Not your average rat

Just before sunset each evening, a group of folks gathers along the shore of Sunset Bay at White Rock Lake for what has become a nightly ritual: feeding the wildlife.  Charles, a man who obviously cares for the animals living here and who obviously has a larger budget than I do, religiously pulls up in his white van and begins toting industrial size bags of corn to the lake’s edge.  He spreads this feast in at least a few places to provide ample room for all the diners, after which he fills some tubs with lake water and tosses bread into them, something that results in a sort of floury soup that the geese and ducks appear to enjoy.

All the while, critters far and wide make their way to the bay, as do people.  Lawn chairs spread out like a Fourth of July picnic, photographers creep in and out of the crowd trying to capture images of the various animals—and sometimes the people, and whole families park on the benches and picnic tables, children and dogs in tow.

I tend to avoid the happening as much as possible due to the crush of onlookers that creates a difficult environment for nature photography, not to mention the legion of interruptions that often gives rise to missing that picture I really wanted or not being able to enjoy the throng of beautiful birds and mammals that come to the bay each night for a free meal.  Not only that, but I find more satisfaction in nature photography when it doesn’t involve baiting wildlife (like bird feeders and the like).  Doing so is not a bad thing, mind you; it’s just I personally enjoy the challenge and results of natural habitat and activity as opposed to staged portraits.

Yet Friday evening the sky was clear and the air warm, so it seemed a good time to take a walk and enjoy the beautiful coming of dusk that is amplified from within the reaches of Sunset Bay.  I grabbed the camera and savored the two-minute stroll from my front door that leads me to the confluence in the bay and the evening’s ritual activities.

Although I stayed for a few hours and came home with some fantastic images, the one thing that set this experience apart from so many others was the presence of a rodent.

An adult nutria (a.k.a. coypu; Myocaster coypus) walking by two mallard drakes (2009_04_10_014780)

Nutria (a.k.a. coypu; Myocaster coypus) have lived in Dallas for at least a few decades.  It’s likely they made it here from Louisiana where they were introduced in 1937; it’s also likely they used the city’s drainage system as transport to area lakes.  But unlike our neighbor state and others who battle nutria damage, Dallas has no natural lakes, let alone any large lakes, and the bodies of water humans have built lack significant amounts of aquatic plants, native or otherwise, so the nutria population here is not detrimental and is not seen as a scourge.  Therefore, they aren’t killed, and they’re released in unpopulated areas when trapped within the urban jungle.

A facial close-up showing the orange teeth of a nutria (a.k.a. coypu; Myocaster coypus) (2009_04_10_014721)

In other areas of Texas the story is quite different, but within the metroplex where the cityscape and urban sprawl surround every artificial lake and reservoir, and where aquatic vegetation is limited, a sort of natural population control takes place with nutria that keeps their numbers in check, and that in turn keeps them on the list of being odd curiosities rather than critical threats.

An adult nutria (a.k.a. coypu; Myocaster coypus) feeding on dried corn (2009_04_10_014694)

Mostly nocturnal, spring empowers them to be more brazen and open.  Perhaps, as with most creatures who hide away from the cold of winter, they simply want to get out and romp in the sunlight, feel the warmth of fresh grass between their toes, and wallow in the changing of the seasons.  Standing in Sunset Bay watching ducks and geese and coots and gulls vie for their share of the offered bounty, it was with a bit of surprise and joy that I watched this large adult swim to land, crawl up out of the water and take its place at the table.

A nutria (a.k.a. coypu; Myocaster coypus) swimming in White Rock Lake (2009_04_10_014772)

Like so many of the regulars, it has learned sunset is the time to head to the bay, at least if you want a free meal.  And so long as the geese don’t see it (they chase nutria away), the very large rodent can sit and dine in peace.

A nutria (a.k.a. coypu; Myocaster coypus) shaking off excess water after coming ashore (2009_04_10_014777)

Unfortunately on this particular occasion, it wasn’t the geese that posed a challenge; it was people.  Hordes of families had come to the lake as it was a holiday weekend and the weather was nice, so an overwhelming number of unrestrained children spent a great deal of time chasing animals, throwing rocks at anything that moved, and otherwise being a collective menace that more than once received a commanding admonishment from me to stay out of the way and to leave the wildlife alone.  That, of course, meant I had a few harsh words with parents.  But no matter: They needed to be reprimanded as much as their children needed it.

A nutria (a.k.a. coypu; Myocaster coypus) grooming on the shore of White Rock Lake (2009_04_10_014799)

Several others likewise spoke to the brats and their wayward adult counterparts, and this had the effect of calming the situation enough such that all the feathered and furry inhabitants could enjoy their dinner—at least as much as competition with each other would allow.

A nutria (a.k.a. coypu; Myocaster coypus) walking up a meal of dried corn (2009_04_10_014752)

Having seen nutria in the dark, I was thrilled to see this one out and about while some daylight remained.  It was the first time I’d been able to capture some presentable photos.

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[1] To provide a sense of scale.  The nutria is approximately two yards/two meters behind the two mallard drakes in the foreground.  If I were to guess, the nutria was approximately 4.5 feet/1.4 meters long (including tail).

[2] The telltale orange teeth.

[3] Dining alone.  Most waterfowl avoided the nutria, giving it a wide berth and leaving it to enjoy its meal in peace—but only because the rodent had collected a large following of ogling humans who kept the birds at bay.  As docile as these creatures are, it almost looked lonely.

[4] Exceptional swimmers both on and below the surface.  They could use some help in the hairdressing department, though.

[5] A quick shake to lose excess water.

[6] Grooming after a meal and a swim.

[7] Perhaps a bit more to eat before diving in the creek and heading out for the evening.

3 thoughts on “Not your average rat”

  1. Wonderful images of this giant rodent! I remember seeing these in Brazil back in 1994 long before the days of my digital camera. I made a visit to Iguacu Falls and there were huge numbers of them resting on the rocks along the lower banks of the river.

  2. I fell out of my chair when I saw these images and read your post. WOW. That’s incredibly huge for a rat.

    And the orange teeth just takes the rodent to a different planet altogether.

    The first shot is stunning !!

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