From the Book
The Night of the Alligator
"Just two hours left," I think to myself as I coast down the Whiskey Bay ramp of Interstate 10 and turn northward into the utter blackness of this moonless, muggy summer night. It will be a short span of time in which to cover fifteen miles of gravel road, two miles of jeep trail, a half-mile on foot to my canoe stashed in a back hole cypress swamp, and another two miles by water to my egret blind before first light.
The first twelve miles are the easiest as I rattle down the uneven road, occasionally hitting a deep rut or crossing a rivulet that jolts me as much as it does my old, worn jeep. At every bump I shoot a quick glance at my rusty Coleman ice chest transformed into a camera carrier, to make sure everything is safe. My high beams catch a doe nibbling the tender grasses near the roadside. The sound of my jeep's leaf springs hitting the frame startle her, and in an instant, white tail erect, she bounds into a smilax thicket. If only I could speed through the woods with her ease! One of my dreams. . . .
I begin to watch my odometer closely, for I know that two-tenths of a mile before the gravel road's end a jeep trail used only by deer hunters in the fall will be invisible on my right. The broomsage and dewberry completely hide the trail except in four places where sloughs cross it. The ruts are there, so by feel and memory I motor through the dark woods until I reach the first slough. Summer's low water levels in the swamp have dried it up somewhat. Of the four sloughs this is the worst. It doesn't look so bad this time. It's about forty feet across, with ruts in places two feet deep. The secret is to miss all previous ruts, be in low range, and zip across at twenty miles per hour. This way you are almost assured of not getting stuck, but you'll bounce your head off the ceiling of the truck at least two times . . . and I do. The next three sloughs are almost dry, and I am soon at the tall and crooked persimmon tree that marks the head of my trail.
From here, in two trips, I carry my paddles, cameras, tripod, food, water, and camping gear to my camouflaged canoe. As I prepare to paddle, push , and pole my favorite craft through the second-growth cypress forest, seeing traces of pink on the sparse wisps of clouds high in the summer sky, I know I will never make the blind for first light.
In a canoe, a good strong paddler can easily cover two miles in twenty minutes-in open water, that is. Here it is different. This is a back hole baldcypress swamp, the true swamp. Depending on the time of the year, the water can flow eight feet deep or retreat, leaving two fee of soft mud. Today it is just above my knees and completely covered by water hyanciths, hydrocotles, and alligator weeds. If it were not for all the gear I carry I'd probably be better off trying to wade out to my blind, sticking close to the cypress trees where the ground is almost firm. The canoe is hard to push, pull, or shove through the aquatic vegetation, but a lifesaver when I have to cross open water above twenty-four inches of feet sucking false bottom. More than once I have come home with clothes muddy enough to throw away.
Getting out to this area is very hard, and the colonial birds that nest her know it. That is why they choose this place. Man and animals alike find it difficult to disturb these birds' mating rituals and the raising of their young.
My canoe finally loaded and ready, I shove off with a green push pole. Squaaak! That's the first abrupt sound to break the constant chatter of the green tree frogs, and I see the silhouette of a yellow-crowned night heron weave through the cypress branches. Pushing hard, I cross many small lakes, drag through button-bush thickets, and pole under the towering cypress homes of Louisiana herons, anhingas, piliated woodpeckers, and barred owls.
As the morning glow increases, ahead at last I glimpse my destination: the island of cypress trees where my blind is located. The swamp canary-or prothonotary warbler-darts among the swamp privet shrubs singing its "sweet sweet" call.
A stranger could come within fifty feet of my blind and not see it. I can distinguish it only because I know that it is there. This architectural wonder anchored to three bald cypress trees has been here for two and a half years and blends perfectly in color, if not shape, with its wild surroundings.
There is no geometric term for the shape of my blind, a cross between a triangle and a pentagon. Made of plywood, potato sacks, camouflage cloth, and Spanish moss, it is airy in the summer and cold in the winter. Carolina wrens have nested in it, and other creatures inhabit it at various times-with and without me. These fellow tenants include green anole lizards, tree frogs, raccoons, opossums, barred owls, yellow jacket wasps, mosquitoes, numerous spiders, and large black ants. I come to see wildlife, so I don't complain or even ask for rent.
At the blind I toss my gear up onto its floor, then hide my canoe in a nearby thicket. By the time I arrange my supplies, morning is here and the swamp is alive with the sounds of the day. There's the raucous thumping of the piliated woodpecker searching for grubs, the deep bellow of a bull alligator, and the continuous chirping of thousands of young egrets waiting for their first meal of the day. At least half of the adult great egrets have gone in search of crawfish and other aquatic animals to feed their always hungry offspring.
