the frigid depths, insulated by its water-tight plumage.

A drake Bufflehad (Bucephala albeola) braves the cold.

“Time to pack it up,” I thought, when Carolina excitedly called out and directed my attention to three sleek forms slicing through water rendered gray by the day’s gloom. River Otters! They were moving toward a bridge on a berm that separated two portions of the lake. Quickly I moved to the edge of the water on the opposite side of the berm, hoping to anticipate their movements and put myself in the best position to capture some images. Soon one did appear, but it stayed low in the water and found the ice overtaking the lake to be too thin to support it. As quickly as it arrived, it crossed back under the bridge and out of view. I stood and swiftly moved back toward my original position. That’s when I saw fresh tracks in the snow. Caro told me that one of the otters had left the water and walked to within ten feet of me. I was devastated. I have a long history of otters sneaking up on me while I was distracted. But this time would be different. The otters regrouped in the water, then one went ashore again ahead of us. I got low and managed a few frames before it returned to the water.

A River Otter enjoys the snow.

Then something truly magical happened, and a once in a lifetime photographic opportunity unfolded before me. The otters approached the remains of a pine that long ago fell to the lake. On warm, sunny days this log will support dozens of basking turtles and the occasional American Alligator. Today, however, it would be the stage for a wonderful otter watching experience. At first they sat on submerged branches, as if lounging in some frigid spa.

A trio of River Otters in the frigid water. The third otter can be scene here swimming toward me. I didn’t notice it until Caro pointed it out AFTER I had processed the image!

They then returned to the water, made a short lap, and hopped up onto the snow-covered log. Otters are supremely insulated against the cold by a dense, water-repellant coat of fur, and they seemed to genuinely delight in the icy conditions. I watched as they buried their faces in the snow and then shook the white powder off. They rolled around in it, nudged one another, and rough-housed in it. Like many Texans, this year is likely the first time these otters have experienced real snowfall. It was a new element in their habitat that provided a seemingly endless source of entertainment.

River Otters playing in the snow.

My pursuit of wildlife photography has resulted in countless memorable experiences. Yet few, if any, have been as special as this one. Being able to photograph not one, but three North American River Otters, in the snow, in East Texas is something I can honestly say I never would have thought possible before that day, and something that I doubt I will ever experience again. I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to both witness and document it.

River Otters posing perfectly for a very content photographer

After their brief log-top romp, the otters returned to the water and quickly swam in the opposite direction. So we continued on the trail, and soon spotted a group of birds foraging near the water’s edge. It was a mixed flock of Swamp Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Rusty Blackbirds. The blackbirds were a particularly exciting find, as the species is quite uncommon and by all accounts declining rapidly.

A Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) foraging at the water’s edge.
A Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) ponders its reflection from a snowy perch.

From there, the trail takes a sharp turn and meanders through the woods. The canopy here is dominated by towering loblolly pines and massive post oaks. The understory is choked out by exotic Chinese privet and native, yet invasive yaupon holly, and every time I wander through here I can’t help but think that a good burn would do wonders. Still, there is a wonderful diversity of plant and animals here. Eastern redbuds, flowering dogwoods, and mayapples put on a floral display in the spring while Indian pipes and scores of goldenrods bloom in the fall. In addition to the otters, we have encountered a variety of wildlife here. We have seen numerous snakes species, two of which – the smooth earth snake and red-bellied snake are quite rare in the region. Northern Parulas sing here in the summer and scores of ducks can be found in the winter. Bald Eagles nest in tall pines at the water edge while alligator snapping turtles patrol its depths. It is a naturalists paradise, and it’s only minutes from home. I’ve found that often the most memorable encounters occur places familiar rather than some exotic destination.

Me on the trail of an Eastern Cottontail – Photo by Carolina. We never did find the bunny.

The snow was riddled with fresh tracks. Some were easy to identify, like those of the Eastern Cottontail. Others were more ambiguous, and guesses ranged from skunk to fox to hawk. While examining these calling cards left in the fresh powder, I heard a familiar whistling from the tree tops. This cacophony of high pitched buzzing could mean only one thing: Cedar Waxwings were near! We soon saw a small flock working privet and greenbrier berries in the midstory. We watched them for several minutes until one finally perched on a nearby brier vine, all puffed up to insulate against the biting cold.

A Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) takes a break from feasting on privet berries.

