Kayaking With Alligators

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Southeastern Texas Alligator – © 2019 H. Valey

A cautionary tale…

In August of this year we took a camping trip to the coastal wetlands in southeastern Texas. I was very excited to see the coastal marshes and I really wanted to get the kayaks out in the wetlands and see what that was all about. My hope was to see some great marsh birds and perhaps an alligator or two.

Southeastern United States, including southeast Texas is home to the American alligator. An animal that once was endangered due to the popularity of alligator skin bags, now has numbers in the millions. This animal is one of the success stories of the Endangered Species Act, originally listed in 1967 to the predecessor of the ESA, and recovering enough to be delisted in 1987. Animals generally don’t frighten me but I must admit that of all the animals in the world, I am afraid of the alligator and it’s cousin the crocodile. They give the illusion of being slow and not aware of their surroundings, when that couldn’t be any further from the truth. They have excellent eyesight and are patient, and fast as lightning. What scares me most is how they often look completely sluggish and then out of nowhere will attack their victim with precision.

Being more of a birder and plant person as a naturalist, I decided I should do a little research on the American alligator if I was going to kayak in their turf. From what I had found on the internet, boating and kayaking with them was deemed safe if you didn’t provoke them and it wasn’t mating season. (You know… mama’s watching out for babies and males watching out for territories.) I even watched a YouTube video of some guy in a kayak paddling around a small lake in east Texas scaring alligators off shore into the water to hide. The animals seemed intimidated by the kayak. The point that he was trying to make was, alligators didn’t really want to attack you, they weren’t usually aggressive with adult humans and they really just wanted to be out of your way. So I thought it should be safe for us to kayak with them at Sea Rim State Park, especially since there was a state park designated paddling trail at the place we were going. I accepted this with more trust than I should have. Yeah… I probably should have done more research.

 

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Wetlands Habitat at Sea Rim State Park – © 2019 H. Valey

We drove out to Sea Rim State Park on the Texas and Louisiana border and set up camp. Once we had gotten settled in, we took our kayaks to the put in spot on the marshy side of the park, and started off on the paddling trail. It was a humid day and mosquitoes hovered around us like our own personal entourage as we made it through the narrow paddle way. The grasses on each side of the water were tall and impenetrable, birds flitted from the tops of the grasses across the water way. The sky was slightly overcast and the morning was still cool. It was a beautiful morning.

My husband at one point says “See those little pair of bumps there. They just moved. Wouldn’t it be funny if that was an alligator?”

I said calmly “It probably is.”

He looked at me like “You better be kidding.”  I had neglected to tell him before hand that alligators in the water were a high possibility.

I responded “I’m not kidding.”

He looked around and then said “I see those bumps everywhere, we’re surrounded.”

Now granted those bumps we saw weren’t very big. It looked like there was just a bunch of juvenile alligators in the paddle way, and what we were seeing where their eyes right above water. Armed with the information I got from the “kayak YouTube video” I was not afraid. Unfazed and confident I said “Let’s keep going.”

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Kayaking at Sea Rim State Park – © 2019 H. Valey

We did. We kept paddling and watching the eyes disappear as we got closer to them just as I imagined they would. Eventually the paddle trail turned off into a lake which a park ranger had told us would be a good place to paddle. He said it would be important to stay along the shoreline to avoid strong currents in the lake. What he neglected to say was that we should probably steer clear of floating vegetation in the lake which is near the shoreline. This, I learned the hard way, is where the alligators like to hang out and hide waiting for potential food to swim by. So there we are paddling around this lake in these small sit on top, 8 foot kayaks that have us riding barely off the water, going along the shoreline straight through the vegetation. At one point I thought I felt a bump underneath the kayak but didn’t think much of it as I kept going. We were halfway around the lake when my paddle hit something big and that something moved very quickly and bumped underneath the boat. I yelped. The kayak shimmied on the water and for a brief moment and I thought I was going to fall off of the kayak. Just when I thought I had everything settled again, Something bumped the other side of the kayak and I briefly saw a tail.  I yelped again as the boat became unstable for a second time. All of my fears that we’re at rest came flooding back. Yeah maybe alligators aren’t aggressive to adult humans naturally, but what if they get hit on the head by a kayak paddle and then that adult human falls in the water in front of them, flailing like dinner? That probably gives them ample excuse to eat your head, I thought.

