On a Stumpknocker Airboat Tour, you will always see alligators AKA, “ditch lizards.” This is their natural habitat, their domain, and where they live.
The life of a gator starts in April when gators start courting, and mating. The courtship lasts about six weeks. While courting, gators communicate in several ways: 1) bellowing, 2) slapping their heads on the water, 3) arching their bodies and creating a vibration that rattles the water, and, 4) they give off odors while performing these complex body postures.
After the courtship and mating are complete, the female builds a nest on elevated ground, preferably above any rising water. She gathers mud and vegetation to construct a nest that may be as big as 7 feet in diameter and 3 feet tall. As the nest takes shape, she forms a cone in the top of the nest, where she lays 30-40 eggs, depending on her size. This happens around the end of June to the first part of July.
After laying the eggs, the mom covers them up and sits back to guard the nest from predators, for the next two months or so. During the incubation period, the primary threats to the eggs are raccoons, snakes, ants and rising water. One of the neat features of a gators nest is that the decomposition of the rotting vegetation generates heat that is used to assist in the incubation of the eggs. The inside temperature of the nest determines if it is going to be males or females. If the nest temperature is 93 degrees or greater they will be males, while a nest temperature of 86 degrees or lower, will produce all females. Anything in between will be a bunch of he/she's, or males & females. It is said that the part of the egg mass closest to the rotting vegetation is the warmest and produces males, while the center of the egg mass is coolest generating mostly females.
As the hatchlings break out of the shell, they produce an “erking” noise that alerts the mom that they are here. She will open up the nest and let the babies crawl out. If any of the eggs do not hatch at the same time as the rest do, the mom will take an egg in her mouth and roll it around until it breaks and the baby crawls out. She will do this until all are hatched. It is amazing that a creature that can exert up to 2000 psi can be so gentle with her offspring. When baby gators reach the water, they form a group and that group will stay together for about a year, or more. Some alligators will stay in the group for 2-3 years. The biggest threat to a baby gator is the dads, they will eat a lot of them. If this were not part of their nature, there would be more alligators than there is fish to feed them. Other threats to the babies are fish (garfish mudfish), otters, large wading birds (herons, egrets, etc.), birds of prey (osprey, owls, etc.), and snakes.
A neat site to visit if you want to see gators courting, mating, and hatchin' out is:
STARTIN' TO GROW
Baby alligators grow about a foot a year for the first 4-5 years in central and south Florida. Then they slow the lengthening process and increase the widening process as they become more efficient in their search for food, just as we humans do. Alligators can live to be around 45-50 years old in central and south Florida, and longer in their habitats further North because of the shorter growing season. However old they get, they never stop growing.
As you ride through the marsh, you will learn to spot the gators. When they are on the bank, up on the dirt, the bigger ones are easily seen from a quarter mile away, and then sometimes you can be right on top of them and not see 'em.
GATORS AND TEMPERATURE
Ditch lizards tend to spend most of their time where the temperature is most comfortable to them. They are cold blooded and try to maintain an 89 degree body temperature. Most of the time gators know that when the water and air temperatures are really cold, or exceptionally hot, there is a thermal cline (a layer of water well below the surface that may be 10-15 degrees warmer, or cooler, than the layer at the surface) where they can stay the most comfortable. During the spring, summer, and fall they lay around on the surface of the water, especially in the early mornings. As the day progresses, the surface level heats up, especially in the summer, the gators retreat to deeper water where they can sit on the bottom and enjoy its coolness. In the winter months, the deeper water is warmer and the alligators will spend a lot of time down there, unless the sun is shining and they can surface to bask in the Florida sunshine. Bring your camera. Most of the time I can maneuver the boat close enough for someone to reach out and touch a gator. You should be able to get some really good close ups of some ditch lizards.
Ospreys are found throughout the world with the exception of Antarctica. Fortunately, Florida is one of only two places that they live year round, the other being the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Almost their entire diet is fish caught swimming near the surface. It is no wonder why they live here all year. Ospreys live to be 20-25 years old, and start mating between the age 5 & 7. They generally mate for life, and like to use the same nest, year after year. In Florida, they usually lay up to 3 eggs during the months of March and April. The female tends to the nest, while the male tends to the female. Incubation lasts about 5 weeks with one chick being born up to 5 days before the rest. The first born chick dominates the rest and monopolizes the food if it is scarce causing the younger chicks to starve. After the chicks hatch, they will acquire their flight feathers in about 10 weeks.
TRAGEDY IN THE MARSH
This osprey laid her eggs during the first part of March, 2006, when they normally do. The "Mom" would tend the eggs and the "Dad" to the Mom, like Ospreys do. One day in passing, the Dad was out fishin’ and the Mom was on the nest by herself when 6-7 boat-tail grackles decided to drop in and surround the nest. They began tormenting the Mom. When she would chase one away, another one would slip in behind her and peck an egg. The grackles pecked all of the eggs, and none of them hatched. For the first month, Mom & Dad sat together, in the tree, wondering what happened to their chicks. Then, Dad began to disappear to find food for Mom. For two and a half months, I have only seen her out of the tree 4 times. This is nature, there is always next year.
