Excerpt from my March 12, 2015 Okefenokee nature journal.
As one leaves the more open waters of Billy’s or Minnie’s Lakes in the Okefenokee and enters the cypress forests and hammocks, the channels become considerably narrower. While there aren’t as many alligators in these tighter areas, occasionally a large specimen might be patrolling the water. This begs the question: how do you safely pass a large gator in a little kayak? On the left, or on the right? The answer: let him choose!
While padding up the Middle Fork, my daughter and I encountered a particularly large bull gator swimming in the narrow channel, his tail swishing back and forth as he cut through the water ahead. And although he was headed in the same direction, we were gaining on him. How would we pass him? He spied us from the corner of his eye and slowed a tad as we came alongside. He was more than half the length of the canoe. I took some close up shots and a video as he slowed and allowed us passage. So close. He could easily have been touched with the oar; but we dare not try.
An excerpt from E.A. McIlhenny’s 1935 book, The Alligator’s Life History:
“On one occasion I saw a Duroc boar hog that weighed not less than five hundred pounds caught by a large alligator while the hog was swimming across a stream about eighty feet wide. The hog had a regular crossing place at this point, and the alligator was waiting for him. As the swimming hog reached the middle of the stream the alligator, which had been hidden by the overhanging vegetation of the opposite bank, swam out with great speed, caught the hog at the houlder, threw its tail almost completely out of the water and with a tremendous sweep to one side threw all four of the hog’s legs clear above the water as it rolled over, and that was the last time I saw the hog alive.” – Page 49
E.A. McIlhenny (1872 – 1949), of the McIlhenny Tabasco Sauce company, was a hunter, explorer and naturalist that established the Avery Island wildlife refuge on his family estate in Louisiana and wrote The Alligator’s Life History in 1935. While some of his statements are criticized by modern science, he was one of the most knowledgeable alligator experts in the country at the time. His work contains valuable information and entertaining anecdotes.
In the spring, there are splashes of purple and blue along the canoe trails of the Okefenokee Swamp. I have primarily found this beautiful Iris along the Suwannee River Middle Fork (red trail) where the channel is still wide, but taller trees provide some shade. The leaves protrude from the water a few feet and the beautiful purple bloom rises just above them.
According to a USDA Plant Guide, the Southern Blue Flag swamp iris, Iris virginica, is perfectly suited to the Okefenokee habitat as it prefers wet, acidic, boggy soils. It is native to the coastal plains from Virginia to Louisiana. The source also states that Seminoles may have used this plant to treat shock following an alligator bite.
The Okefenokee blackwater is decorated in the spring with the golden fingers and bright green plumes of the Golden Club plant (Orontium aquaticum). The waxy leaves are shed water droplets and always seem dry, hence the name “Neverwet.”
As I had my canoe anchored on a bed of bonnet lilies to photograph some Golden Club fruit, I noticed a nearby plume of Neverwet leaves had been chewed upon considerably. Flipping a leaf, a fuzzy brown Tiger Moth caterpillar about half the length of my thumb was going to town! Since that growth of Golden Club was completely surrounded by water, I wonder if that caterpillar was laid and hatched on those leaves and was living all if is short live on this little “island in the stream.”
Excerpt from William Bartram’s Travels, written in 1773-1777; Part II, Chapter V
“The female, as I imagine, carefully watches her own nest of eggs until they are all hatched, or perhaps while she is attending her own brood, she takes under her care and protection, as many as the can get at one time, either from her own particular nest or others: but certain it is, that the young are not left to shift for themselves, having had frequent opportunities of seeing the female alligator, leading about the shores her train of young ones, just like a hen does her brood of chickens, and she is equally assiduous and courageous in defending the young, which are under their care, and providing for their subsistence; and when the is basking upon the warm banks, with her brood around her, you may hear the young ones continually whining and barking, like young puppies. I believe but few of a brood live to the years of full growth and magnitude, as the old feed on the young as long as they can make prey of them.”
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.
As an iNaturalist project admin, I completed a review of over 19,000 American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) observations uploaded to iNaturalist between 2009 and December 31, 2020. Photographs which depicted an American Alligator eating a prey item were added to the iNat Alligator Appetites Project. The result revealed a gruesome smorgasbord of dainties enjoyed by this giant reptile.
In his 1935 book titled The Alligator’s Life History, E.A. McIlhenny (of the Tabasco family) wrote, “It is quite safe to say that the food of the alligator at some period of its life, consists of every living thing coming in range of its jaws that flies, walks, swims, or crawls that is small enough for them to kill, and covers a tremendously wide range. After they reach three feet in length and larger, any creature inhabiting the land or water which they can catch and swallow is good food.” This is no doubt a true statement!
