Alligators and Armadillos and Manatees…oh my

by Sara Dykman

Biking from one side of the country to the other has led us through many different ecosystems and thus we have seen a wide variety of habitats: mountains, plains, developed towns, coastal lands, and swamps.  With each habitat is a diversity of animals.  This diversity  has been one of my favorite parts of the trip.

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Tommy bikes through a southern swamp.

Biking through the mountains of the west we saw lots of animals. We watched big horn sheep, mountain goats, and black bears sample the abundant flowers growing alongside the road.  Moose wallowed in the willows, marmots looked for salty handouts, a pine marten watched us curiously at one of our lunch spots.  But I had seen many of these animals before.

The plains too did not let us down.  Bison stared at us as we stared at them in Yellowstone National Park.  Prairie Dogs, assuming we were potential predators, chirped warnings to their colony and retreated underground as we passed.  We saw badgers, foxes, coyotes, and deer in the plains, but these too were not new to me.

In the south everything was new.  After three weeks of riding in the cold, eating lunch with winter gloves on, and watching the frozen landscape pass, we descended out of the mountains and headed to the coast of South Carolina.  The rolling hills covered in forests became flat lands covered in swamps.  We watched birds flitter from one tree to the next, and when we couldn’t see them we heard them.  Compared to the winter wonderland we had come from, it was like Nature had woken up and turned up the volume.

Finding the warmth of winter in the south, our first mission was to find one of the largest reptiles in North America, the American alligator.  At a school presentation on St. Simons Island, GA we told the students our goal to see an alligator and they were amazed that we had not seen one.  We tried to convey the uniqueness of their area.  Not every kid grows up seeing alligators in the wild, many would be jealous or at least in awe.

So we left the Atlantic coast and headed inland to find ourselves some alligators.  Our plan was an overnight canoe trip into the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge.  Heading to the refugee we encountered one of the most interesting animals I have ever seen. An armadillo.

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An armadillo burrows through the ground cover.

We had been seeing road killed armadillos for the last few days and I really wanted to see one alive.  Aaron spotted the foot long mammal as we were biking.  We all stopped our bikes and tried to be stealthy as we sneaked up on it.  Turns out we didn’t need to.  The armadillo just didn’t seem to care. It used its long snout and claws to root in the fallen leaves and dirt.  It had rabbit like ears, but a possum like tail, and a boney, protective sheath like nothing I had seen.  A very crazy looking animal!

We had seen an armadillo but we had yet to find an alligator so at the Okefenokee Refuge we rented two canoes for two days.  The morning we arrived we unpacked our bikes and loaded up two canoes.  We were to head 10 miles up the Swanee canal to a platform that we would camp at.  The folks gave us a map of our route, told us to be back by 4pm the next day, and headed back inside. We all exchanged looks, climbed into the canoes, and pushing off hoped they had not forgot to tell us anything of importance.  How hard could it be really?

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Just setting out on a two day canoe trip in the Okefenokee Swamps

The canal runs fairly straight but with no flow.  It made for easy navigating and easy paddling.  Bald cypress, naked of leaves but thick with Spanish moss, lined the edges of the canal.  Under the cypress trees was a knot of greens and browns that shuffled with the wind and the birds. We saw tons of birds, and even compared to biking, the slow speeds made for great viewing.  It wasn’t just the slow speeds.  It was the lack of cars, of roads and billboards, of flashing lights and suburbs.

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Great Blue Heron

As we passed a great blue heron, the large bird would jump into flight, long wings beating deeply, long neck pointed forward, an eerie sound loud in the quiet of the wilderness.  These birds- in the stillness of a swamp, in a forest laced in Spanish moss- transformed our trip into a seemingly archaic adventure.  We also saw catbirds, robins, green herons, little blue herons, egrets, sandhill cranes, Eastern peewees, anhingas, night herons, common yellowthroats, and kingfishers.  Of all the birds the anhinga was one I had never seen before and found very interesting.  They live in the southern swamps and dive in the water for food.  When they swim on the surface only their long head and neck stick out of the water, making them appear as a snake swimming.

