August 19, 2015. I hear through the ornithological grapevine that a large number of wading birds, including wood storks and even a roseate spoonbill, are foraging in the drying sloughs on the east side of the US 601 causeway. When I get there this Wednesday morning, however, I find not a single bird. I decide to check out the swales that parallel the highway at “Little Buckhead” (that section of neck within Bates Old River on the east side of 601). I arrive first at Long Lake and find it nearly dry and devoid of wading birds except for a pair of green herons, which hardly qualify. The next lake over is Buttonbush which, like Long Lake, is mostly dry except for a few, shallow, isolated pools of water covered with green film. I see a single great blue heron and three fully-grown juvenile wood ducks loafing in the shallow water. The ducks appear to be all males, based on a faint trace of white “chinstrap.”
On the ridge between the two lakes I flush a doe and a small fawn that runs after her. The 2015 deer season started four days ago. Does, however, get a free pass until October 1. Nearby, a black sow with three young piglets runs off at my approach and a group of three shoats tags along with them. Scattered on the ground in the swales are pieces of green cypress cones the squirrels have been chewing on.
The next swale over from Buttonbush Lake contains a small, pea-green water hole, and I spot a slight movement along its edge – in the form of a seven-foot alligator, half on land and half in water. Then I see a brood of gator hatchlings around her, nineteen in all, measuring fourteen to sixteen inches in length. The adult gator sees me and moves into the middle of the hole and disappears to the bottom while her charges stay put at water’s edge. I move slightly to get a better look and the hatchlings scurry noisily for cover into deeper water. They soon return, however, to the edge of the pool and some crawl out to bask on land. I’m no doubt the first human being the little gators, probably no more than two months old, have ever seen.
By now a great egret with a large sunfish in its mouth has showed up along the edge of the water hole. It finally chokes the big fish down and starts looking for additional victims. The egret moves into the shallows a few inches deep. No doubt it has noted the little gators less than fifty feet away, any one of which would make a substantial meal. The egret, however, has no idea that momma gator is lurking on the bottom of the pool between it and the hatchlings. When they’re after food, big gators can move explosively out of water to secure their hapless victims. And mother gators are very protective of their young. I’m sitting at the base of a tree, motionless, waiting to see if a wildlife drama will unfold. After thirty minutes the egret, which has hardly moved the whole time, makes a short flight to another nearby water hole. I wait another twenty minutes, in vain, to see if the big gator re-surfaces. The little hatchlings, looking like large lizards, are still basking at the pool’s edge when I leave.
Alligators and swamps are synonymous in the public’s mind. First-time visitors are often disappointed when told their chances of seeing one in Congaree is slim. Gators prefer more marshy habitats with open water rather than Congaree’s heavily forested wetlands. Occasionally, to the delight of visitors, one will show up in Weston or Wise Lake, and spend a few weeks or part of the summer feeding on gars, carp, frogs, and turtles.
The status of the gator at Congaree starting changing when the park began acquiring parcels in the east end along the Wateree River, Bates Old River, and just to the west of the 601 causeway. These tracts have the more open-water habitats preferred by gators. The big saurians are still shy and reclusive in the east end, but they can be found, especially by someone with a canoe or kayak. There are big ones here too, more than twelve feet long (and weighing more than 500 pounds) or more.
Like many wildlife species, gators are a good deal more abundant now than fifty years ago when seeing one this far inland was a treat. Unlike some species, gators didn’t suffer so much from habitat loss as from direct persecution by poachers and shooters.