We will be posting occasional natural history articles, starting with this one on mink and otters. Note the announcement about the February hike to Sears Mill, after the article.
Meeting a mink in the Triangle
This article was originally written as a follow-up to my article on otters in The Durham News (February 6, 2010). Otters are apparently seen throughout the Triangle, even in urban areas. Otters have been seen in the Jordan Lake area, along Farrington Road, at the New Hope Creek impoundment dam off 54, and in 2010 a family lived in the wilds where Panther Creek joins Northeast Creek. Based on reported sightings, Ellerbe Creek, Northeast Creek, and maybe New Hope Creek are the best places to look for otters. I haven’t seen a wild otter yet myself, though I did see where otters might have been eating fish at the NE Creek location. I have seen another large aquatic member of the weasel family, the American mink.
Mink are not commonly seen, but these large aquatic members of the weasel family may be more abundant than it seems. They are chocolate brown, with white patches below their chins, and are more svelte than otters and lack fully webbed feet, but they are almost as playful and aquatic, and can climb trees and purr like cats. Their scientific name is Mustela vison, both words meaning weasel, the first Latin and the second Swedish. “Mink” itself also comes from Swedish, and meant “the stinking animal from Finland.” Mink produce musk like related skunks, but can’t spray.
In 2006 I was working at Eno River State Park and saw my first mink, where Pleasant Green Road crosses the Eno River. Water going over a decommissioned Duke Power dam existing at the time created a pool ringed by logs downstream. Very early one morning, probably in October or November, I was surprised to see a large brown weasel walking on the logjam, before vanishing into a log. It was too big to be a long-tailed weasel and it wasn’t an otter. Around that time a visitor saw a mink or otter porpoising along in a stretch upstream. An unfortunate mink killed on Pleasant Green Road a few years ago can be seen at the park office.
In February 2008 a Harris Lake ranger was showing me Wake County’s Tobacco Trail facilities during a job interview when I spotted a dead mink beside a rural road, and it must be the specimen displayed at their visitor center.
In July 2009 a blackish animal walked in front of me on 15-501 late one afternoon as I was leaving White Pines Preserve, where the Rocky and Deep rivers join. It had an arched back like a weasel, but it had a large, spiked-up tail. Despite having a relatively good view of it, as I was stopped in the middle of the empty highway, I’m not sure if it was a mink. Now I regret not following it when it trotted off the road and along a ditch. I have seen dead striped skunks on 64 near Pittsboro, but if it was a skunk, it was all black.
Mink have definitely been seen in every nearby state park except Jordan Lake. Early one afternoon in spring 2010, Eno River Ranger Christopher Greiner saw one cross Old Cole Mill Road. In all park staff there have seen six mink in seven years, including the one killed by traffic. Mink are probably found along most creeks, and might be easier to see than otters, since mink sometimes hunt during the day and are said to be bold.
Mink are muscular carnivores, eating everything from fish and crustaceans to ducks, muskrats, and rabbits, as well as some fruit. Individuals can be violently territorial, and relocate frequently within their domain. They den in stolen or abandoned rodent burrows, logs, or their own excavations, which typically have multiple entrances, four to six inches wide, and are close to waterways.
Like many mammals, mink breed in late winter. Males mate repeatedly each year, but usually assist their final mate. There can be up to twelve young, but four is usual, and families usually stay together into the fall.
February hike to Sears Mill
Join NECSW for a hike Saturday, February 18th to see the remains of Sears Mill, a 19th century mill on Panther Creek, as well as early spring flowers and amphibians. Beavers, deer, otters, turkeys and nesting great blue herons have also been seen in the area. We will meet at 3pm at the southeast corner of the O’Kelly Church Road bridge over Northeast Creek (about one mile east of 751) in Chatham County.