After being asked many questions about alligators, I decided it would be a good time to write a little bit more about these often misunderstood and feared reptiles.
My parents took me hours and hours away from home when I was little, the whole way there I couldn't stop thinking about seeing my first alligator at a German zoo. The slanted eyes, the big teeth and their long tail - all together this creature was fascinating and scary and occupied my mind the whole way there.
Alligators still capture my attention whenever I'm near water. The good thing is, I no longer have to go for long car rides and they are no longer in cages.
Here in Florida it is a good rule of thumb to assume alligators are present in every body of water. A good amount of people are convinced gators are spending their days waiting for us to dip our feet into the water so they can strike. Alligator fatalities remain minimal considering how many people swim, snorkel, dive, tube here all year around. Florida has about 1.3 million alligators and there have been 24 fatalities in 60 years vs. approx. 2698 deadly car crashes a year. Yet we have no hesitation getting into our vehicles every day. As dramatic and horrific as these alligator attacks are, we humans have done much larger damage to these creatures. Some of us might not be comfortable with the thought that something much larger than us could cause us harm. But isn't this also a reminder that we aren't top of the food chain and that maybe we should respect these animals that have roamed the earth for over 200 million years?
Gators were almost hunted to extinction and came under federal protection in 1967. This lead to the first endangered species success story as they were removed from the list 20 years later. Alligators are a keystone species, which means we actually need them as they are extremely vital to the environment. I call them "Masters of Balance". They consume aquatic turtles but turtles also nest together with the alligators to be protected from predators. Alligators eat fish, but they also provide them with a home by creating gator holes that hold water during drought. These fish, in return, serve as a nesting and feeding ground for birds. If gators were to disappear, everything would collapse with them. Another example of an overlooked keystone species is the gopher tortoise. It might not be as cute and adorable as a little fawn or a baby racoon, however the gopher provides a habitat for over 350 species, including endangered ones such as the indigo snake and the burrowing owl. If the gopher disappears, so will everything else.
So back to the alligators. Paddling the Wekiva River one morning in early spring, I learned one of the most amazing fact about them. I came across one these reptiles sunbathing on a log which is nothing unusual, however I noticed a stick balanced on it's snout. I couldn't understand why it would not simply push it off. It turns out that gators display this behavior during nesting season of herons and egrets. These poor birds fly around looking for the perfect stick and all the alligator has to do is sit still to have a meal. It absolutely blew my mind how intelligent these creatures are.
Alligators have a natural fear of humans. They only become dangerous when they are fed by people. Common sense is also required to be able to coexist with them: Avoid areas where "tame" alligators are reported, no swimming (or walking near) in water at dusk or dawn. Keep your pets away from the water as well as alligators do not know they are part of human families.
Let's stay safe while respecting and observing the amazing American Alligator.
The most exciting time of the year for me is sea turtle nesting season which runs from May until October.
Just when the days get longer ninety percent of the sea turtle population seeks Florida's beaches to dig their nests and lay their eggs. Two months later, little hatchlings emerge through the sand and make their way to the ocean where they have to beat the survival rate of 1 to one thousand to make it to adulthood.
Nesting occurs all over Florida, however the beach with the highest number (up to 20 000) of many sea turtle species is the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge located in Melbourne. These graceful animals travel hundreds of miles from their feeding grounds back to their natal beach to start the cycle all over again. The offspring is sometimes born just within a few miles of where their mother hatched. This fact is simply amazing.
I plan my annual trips with the help of a lunar calendar as sea turtles seems to be more active during full moon and the beach is naturally illuminated, eliminating the need for any type of flashlight which should NOT be used, even red ones as this disrupts the behavior of sea turtles.
As soon as the sun sets, sea turtles will start to emerge from the surf. If you are walking along the beach, please keep your distance. Do not get close to them and, if possible, refrain from talking as they easily get spooked. This can result in a "false" crawl where the nesting female interrupts her process and heads back to the ocean without having laid her eggs. Please be considerate as these turtles had a very long journey, still have to make it up to the dunes, dig out a nest, lay their eggs, cover the nest and then crawl back into the sea. Interrupting this process is not humane in any way we look at it.
