I spent most of today toying with the idea of taking our kayak out to the Manatee River, factoring in how I was feeling, what things graced my to-do list, and how many of the next few days were projected to have good weather. Eventually I decided I needed to clear my head and go out for a few hours. An old family friend’s story lingered in my memory, though, as it always does when I contemplate kayaking: several years ago a very large alligator, which was as long as his 11-foot-long kayak, swam next to him as he was on the water. No harm was done, but this story serves as a sobering reality of an alligator’s potential size, which pictures often don’t do justice. However, as a Florida native, my own experience and knowledge of alligator behavior pushed the story and the concern it evoked to the back of my mind.
Putting into the water, I was excited for the opportunity to explore the river whose banks so remind me of “Old Florida,” an untouched tropical wilderness marked by high-reaching palms, thick underbrush and serene choruses of birds. Navigating different side streams, I much enjoyed my time cruising through what seemed to be a different world, a world in which animals experience relief from the ever-growing threats of habitat destruction and human-wildlife conflict. A large venue of vultures decorated a tree, squirrels and lizards rustled about the bank’s grassy undergrowth, and water birds stood wondrously still and well-camouflaged amongst the reeds.
For me, it’s one of a few places in this world that seems so familiar yet leaves so much to be discovered.
I eventually just sat, allowing my kayak to drift in the slow-flowing water. As my body was refreshed in the cool shade of overhanging trees, I sat chatting with God, speaking Biblical truths in the face of my worry and allowing my soul to be refreshed as well. How thankful am I that I serve a God — a good Father — who cares about the things we care about, who knows the depths of our hearts and the joys we gain from this world.
My brief retreat into the wilderness did have to come to an end, though. I paddled back at a consistent pace in hopes of returning in time to prepare for a 7-o’clock Bible study with a former teacher and some high school students.
The boat dock came into sight as I rounded the bend and drifted closer to shore than I realized. It was in that moment that some big animal — unnoticed by me — and I gave each other quite a fright: in an instant the water EXPLODED around me in a big, loud, frantic manner, immediately sending waves of water spraying into my face. My head snapped to the right, from whence the initial burst came, as I tried to make out what was going. Eerily, I saw nothing but brown foaming, circulating water and undulating waves in the spot where the animal had disappeared. Holy crap, I thought, trying to process what was happening. My kayak rocked with the powerful, thrashing swells from the animal’s tail, and I knew I had startled a large alligator. As I felt it move through the water and under my kayak, there was naught I could do but stare at the bulging waves around me, watch water pour into the hull, hold my paddles still in my lap, pray I didn’t tip over, and ride out the surge, hoping that I wouldn’t see the gator resurface on my left.
As soon as the water calmed in the slightest and as soon as I realized my periphery lacked the image of an alligator, I glanced over my left shoulder trying to catch a fuller glimpse of the animal. I didn’t see it, but I didn’t need to after what had just happened. Sparing time for one more double-take, I started beelining towards the dock. After only a few strokes, I slowed my pace, my hands shaking in disbelief of what had just happened. Adrenaline coursed though my body, having prepared me for fight or flight, but neither were necessary. The alligator wasn’t after me. It wasn’t chasing me. It was trying to get out of the situation just like I was. Though the ordeal took less than ten seconds, I will admit that there are only a few other notable times in which I have felt as vulnerable and helpless as I did in those seconds.
It was the inability to do anything for that brief moment that invoked within me the greatest fear. Regaining my composure, I paddled up to the dock, tossing my waterlogged camera onto dry land, dragging the kayak up the ramp, and doubling-over in awe of what had just happened. Though my body instinctively shook, it wasn’t long before I was smiling at the insanity and wildness of what took place in the water just a few hundred meters away.
The alligator and I startled each other probably the same amount. Reflecting on the whole thing, it’s obvious that the alligator wasn’t out to attack me by any means, and I would never say that it was. It was trying to get to a safer place, and I just happened to find myself between the animal and its safety, which is likely why I had that encounter at all. I would guarantee that there were plenty of gators (that I didn’t see, by the way) around during the two hours I was on the water, but I just happened to accidentally come between this one and its safe place.