The next year, they returned and started to rebuild their nest but abandoned the project before it was finished. I am assuming that they decided to move someplace else in the marsh, or move to a different area entirely. To date, there had not been another nest in the tree.
I took the opportunity to photograph this Mom and her three chicks in the nest with the Dad coming back from a fishin' trip.
This story starts in early March of 2005, she laid eggs and began sittin' on the nest, for the next few weeks and had her picture taken regularly. Sometime in early April, they hatched. In goin' past the nest on a regular basis, we would see the Mom feeding the chicks. As the days progressed, we would see the chicks stickin' their heads above the top of the nest. There were two of them to begin with, and all of a sudden, they were gone. We never saw them standing on the edge of the nest again. They just disappeared. I seriously believe that a Great Horned Owl came in at night, chased the Mom and the Dad away, and ate the chicks.
Unfortunately, the ospreys are no match for the Great Horned Owl when it comes to food. In March of 2006, the Mom laid eggs in the same nest and as you can see, all three of them hatched out. In going past the nest on a regular basis, we would see Dad bringing fish to Mom, and Mom feedin' the chicks.
As you can see from the picture above, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The following year, March of 2007, she laid her eggs and the next month, they hatched out just as they were supposed to. In going past one day, the Mom and the Dad were both standing on the side of the nest with their butts in the air feedin’ the chicks. This was the first time that I had seen the Dad help the Mom take care of the chicks. Usually, the Dad catches the fish, drops it off at the house, and goes out to have a couple of beers with the "Buds".
Starting sometime in April, the Ibis, smaller Egrets and Herons congregate to start their annual ritual of community nesting. The Rookery is a line of Brazilian pepper trees, about two to three hundred yards long, where several species of Ibis, Herons and Egrets lay their eggs. As the baby blue eggs hatch, the Mom's will protect and feed their young. The chicks will grow and start to move around in the trees, near their nests, in preparation of learning to fly. Then by early July, most of them will all be on the wing, and the Rookery will be quiet again, until next year. If you like to see, and photograph, thousands of baby birds, this is an excellent opportunity. It is also a great experience for the children to see.
In the late winter thru early summer, we are blessed with a small population of Snail Kites that nest here this time of year. Their primary diet is the apple snail, but if they are in short supply, the Snail Kite will ear small rodents and turtles.
Peregrine Falcons migrate from the North every winter. When the coots come down they follow their primary food source. So, when the coots migrate back to the North, the Peregrine Falcons follow them back. While they are here, they put on an awesome show. Below is a pic that a good friend / client took as we were toodlin’ thru the marsh. I would love to be able to take some action photos of the Peregrine Falcons doin’ what they do, but it is difficult to watch where we are going, drive the airboat, and keep an eye on all of the passengers. With this in mind, I have to rely on the generosity of some really good, and lucky photographers.
On occasion, we are blessed with the appearance of a flock of Roseate Spoonbills. These are wading birds that flock in during periods of low water, to feed in sandy bottoms.
Once endangered to the point of 30-40 breeding pairs, it is believed that there are now more than a thousand breeding pairs. Sometimes, if the water gets low enough in the spring, we may get as many as 20 – 25 spoonbills in the marsh.
FLOWERS, BIRDS, & GATORS
In the Spring, Summer and Fall, we are blessed with lots of flowers, from the yellow lotus lilies, white water lilies, purple pickerel weed, hyacinth flowers, marshmallows, swamp roses, moon flowers, and the list goes on and on.
Birds, from Bald Eagle and Great Blue Heron to the Least Bittern (smallest of the herons), from the Great White Egret to the Red-winged blackbird and the Black-Crested stilt, or an anhinga strutin' his stuff to a Moorhen raisin' her brood, are part of the Marsh.
LIFE AND THE ECO SYSTEM
Sometimes you may see largemouth bass bedding, an otter swimmin' across an Airboat Trail, a Peregrine Falcon pickin' off a coot, an alligator do his mating dance, a Snowy Egret breakin' the shell open, or maybe even a Snail Kite goin' after the Apple Snail. Who knows what you will see in the Marsh, or where you will see it.
Different times of the year, you will see different sites. It is the Marsh and a good place to visit anytime you can.The life and the Eco System of the Marsh is as diverse as it is interesting. From the tadpoles and the minnows, to the biggest alligator, from the apple snails, to the Osprey, and the plain ol' water lettuce to the beauty of the Yellow Lotus Lilies, there is always something in the Marsh to intrigue, impress, or fascinate most everyone any time of the year. So bring your camera, create some memories, and enjoy nature at its best.
More to Come
Keep comin' back and checkin' regularly. We will be adding more stories and photos occasionally.
Thank You for Takin’ the Internet Tour.
Believe me, the real tour is much better.
THE GRANDDADDY OF ‘EM ALL