Otters at Brazos Bend?

We heard the high-pitched chipping first. But we were admiring the prehistoric wings of an anhinga, stretched out right next to the trail. It was funny because it looked like a turtle on the log was also admiring the anhinga, or about to snap at it. But the chipping call continued, and it was loud. I saw the smooth heads first, but could only imagine they might be nutria, a much smaller mammal. Dave nailed it, realizing they were otters. In all the years at Brazos Bend State Park, these are our first otters. I imagine they only let us see them because they wanted to move from Elm lake into the larger marsh across the path. The chipping kept them together, kept them alert, and kept them from crossing while we were near. I imagine it was a pair and their offspring gliding across the path in seconds. They must be headed deep into the marsh where they won’t be bothered by people for awhile.

Otters weren’t the first big mammals we saw this Sunday morning after we got to the park just as it opened at 7AM. Pigs. Wild pigs, maybe 20 or so, scurrying from the swamp towards the fields far in front of us. We had planned to walk the forest loop in an unvisited part of the park where we once studied red wasps. But we turned around to avoid the pigs. We also chose a leaning old live oak to climb, just in case. We didn’t see the pigs again, but saw the results of their snorfling in the soil.

The sun rose as we approached the park entrance. Thousands of blackbirds streamed out of the park, then rested on powerlines, choosing the day’s foraging grounds. The low, thin mist that slowed us near the Brazos River was nearly absent in the park. At first the high branches of the live oaks were gilded with sunlight that seemed almost artificial. The creek stayed dark, and the little blue stem and gone-to-seed golden rod gleamed.

We were after wasps and there was a thick, wet meadow of brambles and grasses between us and the wasps. We marched along, lifting our knees high, and bringing our feet down hard on the invisible earth. These are the times I do not think about snakes. I do not think about snakes. The beautiful just-molted copperhead we once saw on the bridge up ahead must be long since dead. The cottonmouth Colin once held a dental mirror to so he could see its heat-seeking pits? Hmm, they live a long time and that one was young. But me, I don’t think about snakes.

Spider webs caught the dew, and the sun. A little tree frog imagined I did not see it. A doe dashed away. But we wanted wasps. This was the field where we spent thousands of hours for more than a decade, field seasons from 1983 through 1995 found us tramping around these fields, mostly not seeing snakes. Today we found an old, nearly empty nest of Polistes bellicosus, one of our favorite subjects. It still had a few wasps on it, so I photographed it.

Then we finished our breakfast tacos and headed to Elm lake and the otters.

Will late autumn express itself like this in St. Louis? It’s 75 degrees out, but clearly the end of the year. The blackbirds have arrived. So have the geese. The meadows and trees are bronzing, even losing leaves. A winter at these temperatures is more languid than anything. This change may be my biggest challenge of all as we move north.


Can you see the otter?


Sometime these anhinga wings will dry!


This guy was little, but not so little to fear mom was around!


Can’t get enough of Brazos Bend State Park.


This web will be consumed and respun after the day is over.


Texas tree trunks can look tropical.


Who me?


Lovely, lovely, Polistes bellicosus.


Look how close I dared get! Yes, she is waving her forelegs in threat!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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