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Signage at Sea Rim State Park – © 2019 H. Valey

After a few seconds, stability returned to the kayak and it seemed the alligator was gone. But I still had a half of a very large lake to get around and I could feel my heart beating through my chest and my hands were shaking. Mentally I knew that everything was fine, but my body wasn’t buying it. It was a long slog around the lake. I did my best to avoid all the vegetation and try not to get pulled into the center by the lake current. As I was fighting the current back to the takeout spot I was thinking that nature does not read the guide books, nor does it feel any loyalty to follow guidelines of what is safe and what is not. I felt very small. I know that the incident ended up being just a scare as my kayak ran over a surprised gator, but I was a fool not to be more cautious around these animals. We got to the take out spot and a green heron welcomed us back to the dock. I think I heard him call me an idiot under his breath.

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Unimpressed Green Heron at Sea Rim State Park – © 2019 H. Valey

The next morning at camp I ran into a boy about 10 years old who told me that the night before an alligator started to approach him until the boy’s bigger brother and parents joined him, which made the animal rethink his life choices and return to the water. The kid also told me about a group of fishermen from the night before, who were trying to catch blue crab with chicken necks. Instead of catching crab they were attracting alligators, who thought a dinner of chicken necks sounded pretty darn good. The fishermen were smacking alligators on the head with boat paddles to try and get the alligators to let go of their bait.  Which seemed really dumb to me.  If you throw raw meat on a string into a body of water with alligators in it, how are they supposed to know it’s not for them?  This just makes them associate food with people.

Anyway I digress, at that moment it also occurred to me why alligators make me very nervous. They are opportunistic, which means you need to keep an eye on them at all times.

When I got back home, I did some thinking about the experience and what I would do differently in the future.

1. Even if you do your research on the animal, you don’t know the specific individuals you are dealing with. For example, these gators were accustomed to equating humans with food. So… always be cautious and assess each situation differently when coming into contact with predators.

2. Steer away from floating vegetation and debris in the water as that is where alligators like to hide.

3. Keep your calm. Panicking is what caused my boat to waver more than it should have. Falling out of the kayak, could very well have met with a bad result

4.  I would report the incident of the fishermen and bait to rangers.  Texas Parks and Wildlife advises that if you are fishing and an alligator grabs your bait, cut the line and move somewhere else.  Feeding alligators, even if it is bait is a class C misdemeanor carrying a fine up to $500 and it creates dangerous alligators.

5. I would also report the incident with the gator approaching the child.  This is what happens when alligators lose fear of people and associate people with food.  This also means that this alligator is in danger himself of becoming labeled a “nuisance” animal, which means he would be exterminated for the safety of the park guests.

Given all the drama I just whipped up, I do want to say that alligators are impressive animals and if you have a safe opportunity to witness these animals in the wild, I highly recommend it.

See ya later alligator!**


Sources / for further reading:

Why You Shouldn’t Feed Alligators

Kayaking with Alligators: What Every Kayaker Should Know

Wikipedia: American Alligator

Alligator Safety

Authorities Suggest Ways For Living With Alligators


**(sorry I couldn’t help it)

Refuge Roundup at Balcones Canyonlands NWR

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Dave the Opossum greets visitors to the “All Things Wild” animal rehab booth at the 2019 Balcones Canyonlands NWR “Refuge Roundup” – © Heather Valey 2019

On Saturday, October 19th, the Balcones Canyonlands NWR had their 3rd annual “Refuge Roundup”.  The purpose of this yearly outreach event, said Jen Brown, the Visitor Services Manager at the refuge is “…to connect children and families with nature and public lands through recreational activities. Many of our neighbors don’t know that the refuge is here and offers many great opportunities to spend time playing, learning, and exercising outdoors.”

There were some very engaging activity booths that encouraged children to learn about and try out some new outdoor activities.  Probably my favorite one was the Jr. Firefighter booth where kids learned about fire on the refuge and got to practice some firefighting.  They even got to wear the cool coat & hat!

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Jr. Firefighter at the 3rd Annual Balcones Canyonlands NWR “Refuge Roundup” – © H. Valey

Some of the other activities presented for the children were BB guns, Archery, a touch table with skulls and fur, catfish fishing (yes there were real fish! ), snakes and other native Texas reptiles.  It really was an impressive array of fun activities to engage youth in nature the outdoors.  The adults looked like they were having fun as well.

