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Liam's First Alligator

Sunday, March 6, 2011

I will not lie. Liam's first and main reason for wanting to go to Florida was not together time with his mom and sister, although he loves that. No, he wanted to see a ten-foot-long lizard. He really, really wanted to see an alligator. So from the moment we came in over the runway at Orlando airport, we were straining our orbs for eyebumps in every ditch and puddle. But it would be a couple of days before we got lucky.

Driving along Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR, I finally spotted the prehistoric pile of scalage that said "gator" to my unaccustomed eye. It would have been hard to miss this one, hauled out as he was on a warm winter's day. Holy smokes!

It was all I could do to get Liam to take his eyes off it long enough to snap the photo of a boy with longing, for now, fulfilled.

We got out the spotting scope to get a better look at this dozing beauty.

I don't know why, but every time I see a dozing 'gator, my first thought is that it has hauled out of the water to die. They just look dead. When they close their eyes, the eye seems to sink back into the head, and they really, really look dead. You can't discern any respiration. A sleeping gator defines "inert."

Until the Science Chimp bleats like a little lost fawn separated from its mama and maybe about to try to cross the creek...oh, hello there. Sorry to bother you, but we didn't want our first gator viewing to turn into a wake.

Thus satisfied that the 'gator was quite alive and thinking about venison, we moved the scope so the kids and I could appreciate that armored tail. Dinosaurs live!

It was to be a wonderful evening for 'gators. We proceeded from Black Point to the alluringly named Biolab Road, where a molten sunset pointed up the scalation on three more beautiful gators.

It was really too beautiful and primeval to be believed. And these weren't babies, either. Liam's first  gator was the biggest--gettin' on 12 feet, we guessed. 

This one, maybe 9 feet...about the length of my canoe...eek! I wondered what it would be like to canoe around a beast like that. Maybe FloridaCracker can tell us. Does your heart race when one swirls under you? Heck, a big carp can scare the granola out of me, rocking my boat...what about a gator longer than your own conveyance??

I couldn't resist a shot of Firehair admiring this gorgeous animal.

Another...maybe 7 feet.

Another conservation success story. It's hard to believe we almost hunted the American alligator into extinction, just for the bumpy "leather" it lent to fancy purses and cowboy boots. It seems so archaic, so ridiculous to exterminate such a magnificent beast for things like that. It seems so...human of us. I grew up thinking I'd never see an alligator, or a bald eagle, or a wood stork...they were all but gone in the mid-1960's.

Endangered species legislation works. Alligators, bald eagles, and wood storks are back. Brown pelicans, too--they were once on the brink of extinction, as amazing as that seems. It's just too bad that so many truly endangered species are languishing in the Endangered Species Waiting Lounge, left unprotected because it's economically inconvenient to list them.

 How could we keep taking the tops off Appalachian mountains if the cerulean warbler that lives on them were finally listed as an endangered species, and we were legally bound to protect its habitat? Better not list that one. See, that's how it works. Once we saw what a powerful conservation tool the ESA could be, it was imperative to remove its teeth.

What if we had to legally acknowledge that polar bears and Pacific walruses are endangered because their pack ice habitat is melting out from under them? Legally they're listed as threatened, so we're not bound to do anything to reverse this deeply alarming phenomenon. They're in the waiting room, too. And what about the seals, mainstay of polar bears, that need the pack ice for pupping? Do we expect them and the walruses to simply switch overnight to hauling out on land? Who needs a bunch of pack ice? We don't. So what if they do? 

Having gotten a bit off track, I am thankful for alligators and the legislation that allowed their populations to recover. Well over a million alligators now populate the ditches and swamps of the Southeast.  And I'm deeply thankful that there are still places where you can take your kids to see the oversized scaly wonders of the natural world. 

See it while it's here, folks. 


These photographs are stunning. Pretty thrilling stuff, seeing those alligators like that, and especially that one in the magical sunset.

My heart breaks every time I think about what we have done to the habitat for most critters. And the one who are most vulnerable now, there are no words.

I support endangered species legislation except now I am greatly torn by the plan for the Northern Spotted Owl. Being an Oregon resident, I am familar with years of protection for that great owl. Now the plan is to eliminate their greatest competitor - the Barred Owl. How can it be right to used a Barred Owl call to lure them while awaiting their arrival with a shotgun? Julie, what are your thoughts on this plan?

Posted by Anonymous March 6, 2011 at 8:57 AM

Lucky Liam! What an exciting experience, which I am sure will always be remembered.

I wanted to tell you how much I loved your November-December 2010 story about being an egalitarian gardener. Wonderfully written and it touched me deeply. I WANT to garden with all natives, but how can I turn my back on those faithful hollyhocks that once provided brides and princesses, or the bleeding hearts that became ladies in a bathtub and so much more.

So thank you dear Julie for perfectly pleading the case for all us bumpkins who love plants no the way, I was asked to address our Native California Plant Society, of which I am a member. But, I refused because I thought it would be too tough. I'm reconsidering for next year.

