An excerpt from my March 10, 2015 Okefenokee Nature Journal:
Tuesday, 6:35 PM – As the fading light of dusk was about to force us to our tent site, a couple walking up the road said, “There is a gator behind the boat barn. But be careful; he’s out of the water and he is biiiiigggg.” We walked the quarter mile to the end of the cul-de-sac and past the bold “Be Aware Alligators Present” sign. We looked around the left side of the shed; nothing. As we came around the right… “Whoa! That is a big one!” He was sprawled out on the grass with his feet facing upwards. He must have fallen asleep sunning himself, for the sun had gone down an hour ago. He was turned away from us, so we snuck up close behind him. There was no sign of movement, not even of breathing. Wondering if he was dead, I felt the temptation to grab the end of his tail, but figured that was the kind of thing that gets one in the news.
We decided just to head back and check if he would still be there in the morning. As we walked back to camp, we half-jokingly discussed how we’d get a nine foot gator back home to skin and tan. We spent the last two hours safely away from the sting of the mosquitoes in our tent playing battleship, reading, and planning the next two days. The night air cooled well enough for sleeping, and we fell asleep to the hoots of the Barred Owls. I awoke a few times that night; once to repeated rustling and light footsteps in the leaves outside our tent.
An excerpt from the 1926 book History of the Okefenokee, By Hamp Mizell and AS McQueen:
“Alligator hunting affords excellent sport, and requires considerable courage, for it is no laughing matter to haul a wounded alligator into a boat on a dark night. They can – and do – become nasty customers at times and are capable of inflicting serious wounds, either with their long teeth or with their tails. A large alligator can very nearly kill a man with a vicious swipe of the tail.”
The Okefenokee has grown into an obsession! Even though I have opportunity for only a few “boots-on-the-ground” days in the Swamp each year, I love exploring it year-round through online and print publications. I just can’t get enough!
My favorite way to get into the swamp (virtually) is through iNaturalist. Just like paddling down an Okefenokee kayak trail, I can search the observations posted by other amateur naturalists, stopping here and there to more closely inspect and identify species of plants and insects. Just like raising my binoculars in the swamp, iNat users perch their beautiful avian observations online. I get a thrill when other users post their observations of a Black Bear ambling through the Stephen C Foster campground, or a Bobcat bounding along the Upland Pine Trail, or an Anhinga diving to spear a fish.
There are currently two projects on iNaturalist highlighting the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. One is a ‘collections project’ that automatically gathers every observation posted within the refuge. It is a great page to check for new and exciting observations I might have missed in my subscription feed. The other, the Okefenokee Photography Project, is a traditional project where members can post and identify the higher quality photography from the Swamp. Both projects have journals that post news from the Refuge and articles highlighting species or experiences in the Okefenokee from users.
The Timber Rattlesnake’s range extends from New York and down south into the northern part of Florida, including the Okefenokee Swamp. Today’s post features a find outside the Okefenokee from up in Walton County, Georgia between Atlanta and Augusta.
An animal control co-worker texted me after-hours and said, “I’ve got one for you!” Along with that text came a photo of a nice sized Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, in a five-gallon bucket. The dark, v-shaped chevron patterns ran in regular intervals down his body while an orangish stripe ran along his spine, head to (almost) tail. And at the end of his black-tipped tail were six rattles.
He was picked up on a rural farm property in Walton County, not too far from a recent clear-cut of several hundred acres. No doubt the logging activity drove him out towards human habitations. After some photography and a short video, for which it put on a nice show, I released him in a forested area not too far from where he was originally picked up.
Excerpt from The Last Remaining Indian in the Okefenokee Swamp, by Tommy Hartley:
“Old man Lee was laying on the end of the porch sunning, same as the gator. He heard the young’un screaming bloody mercy as the gator was get’en her and draggin’ her to where he could get into the water with ‘er. The old man who was laying right there on the porch grabbed his gun from behind the door, ran out to the edge of the water and shot the gator before he got too far out in the swamp with the girl. When the old man shot, the gator turned the young’un loose of course and the old man grabbed his bateau, paddled out and got the young’un out of the water as quick as he could.”