Don’t worry if you’re feeling bad that you missed it, the refuge has confirmed that yes, there will be a fourth annual Refuge Round Up in October 2020.  In the meantime, Jen Brown invites you to  “Come out and visit Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge! We have over 25,000 acres of habitat for native plants and animals and four public areas where visitors can get up close to see unique and protected Texas species. If folks are interested in becoming more involved, they can get in contact with me and I’ll talk with them about various volunteer opportunities. The refuge has a small staff and is very happy to have volunteers help us work on our mission.”

For more information on events at the preserve and how to volunteer visit: https://www.friendsofbalcones.org/

Kickapoo State Park Bird Blind

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Black-Capped Vireo at Kickapoo S.P. – © Heather Valey

I always love birding in new places, especially areas fairly far from my home turf.  I recently went birding at the Kickapoo Cavern State Park bird blind and had a really good look at some great Vireos and a few other birds that are very hard to get a glimpse of in the Austin Texas area.

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White-Eyed Vireo at Kickapoo Cavern S. P. – © Heather Valey 2019

The bird blind was created very thoughtfully.  There is a place for birders to sit and watch through windows cut in the blind and there are windows placed higher in the blinds for photographers using tripods.

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Juvenile Male Bullock’s Oriole at Kickapoo Cavern S.P. – © Heather Valey 2019

A gravity fed stream flowed through the middle of the bird area with a few thoughtfully placed cedar branches as perches. There were a couple of sparsely leafed trees on the edges of the bird area that also allowed for some good viewing.  Native limestone with orange lichen was used ornamentally as well.  It was a very pleasant place to sit, listening to the gurgling stream and watch the birds flit in for a drink and a bath was a perfect way to spend the morning.

(Top Left: Hutton’s Vireo, Top Right: Yellow Warbler, Bottom Left: Yellow-Breasted Chat, Bottom Right: Black-Tufted Titmouse all ©Heather Valey 2019)

Fun at Focus in Flight Workshop

Roseate Spoonbill - photo by H. Valey

Roseate Spoonbill – photo by H. Valey

On the weekend of April 6th, I drove up to High Island, south of Houston to Houston Audubon’s Smith Oaks Rookery for Houston Audubon‘s first “Flight In Focus” photography workshop.   The rookery had been on my list of places to visit, but when I saw they were having a 2 day photography workshop I decided that this was something I didn’t want to miss.

Speakers at the workshop were Alan Murphy, Trey Williams, Sonny Manley, Clay Taylor from Swarvoski optics, and Joe Smith. Topics ranged from set ups for bird photography, to digiscoping  to urban eagle photography.

The lighting was overcast and foggy almost the whole time, but all of the photo shoots were fun and the talks were great.  Some of the photographer speakers took more of a studio approach to wildlife photography and talked about their setups and lighting while others took more of naturalist approach and only photographed their subjects in natural light and spontaneous settings.  I found it very interesting to hear talks from both camps and it has given me pause to think about my own photography style and philosophy, which I’m sure I will write more about later.

Some of the birds I was lucky enough to see and photograph on High Island that weekend were:  Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets and the Double-Crested Cormorant.  The Houston Raptor Center also brought in some of their educational/rescue birds for a photo shoot, which was fun. I’m starting to have mixed feelings about staged photo shoots though… definitely more on that later.

Enjoy the photos!

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I Just Flew In From the North & My Arms Are Tired…

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American Robin – photo credit H.Valey

This past weekend, the air was filled with the songs of Robins and the whistles of Cedar Wax wings.  Thousands of these birds ascended on the Austin area a few days ago.  I don’t think it’s probably a coincidence that it coincided with the polar vortex up north.  Humans dig in somewhere warm when it gets cold, birds can just fly somewhere warmer!  My hiking accomplice and I also noticed alot of Cedar Waxwings… you often see them with Robins so perhaps they decided to ditch the cold up north and join their compatriots for a Texas vacation.

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Cedar Waxwings – photo credit H. Valey

During a hike in the hill country on Sunday we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of Robins.  The song of the birds were so intense at times that I felt like we were in a rain forest. The birds were flitting from tree to tree and hopping on the ground looking for insects.  We noticed that a few we looked at seemed very tired.