The Barrier Island Center has phenomenal programs such as guided turtle walks at night between June and July as well as hatchling releases in August. It is one of the best ways to "be with the turtles" and witness this yearly phenomenon while supporting a great organization that has a tremendous impact on the sea turtle conservation.
Here are some tips on how to help:
I will always remember the moment I saw "my" first loggerhead emerging from the ocean. Time stood still, the world disappeared and I hope it will do the same for you.
Here is to the rivers, the springs and the creeks,
to all things that have wings and the ones in the soil underneath.
Here is to the valleys and the trees,
to the oceans and the bees,
Here is to all the things that breathe..
my sincerest apologies and deepest gratitude.
This is a poem that came to my mind driving down the road on my way to work after seeing yet another piece of nature being demolished and transformed into a subdivision.
Beaches are eroding, waters are filled with chemicals, tiny organisms have traces of plastics, our country is ravaged by intense wildfires, droughts and massive hurricanes while our ice caps are melting. It does not seem easy to be positive at times and all the help we provide seems like a drop in the ocean, however this is all I have left: HOPE. Hope for increasing awareness and awakening of compassion.
Why do we garden? The answer for us gardeners is simple. It connects us with nature, relieves some of our stress, gives us a sense of accomplishment and keeps us physically active.
Unfortunately, we get so side tracked by the exotic beauties sold in the big box stores, which are also highly treated with pesticides. We tend to forget about our little critters that are just as beneficial to us as the plants are to them.
Here are some facts:
The math is simple, the more land we take, the more wildlife we lose. It is a sad fact but there is hope for anyone wanting to help. We can all add native plants to improve this dire situation and better yet, save money while doing it.
Native plants are resistant to pests, need less water and less fertilizer since they have co-evolved with each other.
Ninety percent of insects depend on native plants. The thing is, our ecosystem will collapse without them. Every animal on this planet depends on energy harvested from plants. Insects serve as the "bridge" to supply this energy directly (herbivores) and indirectly (omnivores).
When we think of bird food, we think of seeds and berries. However, offspring needs insects to thrive. An oak tree for example, provides a habitat for over 500 different kinds of caterpillars. One clutch of chickadees requires over 6000 caterpillars. We will not have birds if they don't have anything to raise their babies with.
Planting exotics is as if we are planting concrete statues in our yards. Natives do not recognize non-native plants as food. Besides birds, let us not forget about our pollinators that provide 75% of our fruits and vegetables: The Bees! Native bees are up to (and possibly much more) three times more efficient than honey bees in pollinating. There is no need to be scared of them either as they are docile since they don't have a hive to defend. They are solitary bees that are much smaller than the regular honey bee. The picture in this post shows the size of a native bee on the Indian blanket flower blossom, which is the size of a quarter.
Here are a few tips on how to become a backyard hero:
More information can be found at Florida Native Plant Society www.fnps.org
I also highly recommend the book "Bringing Nature Home" which was a source and inspiration for this blog.
Happy Planting Backyard Hero
People ask me why I like butterflies, expecting a reply similar to "oh, they resemble transformation, beauty, freedom, etc." The truth is, I love butterflies because they are an indication of our environment. When I see them thriving in my backyard, it gives me hope for a better tomorrow and assurance I am at least trying.
Spring 2014 was the first time I heard about the Monarch butterflies alarming decline of approx. 90% in the last twenty years. Pesticide resistant crops, habitat loss and climate change were stated to be the culprits.
I never paid much attention to these little pollinators but I am a firm believer that we should help make a difference any opportunity we get. In this case is came as free milkweed seeds that I received from an organization that encourages the public to help the monarch population.
So here I was with the seeds in my hand, wondering and questioning how this could possibly have an impact. Let me just stop here and say I didn't have a clue what was about to happen. I started to read up on these butterflies and one article stated Monarchs can smell milkweed up to twenty miles away and the seeds I planted did turn my ordinary suburban yard into Monarch Mecca.
My family and I spent the summer witnessing many of these beautiful creatures laying eggs, watched the eggs turn into caterpillars demolishing the plants completely and watched them transform into a gold spotted chrysalis. The excitement was at it's peak whenever we got to watch a brand new monarch emerge and see it taking off into the sky once it's wings were dry.
