Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, photographed in Volusia county, Florida (03 March 2014).
Monday 03 March 2014 was a busy day. My father —the enigmatic and curiously awesome Les Jones— underwent foot surgery the week prior. The medical folks played hell dealing with his pain meds and working against the onslaught of mayhem emanating from his non-cooperative nerve endings, but with everything balancing out it was finally time for him to make the transition from Florida Hospital in Orlando to a rehab facility closer to home in Mount Dora.
Once upon an ago, but not too long ago, the Florida Everglades formally reached north from Florida Bay to the southern edge of the vast and epic, yet remarkably shallow, Lake Okeechobee. What’s more, the water intake system (the drainage unit) of the Everglades actually ranged all the way north to Orlando by way of the Kissimmee River. Indeed, the better portion of the southern Floridian peninsula was directly and intricately connected to the what we now know as The Everglades.
This is the 21st post on Dust Tracks featuring an American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). I’m not sure if I have much more to say about them, short of telling stories of specific individuals. Sometimes encounters with American alligators are very story-worthy. I’ve certainly had a few…
There was the behemoth at Lake Woodruff who pulled his way on the levee and effectively blocked my path. I had to double-back several miles to get back to the Jeep. The monster gator simply wouldn’t get out of my way. Stubborn.
And then there was the one-eyed devil in Big Cypress who stalked me along the edge of Loop Road. That was a creepy encounter, a creepy, big gator. Friggin’ gator was stalking me like I was a big dumb mammal or something. Maybe I shouldn’t have been walking so close to a gator hole?
And, yeah, then there was the youngster (but not too young) in Alachua county that I caught by hand one chilly afternoon. It was the one and only gator I’ve ever –or likely will ever– catch by hand. Such foolishness is not recommended. Even a youngster like that could do some serious damage to feeble human hands.
Yeah, I’ve got some stories floating around that are worth telling sooner or later…
On Friday, we checked out the Santa Fe River as it runs through O’Leno State Park, eventually disappearing in a sinkhole and then traveling underground for three miles until it resurfaces at River Rise Preserve State Park. Today’s post features alligators and turtles photographed atop and along the edge of that sinkhole in O’Leno State Park on 24 March 2013.
American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) are a no-brainer in a habitat like this. With plenty of duckweed and buoyant logs collecting and floating on the surface of the sinkhole pool, so to speak, as well as along its shore, this is a fantastic basking area for the gators. Turtles are also, of course, expectedly present in great numbers in an area like this.
But what species are these turtles? I checked out O’Leno State Park and River Rise Preserve State Park: Unit Mangagement Plan published in 2003 by the State of Florida Department of Environmental Protection (Division of Recreation and Parks). According to the report, both Suwannee cooters (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) and Florida redbelly turtles (Pseudemys nelsoni) are present in the area (Appendix 4-17). This was expected on both counts, but I immediately leaned more toward the Suwannee cooter identification with most of the individuals I could see. I do believe most of these are likely Suwannee cooters, though a few could easily be Florida redbellies. (I’m simply not a turtle expert.)
With all that being said and accounted for, I’m pretty sure this is a Suwannee cooter:
Note the markings just visible on the turtle’s plastron (the underside of the shell). Redbellies and Yellowbellies lack those kinds of markings along the scute lines. That pattern looks fairly typical for Suwannee cooters, so far as I understand.
Here’s an image of two individuals basking nearby:
Again, these “feel” like Suwannee cooters to me, though —again— I must confess I am far from being a turtle expert. It also would’ve helped if I could’ve gotten closer for better reference shot material! Hopefully I can get some confirmation from Planet Turtle.
The Suwannee cooter (arguably classified as by some as a distinct species: Pseudemys suwanniensis) ranges in north/northwest Florida, essentially wrapping around the Big Bend region of north Florida. They’re essentially outside of my own personal native range (central Florida, northeast Florida, and south Georgia), so I’ve never had any concrete experience with the species. Though I’ve undoubtedly seen them before in this area and other north Florida locales, this is the first time I’ve actually identified and focused on them. A lovely lot, these fellows.
There was indeed an abundance of activity at the Santa Fe River sinkhole at O’Leno on this day. It was freakishly warm and brilliantly sunny, immediately following a solid, long run of stormy, unseasonably cold weather. The turtles and the gators were certainly taking advantage of the sunshine, and they weren’t alone. While creeping around the shoreline, trying to get a better angle of a young adult alligator basking on a floating log, I came across this Southern black racer, Coluber constrictor priapus:
The racer was actively hunting along the shoreline. We spotted each other at the same moment. Note how the racer is “periscoping.” This is typical behavior for a racer when he or she finds something of interest (or is actively searching for something of interest). Racers have wickedly sharp visual acuity and this one was directly checking me out. As I raised my camera, it periscoped in response to the motion. Needless to say, no catch was made or even attempted. The snake was beautifully positioned well out of reach. Our next post will feature another racer — one I was able to get much, much closer to.
We have plenty more O’Leno material coming up in the next few days. As I said before, it was a productive and rich couple of hours! To wrap up this post, here’s the gator shot I was trying to get when I came across the racer:
Next up on Dust Tracks? The power and glory of the Southern black racer! Also: the Eastern fence lizard! Rah!
This is, of course, a young American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis, basking on a mat of vegetation in Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area. Given their rather large size, alligators are one of the reptiles you’re most likely to see during the colder months here in Valdosta, Georgia. Seeing this individual wasn’t exactly a “return to spring” moment. I’ve been seeing this youngster and a hand full of others throughout the winter.
One point I want to make is this: Grand Bay WMA and Banks Lake NWR are managed quite closely for fire control, partially in an attempt to keep invasive, non-native species at bay (and to protect gargantuan, uncontrolled fires from occurring). In the photograph below, you can see the results of a controlled burn near the shoreline at Grand Bay.
