Okefenokee Dragonflies – Insectivorous, Cannibalistic Carnivores!

Common Green Darner, Anax junius, dragonfly. One of the most common and abundant species throughout North America, dragonflies are abundant throughout the warm season in the swamp. Photographed May 3, 2020 on the Trembling Earth Nature Trail in Stephen C Foster State Park; Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

​Despite their innocent looks, and harmless alighting upon an extended finger, dragonflies are voracious carnivores! In fact, their insectivorous habits gave them the name odonata, which is Greek for “toothed”.  Strange Lives of Familiar Insects claims a dragonfly can ingest their own body weight in 30 minutes. And I suppose cannibalism isn’t out of the question, as I have once sat and watched a darner devouring another dragonfly head first.

But sometimes, predator can become prey…

Giant Lichen Orbweaver, Araneus bicentenarius, trapped and eating a dasher dragonfly in a web. Found on the Trembling Earth Nature Trail in Stephen C Foster State Park, Georgia. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. May 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

Gator! Danger Here!

​In 1875, The Atlanta Constitution published the dramatic headline: “We now announce to our readers, and the people of Georgia, that we are fitting up an expedition for a complete and thorough exploration of Okefinokee. The full details of the plan and expedition will be published soon – if they come out alive.” Over the next months, the paper released many exciting stories from the Okefenokee Swamp. Here is an excerpt from May 25, 1875:

Large Alligator with mouth open showing teeth; Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 13, 2019. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

“​In all directions we began to hear the unearthly bellowings of these hideous creatures. To the man who has never heard fifty of them make the swamp air reverberate at half minute intervals like the smothered mutterings of a distant thunder it was anything but pleasant, particularly if he was leg deep in the water and just in the midst of them. We pressed on, however, and after passing four or five of these pools, finally came into an ugly place, more hideous looking than any of the preceding ones, and while about the water the alarm of “gators!” was again sounded, an odorous musk – rather offensive than otherwise – rose from the water, and – “Gator! danger here!” shouted Uncle Ben, “He’s mad, and will catch you in a minute!” The stampede would have been an amusing scene to an on-looker who was out of danger. In the rush and splatter of water it seemed that every effort to make time was hindered by our feet sinking deeper into the mud. Tom Branch, in his eager flight, lost his equilibrium, and down he went head and ears into the mud and water.”

 –  Savannah Morning News. Savannah, Georgia. May 25, 1875


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/22138487

Okefenokee Brown Water Snake

Brown Water Snake
Brown Watersnake 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 from Dreamstime.com.

In the early 1990s, when I should have been sitting in my college classes, I was usually out in the rural areas and swamps of Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas flipping pieces of tin and digging through piles of debris hoping to find snakes. Reptiles became a lasting interest, and much of what drew me to the Okefenokee Swamp in first place. Twenty years later I’m back in the Okefenokee with my twelve-year-old daughter. Thankfully she shares her dad’s love of snakes and is always hopeful for a reptile find as well!

We weren’t disappointed on our 2015 Okefenokee trip as we quickly came across a Brown Watersnake along the swamp boardwalk in the Stephen C Foster State Park. I’m not sure how we spotted this perfectly camouflaged dark, black and brown snake laying in the dark water choked with brown leaf litter. There are several species of Nerodia found in the Okefenokee. I usually recognize N. taxispilota by the squarish blotches that run in equal spacing down its back, caddy-corner with the patches that run alternatingly down each side.


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/29977854

Okefenokee – Ornithologist’s Delight

Little Blue Heron; Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 6, 2017. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

“The ornithologist is thrown into an ecstasy of delight, for birds ranging from the majestic whooping crane to the lowly wren, inhabit this swamp, and too, there are many rare species almost extinct in other sections of the country to be found here. And to those who like to observe and study the wild in its native haunts, it is an enchanting spot, for all the animals native to this section can be found, from the scurrying water-rat to the vicious panther, the amiable bear and the harmless, beautiful deer.”

-Excerpt from the 1926 History of the Okefenokee Swamp, by AS McQueen and Hamp Mizell; Pages 11-12.


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/35526485

Alligators of the Okefenokee Video

American Alligator; Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Geogia. March 11, 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com

While many of the alligators quietly slip into the water as you paddly by, some gators can put on quite a show that is full of splashing and drama. The video below is a compilation of photography and some gator splash videos from our March 2020 trek to the Okefenokee Swamp.


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/49132311

Like an Umbrella

Anhinga bird perched atop a large Pond Cypress tree with Spanish Moss. Billy`s Lake on the Suwannee River canoe kayak trail. Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, USA. Photographed May 2020.

– Excerpt from William Bartram’s Travels; Part II, Chapter III

“From the buttress, the Cypress, as it were, takes another beginning, forming a grand strait column eighty or ninety feet high, when it divides every way around into an extensive flat horizontal top, like an umbrella, where eagles have their secure nests, and cranes and storks their temporary resting places; and what adds to the magnificence of their appearance, is the streamers of long moss that hang from the lofty limbs and float in the winds. This is their majestic appearance, when standing alone, in large rice plantations, or thinly planted on the banks of great rivers.”

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. 