In my search for anything Okefenokee, I came across a used copy of The Last Remaining Indian in the Okefenokee Swamp by Tommy Hartley (LAH Publishing Company, 2003). Hartley writes in the inside cover, “Both of my parents were raised as swampers in the late 1800’s… We were swampers and spoke swamper and now I enjoy speaking and writing swamper.” Hartley passes down entertaining swamp stories that were told to him by his mother. It appears the book may be out of print, but I recommend it for reading, especially if you enjoy southern culture and history.
Whenever an Okefenokee excursion comes to an end, I am immediately antsy about another trip. Typically I have to wait another year, but sometimes two! During the wait, the anticipation builds. I frequently gaze at the large fold-out National Geographic topographic map I purchased at the Stephen C Foster State Park trading post in 2015 and hung on my office wall. I am astonished by the immensity of the swamp: the seemingly endless road into the refuge is a mere toothpick’s length on the 3’ square map. Much of metro-Atlanta could be swamped waist deep in the Okefenokee’s total acreage.
Of all the vastness in this huge wilderness area, only three main canoe trails, just over 100 miles total, transect the refuge map. Looking at the other areas void of trails and shelters makes me to ponder these less frequented areas. Are they open lakes, prairies or dense swamps? Do the alligators and swamp bears concentrate there more than the frequented areas? How about bobcat and cougars? What scenes do Red Bird Prairie and Hickory Hammock hold? And “Strange Island”: what mysteries lie there? Pockets of Cottonmouths or rattlesnakes? I can’t wait to get back again!
In 1894, naturalist and ornithologist Bradford Torrey wrote of the Great Egret in his book, A Florida Sketch-Book.
“Incomparably the handsomest member of the heron family (I speak of such as I saw) was the great white egret. In truth, the epithet ‘handsome’ seems almost a vulgarism as applied to a creature so superb, so utterly and transcendently splendid. I saw it—in a way to be sure of it—only once. Two birds stood in the dead tops of low shrubby trees, fully exposed in the most favorable of lights, their long dorsal trains drooping behind them and swaying gently in the wind. I had never seen anything so magnificent. The reader should understand that this egret is between four and five feet in length, and measures nearly five feet from wing tip to wing tip, and that its plumage throughout is of spotless white. It is pitiful to think how constantly a bird of that size and color must be in danger of its life.”
“Sam lay rolled in blankets beside Frodo. ‘I had a funny dream an hour or two before we stopped, Mr. Frodo,’ he said. ‘Or maybe it wasn’t a dream… I saw a log with eyes!’ ‘The log’s all right,’ said Frodo. ‘There are many in the River. But leave out the eyes!'” – Lord of the Rings, book 2, chapter 9
Like floating driftwood with eyes, the alligator is exceptionally camouflaged as it lies submerged in the dark swamp waters. Often lying as still as a stone for hours with only its eyes and nostrils above the surface, unwitting prey may often come within chomping distance unaware of their danger. A sudden sideways slash of the head and a large fish is trapped in those unrelenting jaws. A forward thrust of the tail and a duck or otter may disappear down that previously unseen gullet. A strong thrust may even propel the alligator several feet out of the water to nab the unsuspecting heron from its perch.
An excerpt from A Florida Sketch-Book, by naturalist Bradford Torrey, written in 1895:
“I look up from my paper to see a turkey buzzard sailing majestically northward. I watch him till he fades in the distance. Not once does he flap his wings, but sails and sails, going with the wind, yet turning again and again to rise against it,—helping himself thus to its adverse, uplifting pressure in the place of wing-strokes, perhaps,—and passing onward all the while in beautiful circles. He, too, scavenger though he is, has a genius for being graceful. One might almost be willing to be a buzzard, to fly like that!” – Bradford Torrey, 1895
Internet rumor has it that the alligator received its name from the Spanish explorers that claimed Florida in the 1500’s. If true, I’m sure that el legarto didn’t simply mean a lizard, but THE Lizard! For the impressive alligator is no mere squamate, but on the order of a greater magnitude: Crocodilia!
The order Crocodilia are large, predatory reptiles. They are primarily carnivorous and feast upon fish, crustaceans, birds, mammals and even other reptiles. While they are quite imposing in appearance, and some crocodilians have attacked humans (the largest number of attacks comes from the Nile crocodile), the American Alligator is rarely a threat to people.
According to a Georgia Department of Natural Resources publication, “the opportunity for humans to experience any of the alligator’s weapons first hand will come only to those who attempt to capture one. Under natural conditions, alligators are usually shy, retiring creatures that generally mind their own business, which does not include promoting encounters with humans.”