My dad was sure to bring to my attention, however, that it is alligator mating season. Mating takes place in early April, and nesting occurs from May to June. During this period, as occurs often in the animal kingdom, alligators may experience heightened levels of aggression. It’s a good reminder to carry with me in the back of my mind, especially if I go back out in the next few days. There is also a reality, though, that I was out on the water for about two hours and never once saw an alligator. And honestly, if I hadn’t been so close to shore and startled that alligator, I likely wouldn’t have known it was there either.
This alligator's instinct was to flee, as is the initial reaction of many surprised animals. Most of the time when people become involved it’s because they stand in the path leading to the animal’s safety. When encountering wild animals, make sure they have an available escape route, for their sake and yours.
One of the things I took for granted before moving from the Sunshine State is the great amount of wildlife that can be encountered so closely to where people are localized. I love returning to my “homeland” because I become nostalgic and because a heightened appreciation constantly grows for the place I consider home. While my deep love for Florida wildlife may slightly bias my opinion, I think that Florida is one of the coolest states for viewing wildlife, as animals are fairly active year-round.
Today I went to the Circle B Bar Reserve in south Lakeland, Florida for the first time. This nature reserve is one of many in Polk County, and its recent claim-to-fame was thanks to a viral video of a massive gator, nicknamed “Mr. Humpback” by frequent park-goers, walking across one of the trails. I had vague hopes of catching a glimpse of this seemingly-prehistoric beauty, but I figured the odds were small, as the ranch is composed of 1,267 acres. However, I also knew that, being in central Florida, the odds of seeing an alligator were high, especially down the trail aptly named Alligator Alley.
What I didn’t expect when I got to Circle B was the overwhelming natural beauty I encountered at every turn of every trail. I was so in awe at the wild serenity that surrounded me — all I could do was take pictures and soak it all in. Wildlife for viewing was not sparse, either. As soon as I stepped onto the trail I was met by all sorts of bustling animals, including great egrets and great blue herons. I soon saw osprey flying high above the treetops and out over the lake in what seemed to be a hunt for food, bald eagles tearing through the blue sky screeching and fishing, and other birds basking in the setting evening sun. After doing research and looking-up different animals, I’ve composed a list of those observed on my hike: great egrets, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, bald eagles, osprey, alligators (I saw 5!!), squirrels, bob head quail, white ibis, red bellied woodpeckers, ducks, turtles, and others that I was unable to identify.
Another thing that struck me unique about this nature reserve was the way that it remained seemingly untouched by man, serving as one of the rare truly wild places left in the world. For example, I was walking along the trail when, further out in the marsh, I heard a splash and a deep bellow. Spinning around to find the source of the sound, my eyes landed on an alligator shaking its head in the water, gobbling up a quick snack or meal. In all my time spent alligator-watching growing up, that was the closest I’d come to watching an alligator catch prey in the wild. In yet another part of the trail I stood still, allowing myself to be engulfed in the sounds of the different birds and animals — it was one of the coolest, most natural experiences I’ve been able to witness.
As a Lakeland native, I can assuredly say that my short time spent at Circle B was some of the most fruitful time I’ve spent on a nature reserve. Wildlife was present in all different forms, and the scenery was simply stunning from every angle. If you ever get the opportunity, I urge you to give Circle B Bar Ranch a chance — it’s free to the public, easily accessible, and worth every minute spent there.
While I know that I’ve recently been posting about my relationship with the Lord and the things He’s done in my life, I definitely still have a keen interest in animals, nature, and conservation. As I was looking through a brainstormed list of potential blog posts, I ran across one that I loved the idea of sharing! Though the event happened back in 2015, I still remember it like it was yesterday, and I’ve always wanted to write it down. I guess there’s no time like the present!
