Alligator’s Diverse Diet

As an iNaturalist project admin, I completed a review of over 19,000 American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) observations uploaded to iNaturalist between 2009 and December 31, 2020. Photographs which depicted an American Alligator eating a prey item were added to the iNat Alligator Appetites Project. The result revealed a gruesome smorgasbord of dainties enjoyed by this giant reptile.

Caution Do Not Feed Alligators Warning sign in the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. State and Federal laws prohibit the feeding and harassments in National Parks and Wildlife Refuges. ©www.williamwisephoto.com.

In his 1935 book titled The Alligator’s Life History, E.A. McIlhenny (of the Tabasco family) wrote, “It is quite safe to say that the food of the alligator at some period of its life, consists of every living thing coming in range of its jaws that flies, walks, swims, or crawls that is small enough for them to kill, and covers a tremendously wide range. After they reach three feet in length and larger, any creature inhabiting the land or water which they can catch and swallow is good food.” This is no doubt a true statement!

A review of the 110 observations added to the project, fish and reptiles nearly tied for the top prey items at about 25% each, with birds and mammals nearly tying in second place around 14% each. Truly, the American Alligator is an opportunist that doesn’t discriminate or turn its nose up at a particular menu item… even another alligator!

A breakdown of the iNaturalist observations showing alligators with prey is as follows:

​• Fish 26%
• Reptiles 25% (20 turtles, 4 alligators and 3 snakes)
• Birds 15% (4 Great Egrets, 2 Gallinules, 1 Red-winged Blackbird, 9 unidentifiable)
• Mammals 14% (4 feral pigs, 4 nutria, 3 raccoon, 1 deer, 1 opossum, 2 unidentifiable)
• Unknown/Other Prey 19% (11 unidentifiable, 8 human handouts, 1 crab, 1 frog)

Okefenokee’s Coastal Plain Cooter Turtles

Coastal Plain Cooter Turtle, Pseudemys concinna ssp. floridana, on spatterdock stem called a `gator tator`. Photographed in March 2020 in the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia, USA. ©www.williamwisephoto. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

While there are reportedly 15 turtles in the Okefenokee Swamp, my most commonly photographed species has been the Coastal Plain Cooter (Pseudemys concinna ssp. floridana). While abundant in the Okefenokee Swamp, they are found all along the coastal plain (hence the common name) from southeastern Virginia, south into Florida, and west into Alabama.

They can be quite large (up to a 13-inch carapace length) and would be quite conspicuous if they didn’t dive off their basking spots long before your canoe approaches. As we paddle along, if I keep my binoculars trained ahead, I typically see these cooters sliding into the water left and right all along the Okefenokee canoe trails. On our springtime Okefenokee trips, one or two will occasionally remain out in the warm sun long enough for a closer photograph being reluctant to dive back into the cool water.


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/45352341

 

“It’s the poisonousest snake there is!”

A humorous story from naturalist Bradford Torrey’s 1894 book, A Florida Sketch-Book. (It would be even more humorous if ignorant snake killing wasn’t still common.)

“It was a ‘copper-bellied moccasin,’ he declared, whatever that may be, and was worse than a rattlesnake.”

Plain-bellied Water Snake (not a “Poisonous Copper-bellied moccasin”) along the Trembling Earth Nature Trail; Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 11, 2015. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

A few minutes later, when, as the boat was grazing the reeds, I espied just ahead a snake lying in wait among them. I gave the alarm, and the boy looked round. “Yes,” he said, “a big one, a moccasin,—a cotton-mouth; but I’ll fix him.” He pulled a stroke or two nearer, then lifted his oar and brought it down splash; but the reeds broke the blow, and the moccasin slipped into the water, apparently unharmed. That was a case for powder and shot. Florida people have a poor opinion of a man who meets a venomous snake, no matter where, without doing his best to kill it. How strong the feeling is my boatman gave me proof within ten minutes after his failure with the cotton-mouth. He had pulled out into the middle of the river, when I noticed a beautiful snake, short and rather stout, lying coiled on the water. Whether it was an optical illusion I cannot say, but it seemed to me that the creature lay entirely above the surface,—as if it had been an inflated skin rather than a live snake. We passed close by it, but it made no offer to move, only darting out its tongue as the boat slipped past. I spoke to the boy, who at once ceased rowing.

“I think I must go back and kill that fellow,” he said.