All garden joys to you,

Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

Gators are fantastic creatures, but my tastes are simpler and I'm waiting for the day that an armadillo might meander across by backyard (I think they're slowly making their way northward). That would plant Liam's expression on my face!

Looks like the exact same spot we saw a gator in December!

Posted by Musicmom March 6, 2011 at 4:20 PM

Now the numbers of gators have tilted the other way and there needs to be a control of sorts. It's dangerous to explore on some of the back waters of the St. Johns River where I would canoe. You'll have your fill of gators on the south end of Lake George between the lake and Astor. Go down a lovely little creek called Blue Creek in a motor boat and be sure not to take your dog. Ducks were everywhere back in the 70s. Now no ducks or dogs venture along the side of the St. Johns south of Lake George.

FloridaCracker is frustrated. Blogger ate his very long comment, so he recomposed it and emailed it to me. Here goes:

I am so glad you got to see our wonderful gators. Like your Mom said, they were really scarce in the 1960's when we were kids.
I caught my first gator when I was 12. They were so rare at the time, that I didn't believe the kid who came to my house telling me to come catch a gator.
I thought it was a prank.
Why did they come to me to catch it?
I was that kid in the neighborhood who was always catching snakes for pets back then and I guess they figured catching a gator was like catching a snake.
Well, it wasn't.
This gator was about 3 feet long and angry. The other kids had chased it into a small culvert, so I took station at one end of the culvert while they poked a stick in the other end.
The gator came dashing out (they are really fast) and I snatched it.
I took it home, put it in a washtub, and ... you guessed it, my parents would not let me keep it.
Who knew?
Turns out, gators had just received protected status, so it was against the law.
The next day, Dad drove me with the gator in my lap to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. At a redlight downtown, I relaxed my grip for just a second, ...and the gator chomped down on my knee.
The light changed to green and Dad had to drive, so I worked the gators head sideways until he let go of my jeans.
Just for the record, they bite hard.
We did make the delivery and I suppose that gator is still there at the Alligator Farm since it is a tourist attraction and not a hide farm.
I wonder ... would he remember me?
Canoeing with them is not so hairy, but kayaking in my sit on top kayak is more nerve wracking if they are present.
Not much clearance between me and the water.
And as Treehugger said, you do NOT let your dog swim in freshwater in FL.

And to Anonymous commenter on your blog,
I can't believe that plan to kill one owl for the sake of another is still in the works.
I ranted about that years ago on Pure Florida.
Protecting the Spotted Owl is about habitat, not killing off a natural competitor.
Okay, i'm done now.



I really don't have enough information to comment on the part of the spotted owl recovery plan that calls for experimental removal of barred owls in spotted owl habitat. I agree with FloridaCracker that the overwhelming issue in spotted owl declines is Oregon's abysmal logging practices. If there were enough habitat for both, spotted and barred owls would naturally sort out their preferences as they have for millenia and not come into extreme conflict, to the point that barreds started killing spotteds in an attempt to take over their territories. The obvious answer is to allow enough old-growth forest to remain standing to support both the spotted owl and its natural competitors.

Having said that, I would also caution that a lot of the choices that we are sometimes forced to make in wildlife management can seem pretty crazy--killing off Peter to encourage Paul. A lot of people don't realize that common and roseate terns, black skimmers and Atlantic puffins are management dependent species in the Northeastern US. They are present in our avifauna only because managers constantly bump off several species of gulls that would eat their eggs and chicks and crowd them of of nesting islands. They also systematically remove black-crowned night herons that eat eggs and chicks. There are places where Arctic and red foxes are routinely poisoned to protect seabird nesting colonies. We would not have Kirtland's warblers on the planet if there were not room-sized repeating traps for brown-headed cowbirds planted all over their jack-pine habitat. Tens of thousands of cowbirds must be killed every year in order to support a few hundred Kirtland's warblers. Such is our world, where we've pushed some "desirable" species into tiny corners, where our only choice is to exterminate the "undesirables" that would otherwise finish their elimination for us. Nobody enjoys it, but we're stuck doing it in perpetuity: defining the management dependent species dilemma.

I would want to hear from the ornithologists who study spotted owls on this issue before making any snap judgement. And if they're smart, they're keeping their mouths shut about it.

You've been reporting on and seeing dinosaurs for years now. Very derived dinosaurs, derived theropods, which we persist identifying as birds...

Feathers are now known from a number of predtory dinosaur species and possibly one herbivore. So looking at a crocodilian and thinking dinosaur isn't all that accurate.

Oh, I do love the smile on that boy. All full of gee whiz, thanks mom, and love that 'gator.

Liam, congrats on your life lizard.

