“I saw before me, through the clear water, the head and shoulders of a very large alligator, moving slowly towards me; I instantly stepped back, when, with a sweep of his tail, he brushed off several of my fish. It was certainly most providential that I looked up at that instant, as the monster would probably, in less than a minute, have seized and dragged me into the river. This incredible boldness of the animal disturbed me greatly, supposing there could now be no reasonable safety for me during the night, but by keeping continually on the watch.” – Excerpt from William Bartram’s Travels Part II, Chapter V
– 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 Christian creationist and 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.
Today’s post takes us outside the Okefenokee. But who knows if this foreign invader will eventually spread through Georgia and into the swamp???
Although it didn’t cause national hysteria like the beetle invasion of 1964 (or was it Beatles in the British Invasion???), I did happen to hear about the Jorō Spider invasion of 2014. There were a few articles and blogs as this East Asian species was first discovered in Madison County, Georgia, not far from my home town of Athens.
A University of Georgia article wrote, “The Jorō spider, native Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan, belongs to a group of large spiders known as golden orb-web weavers that make enormous, multi-layered webs of gold-colored silk. [Researchers] suspect the Jorō spider arrived accidentally as a hitchhiker either in shipping containers or among shipped packing materials such as pallets and crates or even on live plant material.”
Introduced and invasive species often impact the native species and can even upset the balance of an entire ecosystem, such as the pythons in the Everglades. While Jorō Spider pose no threat to humans, it is unknown if they will adversely affect the native Yellow Garden Spider by competing in the same niche.
In 2018 I began to see them pop up regularly in iNaturalist observations in Georgia. But it wasn’t until today that I found one in my own backyard. It was nearly impossible to miss. A strand of the thick web extended from the top of my backyard cypress, and about 15 to 20 feet at a downward angle and anchored to another lower bush. In the middle, suspended in a tangled web just above a Yucca, hung the ornately patterned female. A few days later I noticed a smaller spider “hanging out” with her. It was identified by other iNat users as the male of the species.
There are now over 300 sightings of the Jorō Spider posted on iNaturalist in Georgia, and two in South Carolina. Who knows how far and wide this invasion will sweep, or if it will have as long lasting an impact as the British Invasion that forever changed the music landscape of the world!
Alligators aren’t the only megafauna of the great Okefenokee Swamp! I’ve made several excursions to the Okefenokee, but have never had the privilege of spotting a bear. I get a bit jealous as I see iNaturalist observations of Black Bears lumbering through the Stephen C Foster campground, or in other places throughout the swamp.
Most of my visits to the Okefenokee have been in March, and the bears may still be safely tucked away in hibernation dens at that time, which typically lasts from December to April. But on my May 2020 trip, I came across a long line of tracks on the Upland Pine Trail in the Stephen C Foster State Park.
With their numbers declining because of habitat loss, the Okefenokee is truly a refuge for this handsome ursine inhabitant. The Okefenokee affords them some remote location to get far from their human predators as possible. They are often not seen, as I can attest, more than their signs are discovered. Claw marks on trees and prints in the swamp mud are often the only evidence found of the Black Bear by most Okefenokee visitors.
Bears have a varied diet, but are reportedly a major predator of alligator eggs. They are a true omnivore and feast upon the abundant floral and faunal inhabitants in the swamp ecosystem. And, of course, they love honey! They often got the blame for tearing up the managed hives of the swampers that once lived in the Okefenokee.
“A man who has spent his entire life in and near the Swamp describes the setting of Gannet Lake as follows: From this lake one can look across a five-mile stretch of prairie and see the large green lily leaves floating around and the magnificent white bonnet lily blooms, which look as white as snow, shaded by the green leaves, and can also see trees here and there draped with long wisps of gray moss, all making one of the most beautiful landscapes ever been held by the eye of man.”
– Excerpt from the 1926 History of the Okefenokee Swamp by AS McQueen and Hamp Mizell; page 50.
The largest alligators are said to have been from 15 to 19 feet long. I don’t think any of those 19-footers were scientifically verified, but an internet search shows Mandy Stokes’ 15’9” alligator holds the current world record. The largest Georgia alligator was killed in 2019 and measured 14’1”.
