Every Feathered Creature

Excerpt from The Last Remaining Indian in the Okefenokee Swamp, by Tommy Hartley:

White Ibis foraging in the; Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 7, 2017. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

“It soon became very noisy in the swamp that morning. It seemed to me that every feathered creature in the whole swamp was trying to make a sound or squawk all at once. Whooping  Cranes were so numerous that they would block the sunrise from view for minutes at a time when they would rise up and go off searching for food.

“I said Whooping Cranes, but I should have said Cranes, for there were many Sandhill Cranes, White Ibis, Blue Ibis, Blue and White Herons, and so many more that it all would be impossible to describe them all. I always enjoyed the birds in the Okefenokee Swamp.”

Flock of White Ibis passing overhead in the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 7, 2017. ©www.williamwisephoto.com.

In my search for anything Okefenokee, I came across 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.

iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/35966621

Okefenokee Gator Taters

Spatterdock root stem called “Gator Tater”. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. May 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

The waters of the Okefenokee Swamp, particularly the more open lakes, are often covered in bright green lily pads. The large white blooms of the American White Water Lily, Nymphaea odorata, might be the more recognizable of the species, but on my springtime trips, the Yellow Bonnet Lily, or Spatterdock, is more prevalent.

The Yellow Bonnet Lily, Nuphar advena, goes by several names: Spatterdock, Alligator Bonnet, or Pond lily to name a few. The yellow flowers are smaller and less elaborate the white lily, but these yellow dots can be seen all along the canoe runs of the Okefenokee. And if one looks close enough, there may be alligator eyes peering from between the rows of flowers.

Yellow Water Lily spatterdock flower and lily pads. Nuphar advena is native throughout the eastern United States and at some parts of Canada. Spatterdock was long used in traditional medicine, with the root applied to the skin and/or both the root and seeds eaten for a variety of conditions. The seeds are edible, and can be ground into flour. The root is edible too, but can prove to be incredibly bitter in some plants. Stephen C Foster State Park. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. May 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

The Spatterdock leaves are typically oblong and often stand up on their stems off the surface of the water, almost appearing to curl under the southern heat and humidity. The White Water Lily’s pads usually lie flat on the surface of the water.

Underneath the dark tannin-stained swamp water, the Bonnet Lily’s long petiole attaches to a rough looking stem, or rhizome, covered in leaf scars. When these rhizomes are stirred up or broken loose by marauding alligators or passing motor boats, they float to the surface and can often trick the eye into thinking an alligator lay on the surface. The leaf scars can resemble the rough ridges and scutes of an alligator’s back or tail.

Stages of Yellow Water Lily spatterdock flower and fruit. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. May 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

The starchy stems, much like that of a potato, were apparently cooked and eaten by the Indians and swampers of the Okefenokee and were called “Gator Taters.” If I come across a recipe in my swamper research, I’ll be sure to post it.

Okefenokee Baby Alligator Pod

Pod of baby American Alligators hiding under yellow bonnet lily pads in the Okefenokee Swamp. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia USA. March 12, 2015. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

Thursday, 10:21 AM – After a slow paddle a few miles up the Suwannee Middle Fork canoe trail from Billy’s Lake, the overhanging cypress and moss curtains pulled off a bit and the channel opened to blue sky. The waterway became filled with vibrant green lily pads and the floating spatterdock “gater taters” tricked our eyes into thinking we were surrounded by alligators.

But soon enough, a juvenile gator caught my eye floating on a piece of rotting wood. Sitting up straight in my canoe, my eyes began to scan back and forth in the vegetation. Almost immediately I caught another glimpse of bright black and yellow stripes. An even smaller gator lay nearby. This was a true baby; probably a recent hatchling of less than 12 inches long. I pointed him out to my daughter who shared my excitement.

Knowing there had to be more, we searched and to the right, about ten feet away, there were two more… then three… then ten! With joy we began pointing out each and counting. As we pulled in our bark and parked upon the lily pads, we found more than fifteen in various poses on the lily pads and grasses.

-Excerpt from my Okefenokee nature journal, March 12, 2015.

iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/30037413

The Long Moss

An excerpt from William Bartram’s Travels, Part II, Chapter III:

Cypress Trees and Spanish Moss
Curtains of Spanish Moss on Cypress; Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 5, 2017. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

“The long moss, so called, is a singular and surprising vegetable production: it grows from the limbs and twigs of all trees in these southern regions, from N. lat. 35 down as far as 28, and I believe every where within the tropics. Wherever it fixes itself, on a limb, or branch, it spreads into short and intricate divarications; it encreases, by sending downwards and obliquely, on all sides, long pendant branches, which divide and subdivide themselves ad infinitum.

​”It is common to find the spaces, betwixt the limbs of large trees, almost occupied by this plant; it also hangs waving in the wind, like streamers, from the lower limbs, to the length of fifteen or twenty feet, and of bulk and weight, more than several men together could carry; and in some places, cart loads of it are lying on the ground, torn off, by the violence of the wind. It seems particularly adapted to the purpose of stuffing mattrasses, chairs, saddles, collars, &c. and for these purposes, nothing yet known equals it.”

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. 

Dog Rescue Photography: Ollie

When I’m not out tracking wildlife, my camera is used to photograph the pets in need of adoption at the animal shelter…

Large white and brindle American Bulldog Pitbull Terrier mix dog sitting down outside on leash. Dog rescue pet adoption photography for humane society animal shelter pound. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Stock sales support adoption website.