On May 2nd, 2015, I volunteered at a 5K race called Walk to Cure Arthritis (https://www.arthritis.org/get-involved/walk-to-cure-arthritis/), which was hosted through the Arthritis Foundation. The race was located at the White Water Center, which is a really neat place to hang out for outdoorsy people like myself. My responsibilities included helping set up tents and tables, filling cups and coolers with water, taping the race path. We started setup early in the morning and were there to watch the sun gradually rise over the treetops, revealing more of its rays every few minutes.
Knowing a fairly good amount about animals, it crossed my mind that animals — especially reptiles — enjoy coming out of the woods with the sun. It didn’t occur to me, though, that I’d see anything other than a few lizards, birds, and maybe a rabbit or two. I was later proven wrong.
I don’t remember exactly what time we sent the first flight of runners on their way, but it was sometime around 9:30 I believe. I was stationed at a water cooler where I was tasked with handing out water to those who needed it. A while after the first group was sent off, the group of walkers started their walk. Not long afterwards, as we continued to hand out water, I started hearing a lot of commotion about something on the path. At that moment I tuned my ears to hear more about what they were saying as the word “snake” became more frequently mentioned.
I then distinctly remember hearing one woman say, “There’s a big ole snake over there in the middle of the pathway.” My heart jumped and I put the cup of water I was holding back on the table. Trotting down the gravel path, I looked for either a congregating group of people or the snake they would be staring at. Then I saw a break in the steady flow of people that resembled a rock splitting the path of a stream. Right in the middle was a fairly decent sized snake that I presumed to be a black rat snake: it was the coloration, roundness, and length of the creature that, in combination, led me to believe this.
As even more people began realizing what was there in the pathway, I quickly became alarmed for the snake’s safety. Not wanting it to be trampled, killed, or harassed, I made the decision to catch and relocate the creature. There was only one problem: I’d never caught a snake before, let alone a wild one. Granted, I’d handled different snakes often, including my pet ball python, an assortment of snakes that other people had caught, or ones handled by professionals, but there’s just something different about reaching down at one that could easily — and quickly — bite you.
I shoved all of this aside in my mind, however, and went for it. I figured I knew enough from both observation and common sense that would allow me to safely catch the snake. First reaching for its tail, I tried to gently gesture the snake over towards the brush. He wasn’t having any of it, though, and continued to realign himself so as to face the gravel path. In a few quick footing adjustments I found myself behind the snake, reaching for the back of its head with my right hand. I grasped its neck, but not close enough to the back of its head: in a lightning-fast strike he turned around and bit my hand. Refusing to be deterred, I squeezed my hand a little tighter and slid my hand up closer to its head so as to secure my grip on the writhing snake.
Shocked I stood up straight, snake in hands, people staring. I was smiling bigger than ever; I had just caught my first wild snake! Absolutely elated, I went over to someone and asked them to take my picture (seen below). After showing him off a little bit, I decided that it was about time for me to let him go. I found a pretty secluded brush area and let him go.
I learned something pretty cool during this whole fiasco: no matter how prepared I feel to handle a wild animal, I must never feel too comfortable in any given situation. This lesson was important to me because handling animals is something I hope to do long term; it was a humbling reminder that, though we can be prepared and knowledgable about handling animals, we must always be on our toes. It reminds me of a quote from author Mark Ross: “Around wildlife, ignorance is no excuse,” from his book Dangerous Beauty.
I hope to carry this lesson with me throughout the rest of my life, and I’m super excited to share the story of this encounter with all of you!
Happy World Wildlife Day! For those of you who may not know, today’s theme is Big Cats. The cats that are often associated with this category include lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, and pumas, among many others. These remarkable predators suffer from various threats that endanger their lives and populations. A majority of these threats are human-induced, such as poaching and illegal trade of parts, human-wildlife conflict, and loss of habitat due to deforestation and human expansion.
