More Eyewitnesses Including My Own!

I’ve finally seen a North Alabama Gator!

Unfortunately not in the wild.  But nevertheless, here is PHOTOGRAPHIC PROOF of a North Alabama Gator!

Finally, a North Alabama Gator

Finally, a North Alabama Gator

On Labor Day I took the family to a local safari park… you know the kind, where you drive through and look at free range animals in their, well not NATIVE environment but at least free range.  The exception to the free range rule was the Alligators.  As the only predators in the park, the gators were all kept behind fences and away from the other animals.

The picture above is one I snapped as we drove past.  This particular gator is, I guess, about 6 feet.  Nice and fat and I’m sure does just fine during the winter months. (In fact, I know he does since I asked.  They only collect the smaller gators and their one caiman.  And they had one very small crocodile as well.  But they don’t do anything special with the big gators to keep them healthy over the winter.  Once it gets cold, they stop feeding them, and when the weather warms up and the gators get active they return to feeding.

Better yet, they’ve successful BRED these gators.  They had a two year old in a tank inside the “Planet Reptile” exhibit.  This wonderful park is Harmony Park, and it is my new favorite family fun place in North Alabama.  For $6 a person, you get up close and personal with LOTS of animals.  And I do mean close!

An Emu sticks its head in the car

An Emu sticks its head in the car

So I highly recommend that you take your kids, your date, or whatever to the park.  Click on the link for directions and hours, but the park is closed November to March.

My daughter finds someone slower but not uglier than her father!

My daughter finds someone slower but not uglier than her father!

But I also got another comment about seeing a gator in the wild here in North Alabama.  This one really excites me because its late in the season AND in an area I know.  Here’s the comment form Charlotte.

Just last night around 9pm, we were at the boat launch on Sharp Ford Road in Morgan County and spotted a 5 foot alligator. It was under the bridge appearing to be trying to hide until we shined the light on it. We then watched it as it swam around like we were not even there with the light shining directly on it. There are here. We were considering gigging some frogs but that quickly changed our minds.

– Charolette, September 7th, 2009

Now I know where the boat launch on Sharp Ford Road is.  Clearly they were there at night, which I’ve been told is the easiest time to find a gator because their eyes reflect light so well.  So I continue to get eyewitness reports of gators here in North Alabama.  Here is a map of where the boat ramp is.  It’s the bright white square just north of the road and east of the water.   I’ve actually put the boat in close to there.

So I’m still not sure if I’ll ever see a wild North Alabama Gator, and with my current run in a play, my weekends are sorta full. till the end of September.  So it is unlikely that I’ll make it this season unless September remains unseasonably warm.  But gator hunting 2010 sure looks promising.  And I’ll leave you with some more photos of gators from Harmony Park.

A "little" gator

A "little" gator

There are two gators in there, hard to see in the picture.

There are two gators in there, hard to see in the picture.

Photographic Proof

I now have photographic proof alligators in North Alabama. Unfortunately the photo isn’t mine.

That is a photograph sent to me by a commenter on this site, taken very near to my first kayak trip on Wheeler Wildlife Refuge. Here is the comment he left me:

“Runwolf, If you really want to see a pic of a North Alabama gator, I have a couple that my wife and I took of about 10 footer on June 25 of this year. I’ll gladly send them to you if you leave me your e-mail address.”

I wasted no time emailing Mr. King asking for the location and a copy of the photo. He sent me the above picture, credited to his wife. He also gave me permission to use the photo here. He was, however, not interested in giving me the location.

I can understand this. The Kings are nature photographers. And they jealously guard there locations like fishermen. I get that. So I asked him again, in a more general way, for information. Here is his response:

“Mike, I don’t normally give out specific locale info but you seem like a cool guy with a lot of enthusiasm. You can’t be too careful these days. They are magnificent creatures and I just want to be sure they are not harmed in any way. I hope you understand. I enjoyed reading your blog. Sounds like you have been in the right spots. I think some days they are probably more visible than on other days. I have definitely heard from reliable sources that the east side of Limestone Bay has a population of gators. Just keep looking. The two gators we have found personally have been a place this blog owner has redacted. One was in the creek that flows through there. The one we found a few days ago was actually swimming in that tupelo tree stand. We have photographed a lot of cottonmouths from there too, so keep an eye out for them. Just please don’t kill any. Did I mention we are snake lovers? LOL.”

