As large, voracious predators at the top of the food chain, we might think that alligators do nothing but devour their fellow creatures that inhabit the swamp. And it is only the sense, swiftness or camouflage that keeps the alligator from causing the extinction of all in its path. But this stereotype is not necessarily the case. Alligators actually do quite a bit to help the other swamp creatures survive.
Many swamps are subject to the frequent ebbs and flows of drought and flood. It is during the periods of low water that alligators are most helpful. As part of their life history, gators move a good bit of earth. They tear up aquatic vegetation and construct “runs” and trails, and also dig out ponds. As water levels decrease and the swamp dries up, often the only water remaining is within these “gator holes.”
According to Kelby Ouchley in his book American Alligator – Ancient Predator in the Modern World, “alligators use their snout, front legs, and tail to excavate ponds called alligator holes. Ranging in size from 8 to 50 feet in diameter, they are often dug down to the shallow limestone bedrock.”
Some populations of fish might disappear if it weren’t for the water-retaining constructions of the alligator. Hydrophilic plant species requiring wet soil can still thrive near gator trails as the rest of the habitat desiccates. Even the larger mammals and birds gather around the gator holes for refreshment during prolonged dry spells.
Their drought relief engineering shows that the American Alligator is a good Swamp Citizen!
An excerpt from my Okefenokee Journal from March, 2015:
Wednesday, 3:30 PM – After our hike on Billy’s Island, we rowed back toward the Stephen C Foster State Park campground. Even though it was early spring, the sun was still high and bright. It became quite hot sitting in the open sun of the canoe. Our throats became parched as we toiled at the oars, for we had finished all of our water while hiking on Billy’s Island.
When confined to a canoe, there is no escaping the heat of the sun, especially if out on one of the lakes or open prairies so common in the Okefenokee. I made a mental note (and later added it to my packing checklist) to bring plenty of water and sunscreen on future excursions. Even though surrounded by water, we thirsted. I have read that the tanin-stained waters are a bit bitter possibly contaminated with protozoa and bacteria.
As we contineud to toil across Billy’s Lake toward “home”, the heat had sequestered most of the wildlife out of sight into the shade of the cypress trees. In the hotter afternoons, most of the alligators lay fully or partially submerged in the cool waters and the photography opportunities are fewer. However, we cruised past a few gators and a fishing Cormorant. Being insufficiently cooled only by our own sweat, we were a bit jealous as we watched the Cormorant dive and swim in the cool, refreshing waters.
An excerpt from A Florida Sketch-Book, by naturalist Bradford Torrey, written in 1895:
“The morning is cloudless and warm, till suddenly, as if a door had been opened eastward, the sea breeze strikes me. Henceforth the temperature is perfect as I sit in the shadow. I think neither of heat nor of cold. I catch a glimpse of a beautiful leaf-green lizard on the gray trunk of an orange-tree, but it is gone (I wonder where) almost before I can say I saw it. Presently a brown one, with light-colored stripes and a bluish tail, is seen traveling over the crumbling wall, running into crannies and out again. Now it stops to look at me with its jewel of an eye. And there, on the rustic arbor, is a third one, matching the unpainted wood in hue. Its throat is white, but when it is inflated, as happens every few seconds, it turns to the loveliest rose color. This inflated membrane should be a vocal sac, I think, but I hear no sound. Perhaps the chameleon’s voice is too fine for dull human sense.”
If I’m not in the Okefenokee, I’m usually in the animal shelter using my photography to see dogs and cats get new homes. Here’s a recent happy ending…
“Trevor” was a sweet and shy young dog picked up stray by an animal control officer. He was a quiet and calm boy when housed in kennel. Once outside he really perked up – especially if there was another dog to play with! After a few days of sitting in the shelter, his hold had expired and no owner came forward to claim him. I did his photoshoot and within two days a young couple came to meet Trevor and he really hit it off with their dog. Trevor made it into a great home!!!
A passage from my Okefenokee nature journal dated March 5, 2017:
Sunday, 9:37 AM – By advantage of the trolling motor, we quickly traveled to the western end of Billy’s Lake. As the lake tapered, the trees and shrubs on the shore greatly increased. We soon passed a sign pointing toward “The Narrows/The Sill.” Even without the sign, it was obvious the canoe trail was entering The Narrows.
Quite quickly we were shut in on either side by branches and bushes that arched up over our heads. The canoe trail began to grow shady, winding back and forth with the current through the vegetation, around cypress trees, over downed limbs and logs. The quickening flow of the Suwannee River was made obvious by the ripples around the corners and bases of the trees; an advantage to speed, but a disadvantage to navigation.