A review of the 110 observations added to the project, fish and reptiles nearly tied for the top prey items at about 25% each, with birds and mammals nearly tying in second place around 14% each. Truly, the American Alligator is an opportunist that doesn’t discriminate or turn its nose up at a particular menu item… even another alligator!
A breakdown of the iNaturalist observations showing alligators with prey is as follows:
While there are reportedly 15 turtles in the Okefenokee Swamp, my most commonly photographed species has been the Coastal Plain Cooter (Pseudemys concinna ssp. floridana). While abundant in the Okefenokee Swamp, they are found all along the coastal plain (hence the common name) from southeastern Virginia, south into Florida, and west into Alabama.
They can be quite large (up to a 13-inch carapace length) and would be quite conspicuous if they didn’t dive off their basking spots long before your canoe approaches. As we paddle along, if I keep my binoculars trained ahead, I typically see these cooters sliding into the water left and right all along the Okefenokee canoe trails. On our springtime Okefenokee trips, one or two will occasionally remain out in the warm sun long enough for a closer photograph being reluctant to dive back into the cool water.
A humorous story from naturalist Bradford Torrey’s 1894 book, A Florida Sketch-Book. (It would be even more humorous if ignorant snake killing wasn’t still common.)
“It was a ‘copper-bellied moccasin,’ he declared, whatever that may be, and was worse than a rattlesnake.”
A few minutes later, when, as the boat was grazing the reeds, I espied just ahead a snake lying in wait among them. I gave the alarm, and the boy looked round. “Yes,” he said, “a big one, a moccasin,—a cotton-mouth; but I’ll fix him.” He pulled a stroke or two nearer, then lifted his oar and brought it down splash; but the reeds broke the blow, and the moccasin slipped into the water, apparently unharmed. That was a case for powder and shot. Florida people have a poor opinion of a man who meets a venomous snake, no matter where, without doing his best to kill it. How strong the feeling is my boatman gave me proof within ten minutes after his failure with the cotton-mouth. He had pulled out into the middle of the river, when I noticed a beautiful snake, short and rather stout, lying coiled on the water. Whether it was an optical illusion I cannot say, but it seemed to me that the creature lay entirely above the surface,—as if it had been an inflated skin rather than a live snake. We passed close by it, but it made no offer to move, only darting out its tongue as the boat slipped past. I spoke to the boy, who at once ceased rowing.
“I think I must go back and kill that fellow,” he said.
“Why so?” I asked, with surprise, for I had looked upon it simply as a curiosity.
“Oh, I don’t like to see it live. It’s the poisonousest snake there is.”
As he spoke he turned the boat: but the snake saved him further trouble, for just then it uncoiled and swam directly toward us, as if it meant to come aboard. “Oh, you’re coming this way, are you?” said the boy sarcastically. “Well, come on!” The snake came on, and when it got well within range he took up his fishing-rod (with hooks at the end for drawing game out of the reeds and bonnets), and the next moment the snake lay dead upon the water. He slipped the end of the pole under it and slung it ashore. “There! How do you like that?” said he, and he headed the boat upstream again. It was a “copper-bellied moccasin,” he declared, whatever that may be, and was worse than a rattlesnake.
Skimming all throughout the Okefenokee are the gorgeous Odonata. The dragonflies adorn the swamp with their vibrant greens and blues. In the heat of the day, when most of the birds hide and the alligators sink in the cooler waters, the dragonflies are constantly buzzing about. If your camera’s autofocus is worthy – and your skill at tracking fast moving critters is even more worthy – you just might catch a flight shot. Not me… for now, I’m happy to get a photograph if one stays on a perch long enough!
In 2017, I brought along a new “toy” to the Okefenokee: a Sigma 150-600mm lens. I soon realized that the first day of that trip was going to be a photography practice run!
Saturday, March 4, 2017 – As the sun was setting, groups of Little Blue Herons, which seemed more abundant than on our 2015 excursion, roosted high up in the trees. Aiming that new super-telephoto up into the trees took a bit of getting used to. And when a pair of Wood Ducks flew by, I knew I really needed some more practice! I wasn’t quite used to handling this heavier Sigma lens while shooting moving subjects from a moving canoe.
Also, to further confuse myself, I brought along two camera bodies on that trip: one with the zoom, the other with a wide angle lens. But right away I felt like I was fumbling around, unsure of which to shoot and when. I just felt too rushed, always swapping cameras. Being too concerned about photography, I just wasn’t having fun.
I finally decided upon a tactic of using primarily one lens for a period of time, and then another later. Except for the morning of the final day, the remainder of the trip I shot primarily with the 150-600mm super-telephoto unless in one of the more constricted areas.