I haven’t climbed out of my canoe with a tape measure in the Okefenokee Swamp, but have seen some pretty big ones along the banks of Billy’s Lake and especially up The Sill. It is hard to imagine these gargantuan reptiles can weight up to 1,000 pounds! Once they get up to that size, I don’t think they have any fear of predators… other than during hunting season. But if they remain within the boundaries of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, they are protected for life to grow big and fat!
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 Constitution and other papers published many exciting stories from the Okefenokee…
“A few hundred yard further brought us to a series of bonnet flats or lakes, as Uncle Ben called them, which were anything but enticing. They were open places, which were twenty to fifty feet across, with any quantity of flat bonnets [water lilies] – a growth common to the deep ponds of South Georgia. I do not know the botanical name for them. Notwithstanding our many resolutions, we could not help shrugging our shoulders as we plunged to our arm-pits in the first one, for we knew well that under these bonnets were the favorite lurking places for the monsters of the Okefenoke.”
– Savannah Morning News. Savannah, Georgia. May 25, 1875
The Florida Redbelly Turtle is another common aquatic turtle I’ve spotted on my canoe adventures throughout the Okefenokee Swamp. A close look at Pseudemys nelsoni reveals two cusps on its upper beak which differentiates it from the other turtles in the refuge. The Suwannee River, which runs through the Okefenokee, is the northern border of this turtle’s range. It reportedly lays its eggs in active alligator nests.
In an 1825 oration, early American poet Charles Sprague beautifully laments the extirpation of the American Indian that once roamed the lands like the Okefenokee:
“Not many generations ago, the rank thistle nodded in the wind, and the wild fox dug his hole unscared. Here lived and loved another race of beings. Beneath the same sun that rolls over your head, the Indian hunter pursued the painting deer; gazing on the same moon that smiles for you, the Indian lover wooed his mate. Here the wigwam blaze beamed on the tender and helpless, and the council fire glared on the wise and daring. Now, they dipped their noble limbs in yon sedgy lakes, and now, they paddled the light canoe along yon rocky shores. Here they warred; the echoing whoop, the bloody grapple, the defying death song all were here; and when the tiger-strife was over, here curled the smoke of peace. Here, too, they worshipped; and from many a dark bosom went up a fervent prayer to the Great Spirit. He had not written His laws for them on tables of stone, but He had traced them on the tables of their hearts. They knew not the God of Revelation, but the God of the universe he acknowledged in everything around him.”
An excerpt from naturalist Bradford Torrey’s 1894 book, A Florida Sketch-Book:
“The river in that part of its course is comfortably narrow,—a great advantage,—winding through cypress swamps, hammock woods, stretches of prairie, and in one place a pine barren; an interesting and in many ways beautiful country, but so unwholesome looking as to lose much of its attractiveness. Three or four large alligators lay sunning themselves in the most obliging manner upon the banks, here one and there one, to the vociferous delight of the passengers, who ran from one side of the deck to the other, as the captain shouted and pointed. One, he told us, was thirteen feet long, the largest in the river. Each appeared to have its own well-worn sunning-spot, and all, I believe, kept their places, as if the passing of the big steamer—almost too big for the river at some of the sharper turns—had come to seem a commonplace event.” A Florida Sketch-Book by Bradford Torry.
An excerpt from my March 10, 2015 Okefenokee Journal; my daughter’s first trip to the Okefenokee.
Tuesday, 4:13 PM – After pitching camp in the Stephen C Foster State Park campground, the game with my daughter was to see who would spot our first alligator. So we headed down the Trembling Earth Nature Trail and onto the boardwalk that heads into the swamp. On our way, two woodpeckers chased each other, spiraling around and through the trees; a doe and fawn casually fed on the grass near the cabins, and a Green Anole darted across our path.
As we neared the mid-point of the boardwalk, a Green Heron burst aloft between the bushes on my left and stopped on a limb to check out the intruders. An agitated rooster-like crown covered his head but then smoothed back as he settled on a perch; beautiful, shimmering, iridescent shades of blue, green, and tan. To my daughter’s dismay (she was ready to see what lie up ahead), I stayed with the heron for at least ten minutes, following him from perch to perch, waiting for the opportune “Kodak moment.”