“Why so?” I asked, with surprise, for I had looked upon it simply as a curiosity.

“Oh, I don’t like to see it live. It’s the poisonousest snake there is.”

As he spoke he turned the boat: but the snake saved him further trouble, for just then it uncoiled and swam directly toward us, as if it meant to come aboard. “Oh, you’re coming this way, are you?” said the boy sarcastically. “Well, come on!” The snake came on, and when it got well within range he took up his fishing-rod (with hooks at the end for drawing game out of the reeds and bonnets), and the next moment the snake lay dead upon the water. He slipped the end of the pole under it and slung it ashore. “There! How do you like that?” said he, and he headed the boat upstream again. It was a “copper-bellied moccasin,” he declared, whatever that may be, and was worse than a rattlesnake.


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/29977758

Okefenokee Odonata

Close up of Bar Winged Skimmer, Libellula axilena, dragonfly. It is found in North America, dragonflies are abundant throughout the warm season in the swamp. They have large compound eyes and intricately veined wings. Photographed on the Trembling Earth Nature Trail in Stephen C Foster State Park; Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. May 3, 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

Skimming all throughout the Okefenokee are the gorgeous Odonata. The dragonflies adorn the swamp with their vibrant greens and blues. In the heat of the day, when most of the birds hide and the alligators sink in the cooler waters, the dragonflies are constantly buzzing about. If your camera’s autofocus is worthy – and your skill at tracking fast moving critters is even more worthy – you just might catch a flight shot. Not me… for now, I’m happy to get a photograph if one stays on a perch long enough!


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/47165998

Okefenokee Photography Practice Run

In 2017, I brought along a new “toy” to the Okefenokee: a Sigma 150-600mm lens. I soon realized that the first day of that trip was going to be a photography practice run!

Little Blue Heron among green Spatterdock lily pads; Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 4, 2017. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

Saturday, March 4, 2017 – As the sun was setting, groups of Little Blue Herons, which seemed more abundant than on our 2015 excursion, roosted high up in the trees. Aiming that new super-telephoto up into the trees took a bit of getting used to. And when a pair of Wood Ducks flew by, I knew I really needed some more practice! I wasn’t quite used to handling this heavier Sigma lens while shooting moving subjects from a moving canoe.

Also, to further confuse myself, I brought along two camera bodies on that trip: one with the zoom, the other with a wide angle lens. But right away I felt like I was fumbling around, unsure of which to shoot and when. I just felt too rushed, always swapping cameras. Being too concerned about photography, I just wasn’t having fun.

I finally decided upon a tactic of using primarily one lens for a period of time, and then another later. Except for the morning of the final day, the remainder of the trip I shot primarily with the 150-600mm super-telephoto unless in one of the more constricted areas.


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/32706732

Bugaboo Island Deer

Excerpt from the 1926 book History of the Okefenokee, by Hamp Mizell and AS McQueen:

Whitetailed Deer crossing the swamp on Billy’s Island; Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Georgia. March 11, 2015. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Downloan and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

“When Bugaboo Island was first discovered it was then traversed by various trails and paths made by the numerous wild animals on this particular island. There were quite a lot of deer on this island, and it is said by the oldest inhabitants that very few islands of the swamp had more game than Bugaboo, although there were several larger, this prairie gives the deer good feeding grounds. We had traveled several miles during the first day without seeing or hearing any sound of a human being or any living thing except hundreds of alligators and several deer that would sniff at their scent and scamper off a few yards and look back in amazement, for these deer had never seen or heard a human being before.”


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/30501783

I Love You Too, Dad

Why is the Okefenokee so dear to me? Since my college days I loved the swamp, alligators, snakes, etc. But the Okefenokee has grown so fond in my heart because of the bonding moments I’ve shared with my daughter canoeing and camping there. Below is an excerpt from my March 2015 nature journal describing why I love the Okefenokee:

Sunset on an Okefenokee Swamp prairie. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 10, 2015. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

“Amanda and I are sitting side by side at the end of the boardwalk, our feet dangling above the swamp. An orange setting sun has dropped below the tree line to our left, putting the Cypress trees and Spanish Moss into picturesque silhouette. The fading evening sky is a vibrant blue accented by billowy clouds glowing a purplish-orange from the setting sun. Two Barred Owls are conversing with each other far off behind us, asking each other, ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for youuuuu?’ To my right sounds the rattle of a Kingfisher scanning the pools for one last fish of the day. Amanda is leaning on my shoulder as we peer out into the swamp. A guttural Egret croak breaks the relative silence not too far from our feet, and is followed by a second. A Great Blue Heron is flying slowly at a distance from our right and goes out of sight toward the setting sun.

