From the land of lumpy lizards

American alligator Alligator mississippiensis in drainage channel in Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, SC
By that, I’m not referring to any of the arbitrary and silly boundaries like states, but the region where American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) can be found, which runs from the coastal regions of the mid-Atlantic US across the southeastern and gulf areas, but more so the further south you get. For this post, we’re simply talking about the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River right outside the city of Savannah, Georgia – there really isn’t any major town in SC that’s close. And we gots lots of gators, because it was a productive pair of days, which partially explains the delay – these posts take time.

But first, a small followup to Migratory Bird Day this past Saturday, where I took – no pictures. It was a bad day for me and I felt lousy, so I didn’t go out to chase birds, but if we count the week preceding, I got plenty, so get off my back man. And I forgot to include a photo with the previous post, so I’m putting it here now.

common nighthawk Chordeiles minor in flight overhead
Yeah, I know it’s not going to win any awards. Given the distance (this is a tight crop from a frame at 600mm focal length) and the brief period that it was visible, this is all I got, but I include it because it’s the only time that I’ve seen a common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) in flight at all, and perhaps only the third time I’ve seen one in the wild – partially because their name is apt and they’re typically nocturnal insect hunters. I’ve heard them plenty of times, over cities at night, and have handled two during my rehab days; that has an anecdote all its own, which I’m saving until I can illustrate it reasonably well. Which might take a while.

Back to the gators. The SNWR is generally a great place to find them, but it can vary – we’ve been there at times when it was almost impossible to spot any. Not so this trip, for sure, though granted, you sometimes have to be looking carefully.

juvenile American alligator Alligator mississippiensis lurking among lilies in channel
This one, perhaps a meter-and-a-half all told, was nestled among the lily pads and almost escaped attention as an old log or cluster of weeds, which their habits and appearance contribute to, though dog knows what the hell they have to fear at this size – mostly us, I’m guessing, but these traits may have developed millions of years ago when other predators were extant.

Note, when I say “a meter-and-a-half,” that includes a decent body and a long tail – the head, the bitey bit, might have topped out at 25cm, so dangerous to fish and smaller birds, maybe a housecat. As we moved along the drive, we were able to get a different perspective on the same gator.

juvenile American alligator Alligator mississippiensis from different angle
Let me set the scene, just for reference. The main drive through the refuge is bordered, most times, by wetlands on either side, though to the left for the first half, it’s more open water channels between the drive and tussocks of marsh bushes. Directly alongside the road, however, are thick bands of reeds and scrub plants, so even attempting to reach the water on foot would require thrashing through some dense undergrowth, and it’s only the drive’s height above the water (better than a meter) that provides much of a view at all. The gators have what they need in the channels and don’t venture near the drive most times, though in places you can find crossover paths where they wanted to be in the water on the other side. So while stepping out of the car is allowed, it should still be done with careful examination of the surroundings. The gators themselves are pretty wary of people overall and don’t like being close, but on occasion, you can find exceptions.

small American alligator Alligator mississippiensis snoozing in muck at bottom of retaining wall
You saw a closer version of this in the teaser post, but this guy – this fucking guy – was napping right at the base of a retaining wall and was about a meter below our feet, though not a lot more than that in body length itself – the little leaves surrounding it are bigger than duckweed, but not by much. Really, it’s hard to provide anything that shows scale, and all but the smallest gators look almost exactly like the big ones; only subtle cues can give a rough idea, and that’s if you’ve been looking at lots of gators – and paying attention of course. I have to include the image taken by The Girlfriend, as Our Host and myself were getting these couple of frames.

Wendy Hall and author photographing small gator at bottom of retaining wall, by The Girlfriend
Though it’s hidden by the grasses, the top of the retaining wall is right at our feet, and you can get the impression of how far the channels sit from the drive in the background. I found out later that another visitor to the refuge, standing next to The Girlfriend’s Sprog, leaned over much as we’re doing here and accidentally dropped her sunglasses almost directly onto the gator’s snout. The gator never even twitched.

They are, in fact, remarkably lazy critters. Some lazy animals get too fat, but gators rarely do because they’re too lazy to even feed – at least that’s what I maintain. Overall, we saw lots of basking alligators, and a couple idly making their way along a channel (at least half of which stopped dead from exhaustion as we watched) – and one bit of real action. Most of which I missed by being a little too far away.

