Scanning the shore with my binoculars as my daughter piloted our canoe around Billy’s lake, I was a bit startled when I saw a small group of four plump sandpiper birds gathered on a downed cypress tree. Sandpipers in the Okefenokee? This was definitely a first for me. Since our Okefenokee excursions have always been in March, I had not spotted a Spotted Sandpiper in the swamp before! About an hour later, near the entrance of The Narrows, I saw another group of 9 standing on a log in the shade.
Apparently, I wasn’t the first person to be surprised at seeing them. In 1913, Albert Wright and Francis Harper explored the Okefenokee for the American Ornithological Society. In the society’s scientific journal and official publication, The Auk, they wrote of the delight in finding the Spotted Sandpiper within the great Swamp:
“The Spotted Sandpiper was a distinct surprise as a summer resident of the swamp. Not only is this several hundred miles south of its known breeding range, but one would not expect it to find a suitable haunt in the Oke-finokee. The lakes and runs are practically shoreless; they are simply open spaces in the otherwise continuous cypress swamps. However, the logs and driftwood near the edges of Billy’s Lake serve as teetering stands; half a dozen were seen here on May 11, one on June 5, and still another a few days later. Earlier in the spring one or two were reported from the canal. The species probably does not breed in this latitude.”
According to www.allaboutbirds.com, Spotted Sandpipers are “the most widespread sandpiper in North America, and they are common near most kinds of freshwater, including rivers and streams, as well as near the sea coast”… and apparently blackwater swamps as well!
Looking at eBird’s illustrated checklist for Charlton County, the Spotted Sandpipers are most commonly observed in the Okefenokee in April and May. So I was happy to be able to make a May visit to the swamp (thanks COVID19!) and spot this Spotted Sandpiper!
Unless they are tagged or have some unique scars, American Alligators are quite hard to tell apart. I’m sure there are subtle differences in size and features that could be identified if one spent some time comparing photographs. But for the most part, I can only suspect some of the alligators I’ve encountered multiple Okefenokee trips are the same as on prior adventures. But when one is recognized, it feels like meeting an old friend!
On our 2020 Okefenokee trip, we came across one of those old friends that I know we have seen before. As soon as I saw it, I immediately remembered the amputated foot and missing lip. Upon returning home I found the blog called Gator Battles about this uniquely scarred gator we spotted in March 2019. In fact, looking at the one-year-old photo, I think it may even be perched on the same log!
Sharing an Okefenokee travel journal and photography from Edz Imagz. I actually happened to meet Ed, as we were both in the Okefenokee at the same time in May 2020.
“In the Corvid-19 era, one could hardly find a more remote place in the lower 48 states to get away from people than the Okefenokee Swamp: 700 square miles of interconnected natural waterways, man made channels, islands, inundated forests; thousands of alligators, poisonous snakes, poison ivy, mosquitos, gnats, ticks, and other annoying, dangerous agents of mayhem…” Continue reading at The Okefenokee Swamp
March 4, 2017 on Billy’s Lake – Around 5:00 pm, after getting shots of a beautiful, white, Great Egret, we pulled the canoe onto some spatterdock to observe two Pileated Woodpeckers on the bank. All of the Pileateds I had previously seen stayed fairly high up in the trees. But these two were foraging along the ground; hopping on the many downed trees, ripping and prying apart rotten bark and wood. It was a treat to watch these two large Woodpeckers for about ten minutes.
After several trips to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge that ended in a bust, I was really hoping this trek would finally result in a decent Swallow-tailed Kite photograph. But once again, it appeared that I was leaving the Okefenokee Swamp disappointed.
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is located in Georgia near along the Florida line in the southeastern United States. It is a wonderfully huge wetland that has been protected since the mid-1900s after logging had nearly obliterated the habitat. It is now a refuge for all types of wildlife, including the Swallow-tailed Kite.
