When a Little Distance Makes Sense


As if to emphasize the appropriateness of the sign’s message, this American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) had decided to take its ease on a nearby bank at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge.

From a slightly different perspective, its size was impressive, and its awareness of its human visitor detectable in a just-barely-slitted eye. (If you enlarge the photo, the slit in its eye will become detectable.)

As I moved around for a slightly better view of the impassive reptile, its eye finally opened, and it seemed to be running through a mental checklist. Even though it didn’t stir, I decided I would, and I made for the boardwalk.

From my new vantage point, I discovered that the alligator wasn’t alone. Obviously a female, she was surrounded by youngsters whose size suggested they still were less than a year old.  Able to explore the world independently, they remained young enough to crave their mother’s considerable protection; a dozen or so were staying close by her side.

After watching my movements for a few minutes, one youngster decided to snuggle up even more closely to its mother’s foot: for all the world like a human child running back to its parent for security.

Its braver siblings seemed eager to move around at the pond’s edge, perhaps hunting for insects, tadpoles, frogs, or small fish for their afternoon snack.

Despite their size and reputation for ferocity, mama alligators are diligent and loving parents. For at least the first year of her babies’ lives, she protects them as fiercely as she protected her nest, and juvenile alligators will call to her for protection when they feel threatened.

About six to eight inches long as hatchlings, the young often ride on their mother’s back as she swims, or sun themselves there when she’s at rest.

A different mother and babies, seen from the same boardwalk

Once young alligators reach 4 feet in length, they’re considered virtually invulnerable in the wild, except to humans and larger alligators. Separating from their pods, they begin to live independent lives.

This one, which had retreated to a spot beneath the Brazoria refuge’s pavilion during a time of especially high water, was almost exactly four feet long. His (?) willingness to pause beneath the pavilion steps made his size easy to determine.

There’s no question he was the most beautiful alligator I’ve seen. Free of mud and more colorful than older gators, he was easy to photograph from above as he moved farther onto the land. It was an unusual opportunity, and a memorable one.



Comments always are welcome.
Click any image for greater size and detail.

72 thoughts on “When a Little Distance Makes Sense

  1. Well, I’ll give you that the gator babies are rather cute, but I’d have been steering a WIDE berth around their mama! I know those things can be mean — if provoked — and I always kept a wary eye on Dallas when we were down South, for fear a gator would find him a delectable morsel. Lovely captures, Linda, and I’m in awe you were able to get them without shaking!

    1. Getting between a mama and her babies never is a good idea, and it’s an especially poor one when it comes to alligators (or feral hogs, for that matter). A nice telephoto lens is useful in circumstances like these, and believe me — I put it to use. This past year seemed to be an especially good one for alligators, and the ponds were full of smaller ones.

      Before long, mating season will be in full swing, and it will be time to keep an eye out for those feisty males, too.

  2. It is a wonderful experience to encounter the female alligator with her young, something I have never done. I chuckled at the sign counselling people not to feed the alligators. Perhaps to feed them means to surrender yourself! Actually, I can think of a few politicians who would make fine alligator chow!

    1. The ‘do not feed’ sign’s serious. People who think it’s cute to throw cinnamon rolls or chicken parts to alligators may get an interesting photo, but they’re also helping that reptilian brain to associate humans with food. If the association becomes too strong, they may not eat the hand that’s been feeding them, but they might consider it. I’ve heard a tale or two from wade fishermen whose stringers attracted attention, too.

      But under normal circumstances, we’re not on their menu, and we’re likely to only hear the splash as they head for water, wanting nothing more than to avoid us.

  3. “it seemed to be running through a mental checklist. ” One of the most astute observations about gators – and one to remember.
    Cool post. (And that last one will be the problem gator? The pretty boys do get so much attention and end up sort of arrogant…oh, we’re talking about gators, right? HAHA)
    Take care out there (and while wandering through stash of photos!)