American alligator Alligator mississippiensis carrying captured fish past common moorhen Gallinula chloropus in channel
This is the full frame, to give an idea of the surroundings and the distance, and the gator cruising through in mid-channel has a mouthful of food, though we couldn’t make out exactly what during its slow pass. I will point out the splash of red in the shadows, which shows a common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) watching the reptile pass. Now we’ll go in for the crop and a slightly better look at the prey.

American alligator Alligator mississippiensis with captured fish
That’s enough to make out the fish fin, but not a lot else. You notice the crappy light quality, which came from getting there too early in the morning (though this beat the heavy crowds of the previous day, especially since it was a Sunday in The South.) While early morning is ideal for observing birds, in the Savannah Refuge it means the first half of the drive, easily the most active and productive, forces you to look directly towards the sun.

Now the mistake, that all of us with cameras made. After seeing this guy pass and start to make his was into a muddy inlet area where the view was even worse, we moved slightly farther along to more subjects. But this one paused at the edge of a bank to gulp down its meal, attracting the attention of a much larger gator that we had seen basking back there, head hidden from sight. The larger one awoke and, whether hoping to steal some food or fending off an intruder, launched itself at the one we see here, creating a few moments of frantic thrashing between the two, though I doubt there was any actual contact. I was a dozen meters away trying to be fartsy.

channel reeds with out-of-focus American alligator Alligator mississippiensis
Given the context of the post, I doubt anyone is missing the background at all, but without a bunch of other gators it might be subtle enough to remain unrecognized for a bit, and sneak up on viewers. This was right the end of a small exit path through the reeds that obviously some alligators were using, but (from the minimal width) only small ones like this – again, maybe a little over a meter, big enough to give you an ouchy if they actually bit, but nothing dangerous.

juvenile American alligator Alligator mississippiensis lurking behind reeds
This looks way more dramatic than it was, because this head was only the length of my foot, if that. As I was maneuvering for this view, the gator realized it was closer to me than it liked and twitched sharply, ready to make a break for it if necessary. I’m pretty sure this is the same one we photographed the day before in the exact same location, who began to venture onto shore to bask before it caught sight of us moving closer and retreated hastily into the water. The appearance changes radically between being wet and being dry.

juvenile American alligator Alligator mississippiensis after retreating into water, by The Girlfriend
Bear in mind, this is in a refuge where they’re used to people being close by – they tend to be a lot more circumspect and wary in other areas. The Girlfriend and I got almost identical photos, so I’m featuring hers here. People from other regions hear about the occasional gator attack, usually on small dogs, and never realize that the reptiles are all over the place in the south – if they were a serious threat, there’d be a lot more reports, but venomous snake bites outrank alligator encounters by several orders of magnitude. Always be wary of course, but they’re really pretty shy critters.

I’m going to have to find out when birthing season is, because I want more pics of the newborns – I only have a handful. This does take a little more caution, though, as the mothers are protective.

juvenile American alligator Alligator mississippiensis floating in water showing stripes, by The Girlfriend
This one was probably a little shy of a meter, old enough to be on its own, but still showing more of the baby stripes that they eventually grow out of. I think it was the smallest that we’d seen, little more than a large water snake in size. Adorable! And you can see how much of their body length is just tail.

A few more gators for interest’s sake – I was going to add some other photos from the trip, but decided to bump them to a new post.

large adult American alligator Alligator mississippiensis with unusually smooth skin
This one seemed to be quite lacking in those distinctive alligator lumps and ridges, at least on the head, and I’m not sure if this is due to advanced age, or genetic variations, or a good moisturizer. Kinda disappointing, really – the lumps add character.

pair of large adult American alligators Alligator mississippiensis basking together on mudbank
dog's chew toy sitting next to basking American alligators Alligator mississippiensisLike the previous one, these were both quite sizable, well over two meters in length and probably a few hundred kilos each – able to capture and consume a deer, if they were, you know, not as abysmally lazy as they are. But there was a tiny detail that I found only while editing, seen at right.

Yes, that’s a dog’s chew toy – or a chew toy, anyway; I kinda doubt the gators bought it themselves, but I don’t live around there. The question is, was it just washed up on the bank, or did a refuge visitor toss it out there trying to induce one of the reptiles to fetch in order to work off a little excess weight (fat chance,) or was it coughed up after the dog that owned it was consumed, or what? So many questions.

Anyway, that’s long enough. More pics coming in another post.

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