Swallow-tailed Kites, Elanoides forficatus, are a raptor (bird of prey). They breed in the southeastern United States and according to the eBird illustrated checklist, are found in the Okefenokee from March through August. The Cornell Ornithology website beautifully describes it as, “a graceful, uniquely shaped raptor with long, narrow wings and deeply forked tail.” It favors wet habitats around rivers and ponds and nest in tall pines and cypress, making the Okefenokee Swamp a perfect place to spot them!
But once again, another spring excursion ends without a kite photograph. We had even packed up camp, loaded the canoe on the trailer, and were driving the long road out of the refuge when I spotted it! Not far from the boundary of the NWR soared a beautiful kite in the open, blue skies. It was the final photo of our final day on this March 2020 trip to the Okefenokee!
In the spring the Okefenokee Swamp shrubbery is decorated with delicate rows of tiny pink and white bells. These small flowers are of the Lyonia bush. Although they look and smell like a sweet Valentine’s Day treat, they haven’t always been thought of so fondly, as revealed by a few of their common names: fetterbush, staggerbush and hurrah bush.
Fetterbush grows thickly and is often entangled with other shrubs and vines, such as the well-armed greenbrier. Being so thick, it fetters the legs of anyone attempting cross the swamp on foot. Fetters were prisoners’ iron shackles in a less politically correct age. In fact, when his weakness was exploited, the Biblical strongman Samson was “bound in fetters of brass to grind in the prison house.”
Lyonia’s other common name, Hurrah bush, comes from the exclamatory shout for joy made by the swamp adventurer that finally makes it through the thickets and staggers into a clearing. There are several narrow canoe trails lined with thickets that my daughter despises paddling through. For it seems that not only is Fetterbush tipped with cute little flowers, but also with creepy little spiders waiting to jump into your kayak!
Their status as an apex predator is probably what makes the American Alligator so fascinating and formidable. Apex predators are those at the top of the food chain. They have few, if any, other natural predators.
While a big alligator is capable of killing almost any other animal in the Okefenokee Swamp, the truth is they mostly take prey that gives them the least trouble. Since they can’t chew, they mostly take animals that can be swallowed. Yes, they are famed for the “gator roll” method of tearing apart large prey, but that is a big expenditure of energy.
Young alligators consume snails, frogs, small fish and insects. The larger gators will take larger prey if an opportunity presents itself. And though it seems strange, alligators may even eat one of their own kind, as seen below in this iNaturalist observation from Joe Girgente.
Sharing Part 2 of Kathleen’s great Okefenokee travel journal to the wonderful Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
Birds are part of the fun of visiting the Okefenokee Swamp. I watched the Snowy Egret high-stepping toward me, and kept the camera on him waiting to capture one of the “golden slippers” of his feet in the air, along with a reflection. He flew not long after this shot, and I turned around and […]
“Dad, can we go back to Minnie’s Lake today,” my daughter asked. She always loves paddling through the scenic, narrow channel of the Red Trail looking for baby alligators along the way. And then when nearing Minnie’s Lake, the scene opens up as the trees retreat the shrubs back off. There are typically gators galore… and don’t forget the rest dock and latrine!
Minnie’s Lake is under 4 miles from the Stephen C Foster boat launch. If you’re an experienced paddler, this is no big deal at all. But even if a 7.5 mile round-trip paddle seems like a daunting task, it is well worth the toil. Because of the current on the Suwannee River, the trip up to Minnie’s lake is a bit harder. If you stop paddling, you may drift downstream. But push through and you’ll have a chance to rest at the platform. The paddle home is always leisurely, allowing more opportunity to enjoy the Swamp scenes.
There is always a mixture of sizes of alligators on Minnie’s Lake. The edges of the lake are lined with Spatterdock lily pads and floating masses of “gator taters” which provide perfect basking spots for even the larger alligators. They seem quite accustomed to visitors on Minnie’s Lake and will often hold their positions allowing for some great photography.