Years ago we were in South Carolina and went out to Bull Island which is one of the barrier islands.
It was early spring and we were told by the naturalist if we saw any alligators just to clap our hands while walking towards it to get them to move off the dikes.
We came across a 10 footer who was blocking our way back to the boat, which was leaving shortly.
I walked toward it clapping my hands and it did, eventually, go into the water.
On the boat back I told the naturalist that the clapping worked and he looked at me as if I were nuts and said he was just kidding.

The rule is you don't have to be faster than the gator, just faster than the slowest person in the group.
Anne walks with a cane.

Thank you Julie and Floridacracker for your comments.
This is the article that made me aware of the owl issue. I have lived in western Oregon or Washington since 1967. Having resided in Knappa, Astoria and Longview, WA - all logging/fishing dominated - I was an unfortunate observer of the rape of the forests by the timber companies. Yes, some replanting did occur but once you lose the old growth there is no turning back. "Rape" is a very strong word but I have always felt that it described the destruction I saw when standing in a field of stumps and debris where there had very recently been a wonderful forest. I get teary-eyed when I see log trucks loaded with large trees which is a rarity these days - only because there aren't many large trees left. Thus the spotted owl problem. I know it is a very complicated issue. I wanted to make you and your readers aware of it and get feedback from you that would offer another perspective and give me more understanding. You provided that. Thanks again.

Posted by Anonymous March 7, 2011 at 7:38 AM

Thank you for raising the issue, Anonymous. This is a tough one, as many of our choices are in managing endangered species. At the root of every tough management choice we must make seems to be habitat destruction by Guess Who.

If we hadn't built up our coastlines and inhabited our coastal islands, there'd be room for gulls, terns, puffins and herons alike. If we hadn't replaced marshes with landfills and malls, there would be no vast gull restaurants. If we hadn't leveled the jack pine sandplains and suppressed forest fires, there'd be a lot more Kirtland's warbler habitat. If we hadn't felled the mature Oregon forests, the barred owls wouldn't have moved into the second growth, then found the remaining old growth to their liking as well.

It's just too darn bad that innocent barred owls may have to die for our original sin: rape of all the good spotted owl habitat. Some of the choices we're left with are downright distasteful, but may actually be necessary, so I hope people keep an open mind and realize that we may indeed have to trade 1500 owls of a common species for a few hundred vanishing ones. Not saying I think it's a good idea--I don't have the data. But it may be a last-ditch choice, the kind of corner we paint ourselves into when our own greed overtakes everything else. You have to feel terrible for the wildlife managers who'd have to do this. Like I said: nobody enjoys it, nobody likes it, but it may be all we're left with.

Alligators are ever present in Florida, that is for sure. There are so many now that we found one up against the house next door to my elderly parents in their retirement community which only has one small holding pond in it. He was migrating to find a girly gator and got disoriented, ending up in the bushes next to the house. This was fifteen feet from the mail kiosk where everyone on the street stopped for mail! Seeing a seven foot gator lopping down the street in you parent's retirement community makes you wonder " someone is shooting a commercial for dry skin?"....

I've seen them in culverts on my street and walking across the street next to the elementary school my son went to which is two blocks from my house because a holding pond is behind the school.. Any body of water is likely to have a gator, nowadays.... almost as bad as the iguanas in south Florida.

Love gators. Not so much though when they are becoming nuisances. I have no less then 2 in the pond. and varying sizes in the canal. At 9 ft its time for them to relocate.

I think they should open up the hunting of them again. Go to Corbett, Big Cyprus, Shark Valley they are just everywhere.

When they are this close and this rampant the legislation worked too well. I haven't seen many turtles, foxes, rabbits, armidillos, or other marsh animals, when a gator takes hold of an area. Not to mention he ate my pug. :(

Hunting gators is by permit. There is a lottery for the permits on the state website and each large body of water has a set limit. So you try for a permit for an area you wish to hunt. The lottery is in the summer and hunting season is in the fall.

Been reading and re-reading some of your Florida entries, and realizing that while I miss my childhood surroundings (Valley and Ridge area of Appalachians in the upper Delaware Valley), I live now in a place that lets me see regularly the forms of wildlife you are marveling in...alligators, armadillos, wood storks, roseate spoonbills...and I can assure you that I am absorbing every single thing that I see. Your kids are right for hankering to observe these creatures, and so lucky to have a mom who is uniquely qualified to help them get to know the wild world around them.
Getting to read about some of the special moments in this adventure is thoroughly enjoyable.

Way to go Liam for having some big gators on your first try!

As someone that has spent many days canoeing with alligators, I must say for the most part they don't bother me. Of course every now and then I accidently get too close and one swishes the tail against your boat and that can be send a jolt through your body. Also if an alligator is hissing, you should back away. I've had a few display that when canoeing as well. For the most part I really enjoy my alligator neighbors and relish all the up-close encounters.

When backcountry canoeing in Okefenokee Swamp (in GA) a few years ago we counted over 300 alligators (and that was just going to our campsite). It was amazing.

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