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Anhinga

There were lots of raccoons on the water’s edge.  Both Aaron and I were surprisingly excited to see them.  Much of the time we only see raccoons in campsites trying to steal our food, or making a mess of a trash can in a city.  To see them away from humans, doing what raccoons did before they discovered unsuspecting campers was very fun.

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Racoon

AND we saw alligators.  They say you can estimate the size of an alligator by assuming one foot for every inch between their eyes and their snot.  Many times you only see their eyes and snouts when they are in the water, like we did when we saw our first 7 ft alligator. Alligators are a success story of conservation.  Listed on the endangered species list until 1987 due to hunting pressure and loss of habitat, the endangered species act and other hunting regulation has caused the dwindling populations to rebound.  Now, the American alligator thrives in the southern swamps.

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American Alligator

With the goal of seeing an alligator checked off, we set our sights on another charismatic southern animal.  This time we started asking about manatees.

It seemed at first as if we were going to have to head even further south, off our original route, to find these large marine mammals.  But after asking about every local we met we found a spring in the panhandle that was home to some manatees.  We headed to Wakulla Springs.

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Tommy swims in the Wakulla Spring's clear waters. The water coming out of the spring is 71 degrees

You can’t drive a personal boat or paddle a canoe in Wakulla Springs.  It was spared from timber harvests and condo buildings and now the only way to get a better view is to take a boat tour.  Wakulla springs is about 9 river miles from the gulf of Mexico.  The water at the source of the spring is about 71 degrees and this warm water is very attractive to the manatee.  Despite the large size and ample blubber, manatees like warm water.  In fact one of the more recent threats to manatees is climate change and the colder ocean temperatures.  It was not until about 5 years ago that the manatees started making Wakulla Springs their home.

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A manatee

Aside from the warm water, Wakulla Springs also protects manatees from another threat: speeding motor boats.  With the nickname of “sea cow”, its no wonder that Manatees are not fast enough to escape speeding motor boats. Every year many are killed or wounded by propellers.  At this spring the guide boat has a propeller guard, the manatees were safe and did a good job of ignoring us.

I figured after seeing alligators, armadillos, and manatees, that we had seen the iconic animals of the south.  But I was wrong.

We were lucky enough to be invited to stay at the St. Joseph Bay Preserve, it was the perfect spot for a rest day because it had dorm-like rooms for us to stay in, a communal kitchen, great lounging space, internet, and access to all kinds of outdoor adventures.  Many researchers and preserve volunteers stay there so we had some insider information.  This information led us to a trip to the beach to watch a turtle release.

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St. Joseph Bay Preserve Center

A week or so ago Florida got really cold, and the shallow waters of the bays dropped about 10 degrees in a short time.  This temperature drop is uncommon and the animals living here are less adapted to the extremes.  Crews of turtle volunteers search the bay when the temperature decreases like this and rescue the cold shocked turtles.  They take them into captivity, warm them up, and wait for temperatures to increase so they can be released.  We were able to watch (and help when we could) volunteers release about 150 green sea turtles back into the ocean.

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Green Sea Turtle

There are 7 species of sea turtles, and four visit the water’s of florida.  All are endangered with the exception of the Loggerhead.  Green Sea turtles normally don’t nest on these beaches, but loggerheads, Kemp’s riddly, and leatherbacks do.  We learned that much work is being done to protect these incredible creatures.  Fishing regulations prevent turtles from being trapped in nets.  Light ordinances protect hatchlings from getting lost and not going to the ocean.  And volunteers monitor nests and hatchlings, to help sustain these creatures.  1 in 1,000 hatchlings is thought to reach maturity, so seeing a mature turtle you can only wonder what it has been through, the miles of ocean it has swam, and the encounters it has escaped.

And so I can say, even though our days in the south are not over yet, that it has not let us down.  Alligators, armadillos, manatees, and sea turtles were all exciting to see.  And most were animals I had never seen before.

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Double Crested Cormorant

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