I’ve been following the blog Serenity Spell by FeyGirl that explores the natural world of Florida. It is well written and includes great photos, in-depth information, and a strong ecological philosophy. I highly recommend it.
FeyGirl’s posts have reminded me of my own experiences in the Everglades National Park and other Florida wetlands.
My brother Marshall, a 72-year-old homeless man with a pickup truck and a bank account, likes to hide out in remote Florida campgrounds six months out of the year and read books. Catching up with him has taken me into places where tourists rarely tread. Trust me, Marshall does not hang out at Disneyworld or Epcot Center.
Peggy’s parents, John and Helen, also lived in Central Florida for years and John, in his 70s and 80s at the time, loved to take us for hikes and point out anhinga, alligators, cottonmouths and other Florida wildlife.
Given all this, I decided to write about the Everglades this week. I’ll start with alligators, move on to a handsome vulture and end with some very impressive bird beaks.
The photographer in me loves alligators. They are big (up to 1000 pounds), like to sunbathe and don’t see any reason to run away. With over a million residing in Florida, they are also easy to find. During dry season they congregate where water is found and actually enlarge wet areas by digging out “gator holes.”
What makes them so photogenic, however, is their exotic look. It comes from having been around for 150 million years and surviving the demise of dinosaurs. I am particularly fond of photographing them as they slither through the water. It captures them at their primitive best.
The most surprising fact for me about alligators is that the females make such good mothers. They start by building nests two-three feet high of plant debris and dirt. They then lay 30 to 50 eggs and patiently guard the nest for 70 days until the babies hatch. The sex of the babies is determined by how warm the nest is. Cooler produces females, hotter produces males.
Mom’s job isn’t over with the hatching. She hangs out and protects her babies for another year. Lots of things including other alligators, fish, raccoons and even Great Blue Herons find baby alligators tasty. Later, when the babies grow up, they return the favor by eating the same creatures that wanted to eat them. What goes around comes around.
While alligators normally don’t eat people, they are dangerous. Any animal that weighs several hundred pounds, has 80 sharp teeth and a bite to die for deserves respect. Ask a dog. Their collars are frequently found in the stomachs of alligators that live in close proximity to people. Alligators rarely catch cats. The dog sees the alligator as something to bark at and chase off of the property. The cat sees the alligator as a reason for climbing a tree. It’s best to error on the side of cats.
As one might expect, alligators are particularly aggressive during breeding season and while protecting nests. Also, feeding alligators is both dangerous and illegal. A Florida man learned this lesson the hard way a few days ago and lost his hand.
Having put in the cautionary label, respect not fear is the key word. These ancient reptiles are fascinating to see and safe to visit as long as common sense and caution are used. The Anhinga Trail at the Royal Palm Visitor Center in Everglades National Park provides a safe, excellent introduction to alligators as well as Florida’s unique bird life. Winter is the best time to visit.