Although ratsnakes (Pantherophis sp.) can be found in the Okefenokee, this is a bonus post of a snake I recently wrangled further north in the Georgia Piedmont area of Oglethorpe County:
A frantic friend called me with a “giant rattlesnake” in his yard. Knowing it probably wasn’t a rattlesnake, I kept making excuses to avoid driving out to his Oglethorpe County home. But he kept insisting, “I promise, it will be worth your while.”
On arrival it was, of course, gone from the spot where he first spotted it. After about 5 minutes of flipping logs, my friend saw it over in a nearby brush pile. I love the yells of excitement and fear heard on the video as I pulled this big Eastern Ratsnake out from the debris and onto the open ground!
I measured it right at six-feet; probably one of the biggest I’ve caught. It had a squirrel-sized lump in its belly. My friend counted all his chickens and none were missing.
Prior to being set aside as a National Wildlife Refuge, White-tailed Deer were commonly hunted on the open prairies of the Okefenokee Swamp, as described in an excerpt from the 1926 book History of the Okefenokee Swamp:
Chase Prairie derives its name from the fact that it was a favorite place to chase down deer that would come out on the space to feed upon the grass and water plants. A number of hunters would gather with dogs around this large Prairie and some would chase the deer from the islands into the Prairie, while others would have boats convenient, and they were so expert with the little narrow boats used in the Swamp that they could propel these boats so swiftly over the water-covered Prairie that a deer would be overtaken before he could cross it.
Any visitor to the Stephen C Foster Georgia State Park campground in the heart of the Okefenokee Swamp has met “Sophie”. She is the resident gator that lives, patrols and fills the boat launch area with babies every year. Sophie can often be seen laying in the grass near the canoes, or occasionally up on the boat ramp. On most of my visits, Sophie has been the only gator in the boat ramp area. But on this trip, her suitor, “Tank” was hanging around, undoubtedly awaiting the beginning of breeding season!
Multiple trips to the Okefenokee and I hadn’t seen a Pitcher Plant since 1997. So on this May 2020 trip I was going to find and photograph that signature swamp Sarracenia! From what I had read, some of the largest Hooded Pitchers – up to three or four feet – grow in the Okefenokee Swamp. Pitcher Plants are native to North America and found along the coastal plain from North Carolina down into Florida.
After three days of paddling and exploring the trails around the Stephen C Foster campground, I finally broke down and had to ask park staff*. “On the way out of the campground, about a quarter mile on the left, just under the 25 MPH sign I flagged off a small patch so the mowers wouldn’t hit them.” And sure enough, there they were! Perhaps I was imagining a more secluded and swamp-like scene to find these carnivorous vegetables, but a roadside ditch will do!
Excerpt from the 1912 Okefenokee journal of Dr. W.D. Funkhouser:
“We five started in alone, carrying 50 pound packs, with a compass as our guide. The water was from waist to shoulder deep, full of giant cypress trees, and so closely overgrown with underbrush and entangling vines that we literally had to cut our way with axes every step, and could only advance a mile a day.
“Sometimes we would come to a big gator tunnel through the underbrush, where a large alligator had crushed his way through and we would crawl through it to save some cutting. The difficulties were that the sides were usually supplied with wasp nest’s, and there was always the chance of meeting the alligator coming back.”
“These floating islands present a very entertaining prospect; for although we behold an assemblage of the primary productions of nature only, yet the imagination seems to remain in suspence and doubt; as in order to enliven the delusion and form a most picturesque appearance, we see not only flowery plants, clumps of shrubs, old weather-beaten trees, hoary and barbed, with the long moss waving from their snags, but we also see them compleatly inhabited, and alive, with crocodiles, serpents, frogs, otters, crows, herons, curlews, jackdaws, &c. there seems, in short, nothing wanted but the appearance of a wigwam and a canoe to complete the scene.”
– Excerpt from William Bartram’s Travels, Part II, Chapter III
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.
“Every cloud has a silver lining.” While I’m typically not one to use happy little inspirational poster quotes, this one held true for me in May 2020. The coronavirus shutdown of the entire world gave many of us weeks of free time as we isolated at home. I chose to take isolation to the extreme and made a second 2020 trip to the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia.
There were only about twenty occupied campsites within the sixty-plus RV lots of the Stephen C Foster State Park. We all had plenty of room and privacy. And consider that us few campers were just about the only people within the Okefenokee’s 438,000 acres, that’s some serious social distancing!
While an adult turtle’s shell is hard and seemingly impenetrable, an unborn turtle’s eggshell is nowhere near as tough. In fact, turtle eggs are a swamp delicacy! From the number of scavenged nests I found on my May 2020 Okefenokee paddling trip, it seems everything eats turtle eggs. Bears, raccoons, skunks, opossums, crows, bobcats and more all dig up and eat this swamp caviar.
Since there are reportedly 15 species of turtles in the Okefenokee Swamp, I can’t be sure what species laid the eggs. Perhaps a Cooter, Slider or a Softshell. Either way, the predator that tore open the nest didn’t discriminate! Some turtles are known to lay their eggs inside an active alligator nest in order to receive the protection of the fierce mother gator.
Scanning the shore with my binoculars as my daughter piloted our canoe around Billy’s lake, I was a bit startled when I saw a small group of four plump sandpiper birds gathered on a downed cypress tree. Sandpipers in the Okefenokee? This was definitely a first for me. Since our Okefenokee excursions have always been in March, I had not spotted a Spotted Sandpiper in the swamp before! About an hour later, near the entrance of The Narrows, I saw another group of 9 standing on a log in the shade.
Apparently, I wasn’t the first person to be surprised at seeing them. In 1913, Albert Wright and Francis Harper explored the Okefenokee for the American Ornithological Society. In the society’s scientific journal and official publication, The Auk, they wrote of the delight in finding the Spotted Sandpiper within the great Swamp:
“The Spotted Sandpiper was a distinct surprise as a summer resident of the swamp. Not only is this several hundred miles south of its known breeding range, but one would not expect it to find a suitable haunt in the Oke-finokee. The lakes and runs are practically shoreless; they are simply open spaces in the otherwise continuous cypress swamps. However, the logs and driftwood near the edges of Billy’s Lake serve as teetering stands; half a dozen were seen here on May 11, one on June 5, and still another a few days later. Earlier in the spring one or two were reported from the canal. The species probably does not breed in this latitude.”
According to www.allaboutbirds.com, Spotted Sandpipers are “the most widespread sandpiper in North America, and they are common near most kinds of freshwater, including rivers and streams, as well as near the sea coast”… and apparently blackwater swamps as well!
Looking at eBird’s illustrated checklist for Charlton County, the Spotted Sandpipers are most commonly observed in the Okefenokee in April and May. So I was happy to be able to make a May visit to the swamp (thanks COVID19!) and spot this Spotted Sandpiper!
Unless they are tagged or have some unique scars, American Alligators are quite hard to tell apart. I’m sure there are subtle differences in size and features that could be identified if one spent some time comparing photographs. But for the most part, I can only suspect some of the alligators I’ve encountered multiple Okefenokee trips are the same as on prior adventures. But when one is recognized, it feels like meeting an old friend!
On our 2020 Okefenokee trip, we came across one of those old friends that I know we have seen before. As soon as I saw it, I immediately remembered the amputated foot and missing lip. Upon returning home I found the blog called Gator Battles about this uniquely scarred gator we spotted in March 2019. In fact, looking at the one-year-old photo, I think it may even be perched on the same log!