Volume 17 - March 15, 2004
Moss covered Bald Cypress on the edge of Bay Wallace.

Bald Cypress Beauty

Bald Cypress trees in the spring.

We are surrounded by the majestic beauty of our state tree, the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum). With springtime in the air its feathery lime green needles are sprouting, and I feel like I am surrounded by the walls of a huge, ornate cathedral. The thick clumps of Spanish moss wisps on the tree branches are like airy curtains blowing in the breeze.


Two basic tree types are evergreens, which have lots of leaves all year long, and deciduous trees, which lose all of their leaves during late fall and winter. Pine and fir trees are needle leaf evergreens that bear cones, and such trees are called conifers. The cypress is an odd conifer in that it has needle leaves and bears cones, but it loses all of its leaves in late fall and winter, like deciduous crepe myrtle, pecan, and maple trees. Thus, no wonder it is called a Bald Cypress, it looses its leaves in the cool seasons.


Not all Bald Cypress have knees, just the ones growing in waterlogged soil. One tree can have lots of knees, and some of them can be taller than you! Many cypress trees bulge out toward the trunk bottom like a flared rippled skirt. CC and I love to observe the many shapes these tree bottoms present. Dendrologists call these buttress bases.


The next time that you take a bath, poke a knee up out of the water, and that is what a cypress knee is like! The function of cypress knees is not known for sure. Some folks say that they act like a snorkel, letting the tree roots breathe. Others say that the knees act as anchors to help hold the tree up straight in soggy or wet soil. No one knows for sure, but critters sure like the trees and their knees! 


Two birds, which we have observed recently, that use the cypress high tree tops as a nest site are the osprey and eagle. CC and I went on "A Cajun Man's Swamp Tour" in northern Terrebonne Parish yesterday, and we were shown an eagle's nest on top of a very tall cypress tree to which we could get close. We spent today quietly watching a baby bird of that nest learn to fly. Everyday now, as we navigate through cypress filled canals and bayous, we are seeing bald eagles perched and resting on high cypress branches. I get chill bumps with each such sighting. CC says that they will be leaving our area in April or so, but they will eventually return and spruce up their same nest in the same cypress tree next year if the tree is still there! Terrebonne Parish has some 70 eagle nests and a large seasonal population of our national emblem; CC says he has never seen an eagle nest in another type of tree in Louisiana.


The other evening while CC had the boat nestled among the cypress and was photographing a sunset, I watched the animal activity on the flared skirt of one cypress. A spider crawled, a green tree frog squatted, shells of cicadas that once ate the root for food lay empty, and many insects crawled around. It was like downtown New York City on a miniature scale, busy, busy!


Cypress trees are not only mysteriously beautiful, they also provide homes for so many creatures. Eagles, gators, snakes, raccoons, and spiders all need the tree with a knee! The gators, turtles, and snakes use the fallen cypress logs as "chaise lounges" on which to soak up the sun. I was canoeing along the cypress banks of Bay Wallace (about 10 miles southeast of Morgan City) hoping to catch a couple of bass for dinner when I was startled by seeing what appeared to be a giant floating log twitch! Turns out what I saw was a 9-foot alligator. It glared lazily at my floating approach seeming to signal me, "Please don't come near and disturb me, I am sooo comfortable!"  Needless to say, I paddled in the opposite direction, not to interrupt the sunny siesta of the basking beauty. It was similar to a day at the beach observing these sunbathing reptiles.     


The wood of a cypress is called "everlasting." That's why it is so valuable; it is extremely slow to rot. All the old growth, original, bald cypress forest stands were cut in the early 1900's.  In fact, largely because of the harvest of cypress trees, in 1914 Louisiana produced more lumber than any other state! The trees I am enjoying now are "second growth," almost 100 years old, and still impressive.

Annie's Alligator Antics

An American Alligator basking on a log.

 Oh dear, oh dear, this little doggie is feeling some fear! Swimming around the fresh water marshes of Terrebonne Parish is a great way for a "hot dog" to cool off. On a short swim to shore I saw what I thought was a log..then, SPLASH, and that log was gone! I bee- lined it back to the boat! Warm, sunny weather has brought out the reptile that gives me the shakes. The American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis.


Learning about this reptile that has successfully existed for over two million years is a never ending process.  CC spent more than two years researching and photographing it before writing his last book, THE ALLIGATOR BOOK. He said he only tipped the iceberg of alligator knowledge!