Because some of the nestling egrets are nearly the size of their parents, direct attention to those nests is unnecessary. The adult on guard sits atop a nearby cypress tree to watch and protect the young from hawks, raccoons and other predators. A few weeks earlier one parent would have always remained on the nest to shade the nearly naked chicks from the sun and wind. Now the young are doing everything but flying and would endlessly pester a parent on the nest for a regurgitated meal of fish caught from a nearby bayou.
Egrets nest together for protection, knowing that a hawk or raccoon would be too much for a single family. I once saw a red-shouldered hawk swoop down and land on a frog in the water hyanciths among the egret nests. Within seconds every nest had an adult bird squawking loudly in it with wings spread, head pointed down at the hawk. Then five egrets dove at the intruder and chased it away. The action provided quite a line of defense.
I steady my tripod and focus my long lens on a nearby nest. Three young egrets anxiously await their parents' arrival with food. Their heads sway as they survey the skyline, ignoring a passing pair of wood ducks, a green heron, and even a great egret. Then there is a tumultuous uproar as one parent arrives. The monotone chirping turns to adult-like squawks, and they jab and grab at the big bird's beak. After a couple of good tugs, the feeding process begins. The parent regurgitates a sizable, shad-like fish, then another and another, until she has dropped eleven into the waiting beaks of the three voracious young. The largest of the young gets seven of the eleven as my camera's motor-driven noise goes undetected in the feeding frenzy. Then, just as quickly as the parent came, she flies off to sit atop the cypress tree from which her mate has already departed to do his share of the fishing.
Three months ago I watched this same pair go through their courtship and nest-building rituals. Their particular small cypress tree ended up with two nests in it , just the same as last year. Other, larger trees in the rookery had up to ten nests apiece. When the courtship began the cypresses wore few leaves, but each was spectacularly adorned with one or more great egrets displaying fancy plume-like feathers grown only for this time of the year.
Other egrets trying to nest too close were rudely dismissed with viciously stabbing beaks-all a part of the ritual. Soon the invisible territorial lanes were established and nests were constructed- or to my way of thinking, thrown haphazardly on limbs of the rapidly greening cypress trees. It seemed as if a small breeze would destroy each and every nest, but most held up even through the violent summer thunderstorms, and many will remain in some form throughout the winter. Haphazard as they look, egret nests must be engineering marvels.
As the day passes, I eat some canned salmon, fruit cocktail, and crackers, and think of the real reason for my visit. Although I have been in this blind on thirty-six different days, I always came before sunrise and left before dark.. Tonight I am going to camp here, up in this tree, and explore a back hole rookery at night. My hope is to get some photographs of mating frogs.
I have camped for many nights all over the Atchafalaya- in my tent, under my mosquito net, and even in my canoe when I was not close to dry land. This time is different because I don't plan on doing much sleeping. I want to see what happens in this area at night.
The day meanders as I watch a gator sun itself on a log matted firmly in place by the floating vegetation. A couple of little blue herons fish off the opposite end of the log, seeming nonchalant about the nearby gator.
I have seen gators in every one of the nine egret and heron rookeries I have explored in the Atchafalaya Basin. If they are alert, they can supplement their regular diet of fish, frogs, and nutria with eggs fallen from nests and young, flightless birds. This one, though, seems content to sun himself on the log and leave the herons to themselves.
As the sun sets behind the darkening forest, I shoot a beautiful scene of an egret flying across the orange skies with the remnants of its breeding plume backlit against the setting sun.
On my ultralight camp stove I cook a couple of pork chops with potatoes and tomatoes. As the evening grows darker, the chorus of tree frogs intensifies. The cry of the nutria, so human sounding, the occasional squawk of a night heron, and the deep bellow of thew alligator mix with the increasing croaks of the bull frog to entertain me during dinner. The mosquitoes are not bad tonight, but I have my net just in case I need it for the few hours of sleep I will get later.
With supper down and the night dark as pitch, I know the time has come to set out. I pull my hipboots back on and wade over to the thicket hiding my canoe. Carefully, I stow my gear so that I can easily grasp what I need. My camera is rigged with 135mm lens and strobe to shoot gators or bull frogs. For the smaller green tree frog, my close up unit is ready on the canoe floor.