Now my first trip via canoe into the Refuge was in Limestone Bay. I was in the Northwest, so I will be going east next time I visit. This is where I think I saw a year old gator but can’t prove it.

As for the place I’m not telling you about until I get a picture there, I was in that stand of trees not two days after the Kings took their picture! Two days! I very well could have been within hundreds of yards of that very gator!

***UPDATE***  I was NOT there two days after the photo.  I was there four days BEFORE the photo.  My mistake.  Two days after I was dealing with a different kind of wildlife in Tell City, Indiana.  I’ve been working on a post about that and will have it up sometime this year.  But it has very little to do with Alligators.  ***END UPDATE***

Mr. King estimates that gator at ten feet. I have a very good idea of exactly what ten feet looks like. It is how long my new kayak is. While clearly not a monster gator, it is nothing to mock. Let me show you what a ten foot gator looks like.

That’s my son sitting in my ten foot kayak on the floor of Gander Mountain just before we bought the kayak. I think it provides a nice image of what a ten foot gator looks like.

I have no doubt that the camera used by the Kings is far superior to my own camera. I keep my gear light, small and waterproof. I use a small Fujifilm FinePix Z33WP waterproof camera with a 3x optical zoom. (Mine’s that cool green color) At full zoom it is the equivalent of a 105mm lens on a 35mm camera. I suspect that I may have to get a bit closer to get a similar shot.

And gators aren’t just willing to wait around for their picture to be taken. Mr. King didn’t mention how they arrived at their spot but I suspect they hiked. As I am a paddler, I suspect my boat may be making my efforts harder. I’m sending vibrations through the water at speeds greater than sound warning gators of my presence long before I arrive.

In fact, this same gator may have heard me, submerged and been within a dozen feet of me and I wouldn’t have known it. And gators can remain submerged for a long time. 10-15 minutes is easy. 2 hours is possible.

So patience, Runwolf. Patience. Go slower, stay longer. Plan better. Your goal is out there.

And to Mr. King, I promise to leave your precious snakes alone. As long as they stay out of my boat. Then, all bets are off.

And thanks for the picture. Now to get one of my own.

Gator Hunting In North Alabama

The Big Foot Hoaxers at the nationally televised press conference

The Big Foot Hoaxers at the nationally televised press conference

It’s a little embarassing to admit this in public places, but since the big flap over Big Foot last August, I’ve been somewhat interested in the idea of cryptozoology.  For those of you who missed the flap, a couple of goobers from Georgia got swirled up in hoaxing the finding of a big foot body.  Their press conference announcing the find ran on most of the cable news networks and was quickly proven to be a hoax.

I’ve always been facinated by mystery animals, and in 2001 when I took a trip to Europe with friends I insisted, to the point of giving up the “right” to pick any other destination or activity, that we go to Inverness just so I could take a ride on Loch Ness and look for Nessie.  I got that trip, and spending time in Inverness is still one of my favorite memories, right up there with my wedding, the arrival of my son and the birth of my daughter.

Scotlands famous Loch Ness

Scotland's famous Loch Ness

Other than that fruitless cruise on Loch Ness, I’ve never done any “searching” for any type of weird animal.  In 1994 I did do a search for, and eventual found, a nesting pair of Bald Eagles near Winchester Tennessee.  That was more an accident than a mission, I saw a bald eagle land on a telephone on my way to work at the newspaper in that small community.  I was told I must be mistaken, since there were no bald eagles in that area.  I saw it again the next day, and managed a fuzzy picture of it.  Next thing I knew biologists from the University of Tennessee wanted to know more and they found the nest.

Since then, my interest in animals has been as an observer.  I’m not the field research type of guy, prefering to watch animals from the comfort of my sofa.  But if you’ve read my blog, you know I like to paddle about in a canoe so I’ve recently been up close to wildlife more than ever before in my life.

A snake sunning on a log I found on one of my trips.

A snake sunning on a log I found on one of my trips.

I’ve seen some weird things, such as muskrats diving in deep pools and blue herons skimming the water in front of my boat.  I’ve tipped over in snake infested waters and have been scared out of my wits by large fish jumping next to the canoe.  I’ve developed a healthy respect for wildlife and the world we share with it.

In the 4 years I’ve been paddling, I’ve never gone looking for anything.  Well, occasionally a snake or two, but I’ve been focused entirely on the trip and not the sights.  But something has been brewing in the back of my mind and I finally acted on it.

