I cannot walk through nature and not be amazed, not spend equal time in pure presence and deciphering animal messages. Today was no exception and the message was loud but not so clear.
While it is no secret that I love to wander, and since wandering to the airport and across the pond is not an option right now, local wandering is my jam. Thirty minutes from my house through mostly bucolic farmland and secret lakes lies a magical place called The Orlando Wetlands Park. According to their website, it is “a man-made wetland designed to provide advanced treatment for reclaimed water from the City of Orlando and other local cities.” But to me and nothing short of 10 million nature photographers and birders, it’s a Florida wildlife paradise.
I do not have enough mental bandwidth to name all the species of animals, or even just the birds, which is what makes it so enticing and magical. Because it is open year round we – my bird and photog brethren – get to witness not only the splendor of native birds, but also a stunning collection of migratory birds. I’m not sure when I got old and became one of those bird people, but I kinda wish it had happened sooner.
But the enchantment doesn’t end with the birds. There are alligators – so many alligators, snakes, bugs, furry things like bears, raccoons, bobcats and deer and lots of interesting plants. To be honest, I haven’t caught too many furry things scurrying about, two raccoons in a palm tree and an otter too far away to play with, but I have had plenty of close encounters with alligators. And I mean that in the most magnificent way possible.
My MO is to notice, to observe and delight in nature. I will, on occasion look something up to verify what I believe I have observed. But mostly I like the animals to tell me the story. It’s how I fell in love with vultures. They’re great story tellers.
Alligators, those giant goofy lizards that occupy more square footage in Florida than people (I made that up, but it feels true), are not the scary dinosaurs they are made out to be. Like their mini-me’s, they would rather avoid humans altogether. I have learned that if I approach one slowly, on purpose or distractedly, they will sink like a stone in slow motion, eyes dipping below the surface of the water last, lest I decide to lunge at one for a hug. They’re not huggers.
I have learned through a little education and a lot of common sense not to play chicken with one. If there is one across my path and it refuses to move because it just found its perfect sunny spot, I will retreat. Like turn around. And maybe look back a time or two. So far none have chased me, hissed at me, tried to bite me or smiled. That’s a crocodile anyway, I think.
They have this hollow burping type sound they make, like a giant bullfrog. It seems to be how they communicate. A kind of Marco Polo. It can be eerie to hear when I’m walking alone in the misty moments before sunrise, but otherwise they’re just sort of letting me know where they are lest I decide to break the rules and slip into the water.
This morning as I was wandering alone down a path I’ve only ever trod once before, I was enjoying the cool air and bird songs. I took deep breaths and said thank you, must have been a thousand times. There was no one where I was. I couldn’t even see another human, only birds and a few gator eyes and noses.
And then I heard it. A growl. It was coming from the forest side of the wide path I was walking. I stopped. A big fearless (okay, reckless) part of me wanted to investigate further, poke my head into the brush and have a look see. But then there was another growl, so my nervous system took the reins and directed my body to turn around and head back. Quickly.
Instinct took over, but it wasn’t necessary. What I mean is, there was no real threat. A bobcat or even panther would not likely growl – although it sounded a lot like a lion – and their growls wouldn’t be so deep. A bear maybe? I suppose if I was getting too close to a food source or babies any one of those cute furries could be responsible for the growl. I kept going.
The growls stopped, but I continued to turn around. My imagination is not my best friend in these situations. A panther leapt on my back knocking me over, my phone flying out of my hand. The bear swiped at my head rendering me unconscious as he dragged my limp body into the woods. It goes something like that. Only it didn’t, of course.
Then I heard it again. There was nothing behind me and it didn’t sound like it was coming from the woods. There it was again. It was coming from the water, like
right there in the overgrowth at the shoreline. A few feet away. I drifted to the other side of the road like that had been my plan all along and picked up my pace. But it continued to follow me. Low, deep growls right next to me with each step. I took out my phone, I wanted to record this chilling sound, but my imagination took me to a poorly acted film in which the phone is found and this was the last video or recording so I hesitated.
And yet, I forged ahead, bravely pressing the record button on the video and there, right there, just a few yards from the shore was a dramatic bull gator in his mating form, head held high with the underside of his soft and vulnerable jaw exposed and his tail proudly flipped up. Growling. I caught him on video in all his horny splendor, but when he caught sight of me, he stopped. He deflated a little, his head came down so he could be sure I wasn’t a threat and he just stopped singing. I apologized for interrupting him.
And I thanked him for the show and giddily moved on. A few more paces and there the growling was again. Not him this time, but a whole chorus. Again, it seemed as if I was being followed along the shore, but really, I think there were just that many gators looking for their mates.
Lucky for me I’m not their type.