I was well past my morning “awaking beast” stage and had three cups of coffee in me before I was finally alert enough to look outside to check the weather. It was awesome…a beautiful fall day, with cool breezes, lots of sunshine, and temperatures predicted to reach the low eighties. Just another amazing day in paradise.
Since my wife Ann and I had nothing planned for the day, and nothing needed our immediate attention, we decided an awesome day like this one was just perfect for “stopping to smell the roses”. A day to just take off and enjoy the sights and sounds of paradise…and of course the smells too.
As we headed out to our vehicle, we still had not decided where we wanted to spend the day. We were tossing around the names of places to visit when Ann mentioned Sanibel Island. Now, Sanibel is one of our favorite places and especially the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which is located on the Island. Since we had not been there in quite some time, it was a “no brainer” as to where we were going to wind up, and in no time, we were headed toward Sanibel.
Since it was “that time of year” when migrating snowbirds flocked down from the northern states, we expected to encounter heavier than normal traffic, and northern drivers that both tried your patience, and shortened the life of your vehicles brake pads. However, we were surprised to find light traffic and sensible drivers on the road…what a unique thing for this time of the year. Not only did it make for a pleasant trip, but also our normal travel time was cut in half. When we arrived at the entrance to the Wildlife Refuge, instead of mumbling and groaning about all the idiots that should not have a driver’s license, we were reminiscing about the great time we had on our last visit.
As was our custom, we spent some time chatting with the attendant at the entry gate. They are always interesting to talk with and can usually tell you if there is anything unique to see that day. The only comment they had for this visit was “There’s a ton of birds out there today”. So we headed in with high expectations of having a great day.
In no time at all, we started seeing wildlife, a lot of wildlife, from many different species.
Since we were very familiar with the Refuge, we knew there were areas that made it possible to get “up close and personal” with the critters. For a photographer, that was like the ultimate experience and this trip was certainly no exception…photo ops were everywhere. It was awesome.
We came upon some Wood Stork taking a brief respite from dining on the local seafood. They always amaze me. They have this classy looking body with this weird head stuck on top. It is as if someone spent all their talent designing the body and ran out of ideas when it came to the head.
We also saw an Anhinga sitting on a dead limb drying its feathers, a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron, and many Snowy Egrets, all of which appeared to be busy trying to catch their lunch.
I was in hog heaven and so excited that Ann was having a hard time keeping me grounded so I would not drive off the road every time I saw something new. She finally succeeded in getting me to focus on my driving when all of a sudden she yelled out “Oh my God, look at that…the pink…up ahead!” It took a quick jerk of the wheel to get our vehicle back on the road before I got a chance to look at where she was pointing. It was wildflowers, no, no, it was something really, really pink…SPOONBILLS, it was Roseate Spoonbills. What an awesome sight.
Just as we rounded a curve in the road, we encounter a small raccoon. Once I had parked on the side of the road and as I moved in to get a better shot I suddenly realized I was being warned not to come any closer…I mean the look I was getting from the raccoon said it all…“I double dog dare you to take another step.”
While I was deciding whether to risk another step or not, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and looked over to see what appeared to be a friendlier target for my camera. After capturing a few images, I was amazed when the raccoon scampered up a nearby strangler fig tree. When it was around twenty feet in the air, it settled back to dine on the ripe fruit.
After spending some time with the bandits…er, a …raccoons, we figured that was probably going to be the highlight of our trip but little did we know what was around the next bend.
We saw a couple of people standing by the side of the road eyeing some critter. That was always a good sign that something interesting is afoot. Once we had parked our vehicle and made our way over to the people, they pointed to what they were describing as an alligator.
Now, living in Florida as long as Ann and I have, we are very aware as to what an alligator looks like, and what the people were pointing at was no alligator…trust me. I had heard tales about the creature in front of me, but had never seen her in person. So, this was the mysterious lady known locally as “Wilma”.
And what a Croc she was, an American Crocodile, an endangered species. Wilma was indeed awesome and all of her eleven-foot body was just a short distance away from where we were standing. What a magnificent creature. She was looking directly at me, which sent a shiver up my spine. She appeared to be smiling and when I stared directly into her eye, I felt as though she was telling me “You know, I could eat you any time I wanted to and you wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it.” She didn’t though, she just let me take my pictures and enjoy the moment.
There was no doubt she was in control and clearly assessing the threat level I posed. In the end, I am guessing Wilma decided the big guy with the big camera was no big threat because she drifted off to the Land of Nod. Even though she appeared to be asleep, one could still sense her presence and you just knew she was keenly aware of everything that was going on around her.
We were in awe of our visit with Wilma, but you can only watch a sleeping crocodile for a certain length of time before you start nodding off yourself. Reluctantly, we decided to move on even though we knew nothing else we saw that day would even come close to topping this experience.
As we neared the Wildlife Refuge exit, once again, we saw some people standing on the side of the road, and once again, we stopped our vehicle and wandered over to see what the center of attention was. This time it was indeed an alligator. Although I had been impressed with American Alligators in the past, it was no longer the same…it was not Wilma.
We only met Wilma that one lucky time. She was awesome, she was huge, she was scary, but yet beautiful in a strange way. She had managed to survive all those years on her own…a member of an endangered species, an American Crocodile.
I will never forget the way she appeared to be smiling. It was almost friendly even though you knew she could have you for dinner any time she wanted. However, she never made any threatening moves. She just let me take my pictures and managed to find a place in my book of wonderful memories.
On January 26th, 2010, Wilma was found lying peacefully on the bank of a river. She had passed away. Experts believe her death resulted from a combination of an unusually long winter cold spell and her age. She was estimated to be between forty and sixty years of age.
In May of 2010, employees of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) relocated a female American Crocodile to the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. She had been found on private property in Charlotte County. It was almost eerie in my mind that this would happen so near to Wilma’s passing. I mean this is an endangered species and I imagine it is not every day that the FWC opts to relocate one.
I do not know if the new arrival has been given a name, but Wilma will always be top dog in my book.
Another great adventure comes to an end. It doesn’t get any better than this…well, unless you’re talking about tripping over the world largest diamond while wading in a cold mountain stream. That might just be a step up from this story.
I guess as we travel the road of life, we can never be really sure which way the road will turn…one thing’s for certain though, if nature suddenly presents you with a golden opportunity don’t drag your feet for it will surly disappear just as fast as it appeared.
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