3 May 2015
I took my son and his best friend to Palmetto State Park, located on the San Marcos River between the towns of Gonzales and Luling in Gonzales County. The boys wanted to ride bikes through the trails and kayak the little lake; I was happy to oblige. I thought it would be a good opportunity to take some photos for the park’s current photo contest and poke around to see what critters were stirring. I also hoped to find one of the breeding Prothonotary Warblers to add a little diversity to what has amounted to a poor migration season for me (other than the local breeding warblers, I have recorded just 2 migrant warbler species this spring). I was in for a great surprise.
After preparing a couple PB&J sandwiches, I turned the boys loose on the trails. I headed towards the swamps along the Ottine Trail listening for calling warblers within the dense woods. I was only able to pick out a couple of Northern Parula and an Indigo Bunting.
I continued down the Ottine Trail, walking adjacent to one of the swamp pools when I caught some large ripples in the water. I initially thought it might be a snapping turtle breaching as it crawled along the bottom and then thought a large cottonmouth when I was able to make a serpentine figure moving about the water. It only dawned on me, after a moment, that I was watching a pair of River Otters (Lontra canadensis), a native Texas species I had long desired to see in the wild. The next step was to get a photograph to document my observation; I figured it may be difficult to convince my friends and other naturalists otherwise. This was the best picture I could get to start. The pair seemed aware of my presence and casually frolicked away from me and towards the other end of the pool where I could no longer see them.
A rustle of dry palmetto fronds later alerted me to the area they had swam off towards. I reapproached the swamp cautiously and crouched while I watched them play. Again, they seemed aware of my presence but not concerned. This time I was able to get a decent photograph of the pair.
The river otter formally occupied the eastern half of Texas before a bevy of pressures including habitat degradation, trapping pressure (furs), and unintended losses through fish traps. David Schmidly’s The Mammals of Texas (2004) list the current range as only including the eastern quarter of the state within the Piney Woods eco-region. My observation adds to existing evidence that the species is recovering within formerly occupied river systems. It also supports the paradigm that habitat conservation/preservation is an extremely important tool in the recovery of species of concern.
After reflecting on the importance of my otter sighting, I was rewarded with one last decent photograph.
Leaving the otters to play with privacy, I continued down the trail. After a few steps, I realized I had been oblivious to the nearby song of a Prothonotary Warbler. This bright yellow bird is one of only two species of North American warbler that nests in tree cavities. They seem to prefer nesting cavities in trees or stumps either standing in or surrounded by water. Palmetto State Park is very near the western edge of the Prothonotary Warbler’s breeding range. I was able to locate the calling male and snap this photograph.
Continuing down the trail a left the woods and walked back to the parking lot to wait for the boys to get back. While there, I was attracted to the song of an Indigo Bunting along the San Marcos River.
A short time later, the boys showed up and I shared with them my otter observation and they told me about the huge snapping turtle they had found. We agreed to take a quick walk back to the show one another our critters but were unable to locate neither snapping turtles nor river otters. However, I was able to locate a fresh scat composed of loads of crushed crayfish (a highly preferred part of the river otter diet) shells inside. However cool I thought this scat was, the boys had a hard time getting excited about otter poop (*note* we busted a portion of the scat apart with a stick to investigate the contents).