When alligators expose their leathery backs to the sun, I know that summer is "fighting" winter, and the match occurs, of course, in the spring. This blessed season will not astronomically/officially be here until the vernal equinox on March 20, but the Terrebonne Parish marsh indicates differently. Spring has sprung when these cold-blooded reptiles become active.
It all started for me on February 27, when Sue and I took an airboat ride with Paul Yapusack, manager of Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge. Among a myriad of other wildlife we saw were four American alligators trying to catch a little sun on top of the fresh green sprigs of emergent marsh grasses.
The next day, after moving the Wetland Wanderer, I set the anchor and then took a line from the stern and secured it to the canal bank to keep us from swinging. As I tied to a swamp red maple tree, I heard the familiar sound of a hatchling American alligator, "Eh! Eh! Eh!" Sure enough, at the water's edge sticking their tiny heads out of a few small cracks in the mud were about a dozen eight-inch alligators. I grabbed a couple and yelled to Sue to get the camera. Looking toward the stern and preparing to grin for the snapshot, I dropped my guard for a few seconds and failed to notice the "mad mama" just a few feet from my face. Once I saw her, I leaped backwards to hopeful safety. She then just submerged; it was probably a little too cold to make a charge, which a female does sometimes especially around their nest with eggs.
During the following seven days we saw scores of alligators - including 30 on one day and 40 the next, during which Sue spotted a 10-footer. Today we saw a jug on a fishing line moving a little too fast for a catfish. We motored over toward it, and I grabbed the jug and lifted it. In a second or two, there was the slap of a tail and a big struggle as a five-foot gator surfaced and snapped its tail again, breaking the line. Meanwhile, I felt the water, and it was warm, over 70 degrees, so spring is really here, confirmed by alligators eating. Sue and I were with Billy Wurzlow when this happened. He next took us to Lovell Island, a shell mound in the middle of this marsh. Moss covered live oaks abound on this patch of high ground. It has a solid base of shells of mussels on which the Native Americans probably fed, and they discarded the shells here. The biggest oak was about 14 feet in circumference, and nearby was a fallen limb that was larger than most trees. The tree had many holes and hollows, but it was still growing strongly.
Close by, we spotted a snake. It was brown with blotches, looked about six feet long, and was coiled on a sapling that leaned toward the big oak. It was a rat snake, a rodent eater … a good reptile. I climbed on a knob of the live oak to get a picture when it started moving toward the tree, initially slowly then faster, as I closed in to photograph it. At the oak it slid under a hole in the bark. Then Sue spotted another, and I went through the same drill as I did for the first snake. I turned to Billy and wondered if this might be an "Indiana Jones" type of den with a million snakes in that giant tree.
Meanwhile, Kermit, Billy's father, was with us. Ninety-year-old Kermit brought me out here in 1979 to photograph the giant blue Iris bloom for an exhibit I did on the Gulf Coast. This northern part of the Wurzlow lease, which has no place for salt water to enter, looked pretty much the same as it did back then; maybe now there is a little more open water. The lease southern portion, however, has been invaded by salt water, particularly when it got hammered by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Lovell Island, on the lease south side, once was surrounded by healthy marsh vegetation; it now looked like a real island out at sea. Some of the oaks on it were toppled by that same storm. Once a mighty island in the marsh, it too will eventually subside, and the oaks will die as others have done that I have seen nearby.
The enjoyable outing culminated with Sue's pointing out a screaming eagle as it flew by. As Billy's mudboat roared through a trainasse used for duck hunting, he pointed out the eagle's nest in the highest bald cypress tree in a small grove of about 20 trees. Two adults were perched on a branch near the nest; though no young were showing, they were obviously there from my past experiences. What a noble and attractive bird it is, with a white head and tail decorating deep brown body feathers. Terrebonne Parish has 70 known bald eagle nests, and, thus, is a stronghold of our national emblem, yet another reason to solve the urgent problem of Louisiana's disappearing wetlands.