As parents we tend to preach to our kids of what they should and shouldn't do but I strongly believe our actions will always resonate with them. My children experienced first hand of how something as tiny as a seed can make a difference. We gave the Monarchs a home and they gave us hours of astonishing moments. They have since returned every year.
If you decide to plant a seed, here are just a few trips that have helped along the way. I was NOT born a butterfly whisperer, although some of my friends will tell you I am.
If you already have tropical milkweed, make sure you cut it down in the fall as this plant can carry the parasite "OE" which is fatal to the butterfly.
I would like to finish with saying every little thing you do can change the world for the better, it's up to you to decide.
They say it's not the destination, it's the journey. Chassahowitzka is the perfect example for this profound statement.
Back in 2017, my husband and I stumbled upon Chassahowitzka River Campground thanks to some locals telling us about it. It is located approximately 20 miles from Weeki Wachee.
The best way to start your exploration of the "Chaz"river is to get a map from the campground staff as it can get tricky in the fingers of several creeks that come off the river. We didn't have a map on our first trip and almost cut out journey short as we thought we were lost. Luckily we ran into local kayaker's who assured us "The Crack" is right around the corner. We kayaked our way through windy and partially very narrow sections where the thought of coming eye to eye with an alligator came to mind several times. However, Florida's pure beauty of wilderness overtook my senses shortly after, alligators were so far away from my mind as I was from theirs, besides that fact that these reptiles are not very interested in us humans but I shall discuss the often misunderstood reptiles in a later blog.
Paddle stroke by paddle stroke I was overcome by feeling vulnerable and humbled, I was in the heart of wild Florida. This is a feeling us humans don't get to experience much anymore as we sit safely in front of our TV's or scroll endlessly on our cell phones. We have developed a sense of being "top of the food chain" with the risk of becoming completely disconnected of what keeps us alive - our fresh air, the warming sun, the pure water and the healthy soil. We are so scared of nature but have no hesitation to step into our car. Biophobia overtook biophilia - that is very scary.
As my kayak glided through the water, sounds of frogs, crickets, birds and cicadas became more and more noticeable. No noise of cars or people near or far - I saw it as a welcome song to their world and a plea to also leave it this way. Every now and then the narrow river would widen into lagoon sections inhabited by mullets leaping out of the water. No one knows exactly why they do this. Some theories are to add oxygen, some others state it's to get rid of parasites - my favorite of it all is that maybe they are just happy fish?!
Approximately two miles of seemingly unbeaten path, we reached a point where we had to abandon our kayaks due to fallen trees as well as the creek becoming too shallow. After a few footsteps we arrived at the crack. Old Florida unfolded in front of our own eyes: hidden, secluded and full of peace and wonder. Nothing displayed any signs of human presence except for a rope dangling from an old oak tree inviting us to get the full experience of wild Florida, to plunge into "the crack"
I call Chassahowitzka Mother Natures playground, there are so many things to see and experience. I've seen playful otters on the riverbank, came across a curious newborn manatee, watched many birds call this place their home and even had a surprise encounter with a juvenile bull shark. It's all there for us to see. Seven sisters, an underwater cave system, is quite popular in the summer months, kayaking Potters and Salt creek are highly recommended due to it's amazing scenery of cabbage palms. But my main concern when I talk about these places is for humans to respect and protect it. Unfortunately as many other places in Florida, the health of the springs there are in dire need of help. When you decide to pay Chassahowitzka a visit, please educate yourself on how you can have a positive impact on the environment. Don't litter, respect wildlife and take nothing but memories with you.
Nothing excites and soothes me more than nature. It calms my mind and cleanses my soul. When I came across the Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) there was no question whether I was going to participate. The very moment the class started, I had the feeling that people "spoke my language", meaning I was among nature enthusiasts that possessed the same bottomless passion for Mother Nature's conservation as I did.
Attending the FMNP is a way for people to gain a deeper understanding of the connectedness between humans and the wild. However, I must say that the first class of every module (there are three which consist of Freshwater, Uplands and Coastal) was very intimidating as I found myself among highly educated professionals that "save the world" on a daily basis and get a salary for it. As the classes continued my intimidation slowly diminished and I found that we all learned from eachother, no matter what backgrounds we had.