    1. If I’ve learned anything about alligators, it’s that they’re far more aware of what’s going on around them than I used to think. It’s especially fun to see one surface, spot a person, and then just hang there for a while, evaluating the situation before sinking away again.

      All of the reptiles are out and about now; I saw two large turtles sunning themselves at Watergate yesterday, and a small garter snake on the sidewalk here. Everyone’s happy for some sunshine and warmth!

  4. Wow–an excellent set of photos, Linda. What a treat to see mama and babies. I’m just glad YOU didn’t become the treat. Be careful out there and yes, social distancing has many wise applications.

    1. It’s a fact that keeping one’s distance is the wiser course of action in a multitude of situations — and where alligators are involved, it’s particularly true. The most babies I’ve seen at one time was about eighteen, or perhaps more. Those were at Anahuac, and they were in a ditch under a bridge. I never saw that mother, but I’m sure she was close at hand, keeping an eye on them — and us!

    1. It’s fascinating how often mothers will carry babies — grebes and loons will do it, and some spiders. It never had occurred to me that alligators might do the same, but what better place for a gator baby? High and dry, they can travel or nap in safety.

      1. I’ve never seen a picture of baby alligators on a mother’s back, either. You should submit that picture and some of the others to magazines like Texas Highways and Texas Parks and Wildlife.

          1. I’m glad you like them, Lavinia. As I mentioned to Steve, the photo of the mother with her babies on her back just wouldn’t do for a print publication, and probably not even for an online publication. There just are too many issues with it. There are a couple that are much more acceptable; I’ll see what I can do with them.

        1. I went back and looked at the original files, and unfortunately the one of the mother and babies just wouldn’t do for print. It’s too cropped, and has other issues that wouldn’t make it at all suitable. On the other hand, the one with the baby resting on its mother’s foot might do, as would the last photo. Delightful as is the one with the row of babies, I had a hard enough time making it blog-posting-worthy, let alone print-worthy. I’ll cross my fingers for more babies this spring!

          1. We’ve all dealt with pictures that are passable at a small size but reveal too many flaws (often lack of good focus) when viewed at a large size. As you say, there’s always the promise of next year.

            1. In the meantime, our parks and the local nature center are open again. I’m hoping for clearing skies tomorrow, so I can visit the new meadow. The full story of the sudden closure and the reopening is interesting, but I’ll share that elsewhere.

    1. They certainly can pop up in unexpected places, like the middle of local highways, or marinas, or front porches. It’s good that you don’t have them in your pond, that’s for sure. A friend couldn’t figure out why her turtles seemed to be disappearing, and then she caught a local gator getting his take-out from her pond. It’s always something.

    1. The big old, mud-covered ones lurking on the banks aren’t very attractive, even if they are interesting in an odd sort of way. But the babies, and the still-fresh young ones do appeal to me. In fact, if I ever get a larger photo of one like that last one in this post, I can imagine those patterns as a wonderful abstract photo.

  5. Fantastic pictures, Linda. Seen in your photos, alligators are beautiful – in their own way. Definitely. That sign on the boardwalk reminds me of the those on the boardwalks in Port A, for rattlers.
    Have a great weekend, and stay healthy,

    1. Some people are more fearful of alligators than is necessary, but there always are some that aren’t at all fearful, and when those fearless ones are children, or urbanites who’ve never seen much wildlife of any sort, the signs are helpful. I don’t worry about them, but I stay alert for signs of their presence: prints on mudflats, flattened grass that marks a favorite place for getting out of the water, and those low grunts that are unmistakable once you’ve learned them. Jeremiah isn’t always a bullfrog!

        1. Getting to know the territory’s a good thing, too. One of the benefits of routinely visiting a spot like the refuge is that you begin to know where its residents like to hang out. There always are surprises, of course, but there are a few places where I know to look for gators, and often enough I find them.

