February 8-15, 2013
I recently heard on NPR that one in five Americans identify themselves as birders (Could that be?). Houston is only 45 miles from Brazos Bend State Park and has 5 million people. This means that over a million locals might be interested in visiting this state park at any time. And, indeed, a lot of them were there when we arrived late Friday afternoon; the campground was full. Fortunately, the park had an overflow parking/camping area where we, and several other last minute arrivals, stayed until regular campsites became available on Sunday.
Brazos Bend has plenty of birds but it is especially known for its alligators. The following morning I hiked to the closest lake, where gators can sometimes be seen. It was cloudy but mild and humid. Walking slowly with my camera, I inspected the swampy water on both sides of the trail. Aquatic plants obscured some of the water’s surface, creating ideal haunts for gators. I strolled surprisingly close to ibises, herons and egrets. The most numerous waterfowl were coots and moorhens. Occasional pied-billed grebes and blue-winged teals floated by.
Down the trail I saw four women acting strangely, stopping and starting, walking back and forth, talking to each other. Oh, I thought to myself, I bet there’s a gator there and they don’t know what to do. Finally they proceeded toward me and when we passed, they gave me the warning: alligator ahead!
Just beyond a tree, I saw a suspicious log-like shape. This medium-sized alligator lounged on the grass, completely still. The trail was less than 10’ from the gator, not allowing the 30’ wide berth that the park advises. I understood the women’s hesitation and felt the special unease of being close to a potentially dangerous wild animal. I then spotted a second gator nearby at water’s edge, submerged with only its head above water. In truly wild situations without so many people, alligators will flee when approached by humans. These gators were so accustomed to seeing trail traffic that they were not perturbed by those passing by.
While Lake Texana had little alligator protocol, Brazos Bend had extensive guidelines on how to be safe around gators. There are about 300 adult alligators here; I don’’t know how many juveniles. Although there are several lakes in this park, no swimming or boating is allowed, for the protection of both people and wildlife.
We spent six nights here, deciding day by day whether to continue. On the second day, while sitting at the picnic table, a chill wind blew suddenly and in seconds the temperature dropped 10 degrees. I heard a neighboring camper exclaim, “Hey someone just turned on the AC!” Soon a storm arrived and we had chilly, on-and-off wet weather for several days. During periods when the rain let up, I went for walks exploring different trails and bodies of water. Usually, I would see numerous birds and sometimes alligators. I also frequently sighted turtles, from small to quite large. All were red-eared sliders, the same species of turtle that are common pets for children. Chris and I both recalled having captive turtles in the clear plastic kidney-shaped pool with the ramp to the tiny island and plastic palm tree. Those turtles never lived long enough to reach the size I saw here.
The third evening Chris burst into the camper just as I started falling asleep.
He said excitedly, “Guess what there is here!”
“What?” I had no idea.
“My favorite insect!”
That had me stumped and I gave up guessing.
I hadn’t realized we had crossed into firefly country. I was especially surprised to see fireflies in February since I associate them with the warm, humid days of June in the Northeast.
One evening, both Chris and I woke up in the middle of the night, hearing the loud calls of several barred owls from different directions, repeating, “Who cooks, who cooks for you?!” Earlier at dusk we’d had a coyote chorus. Other curious sounds accompanied the darkness: hoots, howls, whistles and chirps. Chris returned from a late night pee break and solemnly announced, “It’s a jungle out there.”
During a rainy spell we visited the nature center to see a film about alligators. When we walked in, they were showing newly hatched baby alligators to visitors. We were allowed to gently stroke the tiny beast held by the volunteer. Even with its dragon face, like all babies, it was cute. It eventually started chirping like a bird, calling for its protective mother, who I assumed was not nearby.
The film was quite old and reminded both Chris and I of the movies shown in elementary school on projectors that never failed to break. The clothing, hair styles, film quality, and method of narration gave away its age. We were surprised that nothing more up-to-date has been made about the always fascinating alligator. The ranger also brought out a giant gator skull, eggs, the bony plates found in their skin and a plastic reproduction of gator poop.
The most surprising behavior of alligators is the unusual relationship between mother and young. Unlike most reptiles which lay eggs and disappear, the gator mom stays near the nest and protects it. When the eggs start to hatch, she hears their chirping and uncovers the nest, helping them reach water by gently picking them up in her gaping mouth. (If she detects that an egg or baby has died, she unceremoniously eats it. Waste not, want not.) Then, most unbelievably, the babies stay near mom for one to three years and she continues to protect them. They must forage for themselves from the start, beginning with insects and then working up to larger prey.
During mating season, the alligators bellow back and forth to each other after dark. I hope we get to hear this display before we leave gator country.
On the fifth day, there was a cloudless blue sky, warm sun and gentle breeze. Chris happily exclaimed, “This is the nicest day of our trip!” Not really – we’ve had lots of nice days – but after four days of rain, chill and wind, it sure seemed like it.
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