Travelling downstream, the current can overtake steering and often put the canoe in spots we did not desire. My daughter’s greatest frustration with the Okefenokee, this trip and last, was crashing into the jagged bushes, often tipped in small spider webs with anticipatory arachnids waiting to jump in for a ride. The Narrows was the peak of this frustration. Other than a bird or two crouching hidden among the vegetation, there was little wildlife to photograph within the confines of The Narrows and all our concentration was spent on navigation.
Excerpt from Travels by William Bartram, published in 1791:
“HOW happily situated is this retired spot of earth! What an elisium it is! where the wandering Siminole, the naked red warrior, roams at large, and after the vigorous chase retires from the scorching heat of the meridian sun. Here he reclines, and reposes under the odoriferous shades of Zanthoxilon, his verdant couch guarded by the Deity; Liberty, and the Muses, inspiring him with wisdom and valour, whilst the balmy zephyrs fan him to sleep.” Part II, Chapter IV
William Bartram was a botantist, artist, and nature writer that explored the southeastern United States around the time of the American Revolution (1773-1776). He was a scientist, creationist and Christian that gave glory to the Author for all the wonderful works he observed and documented in his book, Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida.
An excerpt from my March 2017 Okefenokee Nature Journal:
Our desire was to reach Big Water, a lake several miles up the Suwannee Middle Fork (red trail). To cover the ground, I was paddling rather quickly… probably too quickly to enjoy the Okefenokee. Just past 11:00 AM we entered upon Minnie’s Lake and grasped by sheer delight we slowed down. This area is such a beautiful sight, all you imagine of a pristine swamp scene: black waters reflecting Cypress knees, Spanish Moss and blue sky. As it opens up on the lake, the canoe trail widens and is lined by large, green lily pads of Spatterdock and White Water Lily. Stumps and fallen logs rise above the water and vegetation, each occupied by a sunning turtle or basking alligator. Just past the rest area platform lay some large gators, basking in groups of three and four. A brave Little Blue Heron fished right alongside three monsters. Minnie’s lake is a place to slow down and enjoy, not hurriedly paddle through.
AN EXCERPT FROM SUWANNEE RIVER, STRANGE GREEN LAND BY CECILE HULSE MATSCHAT, 1938.
“In the weird, hobgoblin world of the bays there is perpetual twilight. Even at midday, with a brilliant sun overhead, only an occasional ray pierces the thick green roof of the jungle, spotting the brown water with flecks of gold and lightening the blue of the iris that blooms in the marginal shallows. The bottle-shaped trunks of these cypresses, often twelve feet in diameter at the base and a scant two feet in diameter above the swelling, where they begin to tower symmetrically toward the sky, gleam in tints of olive, silver, violet, and odd greens and blues. Their dark roots protrude above the surface of the water, either arched like bows or in groups of knees. Seeing this malformed forest in the strange green light, one might expect it to be the home of gnomes, with beards and humps.”
Cecile Matschat’s work published in 1938 by the Literary Guild of America is full of colorful stories of the Swampers that lived in the Okefenokee, exciting folklore encounters with bear, boar and cannibal alligators, as well as scientific descriptions of the flora and fauna of the great swamp. It a worthwhile purchase if you come across a used copy of this collectible out-of-print treasure of Okefenokee literature.
Thursday, 2:20 PM – Trying not to disturb the exhilarating, tense moment, I whispered to my daughter Amanda in a low voice, “Momma gator has to be here somewhere.” Sure enough, in the midst of the dozen or more colorful babies, her eyes peered at us attentively from between the abundant swamp vegetation; her body completely submerged. We daringly pressed in a little closer. Cute little chirps arose from a few of the babies. Mom tolerated our approach for only about thirty seconds before swiftly swimming directly toward us and emitting a forceful release of air.
Sitting in the front of the canoe just a few feet from this upset maternal guardian, I knew what was “safe”, and what was not. This was bordering on “unsafe”, and, in fact, a bit foolish. While most gators predictably retreat or submerge upon approach, a mother gator is quite courageous and assiduous in defending her young against onlookers. So I let wisdom prevail and we backed out the canoe a bit, took a few more photos, and paddled onward.
-Excerpt from my March 2015 Okefenokee Nature Journal
Excerpt from the 1926 Okefenokee Swamp journal of Hamp Mizell:
“We arose early the next morning, before daylight, and before the sun began to rise (and a clear sunrise in the Okefenokee swamp is a most beautiful site) the birds began to twitter and call for their mates. When daylight comes at a large bird roost there is quite a stir and much noise made by the calling of birds… Their early morning noise in the great Swamp can be heard from miles across the water.”