These controlled burns are spread out quite a bit. It seems every year Those-In-Charge burn different sections of the land. The featured-above burn site was to the north of the boardwalk trail, but all was clear and untouched to the south of the trail. Presumably this allows wildlife to get the hell out of dodge when there’s a slow burn in progress. Makes sense, right?
As for the marsh/cypress itself, it’s essentially untouched by fire. The invasive plants in the marsh/swamp are more of the aquatic kind than the land kind. Fire doesn’t usually do so well under water. Heh. This is why a few years back Grand Bay was essentially drained, just when I moved to Valdosta. It was an attempt to kill off non-native and invasive aquatic plant species. Soon enough, Grand Bay’s waters were restored, but then Banks Lake (just to the north) was drained. Now, they’re both back to full levels, and then some. Throughout the entire process, these gators persisted. They’re durable little freight trains of archosauria.
Historically, I have no idea what the gator density in this area has been. In the past two years, gators have essentially been omnipresent, but there haven’t been nearly as many as I’d expect from a similar habitat in central Florida, and they’ve been rather on the small side. Of course, when I first arrived in Valdosta, Grand Bay was essentially drained. I’m curious to see if more (and larger) gators will move into this area now that the watered habitats have been fully restored and we’re moving through a few annual cycles. Typically I only see younger adults such as this one. Maybe more behemoth gators will show up this summer?
I’m not sure what that means, actually. Does Heaven love young alligators? Or even old ones? And does Heaven, if it exists, welcome all forms of crocodilians? If so, are they separated from the general hominid population of heavenly spirits? Or do crocodilians and humans share heavenly pools together? And at what temperature are those heavenly pools of water kept at? If ghostly crocs don’t have appetites, what do they do with their time? Do they bask in The Heavenly Light? And does that light shine down, as on earth, or shine up? Truth be told: I have no idea. I’m just an itty bitty mortal prone to asking questions — some decent and some not so decent.
Anyhow, let’s kick the week off with this magnificent little American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis, photographed at Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area near Valdosta, Georgia on 23 February 2013. I do love me some alligator action — even if that action is defined by laying around and waiting for the sun to come back out.
It’s going to be a fun week on Dust Tracks. Some cool stuff lined up. Grand Bay has been nifty this week.
Last Saturday, I ducked out for a few hours to romp through Grand Bay’s cypress wetland and Longleaf pine forest. It wasn’t a remarkably memorable outting —no epic snake sightings— but it was still a nice break from work and such.
The first “big” spotting? Hey, I’ve seen more than I can count in my life, but it’s always cool to come across a young alligator basking in the sunshine, right?
Indeed, starting my day on the boardwalk trail at Grand Bay, I found a significant number of Carolina green anoles basking lazily in the sunshine. Following a number of sunless, cloudy days, the lizards were more than happy to take advantage of the clear skies above.
Some were in full-on green mode..
…others, a bit mixed between green and brown…
…and others were sporting their brown coat.
Short of the damn-near-mythically-awesome gray-dewlapped A. carolinensis, the green anoles at Grand Bay were fully represented in all their various designs and patterns.
Not spotting any cottonmouths or banded watersnakes in the cypress region of Grand Bay, I retreated to drier ground and dug into the Longleaf pine forest. As reported by the massive bucket of All-Things-Known, Wikipedia, Longleaf pine forests once stretched across an estimated 90 million acres of the Eastern United States. Then the Europeans came, along with their precious industry, and butchered the forests with reckless abandon. A few hundred years later, less than 5% of these Longleaf pine forests remain. If current restoration projects succeed, the U.S. Forest Service is hoping to restore Longleaf pine forest territory to 44,700 acres… That’s a lot of acreage, but not much compared to the historic levels.
The Georgia Department of National Resources (Wildlife Resources Division) states that 21 million acres of Georgia was once Longleaf pine habitat (link). Today, that number is —of course— significantly lower. Still, at Grand Bay there is a good swath of protected Longleaf pine habitat, and I’m extraordinarily grateful for it (as are the organisms dependent on this ever-threatened habitat).
Though the saw palmettos are a bit heavy in some of these areas, the state does systematically conduct controlled burns throughout the Wildlife Management Area, reducing the impact of saw palmetto and fostering the success of fire-dependent Wiregrass (Aristida berychiana) — an ally of the Longleaf pine.
Longleaf pine, you see, is remarkably adept to wildfires. Even as seedlings, the species is incredibly adapted to withstand the impact of fire. Wiregrass, itself, is actually dependent on fire; it also helps wildfires spread when they do occur. From the points of view of Wiregrass and Longleaf pine, wildfires are good. If you shut down wildfires, you shut down wiregrass reproduction and you enable other plants to dominate the areas around Longleaf pines — areas the Longleafs would rather keep cleared.
This spring, probably later this month, I’ll cover a wildfire-cleared area of Grand Bay’s longleaf pine habitat to illustrate this process further. It’s quite awesome. I’ll also talk more about the species that depend on this habitat.
Admittedly, I’m typically more drawn to wetland and watery habitats. That’s where I find my beloved Nerodia watersnakes, after all… But, as I grow older I find myself more invested in drier, more-xeric habitats. Though biodiversity seems less dense in the drier areas, it also seems more refined and precise. More efficient, if that makes sense. The cypress wetlands, swamps, streams, and ponds are no doubt awesome, but so too are the Longleaf pine forests of the American southeast. At Grand Bay, I get the best of both worlds.
Next on Dust Tracks: I really don’t know! I’ve been terribly busy as of late, so I’m short on new material. Perhaps some more retro field reports are in order? Any profile requests? Anything you want to see more of?
ADDENDUM: I forgot I shot a 90-second video on my phone. heh.