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/52586479

eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S68313101

The Heron is at Home

In 1895, naturalist Bradford Torrey wrote of the Green Heron being at home in watery woods such as the Okefenokee Swamp:

Green Heron in the Okefenokee Swamp
Green Heron along the Trembling Earth Nature Trail; Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 10, 2015. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

“The day was before me, and the place was lively with birds. Pine-wood sparrows, pine warblers, and red-winged blackbirds were in song; two red-shouldered hawks were screaming, a flicker was shouting, a red-bellied woodpecker cried kur-r-r-r, brown-headed nuthatches were gossiping in the distance, and suddenly I heard, what I never thought to hear in a pinery, the croak of a green heron. I turned quickly and saw him. It was indeed he. What a friend is ignorance, mother of all those happy surprises which brighten existence as they pass, like the butterflies of the wood. The heron was at home, and I was the stranger. For there was water near, as there is everywhere in Florida; and subsequently, in this very place, I met not only the green heron, but three of his relatives,—the great blue, the little blue, and the dainty Louisiana, more poetically known (and worthy to wear the name) as the ‘Lady of the Waters.'”

Torrey, B. (1895). A Florida Sketch-Book.


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/29932812

Francis Harper’s Okefenokee Florida Barred Owl

Barred Owl, Strix varia, perched in a tree along the Trembling Earth Nature Trail in Stephen C Foster State Park, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia, USA. May 4, 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com.

In October 1913, Francis Harper explored the Okefenokee Swamp and published his journal in The Auk, the official publication of the American Ornithological Society.

FLORIDA BARRED OWL; ‘ Deer Owl’; ‘Hoot Owl.’- Very common. Its deep, booming cry is sure to be heard at night, and is so characteristic of the Okefinokee that the natives use it as one of their signals when they are in trouble or far from home. The Barred Owl by night and the Red-shouldered Hawk by day furnish a round of weird and startling calls that one cannot soon forget. The former is a typical bird of the gloom-haunted cypress bays, the river bottoms of the Suwannee, and the small cypress ponds on the islands. It begins its calls in the late afternoon and continues them well into the evening. In the forenoon they may be heard until 9 or 10 o’clock, and occasionally throughout the hottest day. Several times its notes were uttered at midday when light rains were falling or impending. Besides its well-known resonant call, we heard a subdued, querulous note. The ‘ Deer Owl, ‘ exhibit considerable curiosity; they responded frequently to poor imitations of their cry, and sometimes to the ‘ squeak.’


A Biological Reconnaissance of Okefinokee Swamp: The Birds
Authors: Albert H. Wright and Francis Harper
Source: The Auk, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Oct., 1913), pp. 477-505
Published by: Oxford University Press

iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/52503993

eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S71170406

Okefenokee Zale Moth Caterpillar

Okefenokee Zale Moth caterpillar. Photographed on the Suwannee River Middle Fork canoe trail in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. May 4, 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

How cool. I had no idea that the Okefenokee had its own moth! And I wasn’t even on the lookout for this little critter when I found it.

My daughter and I were paddling north up the Suwannee Middle Fork (red trail) from Billy’s Lake. The run is usually quite wide, but at some points can require some careful steering around Cypress buttresses. On one of those maneuvers around the base of a cypress tree, I grabbed onto a stump to try to swing the canoe a bit so my daughter, sitting in the back, wouldn’t crash into the fetterbushes. As I held the stump, just a few feet from my face I caught a glint of orange, black and white.

Okefenokee Zale Moth caterpillar. Species of owlet moth. Conservation status imperiled. Photographed on the Suwannee River Middle Fork canoe trail in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. May 2020. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally at Dreamstime.com.

“Hmmmm. Cool looking caterpillar”, I thought to myself, but didn’t immediately stop the canoe. At the next tree, I saw a couple more and decided to switch to a macro lens and capture a few shots. There were about a dozen, maybe two, munching the leaves and tender vines.

Upon returning home and posting most of my finds on iNaturalist and with some help from Ryan St Laurent, I discovered this bright caterpillar was the Okefenokee Zale Moth, Zale perculta. I also discovered there really isn’t much information published on the internet about. I did learn that they are listed as “imperiled” because of their specialized diet and habitat in which they occur, but not “immediately imperiled” since the Okefenokee is protected as a National Wildlife Refuge. Thankfully, they are also found in a few other swamp habitats outside of the Okefenokee.


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/47382643

Some helpful sources:

Courage, My Daughter!

An excerpt from my March 11, 2015 Okefenokee nature journal:

A somewhat humorous photo taken by my 12-year-old daughter of an alligator disguised as a lily pad. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. March 11, 2015. ©www.williamwisephoto.com. Please don’t steal my images. Download and use legally from Dreamstime.com

Wednesday, 9:45 AM – In exploring the swamps of Georgia and Florida in the 1700’s the naturalist William Bartram stated, “the alligators were in such incredible numbers, and so close together from shore to shore, that it would have been easy to have walked across on their heads, had the animals been harmless.” Although they may not be as numerous as in Bartram’s day, there were still plenty of gators to see on our short guided boat boat ride across Billy’s Lake. ​Biologists estimate about 12,000 alligators reside throughout the entire Okefenokee.

​At one point, our guide pulled the boat especially close to one large gator and encouraged my daughter to the front to get a closer photo.  While she was perched on the bow of the boat, the guide kept the boat slowly moving forward until the gator gave a huge splash while simultaneously turning and submerging. Amanda was just as quickly back in her seat at the rear of the boat! When she got her courage back up, she was able to get near the front of the boat again and got a humorous shot of a gator “hiding” under a lily pad.


iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/53967002