Dead low tide at sunrise

 

A quiet stroll in my backyard was interrupted by a loud commotion coming from a pair of green herons. They were distress cries, and the birds’ panic and urgency were unmistakable. The marsh was alive with activity on this hot summer morning, but the dead low tide would soon have a literal meaning.

Green Heron at low tide

Instinctively I scanned the wet oyster beds, searching for the reason for the distressed herons’ calls. The rough dark beds, still soaked from the recent high tide, looked desolate, but my mind went back to one of the first lessons I learned as a hunter: not focusing on the game you were hunting, but paying close attention and watching for any movement. The morning sun around 8 a.m. made it even more challenging to see as the glaring rays bounced off the tidewater pools.

And then I spotted it—one of the most elusive mammals that inhabit our South Carolina coastal wetlands—a mink! Its chocolate-brown fur and small, sleek body made it difficult to follow as it sprinted over the dark, muddy brown oyster shells, which provided perfect camouflage for the mink.

The herons continued to squawk and protest, but they stood by helplessly watching the mink make its way to the marsh grass, where the herons doubtless had a nest. Then, minutes later, the mink emerged from the marsh grass with a baby bird hanging from its mouth. Its head held high, the mink made its way across oyster beds and pools of tidal water to its destination about 100 yards south in a large stand of marsh grass.

Regrettably, I didn’t have my camera handy, nor my binoculars. But just a few minutes later, the mink reappeared from its home in the tall marsh grass and made its way back to the nest, scurrying quickly over the oyster shells. Once again, it retrieved another baby bird from the nest and promptly returned to the stand of marsh grass as it had done before.

mink in the marsh

Mink running through the mudflats

I hurriedly got my Cannon EOS Rebel T6s camera and I captured a photo this time, but my camera zoom lens was not powerful enough to get a quality photo.  Nonetheless, I was thrilled to document this elusive animal. And I marveled at how the mink took what nature offered with remarkable efficiency and then went about its day as the rising tide overtook the oyster beds, and the grieving green herons moved on.

Little did I realize that the dead low tide in the early morning hours was perfect for witnessing this raw nature. As I began researching mink behavior, I learned that minks have distinctive hunting habits, and that birds and their young are very vulnerable to predation from minks.

VIEW FROM DECK OVERLOOKING MARSH

Scanning the mudflats and oyster beds

Each day, from the second-floor deck of my home, armed with my Eschenbach binoculars, I scanned the oyster beds for activity, learning the routes the minks traveled, and it finally struck me that I was watching a female-and-male tag team. The female was distinctly smaller than the male. It appeared that they had depleted the food source from the herons’ nest and were now focusing on finding new prey, including birds, eggs, and fish.

silhouette of mink on edge of the oyster bed

zoom in for close up of the mink at the edge of oyster bed

This was not the first time I experienced seeing a mink in our backyard. In the fall of 2017, after Hurricane Irma battered our shores, we surveyed the damage to our property. Unfortunately, we lost our dock and boardwalk, which exposed a small animal den underneath. Then, like a flash of lightning, we saw a mature mink run past us, obviously disoriented by the disruption the winds and rising tides had made to its homestead. That was the last time we saw a mink. The den has housed many other inhabitants over the years, from possums to raccoons, but nothing as exciting as a mink family.

Mink in oyster bed

A closer shot of the mink

I continued my scouting. The week of July 4 was a good time for spotting minks, but soon the tide would not be in my favor, as the high tide would come in the early morning. In addition, the minks are challenging to photograph unless they cross mud flats: They blend in with the oyster shells. And there is not much opportunity to photograph them when they swim through tidal pools because their heads are so small. Nevertheless, I did manage to get a few shots in late morning. Their mink coats glowed with beautiful reddish-brown hues in the bright sun.

And then there was Tropical Storm Elsa, which blasted its way through the Carolinas in the early morning hours of July 8 with winds upward of 40 miles an hour. When the winds finally settled down, I scanned the oyster banks and the mud flats for any sign of the minks.

It’s been weeks now since Tropical Storm Elsa, and the minks are nowhere to be found. Every day, I scan the oyster beds and mud flats for any sign of their presence. Did they move on to a safer place? Did they move out of range? Or are they right under my nose, living under my dock or boardwalk? My trail cam has only alerted me to raccoons, but no minks.

sunrise over the marsh

Another amazing sunrise!

Thanks to the abundant marine life of the tidal marsh, with its ever-changing beauty, my love and appreciation for all it offers are immeasurable. As the tide ebbs and flows, its magical rhythm reflects life’s highs and lows and the cycle of life as nature takes its course. The mystery of the minks may reveal itself in time, and I wait patiently to see them again.  Heck, maybe next time I will have that new zoom lens I have been dreaming about!

Written for Waccamaw Outdoor Magazine, September 2021 Issue

*Special thank you to Jay Butfiloski for a great conversation and wonderful resource data on the reintroduction of mink to South Carolina coastal waters. Let me know if you would like the links.

 

Jay Butfiloski
Furbearer & Alligator Program Coordinator
Certified Wildlife Biologist®, TWS
SC Dept. of Natural Resources

Photo credit Pam Morrison