  6. When I was a kid, you could go to the State Fair of Texas and win a free baby alligator on the Midway at some of the “games of chance.” When they got to a size where they were nipping at the fingers and toes of Mom, everyone dumped their alligators at White Rock Lake, a very public lake in the center of Dallas. Needless to say, some of them reached maturity and became a nuisance, as well as a hazard.
    That said, your pics are fantastic. I can tell from the “depth-of-field” that you weren’t using a terribly long telephoto, which means a closeness was required that was probably not extremely safe, given the babies present.
    Thanks for the post.

    1. I’ve never heard of baby alligators as prizes, but we were a little short on alligators at our Iowa State Fair, so that makes sense. I can understand the allure of them as pets when they’re small, but like pythons and raccoons, their appeal diminishes with time. San Marcos has set up a place for people to bring pet fish they no longer want, rather than dumping them in the river; the pond is an attempt to help out endangered native species like the fountain darter and the San Marcos salamander by keeping exotics out.

      While the first, fourth, and seventh photos were taken with my 18-135mm lens, the others were taken with my 70-300mm. The two closeups of the babies, including the one of the babe nestled against it’s mother’s foot, were taken at 200mm. One reason I keep that telephoto lens with me at the refuges is birds; the other is alligators. As the old saying has it, I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid. Discretion, valor, and all that.

    1. Coming across one can increase my pulse rate, for sure — but in truth, I don’t see that many mothers and babies. I’m far more likely to see lone gators sunbathing on the banks, or lurking in the water, and every time I hear that tell-tale splash, it’s the alligator that’s heading for the safety of the water. There are a couple of trails I won’t walk by myself at Brazoria, and when we move into mating season I’m even more cautious, but when the weather’s still cool, they seem mostly to want to be left in peace to enjoy the sunshine.

    1. Let’s put it this way: it wasn’t only the alligator who was making a run through that mental checklist. I am glad I decided to check things out from the boardwalk. Otherwise, I would have missed the babies.

    1. I’ve never seen a nest — neat that you have. There is one pond at the refuge called “Gator Nest Pond,” so I presume that would be a good place to look if I were so inclined. But I’m not inclined. An accidental discovery is one thing, but looking for a well-defended nest? I don’t think so!

  7. You, my friend, are a very brave woman. Alligators freak me out. To see a mom and babies, while from the perspective of a photographer would be amazing and fascinating, I think I would feel far too close for comfort, even at social distance! Well done, Linda. The photos are really beautiful!

    1. Sometimes, all it takes is a combination of knowledge and familiarity. Well, and a little sensible caution, of course. There are a couple of things in this world that freak me out, but alligators aren’t one. Honestly, they’re quite predictable — more predictable than some of the people I’ve known.

      I try not to anthropomorphize beyond reason, but I’ve read so much about the ‘affection’ between gator moms and children that it’s easy to believe. There’s no question they’re attentive and protective, and that could easily be read as affection.

    1. It was exciting, Pete. There are multitudes of experiences that never will come again, but some are less predictable and less common than others. This was one, and I was so pleased to have such willing subjects. It was amusing to watch the mother. If she sensed a movement, she’d open one eye, and have a look, and then close it again as though she’d decided, “This one’s no threat.” Such fun.

  8. That’s a bunch of nice shots and information, Linda. I think most mamas are not to be approached when babies are near and, of course, a gator in particular at any time. I understand that they can move faster than most think so am glad that you didn’t get too close…especially since you didn’t realize the babes were there from the start. Of course, I’ve never seen a gator in the wild so had no idea just how colorful the younger ones can be. The last two show off the colors and patterning so well and the skin has such a healthy sheen.

    1. They can move fast, but in truth, they’re not on the prowl for us. In the past decade, there have been only eight deaths by alligator in the U.S., and most, if not all, didn’t have to happen.

      In Texas, there’s been only one death in the past decade, in 2015, and it was the first since 1836! A man named Tommie Woodward was attacked and drowned at a marina in Orange County after ignoring warning signs about the gator. He taunted the gator, and then jumped in for a swim, in what was described as a “hold my beer” moment. The cautionary tale can be found here. RIP, Mr. Woodward, and the gator.