From the World Wildlife Fund’s website I learned the conservation statuses of some of these animals (1):
Jaguar - Panthera onca - Near Threatened
Snow Leopard - Panthera uncia - Vulnerable
Tiger - Panthera tigris - Endangered
Amur Leopard - Panthera pardus orientalis - Critically Endangered
I further discovered the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s global system for recognizing the conservation status of species (2):
Least Concern (LC)
Near Threatened (NT)
Critically Endangered (CR)
Extinct in the Wild (EW)
As is evident, the conservation status is varied across the board. Ideally, however, all of these creatures would be of Least Concern. So what can be done to help?
Education is the most efficient way to spread the message about the need for wildlife conservation for creatures all across the globe. Researching different trends and threats to animals will allow the education and knowledge necessary to then share the message with others. Areas of importance include the impact that the extinction of an animal would have on its surrounding ecosystem, the role the animal currently plays in its ecosystem, and the ways that the animal’s existence impacts our daily lives. Getting people to care about threatened animals will ultimately encourage their desire to support conservation efforts worldwide.
Today organizations, parks, businesses and universities joined in celebration of Charlotte’s Arts and Science Council (ASC) Connect with Culture Day, an annual event held to promote the intertwine of art, science and history throughout the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. On this day, visitors and patrons get free admission to local experiences, such as salsa lessons, historic tours, and pop-up performances by Opera Carolina (1). It was on this day that I happened to be scheduled for a volunteer docent shift at the Carolina Raptor Center, which was also offering free admission to the public. According to a fellow volunteer, last year 950 patrons visited the Raptor Center, and we would expect no fewer than 1000 visitors this year. Excited to help share interesting facts and amazing messages of conservation, I took my place at the Owl Information Station. Here I spent my two-hour shift educating the public about owl anatomical structure and conservation tips, using wings and talons as talking-points.
A few minutes into the first hour my boss approached me, asking if I could stay late for a “special project” she had for me. Assuring her that I would be able to stay later, she explained that there would be a raven painting taking place at one o’clock, and that I would be assisting in speaking to the audience while the raven painted. Ecstatic, I started running-through the corvid information I had learned just a few weeks earlier. Additionally, I was excited for the opportunity to see the raven paint, as I had yet to experience it yet.
Ravens are members of the family Corvidae, which is composed of crows (this includes ravens, though there is a difference between the two species), jays and magpies, among other groups. It is thought that corvids originated in Australia and now populate every continent except Antarctica. Believed to be the smartest birds, the intelligence of corvids has been ranked by scientists as comparable to that of a gorilla or chimp. The birds are known to have developed great observation skills and foraging tactics. For example, if a corvid has a nut that is difficult to crack open, it will drop it at an intersection while the stoplight is red. After the cars have passed through a green light and the signal has again turned red, the corvid will return to retrieve the now-open nut. This method is just one example of the outstanding intelligence of corvids.
Trainers at the Raptor Center have taught both a raven and a vulture to paint, but in different ways. With birds, a trainer can only enhance the actions that a bird would normally do in the wild. Pertaining to painting, the raven specifically has been taught to use a paint brush as a tool, in a similar way that it would in the wild. If a raven were to come across a colony of ants that lived in a log’s crevasse just beyond the raven’s reach, the bird could use a stick as a tool with which it would scoop ants from the log. In the same way, the raven takes the paintbrush in its mouth, makes a stroke on the canvas, and turns to its trainer for the positive reinforcement accompanied by a treat.
In addition to teaching the raven to paint, trainers have also taught her to recycle, enhancing the raven’s natural tendency to cache food. In the wild, ravens will often store berries, nuts and other food items, hiding it from other predators and saving it for the winter season. Using their knowledge of this, trainers began teaching the raven to recycle items such as soda cans, cardboard and Styrofoam. This the raven learned in only two ten minute sessions.
Thankful for the opportunity to educate during this spectacular performance, I shared aforementioned facts about ravens and the family Corvidae. The training of these birds and other animals is essential to promoting the message of conservation, demonstrating the unique ways in which each contribute to the ecosystem. The Carolina Raptor Center is an amazing organization, and I am thrilled to be a part of it.
1 Thess. 2:2
"...but with the help of our God we dared to tell His gospel in the face of strong opposition."