“A small flock of Ibises crosses overhead in the other direction; snow white birds with bold black wing stripes and long, orange, sickle-shaped bills. The solitude is pleasant; nobody else has ventured out on the boardwalk with us. No human voices; no sound of cars, no barking dogs, no beeping texts or ringing phones.  Amanda takes my hand as we walk back toward our campsite. I came for gators and an escape, but this is a real bonus of the getaway:

‘Thanks for coming with me, Amanda.’  ‘Thanks for bringing me.’  ‘I love you.’  ‘I love you too, dad.'”

Okefenokee Watersnake Fight

I was paddling up the beautiful Suwannee, a blackwater river that is born within, and meanders throughout, the Okefenokee Swamp. Being overcast and cool, it was slow day for reptiles… as slow as the current that carried my canoe along. But on a sudden, I had that feeling. Birders know that feeling… a sense that somewhere nearby is a nice find.

Brown Water Snake, Nerodia taxispilota, coiled on a Cypress Tree branch in the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia. A large non-venomous snake with keeled scales. The Suwannee River Sill Recreation Area canoe and kayak trail. January 21, 2021. ©williamwisephoto.com

​I have no idea how I spotted it. Its long, coiled, brown body perfectly matched the twisted, tan cypress roots upon which it basked.  A Brown Watersnake! These thick, heavy-bodied snakes are often mis-identified as the venomous Cottonmouth, which lurks in the same habitat.

Although the watersnakes aren’t venomous, they are no less feisty.  Anyone who has had the experience of handling a watersnake knows their theatrics of writhing, striking, musking, and biting… anything to just be left alone! This individual didn’t disappoint in its performance.

 

Brown Watersnake, Nerodia taxispilota; Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. January 21, 2021. ©williamwisephoto.com  

iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/68688369

Okefenokee Gold Mine

The Okefenokee continues to make the news as conservationists sound the alarm against a proposal from Twin Pines Minerals to mine thousands of acres alongside the National Wildlife Refuge. This mining operation isn’t a modern day gold rush, but a search for titanium dioxide. Even so, there is Gold in the Okefenokee! A different sort of gold…

Yellow Bidens bur marigold wildflowers growing along Mixon`s Hammock canoe kayak trail in the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, USA. May 2, 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

Splashes of yellow dot the Okefenokee landscape as wildflowers of the Bidens genus bloom in the spring and summer. I have seen them growing on the prairies, in shallow waters alongside Spatterdock, and in tussocks upon old stumps in the middle of the larger lakes. They are commonly called Beggars Ticks, Bur Marigolds and Tickseed Sunflowers.  They are a sun-loving wildflower and generally found in moist soils such as marshes, wet meadows and roadside ditches.

The Okefenokee is a gold mine of natural beauty; a national treasure. These beautiful wildflowers, along with other plant and animal species, are all the more reason to protect our wondeful Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge!


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/46220378

Snowy Okefenokee

It is January. And it is cold. But who has ever heard of snow in the Okefenokee Swamp???
A white Snowy Egret walks along the banks of the Suwannee River Sill Recreation Area in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Egretta thula is a small white heron whose feather plumes were once hunted for the fashion industry but now protected under the Migratory Bird Act. Wildlife birding photography January 21 2021.
January 21, 2021 – As my canoe drifted back toward the boat launch of The Suwannee River Sill Recreation Area, I assumed the small white bird up ahead was a juvenile Little Blue Heron. I could see it running in bursts up and down the edge of the canal to corral and catch little fish. But with each sprint, as it lifted its feet out of the water, I could see a flash of yellow. These were the golden slippers of a Snowy Egret, not a Little Blue Heron!

I was quite excited to find this little fisherman. Even with seven Okefenokee adventures under my belt, this was my first photograph of a Snowy Egret in the refuge. And this particular individual was quite the compliant model. Over the course of the three days, it was right there near the boat ramp and parking lot. It didn’t seem to notice my presence as I slowly approached whether by canoe or by foot.
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia birding by williamwisephoto.com