      I really was amazed by the beauty of that four-footer. I looked it over pretty well, and couldn’t find any evidence of damage; it was as pristine an example as you could find. The patterns amazed me. Usually the critters are gray, and muddy, and scarred up, with only a gleam in their eye.

        1. Well, yes and no, about the gator. He already had become enough of a nuisance that they’d had to post those signs, so it probably was just as well that they took him out. It has to happen from time to time, although relocations are more usual when they just wander into a neighborhood or a golf course.

    1. It would be something to watch those kiddos climb up on her back. She’s darned big–that would be quite a chore for those little ones. I suppose with all those protruding scutes, it would be a little like rock climbing, but they’re clearly equipped to do it!

  9. I’ve only seen alligators in the “real” wild once, while on a vacation trip to the Florida Keys with my son-in-law four years ago. We landed in Miami, of course, and wanted to spend an few hours in the Everglades on the way down but got rained out. We were luckier on the way back. Our guide navigated his air boat expertly to a waterway he knew, where he had a long-standing relationship with a particular 12-footer. When he eased to a stop, within minutes it came over to us and stopped where–if I had so desired–I could have reached out to pet it. You’ll probably believe it when I say that I did not. I included it in a post: https://krikitarts.wordpress.com/2016/08/05/keys-to-secret-treasures-part-4/

    1. I remember that post, and our discussion about the belly-rubbing. In truth, the same kind of long-standing relationship exists between some of the gators and visitors and staff at the refuge. There’s no belly-rubbing going on, but there are several alligators (like this mother) who are accustomed to the presence of people, and that helps to make photo sessions easier. While the refuge gators aren’t contained, or fed, or made objects of tours, they have just enough knowledge of humans to be willing to stay put when we’re around — at least, until they feel some threat, or get bored.

  10. Fantastic photographs – especially the one of the babies lined up on their mother’s back. I would definitely have been keeping my distance!

    1. It was a fun day, Ann. Little experiences like this one give me increased appreciation for the work of real wildlife photographers. It requires a lot of patience, and a lot of knowledge about the creatures’ habits, to be ‘lucky’ enough to get shots like this. And of course there are times when sheer luck is involved. If I hadn’t moved around to the other side of the alligator, I never would have seen the babies, and if I hadn’t kept walking down the boardwalk, scanning the water and the growth, I would have missed a good number more.

  11. That’s one creature I wouldn’t want to get close to. Marvellous photos, Linda, especially the last shot and the babies on their mother’s back.

    I hope you were using a very long telephoto lens and you weren’t really that close to that enormous reptile.

    1. I love that last shot. I was on the stairs, about five feet above it, and it may be the only time in my life I’ll have a chance to photograph an alligator that way. They can jump, and they can climb stairs, but when they’re obviously basking or napping, there are going to be clues that it’s time for humans to leave before there’s any real threat. If one’s swimming or crossing a road, I’m much, much more careful, and I’m especially careful when I don’t see any, because I know they’re around, even if I can’t see them.

  12. Aw! Great pictures, Linda! I do hope you are well during the shutdown, I’m guessing you are escaping the boredom (like me) going outside and observing nature. We are way overdue for a meet-up.

    1. It’s beginning to wear on me a bit, but I think that’s so for everyone. As far as I can tell, I’m physically healthy — as long as I don’t lose my mind, it’ll all be good! There is a good bit of activity around my new bird feeders at this point, especially frazzled parents feeding babies; wrens, chickadees, bluejays, mockingbirds, and sparrows. I’ve not seen any young doves yet, but I did have an indigo bunting here last Thursday. I didn’t get a very good photo, because I was shooting through screen and glass, but at least I have a record of it — and what a beautiful bird it was.