“Ollie” was a handsome boy that was picked up stray by an animal control officer on January 7, 2021. Someone had tied a collar and wire so tight around his neck he was almost choking. Despite being a “yard dog”, he had great manners and would even hold it in his kennel. He’d bark longingly each morning when he heard me arrive, waiting to go for a walk. He was a very calm and affectionate fellow.

Since Ollie tested heartworm positive (another problem with chaining your dogs outdoors 24/7), it was getting difficult to find him an adoptive home. ​But thanks to pledges from several sponsors totaling $630 for his heartworm treatment, he was rescued from the shelter on January 14, 2021! ​

Okefenokee Golden Club Fruit

Neverwet Golden Club, Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. March, 2017. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

On our May 2020 Okefenokee canoe trek, the Golden Clubs were no longer sporting many of those beautiful yellow and white spikes that were abundant in early spring. But upon paddling close to a plume of leaves, I saw something a bit different floating in the tannin waters… fruit! Either I had overlooked the fruit on our March expeditions, or they weren’t yet on the plant.

Green fruit of the Golden Club, Orontium aquaticum, plant. Neverwet fruits are 1 seeded. Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, USA. May 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

The yellow finger of the Golden Club is called a spadix, which is a “spike of closely arranged, minute flowers.” These little flowers mature into small, berry-like fruits with one seed apiece. According to an excellent, in-depth blog on Treasure Coast Natives, “The seed is separated from the fruit by a layer of Jell-O of unclear significance. Maybe the goo gives the fruit buoyancy.  Maybe it sticks to a bird’s foot or to a passing gator or to the leaf on a waterlily.”

iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/61498242

How to Pee in the Okefenokee!

After a few hours of paddling, the thought usually comes to mind, “What about using the bathroom.” If you’re not prepared, this can be a leg-crossing conundrum!

Rest dock with out house near Minnie’s Lake on the Middle Fork (red) canoe trail in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 7, 2017. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

Thankfully, along some of the canoe trails, distinct, man-made features oddly stand out amongst the swamp scenery: large wooden platforms topped with a roof, picnic table and outhouse! Even more strange, but welcomed, is fresh toilet paper and hand sanitizer! Besides being a great place to stop for lunch, it is a welcome relief to the full bladder.

But what about when nature calls away from a rest dock? Getting out of the canoe is not always an option, and can in fact be dangerous. Although the water may look shallow, there can be a layer of peat and mud several feet thick that could suck down the unknowing paddler like quicksand. And standing up or squatting over the edge of a canoe or kayak can be quite a tricky balancing act resulting in a soaking experience!

For those who plan to remain in the wilderness areas for an extended period of time, or may have a weaker constitution, a portable camp toilet, bottle, or 5-gallon bucket is a helpful item to add to the packing list. A little bit of cat litter in the bucket can help keep things tidy. Remember to empty any waste and trash when returning to civilization, rather than contaminating the Okefenokee’s waterways or campsites.

Okefenokee Alligator Trails

American Alligator in the marsh grasses of Billy’s Lake; Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 11, 2015. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

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

“It was in the early winter of 1874 that my father found Chase Prairie. On this trip, and on all others thereafter he always carried a small pole about 8 feet long with an old bayonet on the end which was used to fight off the thousands of alligators that would, at times, fight the boat and attempt to drag out the dogs.

“The last few hours of their journey they had been following alligator trails, which looked like small streams running through the moss, grass and lily leaves. These trails showed that many alligators had traveled these streams for the trails were worn out wide, and the further west they traveled the wider the trails grew.”

iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/53522320

Paddle to Billy’s Island

An excerpt from my Okefenokee Journal on March 11, 2015:

American Bittern in the prairie grasses along Billy’s Lake; Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 11, 2015. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.
Wednesday, 12:17 PM – Grabbing our life vests (but neglecting seat cushions, as we would later regret), we loaded our canoe and headed up the channel toward Billy’s Lake. As we floated by, a beautifully camouflaged American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus, popped his head up from the grasses to spy out the intruders.
​Remembering the advice of a friend from years ago, we headed toward Billy’s Island. My old friend had spent a good bit of time exploring the island and found several critters, including an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. On our trip, however, hiking was restricted to a 1-mile loop in the immediate area of the dock. A Park Ranger had told us that a slightly deranged man had disappeared in Billy’s Island a couple of years ago, prompting a failed but expensive search and rescue mission. Days later, the man was found walking barefoot on Interstate 75, nobody knowing how or when he left the swamp. But the majority of the island was made off-limits to hikers.

The island was named after an American Indian that had resided in the Swamp. In later history, following the Civil War, the island was settled by the Lee family; some of whom still inhabit the island in a small graveyard. On our short hike we saw the rusty machinery left from the last century’s efforts of logging the Okefenokee. Other than a deer wading knee-deep in the swamp, the seemingly ever-present Catbirds, and some carnivore scat, we weren’t as lucky as my friend who had related that he found a baby gator and a rattlesnake on the island years ago.

Raptor Feast

This feast took place outside of the Okefenokee, but the hawk was so cooperative it just begged to be posted on the Okefenokee blog…

Red-tailed Hawk bird of prey raptor eating Eastern Gray Squirrel. December 22, 2020; Walton County, Georgia. ©www.williamwisephoto.com.

Leaving my office in Walton County, Georgia, a Red-tailed Hawk was feasting upon an Eastern Gray Squirrel by the roadside. I pulled my truck closer and watched it tear apart its gruesome feast. And like a gift to me, it flew up to the top of a nearby utility pole and finished its meal in the golden glow of the setting sun, allowing some beautiful photography and video.