Some of the mammals that I see when visiting parks and nature reserves are the same as my yard visitors (see the previous blog). For example, on a recent walk at a wetland area, an Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) decided to engage me in conversation as I walked under its tree. It would descend a few feet, look at me intently and utter sounds.
I responded (in English) and it would look at me quizzically, ascend the tree and then turn around to come closer again.
This went on for about 10 minutes. When I walked further on, another squirrel was perched on a small limb eating a snack and stopped to observe me as I passed under its tree. There was some communication going on between us, although I confess that I wasn’t sure what she was saying.
Other mammals I only see rarely in my yard but a little more often in public natural areas. An example is the groundhog (Marmota monax), which also goes by the common name of woodchuck.
Last year, I had a groundhog come up on my front porch where I had a container garden; it was really enjoying the tomatoes to my surprise! More recently, a friend and I were stopped on a road through agricultural fields when a groundhog emerged from a culvert. The animal looked around at its leisure and then eventually retreated to the culvert when our car began moving forward.
And then there are mammals that I don’t see at all where I live since my yard is not close to wetlands, bogs or rivers. A recent trip to the North Carolina (NC) Atlantic Coast gave me a chance to see a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), which some Native Americans called a musquash. Fellow birders alerted me to its presence as it was sitting at the edge of a small pond where they had been watching water birds.
The muskrat can be distinguished from the nutria, which looks very similar, by a couple features explained to me by a park employee. The muskrat has much less prominent whiskers than the nutria and its tail has somewhat flattened sides. Overall, they are smaller than nutria. I do think a muskrat I saw in our nearby Haw River was fairly big.
Muskrats dig burrows into river banks and the sides of ponds and canals; sometimes, they also will construct a large lodge atop mud and roots in marshes. Their babies are born blind and hairless; as they mature, they get either brown (70%) or black fur (30%).
At the coast, we also got to see the nutria (Myocastor coypus), swimming at the edge of a wetland near a road. These rodents are native to South America and were introduced to the USA in the 1800s; they are now found in 22 states. In North Carolina, they are only found in the coastal and Eastern parts of the state.
Nutrias are larger than muskrats and smaller than beavers; their very white whiskers are distinctive.
They construct floating platforms with vegetation on which they rest, groom and eat. They may live in colonies of up to 15-20 individuals. Their eyesight is poor and they sense danger through their sense of hearing.
They are considered a nuisance animal as they can convert marshes to open water and are known to eat farmers’ crops. Their numbers have partly been kept down in NC because of hunting (trapping) and partly because they have an elevated mortality during cold winters, to which they are not adapted. I’m guessing that the nutria will not have an easy future in this state.
Another water-loving mammal that has had problems with humans is the North American beaver (Castor canandensis). One of my book clubs is currently reading Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb. He details how they were trapped and killed by the millions when Europeans arrived in North America and how this changed much of the landscape throughout the country – often causing a deteriorating environment.
In NC, the last native beaver was trapped in 1897; we only have them now because the NC Wildlife Resources Commission reintroduced beavers in the 1930s. Still, these mammals often face negative reactions from human neighbors, who frequently have them “removed”.
Goldfarb details different ways in which humans and beavers can peacefully co-exist. He notes one way (among many others) in which they can be quite beneficial: “As the climate warms, more precipitation is falling as rain rather than snow. Instead of remaining in snowpack and gradually melting throughout the course of the spring and summer and fall and keeping rivers and streams wet well into the dry season, now all that precipitation is falling as rain. Any entity that can store water on the landscape, that can keep water high in some of these mountain headwaters in places like the Cascades or the Sierra, becomes incredibly valuable. What stores water better than a beaver? Basically nothing.”
Beavers live in a several places not far from my home. At the Sandy Creek Park, the beavers were posing a challenge as their dams had led to flooding of a paved path which makes the park more accessible to people in wheelchairs, with strollers, etc. Beaver deceivers (pond levelers) have been installed and the pond level has decreased; the beavers appear to be adjusting to the new situation.
At another site, neighboring home-owners took sides on whether the beavers were a community benefit. Some were in favor of the beavers and hired wildlife biologists to help them figure out how to install beaver deceivers. Others opposed the mammals’ presence (defacing a fan’s tribute to the beavers on a bridge) and a homeowners association had a beaver lodge destroyed and the wetland drained in order to drive the beavers away. The variety of wildlife in the area immediately declined greatly.
As the NC Wildlife Resources Commission notes: “By damming streams and forming shallow ponds, beavers create wetlands. These wetlands provide habitat for a tremendous diversity of plants, invertebrates, and wildlife, such as waterfowl, deer, bats, otter, herons, songbirds, raptors, salamanders, turtles, frogs, and fish.”
Fortunately, one lodge was left there and a pair of beavers, who mate for life, is still in residence. Their lodge is currently also being used by another water-loving mammal that I love to see — the American river otter (Lutra canadensis lataxina). On a recent very overcast day, I was lucky to see three of them.
These beautiful mammals have also lost much ground in the USA due to trapping, wetland drainage and water pollution.
The otters look for food in the beaver-maintained pond, diving into the murky water and coming up covered in mud. This requires vigorous grooming, which they do sitting on the lodge. On the day I saw them, three were busy with this task. One pair helped each other.
A third otter was busy cleaning him/herself without help. It was interesting to see how the sleek muddy fur was licked clean.
S/he also used the lodge higher up as a toilet area. Geese have had a nest atop the lodge so it has proved useful as a multi-functional structure.
Otters are perhaps more popular than groundhogs, muskrats and beavers because they can be playful and people enjoy watching them. The restoration of otters throughout NC also benefited the state in another way – river otters captured in the Eastern part of NC were donated to the state of West Virginia and NC received wild turkeys in return, leading to restoration of a population of these wild birds in the state.
My biggest treat lately has been watching Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) off the NC coast. They swim close enough to shore that you can at least see their flippers emerge from the water. While other birders on our trip were intent on identifying avian species such as gannets, gulls, pelicans, etc. I was busy photographing two pods of dolphins that were swimming by.
These intelligent animals form groups of about 10-25 individuals; I saw about 5-10 swimming near one another. That was exciting; many years ago, I had gone on a boat trip with my nephew to see dolphins, but we failed to see any on that trip.
I discovered that there are certain dolphin families that inhabit the waters of NC’s Outer Banks: Onion and his family summer around Nags Head and winter around Beaufort. Since we were at Nags Head in the winter, the dolphins I saw may have been a different family.
A few animals that I’d hoped to see on my trip to the Outer Banks in January were the black bear, coyote and red wolf. The man who organizes the annual black bear festival in Plymouth told me that it was unlikely we would see bears since the mothers would be in their dens and other bears would also not come out much with the sudden fall in temperature we had that weekend. He was right and we also didn’t see coyotes or wolves. I did discover some scat, indicating some mammal had been on the road. Perhaps I’ll be lucky and see one of the resident coyotes at the nature reserve where I volunteer soon; one can always hope!