A Close Encounter of the Alligator Kind

In the fall of 2019, I visited the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge in the company of Steve and Eve Schwartzman. As we approached one of the ditches that threads through the refuge, we came upon a Great Egret fishing at the water’s edge; eventually, that bird’s photo appeared as an entry on Steve’s Portraits of Wildflowers blog.

Just over a week ago, I was traveling the same road, but when I came to the same ditch, I discovered a different creature emerging from the water. This handsome alligator had hauled itself up the bank and onto land, obviously intending to cross the road. It seemed to be as surprised as I was, and we sat there for several minutes, eyeing one another.

After ten minutes or so, it seemed as though the staring contest could go on for some time, so I decided to continue down the road. As I slowly drove past the gator, about three feet off the end of his nose, that fearsome creature didn’t snarl, hiss, or charge the car. Instead, without changing expression, he slowly pushed himself away, slid backwards down the bank, and disappeared beneath the water. No doubt he was waiting for the traffic to clear.

 

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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.

 

 

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Click any image for greater size and detail.

The Angelfish

 

Pleased by the vaguely octagonal framing these aquatic plants had provided for themselves — a framing emphasized by some creative cropping — I paused to look more closely at the image.

As so often happens, I’d missed a few things when taking the photo: especially two dragonflies perched on the plants, and a very small, very young alligator cruising through the reflected reeds.

Given to pareidolia — the tendency to recognize familiar images in unfamiliar places, like a man in the moon or a dragon in the clouds — it wasn’t long before I noticed an angelfish cruising through the air, well above more ordinary fish still forced to live in the water. 

Somewhere, an aquarium may be missing a resident.

 

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(If you can’t see the allligator, try enlarging the image.)