There have been rumors of alligators living successfully in North Alabama for a while.  Most biologists will tell you that it isn’t possible for Alligators to survive our occassionally harsh winters and lack of suitable habitat.  Yet sightings continue, including a recently captured gator in DeKalb County this year and a gator found in a pond in Morgan County last year.

Ultimately it was a post to Loren Coleman’s blog, Cryptomundo, that prompted me to action.  Coleman is one of the premier cryptozoologists, and he writes on all things weird and wonderful.  He posted about out of place gators found around North America, and it included the following:

On Friday, June 5, 2009, The DeKalb County Animal Adoption Center in Alabama got quite a surprise when someone dropped off an alligator (above). Director Leslie Johnson told the local paper it’s the first exotic animal the center has received.

“A man brought it in the back of his truck,” Johnson said. “He said he found it on U.S. 11, and that’s all we know.”

Johnson said she is unsure where the 2-foot gator came from. Little River Superintendent John Bundy said it is unlikely the gator is from the area. State Lake Supervisor Jack Turner said there are gators native to central and South Alabama but not North Alabama.

“It’s a bit too far north and a bit too high in altitude for alligators in North Alabama,” Turner said. Turner said the reports of alligators in North Alabama are sporadic and there is no reason for him to believe there is a population of the reptiles in the area. Lt. Michael Casalini with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said if alligators were breeding in DeKalb County, there would be more sightings.

–Loren Coleman, Cryptomundo

Is State Lake Supervisor Jack Turner correct?  Perhaps, but there are plenty of sightings in Madison and Morgan county indicating that there may be a breeding population there.  And there is at least one KNOWN alligator living wild in North Alabama in Madison County.

“Stumpy” lives on Redstone Arsenal, the area’s primary employer.  Stumpy crawls out onto one of the test ranges at the army base and gets his picture taken now and again.  He’s a big fellow, and missing part of his tail, hence the name.  If you work on post, you’ll see his picture in the Redstone Rocket now and again.

So if Stumpy is real, why can’t these other sightings be real?  Where would a breeding population of Alligators live in North Alabama?

If the rumors are true, the perfect place exists between Huntsville and Decatur, in the Wheeler Federal Wildlife Refuge.  If you visit there page, you won’t find alligators listed among the regular inhabitants, but buried on the FAQ’s page is this little tidbit:

Although seldom seen, American alligators do inhabit the Refuge. In the 1970’s, the alligator population had been reduced drastically, so 50 alligators were released here in an effort to help restore the species which at that time was federally listed as threatened. An estimated 40-50 alligators currently inhabit Wheeler NWR and at least one active nest was located during the summer of 2001.

—Wheeler Federal Wildlife Refuge website

My First Trip Gator Hunting in Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

My First Trip Gator Hunting in Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

An active nest in 2001?  Now since 1980, we’ve had several harsh winters.  And yet the population has stayed stable?  I’m not sure I buy this.  In fact, I believe, with nothing to back me up, that the population is larger than this and that they are breeding successfully.  Our summers are warm enough, our winters are typically mild enough and the American Alligator can survive up to two years without food, and can go dormant for long periods of time without moving, a sort of hibernation.

If you see this rig running around North Alabama, it isn't a clown car.  That's me looking for gators!

If you see this rig running around North Alabama, it isn't a clown car. That's me looking for gators!

Now I’m not suggesting that the refuge is teeming with alligators, but I do think the population is growing and spreading.  And besides, no one around here believes the alligator stories.  Everyone looks at me like I’m nuts when I mention the possibility of seeing a alligator from my canoe in North Alabama.

Well this is my birth month, and the presents came a little early.  I got a new paddle and a waterproof digital camera.  I’ve got a GPS system, thanks to my nifty iPhone, and it all seems to have come together.  I could go look for these gators on my own, take a picture, record the GPS data and possibly find a nest.  Or two.  Or three.  Prove that the Gators are growing.

So this past Sunday I started the project.  I went out to Arrowhead Landing, put my canoe in the water, grabbed my new paddle, and headed out in search of alligator.  But I made a lot of mistakes, most of them before I ever put the canoe in the water.  So while I had a wonderful paddle, I didn’t turn up any alligators at all.  Well, one possibility but that’s another story.

Stay tuned for an update on the first trip out and about on Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.