The FMNP instilled a deeper understanding about Florida's ecosystems and awakened a never ending thirst for knowledge in regards to our environment. I looked forward to each and every class and dreaded the days it would end after a 6 week period. I saw this class as the perfect opportunity to widen my horizon and wish everyone living here would enroll. The field trips (you get to go on tons of them) allow you to meet some of the most knowledgeable professionals that you would not meet otherwise. For example, at Blue Springs State Park we visited Manatee Specialist Wayne Hartley who told us amazing stories he got to encounter first hand while doing research with these gentle giants.
I remember my instructor telling us on the last day of our Freshwater class that although the course is over, this is only the beginning. Words that resonate with me still and have given me much inspiration to follow my true calling.
A class mate contacted me a few months later to ask if I have any gopher pictures as she was trying to educate people at the library about them, so I went and took pictures of gophers so she would have material....and this is how I got where I am today. I kept taking and donating pictures from documenting my butterfly garden to showing people what places to visit. It lead me to create a basic website to share my knowledge and passion. My pictures have been featured in parks and exhibits. I was asked to give presentations to non-profit organisations, did a year long photo documentary and was just published in a newspaper for winning Florida's State Park annual photo contest. Our talents are given to us for a reason and it is our responsibility to share them with the world, one good deed at a time. Go find yours!
Although sea turtle season during the summer months is one of the most exciting things for me, the "chubby mermaids" are the reason I look forward to winter just as much. Manatees seek the springs once the temperatures start to drop around November since these waters keep a constant temperature of 72 degrees. Manatees can hardly tolerate anything below 68 degrees as the cold water shuts down their digestive system.
Observing them as they effortlessly glide through the crystal clear water is one experience everyone should have at least once in their lifetime. Manatee season starts mid November and ends in March, with January being the peak as it is considered the coldest month out of the year.
Blue Springs in Orange City is a popular State Park to spot the large herbivores. However, Three Sisters National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River remains my favorite. The town has an annual Manatee Festival honoring these beautiful creatures every January including free entry into the National Wildlife Refuge. Several park rangers and volunteers are happy to provide any and all information possible in regards to the refuge and the manatees. Hundreds of the herbivores gather in front of "Idiots Delight" which is the waterway into Three Sisters. A wrap-around board walk enables visitors old and young to observe the manatees as they make their way into the turquoise lagoons of the refuge. It is a breathtaking scenery.
Local businesses offer guided tours to swim with the giant mammals in Crystal River, FL. There are different opinions in regards to this activity for obvious reasons. Do I recommend to do this? Yes as I have had this humbling and surreal experience myself. However, please don't do it if you are not absolutely committed to respect their space. The recommended distance is six feet, which will leave you plenty of room to feel close. Refrain from touching or chasing them. I understand it is tempting wanting to pet them or snapping selfies. Please remember, it is THEIR home that you are entering. We all have the responsibility to live in harmony with these wild creatures. The practice of good ethics is key to creating beautiful memories without unnecessarily stressing the manatees. When you are in the water with them it should be about appreciating them and lead you to a closer understanding of the need of their conservation.
Swimming with manatees is not the biggest threat they experience. Humans are their only natural predator in regards to water pollution and boating. I can hardly recall one manatee that did not carry a boat scar.
In January of 2018 I had a bittersweet encounter with a very friendly manatee. It was literally hugging my kayak, rolling on it's belly and sticking it's snout out of the water, seemingly begging me to pet it. This was not normal behavior. This manatee displayed behavior of an animal that was fed by humans which can cause it's life. Fed manatees will associate boats with food and therefore increase the chance of getting hit by a vessel significantly. We humans have a natural desire to nurture things. We want to feed and pet these wild things without realizing we can create severe damage with our "love" . Any type of wild animal needs to be left wild and observed from a respectful distance. If an animal is in distress please contact certified wildlife rehabbers that are trained to care for them. We have to remember we want to be part of the solution rather than causing more hardship. It is a tough world for these wild creatures but we can all contribute to making it a little bit better for them.
If you would like to help, please consider the following:
Enjoy Florida's winter season and appreciate the wild ones.