While out exploring the winter woods, a call came in from my good buddy James Childress. He excitedly reported that his property had been invaded by a flock of at least a hundred Fox Sparrows. “Damn,” I remember thinking. “I wish I could make it over there.” Fox Sparrows winter in the Pineywoods, but most years they are scarce, or at the very least hard to find. In a given winter, if I’m lucky I’ll see one or two if I’m out beating the bush. I’ve certainly never had a good opportunity to capture photos of one. And here James was, sending me images of the LCD screen on the back of his camera of these elusive Emberizids in the snow and filling the frame. The roads were certainly too dangerous to make the trek out to his remote cabin. I was admittedly jealous of James, but it was hard to feel bummed after the incredible wildlife encounters we had just experienced.

Carefully we returned home and went about peeling off our winter layers and making a pot of hot coffee. I happened to glance out the window, and spotted a chunky reddish bird hopping around the snow in the back yard. It was a Fox Sparrow! I could hardly believe it. The next few days we had several seeking precious calories in the yard alongside American Robins, Chipping Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and more.

My mind quickly went to work envisioning the Fox Sparrow images I wanted to capture. I knew I wanted to get low and get close, and to capture them in the snow. So I snuck out into the backyard, laid flat on the snow, and covered myself in a white sheet. This rudimentary camouflaged worked wonders, and at times the sparrows were foraging within ten feet of me. By shooting from ground level I was able to create images with Fox Sparrows seemingly rising up out of a sea of white.

An inquisitive Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) in the snow.
A Fox Sparrow forages by scraping at the snow and leaves to reveal any tasty treats underneath.

We woke Tuesday to what was certainly the coldest temperature I’ve experienced in Texas. Our thermometer read 5°F, but some stations in the area were reporting temps as low as -1. All around the state power grids were failing, and millions of Texans were without power and potable water. Yet for us, it was still mostly business as usual. We hadn’t lost power and I was even able to work most of the day, until our internet began to fail to the point that it made work from home impossible. We were feeling incredibly fortunate to have made it through the storm unscathed.

8:00 AM – Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Then came Wednesday. I started work at 7, per my normal routine. Outside a drizzle of rain and ice was falling, and all of the branches were coated in glistening icicles. It almost looked as if they had been coated in blown glass. At around 7:30 I began hearing echoing CRACKS of splintering wood, followed by scraping and thunderous booms as massive branches broke free from the trees in our neighborhood. Laden with ice, many became too heavy for the trees to bear, and they came crashing down on lawns, fences, and roofs. The pine trees were hit particularly hard, and a number of old, 80 to 100 foot tall trees completely uprooted and fell, crushing anything in their trajectory to the earth. We were concerned for our old live oak, with its massive branches arching over most of the house.

At roughly 8 AM we lost power. The lights flickered a few times, and then it was gone. We had no idea when it might return, so we gathered our camping gear and made a few preparations. Soon the generators to our water supply failed and we were placed on a boil water notice. We were without power for the next 55 hours or so, and without potable water for another few days. The temperature in the house dropped to 51, which was chilly but tolerable. We boiled water for coffee, made hamburgers and “torta fritas”, an Argentinean dish akin to fry bread. We played games by candlelight, and listened to a small transistor radio.

When there was enough light to do so, I passed the time by photographing birds from our back porch. They desperately sought calories to keep warm, and I was lucky to capture a few as they paused in icy settings. The storm took its toll on wildlife, and reports soon came in of hundreds of birds, bats, and other animals that perished from the harsh conditions it wrought. It was a somber reminder of the hard lives these species lead.

A Fox Sparrow on ice laden branches.
A Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) photographed during the ice storm.
A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) works pre-drilled sapwells in pursuit of a sugary meal to help stave off the cold.
A Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) in the frozen canopy.
A Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) in the winter woods.

Power returned Friday afternoon and the house quickly warmed. Our live oak did loose a few large branches, but luckily the house was spared the brunt of their weight. One that fell near the street sank its fracture point nearly a foot into the earth. But now, over a week later, it’s almost as if the storm had never occurred. A few piles of brush remain at the curb awaiting bulk pickup. A few roofs and fences are still being patched, and there is still a higher than usual volume of traffic from vans of plumbing and heating/air companies.

The Fox Sparrows left as soon as the snow and ice had melted. In the week following the storm we had several days that approached 80°F, and spring arrived in full force. Uri was both a gift and a curse. It left us with wonderful memories of once in a lifetime wildlife viewing and photographic opportunities. It also took from many families, and we still consider ourselves very fortunate to have emerged no worse for the wear. At one point over 4.5 million Texans were without power. For some, it has not yet returned. For others the loss was much greater, and at least 70 deaths have been directly or indirectly attributed to the storm. Nature is harsh and unforgiving. But it is also rewarding and beautiful, for those willing to see it for what it is. Our memory of two days without power will soon fade, but those of playful river otters, unexpected Fox Sparrows, and other natural wonders will stay with me for the rest of my life.