I tie a rope from the bow of the canoe to the back belt loop in my Levis so I can drag the canoe behind and leave my hands unhindered to shoot pictures. Then I hook up my headlamp and gingerly scan the surrounding landscape. Eyes of red, green, and yellow light up everywhere. I am definitely not alone. Snakes and alligators have never bothered me in daylight hours, but now it is hard to take the first step. It's ten o'clock and pitch dark, and here I am, stuck in my tracks before I have even left the blind!
"Oh well, let's go. Most of those eyes probably belong to spiders. Alligators show two red eyes under flash light, but luckily these are all single red eyes. Just spiders," I tell myself bravely.
After that first step, each successive one becomes easier. Then I stumble on a branch with a loose end, giving me a brief but heart-quickening scare as it pops up among the hyanciths. But soon sounds recede from my conscious attention and the life of the basin captures my thoughts.
I look and listen and absorb a new feeling for this swampland. Insects and frogs and even the egret nest become my subjects. As I wander aimlessly through the ponds and cypress ridges, time passes quickly. Remarkably, there is no sign yet of alligators or snakes, and therefore they no longer inspire fear. I still want to see them, but on my terms- which is to say, before they see me.
Hours later I finally find what I have come looking for: my headlamp illuminates hundreds of green tree frogs in one small area. Many, extending their throat sacks, are calling, and a few are mating. Quietly, I rein in my canoe, reach for the close-up camera, and begin my stalk.
To get the photograph I want, my camera has to be within two feet of my subject. So I put my beam of light on a mating pair and wade ever so slowly toward them. At four feet away the frogs part and jump.
I move even slower; but each frog seems to have this four-foot limit for a large strange creature with one bright white eye.
Then my luck seems to change. I am almost within four feet of a solitary male, and he is calling undisturbed. My strobe is ready, my camera focused on two feet. Another step, and I will have my shot. The water six inches above my knee scarcely ripples, I move so slowly. The frog still sits in my lightbeam. I am closer. Lowering my foot will put me within my chosen distance!
Then my rubber boot strikes something. "Oh, not another log! Will it scare the frog?" WHACK! A tail slaps my face. I fall backwards, instinctively grabbing my camera with my left hand and lifting it towards the sky as my right hand and both legs paddle me backwards to what I hope is safety. Ahead of me I hear the splashes as the alligator submerges again and swims off.
Water gushes from my hipboots as I struggle to regain my balance. My left hand still holds my camera high and dry. Quickly I climb into the canoe, my heart pounding to the tune of the calling frogs and my mind trying to decide if I am still in good health. I am.
Safe; but enough is enough for one night. I empty my boots, hop back into the water and start towards my blind. Which way, though? I had been wading for over five hours looking for animals and paying no attention to my route. "Why worry?," I must have thought earlier, for I have been in this rookery over thirty-six times and know most bird nests by sight. But that was in daylight. The cypress stands, the willow thickets, the tangles of button bush, and even the ponds all look the same tonight.
For two hours I wade from cypress island to cypress island. Finally, by using the stars to keep a straight line and making a sweeping semicircle about every 200 yards, I find my palace. What a relief to crawl under that mosquito net, eat my last few bites of fruit cocktail, and drift into dreams of alligators, crocodiles, Peter Pan and Captain Hook!
I awake a few hours later to the persistent buzzing of young egrets another day closer to fledging, the time when these young birds, along with the little blue herons, Louisiana herons, green herons, cattle egrets, anhingas, wood ducks, Carolina wrens, and prothonotary warblers that I have personally seen nesting here, will soon spread out for the summer. It seems that these species alone would be enough wildlife for this one small area of the Atchafalaya Basin, but that is not so. This rookery begins to change as the summer comes on.
And change it does. Each time I come back to this beautiful rookery there is a different kind of excitement and a different kind of scene. As June passes, the water under those great egret nests really drops. The wood ducks and their fully grown young are long gone to wetter areas. A few herons and egrets return to roost here each night, but nowhere near the thousands that are here in the February-June period.
August finds the hole almost mucky, with just a few inches of water and tight, ankle grabbing mud. The frogs are still around, and dragonflies are everywhere. One day while slogging through this muck I caught sight of a green heron perched on an angular branch of a fallen willow and acting quite strangely. He kept lashing his head out at the sky. On closer inspection with my binoculars, I discovered that he was grabbing dragonflies out of the air. This was new to me, for I thought he would only eat fish. Later, upon researching green herons, I found that they do take advantage of abundant insect populations.