  13. In those last two images the “little” guy looks almost draconian. I’m told the hatchlings are often carried from the nest to the safety of the water in their mother’s mouth. There’s trust for you.

    1. I knew that crocodiles carry their babies down to the water in their mouths, but I’d never thought about the fact that alligators do, too. I looked at a couple of videos, and learned that the alligator has a pouch beneath that toothy mouth where the babies are tucked for the journey. It’s just the most amazing thing in the world to see.

  14. Boy you got some super-detailed photos, these are great. I love the piggyback shot! And you’re right, when they’re not covered with mud or algae, they are kind of beautiful.
    I’ve only seen them “in the wild” once, near Charleston SC when I was kid. I think it was February, and the staff at the nature preserve, an old rice plantation, pointed out where they were lying in the sun, and told us they were pretty much dormant/unmoving because of the colder weather. But when we walked by 1/2 hour later, they were clearly on the move, and we saw the muddy paths where they were crossing over the dike trail we were on, going from paddy to paddy.
    That shot with the little ‘un hugging his mama’s foot, her leg really looks like it’s covered with samurai armor.

    1. They grow about a foot a year, so by the time they get large — over eight feet, say — they’ve been around for a while, and tend to look it. Their skin gets leathery, and dull, and the males show a few battle scars. But the younger ones are attractive. Of course, that mother has quite a leg, too. I’m not sure I’d call it fetching, but the baby seems to like it just fine. You’re right that it looks armored — and it sure is shiny.

      They do get sluggish in winter, and sometimes they’ll disappear in really cold weather: burying down in the mud to stay warm. But when the sun becomes warm again, around the end of January or beginning of February, they’re often out on the banks, sunning.They tend to feed at night or early morning, so if you see them on a bank in the mid-afternoon, it’s quite likely they’re more interesting in a nap than anything else.

    1. They certainly aren’t cuddly, are they? The young ones are cute, though. When school classes come to the Discovery Center, they give them the chance to hold one — quite a memorable experience for a school kid!

    1. Isn’t that neat? Most people don’t think about alligator mothers being so attentive, but they certainly are — and gentle with their babies, too. The young stay with their mother for about a year, or even longer, so I suppose there’s time for quite a bond to develop.

  15. Great set of pics. That close up of the baby next to the mother’s paw makes it look like the mother’s leg is clad in old style armor. And I don’t think I’ve seen a shot with babies riding topside – all very interesting.

    1. They’re fascinating creatures — no doubt about that. I hadn’t thought about the mother’s foot as armor, but that’s exactly what it looks like. As many times as I’ve heard alligators and crocodiles described as ‘armored,’ you’d think it might have occurred to me, but it didn’t. I was too taken with the scene in general, I guess: as well as the shine on her leg. They really are amazing creatures: beauty and beast all rolled up in one neat package.

  16. You’ve recorded this so well, and I can’t get over how sharp your lens is. This is so impressive. I had no idea the little gators were so attached to their mother. Every shot is just so good!

    1. The babies will stay with their mother for at least a year, and sometimes more. They grow about a foot per year, and they’re able to be off on their own and fully independent by the time they’re four feet long. Even though this video shows crocodiles rather than alligators, the behavior is just the same. It took me a couple of viewings to figure out what the “spy croc” was. One of the eggs that the mother took to the water actually was the camera that recorded it all.

  17. Oh my…what a fascinating post and pictures! I just loved this. I had no idea the young hung around for so long. How like dinosaurs they are!!! I think I’ll be back again and again reading this. xxx

    1. If you click any of the images a couple of times, you can see much more detail. The patterns on the one in the last photo are especially beautiful, but I do think my favorite photo’s of the baby snuggled up against its mother’s foot. “Snuggle” and “alligator” isn’t a combination of words that springs to mind naturally, but it certainly doesn’t seem to fit with these mamas and babies!

    1. Thanks, so much. It was quite an experience, to say the least. Alligators obviously are more than a mouthful of teeth and a fearsome reputation.

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