Alligators are amazing! If I were a gator there are some things I would want all Homo sapiens to know...


I survived the Age of Dinosaurs and I have relatives from 200 million years ago.


Alligators, crocodiles, birds, and dinosaurs all evolved from Archosaurs. I am similar to birds in many ways. I have a muscular gizzard, an elongated ear canal, and complete separation of the ventricles in my heart. Although I do not fly, I build nests out of plant materials, lay eggs, care for my young, and use my voice to communicate.


My name came from el legarto, meaning big lizard. I am the largest reptile in America.


There are only 2 species of alligators, American alligators and Chinese alligators. There are 21 other species in the family Crocodylidae. Only the American alligator and the rare American crocodile occur in America.


My growth rate varies depending on my sex, and my habitat. Male gators grow faster and can grow to 13 feet in length and weigh 500 plus pounds. Females grow to about 9 feet and 200 plus pounds. The largest gator recorded was taken from Marsh Island, Louisiana and was 19 feet 2 inches!


I can live about as long as a human. An average of 70 years, but up to 100 years.


I am cold-blooded. The temperature of my environment regulates my body temperature. I bask in the sun to get warmth. When I am too warm I lay with my mouth open to release extra heat because I cannot sweat as you do. If I am really hot I move to the shade or get in the water.


I must be warm and active to digest food. During the winter months my body rates slow down and I cannot hunt or eat so I enter my underground hole and remain dormant until warm temperatures return.


Louisiana has the highest alligator population in the U.S., approaching 2 million. I can be found in ponds, lakes, canals, rivers, swamps, and bayous, but my greatest numbers occur in coastal marshes.


I am like an armored battleship! I have bony plates in my top scales called, scutes. My belly scales are not bony and they are sometimes made into leather. My muscular tail is almost as long as my body and it helps me swim and is a powerful weapon. My legs are short but they help me crawl on land.


I have no lips so my mouth leaks! My throat has a special flap that closes when I am underwater. My tongue is stuck to the bottom of my mouth (try chewing like that!) so I cannot chew. I chomp my prey with my powerful jaws and conical teeth, and then I raise my head and let gravity help me swallow it whole!


I have between 74 and 80 teeth which grow back when lost or broken.


I will eat just about anything, including my own kind! Generally what I eat depends on my size and habitat. Insects, crawfish, crabs, fish, snakes, frogs, birds, nutria, even deer and wild pigs! I love them all! I stop eating in cooler months and I can go for up to a year without food. I am very energy efficient!


I have a transparent third eyelid that works like underwater goggles. My nostrils close and I can slow my heart rate down and stay underwater for more than an hour.


I hunt by sight and my eyes see well in dim light. My pupils are like long slits.


When I am grown, my only natural enemy is a human. I am hunted for my meat and hide in the wild during the month of September. I am also raised on farms because of my valuable parts. But, farmers must return a percentage of their small gators back to the wild and you must have a tag for each gator that you kill so my numbers will remain strong!


What did I tell you? Lots to learn, right? I have not even started to tell you about hatchling gators and how boy or girl gators are determined! That will have to be another story.  Sue just brought me a bone to chew!




- Cypress trees are conifers that lose their green each year but have cones and needles. Their wood is beautiful and durable. The trees provide homes for many animals.
- Alligators have been around for millions of years and are extremely efficient and well adapted reptiles.
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A limerick has 5 lines
A limerick is witty and has a pun or a punch line
Lines 1, 2, and 5 must rhyme
Lines 3 and 4 must rhyme

There was a sick seal named Miss Toes
Who went to a doctor she knows
He advised the young seal
"Eat a well balanced meal"
So she balanced her soup on her nose!

Have Fun!

Visit CC's alligator pages, fun facts, cool pictures and other neat information.
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la·gniappe    (ln-yp, lnyp)
2. An extra or unexpected gift or benefit

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St. Mary's Nativity School asks:
Can a tree's age be determined in another way besides counting the rings?
CC answers:  The rings are the only way I know of to get an exact age.  You could make an educated guess by looking at the size, the habitat and looking up the weather records.
St. Mary's Nativity School asks:
What will happen to the Wetland Wanderer when this project ends?  When will the project end?
CC answers:  The Wetland Wanderer will be sold at the end of the project.  That will be next winter sometime.  The whole project will alst four years.  It started last fall when teh web page first went up and it will end in the fall of 2007 when the traveling exhibit ends.
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