Brief Encounters on the Wild Side

I’m hoping this will be the spring we’ll see river otters in the creek behind our house. I’ve had reports of people seeing them at the mill dam a half mile downstream, and just last week someone wrote to say they’d seen three otters fishing in Four-Mile Branch, a large tributary of Lawson’s Fork not far away. There’s something about a possible river otter sighting that would fulfill my fauna longings for the season.

Otters are large semi-aquatic mammals, three or four feet long, with blunt faces and thick necks and tails. Field guides report that they are intelligent and playful. They eat fish, crayfish, and mussels. Whatever’s available in the stream, they’ll eat it. Until a few years ago they were considered in swift decline in piedmont streams. It seems they’ve been sighted more often recently, and though not abundant, they seem to have pushed back into former ranges.

I’ve often been skeptical when people report otters. Someone excited about a mammal swimming in a stream can easily mistake a beaver or a muskrat for an otter. The best way to know for sure is to watch closely for them diving and playing, and to check out their scat if you can find it. If scat is full of fish scales, it’s likely left behind by an otter.

There’s a funny term that I’ve heard used by wild animal advocates: charismatic megafauna. Translated into plain English it means large wild animals that excite the imagination. Usually it refers to something bigger than an otter, something like that old list from THE WIZARD OF OZ: “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.”

I think the human excitement over creatures large and wild is embedded deep in our genes. It’s adaptive. In our shadowy past we needed to avoid such encounters because humans were part of the food chain and big fierce animals would eat us.

You know people still desire encounters with CM (charismatic megafauna) when you start hearing rumors of bear and cougar sightings in the upcountry. Even a large wild turkey sighted in an unexpected place can cross a local citizen into CM territory.

I walked out of my building at Wofford College in downtown Spartanburg once and found myself face-to-face with a large gobbler. That was a CM encounter if I’ve ever had one.

For some people deer have built local CM appeal, and the appeal usually lasts until they start stripping your garden of charismatic mega and minor flora. Deer are so common now that they have somehow passed from wild and charismatic to a category that includes squirrels, blue jays, and crows-not quite domestic but habituated to settlement so deeply that their presence usually doesn’t excite our imaginations.

I think our excitement over smaller wild animals is something that’s been developed in more recent times. The desire to interact with charismatic microfauna comes with the diminished expectations of the expanding urban areas. It takes practice and attention.

Here on the edge of the suburbs I’ve seen how I’ve dropped my own expectations. Now rather than megafauna I look to the smaller creatures to excite my imagination. Often I get excited about fauna even smaller than otters.

Two days ago there were several wood ducks on the creek, and I flushed them on my morning walk. They shed a little charisma as they flew like bullets into the trees downstream and disappeared.

Last night coming home on a rainy February evening I saw the first gray tree frog of the season. The little frog with the oversized suction feet sat under the porch light waiting for a meal or for affection. It looked like it had been huddled under a log or a rock for a few months, all wrinkled and slow to move. But I can’t deny it: that frog had charisma.

Charisma is the power to influence. All wild creatures great and small have it in abundance. If otters have returned to our piedmont streams then it’s more likely that someone like me will see them on a regular walk. There’s no way to measure what such a sighting will add to someone’s life, no way to predict what will change in them because of such brief encounters with wildness.

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