This happened a couple years ago as well, when there was a particularly cold spell of weather up north.  A huge group of Robins headed in to Texas, and that time they all landed in my backyard! Well it seemed that way… see the photo below!

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Robins – photo credit H.  Valey

So in most places the Robin is the harbinger of spring, but sometimes in Austin it’s the harbinger of someone else’s winter.

Gardening For Wildlife

28225581807_431293b5c4_oI’ve been spending a good portion of my time this spring working on my wildlife garden in my backyard.  We started out 3 years ago with just a backyard full of St. Augustine grass, now I have over 25 types of native plants in the backyard and about half the grass.  Do I have more wildlife? Yes and no… When I wasn’t out fiddling in the yard all the time I did notice that we had more lizards. When I wasn’t taking such good care of the compost bin, we had raccoon visitors nightly.  Now, not as many lizards, although that might change now that there are more shrubs growing in the yard and rock piles that I won’t be mucking about with anymore.  The compost bin has been switched out from an open frame style to a closed drum, so no more raccoon salad bar, but perhaps that’s ok. I didn’t mind the raccoons, but I never got any compost because they ate all the green bits!

42843548601_7c85524141_oI have noticed more birds, as I have more native bugs in the yard with the native plants.  I’ve noticed more wrens gleaning bugs off of our dwarf Yaupon bushes, which  is quite entertaining to watch.  Plants with berries, such as the Beauty Berry bush and Pigeon Berry bring in Mocking Birds and Doves, not that I needed more Doves, but still 🙂 We also had a Painted Bunting in the yard this year, and a Red-Breasted Grossbeak last year which is a little unusual in a suburban neighborhood.

We have more hummingbird visitors now that  I have more Salvias & Batface Cuphea planted. My milkweed is doing really well this year so I’m hoping to get some more Monarch visitors at some point as well. We definitely have more spiders… jumping spiders and wolf spiders. They are quite fun to watch.  We have more ants too, which I’m not that excited about though.

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I’ve had a lot of fun picking out the plants and planning the garden, although its taking more iteration than I ever imagined.  I really enjoy just sitting and watching the animals in the yard.  I’ll be adding a butterfly garden addition soon.  We just pulled out more grass in a sunny spot, so this fall I’ll plant some pollinator annuals. I also have some plans for a new water feature for next year to replace the utilitarian bird bath.

We don’t have a big yard.  I envy the folks with an acre or more to work with, but I’ll do the best with what I have. Now that it’s summer and over 100 degrees everyday, I’ll just wait until the fall to do some more work in the yard.  Its worth it to me to have a place to escape to, to forget all of the craziness in the world.

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Plant Resources for Texas Wildlife Gardeners:

What kind of plants and critters do you have in your backyard?

This Snake Freaked Me Out…

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Texas Rat Snake – photo by H. Valey

…until I realized it was a Texas Rat Snake, also known in some parts as the Chicken Snake. The scientific name is aphe obsoleta lindheimeri.

The Texas Rat Snake looks a little scary at first sight, mainly because they can grow to be very long (3 to 6 feet) and their defense mechanism is to freeze when they see you.  They also are known to shake their tails similarly to a Rattle Snake. This can be misinterpreted as the confidence of a venomous snake, but these snakes are constrictors and non-venomous. They do have a reputation for biting when cornered, but the bites are reported to be on the mild side and as mentioned non-venomous.

They are found primarily in Texas, but their range extends to Louisiana, Arkansas & Oklahoma.  No matter in what state you find them, their preferred habitat is one with Oak trees present.  Although I have seen them in parking lots before, and I saw one slither in through a mail slot on a mailbox once, most likely giving the mailbox owner a bit of a shock!

Their diet consists of rodents, and undoubtedly bird eggs and nestlings.  They are fantastic climbers and can find their way into birds nests pretty easily. An adult can take rodents as large as a fox squirrel. They are also good swimmers.

They are not considered threatened, but they are often the target of humans who come across them and kill them because they don’t know what kind of snake they are.

The picture up top was taken at a nature preserve.  The snake was in a pile of limestone rocks near many full grown oak trees.  The snake below, I spotted in the parking lot of an office complex.  Again, many full grown oak trees around, as well as leaf litter and limestone.  You can get a feel for how long these snakes can get in the video below!

For more information on Rat Snakes, visit these sites.