Mama Gator and the Unfortunate Duck
On the map, Alligator Pond looked like it was right on the edge of Laguna Madre, a large shallow estuary within the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge. Some of you Texans are no doubt familiar with Laguna Atascosa. It lies right on the Gulf of Mexico, facing the lee shore of South Padre Island. It's a big bird sanctuary, not as big as Aransas up by Galveston, but big enough and all manner of shore birds and things that eat shore birds congregate there.
We were looking at the map in the visitor's center at Atascosa, trying to orient ourselves and figure which way to the Alligator Pond. We, as in me and Bill Sielschott, my wife's father and my companion on many an outdoor excursion down South Texas way. Bill enjoys the outdoors and wildlife and is quite content tramping around the hinterlands with me, and I'm just as pleased to have him along.
The old boy behind the counter said "yep, there's an alligator there, a big one. A big female. Don't get too close!" Well, that's advice easily taken. Female gators are testy critters when they have a egg nest to watch out for, though it was a bit early in the year for that. "Watch out along the trail going there, too - sometimes she's sunning herself along there." Will do.
We drove up to the trailhead and started walking in. It was a lovely February day in South Texas, with a little breeze and the temperature in the low eighties. This was thornscrub country here, with mesquite and catclaw and prickly pear and yucca present, to name a prickly few. Off to the left up ahead we could see a large bunch of trees, and as we drew near we could see them as willows and mesquite and huisache. The huisache were covered with blooming yellow flowers, and they smelled quite pleasant. The trees encircled a small pond about a half acre in size, with cattails on the near and far end. I could see a muddy trail into the cattails, leading to an unnatural looking hole near the water's edge. "That looks like a gator wallow to me," I told Bill. "I don't see any gator, though."
We decided to sneak through the brush around to one side of the pond, a good position for us to watch both ends and the middle. We quietly crept up to the bank, and scanned the banks and the water for any gator sign. "Over there!" Bill whispered. I followed his finger to a pair of eyes and the least little bit of the head, sticking out of the water. That was an alligator, and a big one too! We were fairly well concealed behind a gnarled mesquite, and we watched the gator for a while through binoculars as it slowly drifted across the pond.
After about ten minutes of watching and whispering back and forth, a duck came down. This duck came fluttering out of the sky and plopped into the water about twenty feet from Mama Gator. It paddled about in a tight circle, issued a contented "weck!" and dived under water, presumably after a meal of aquatic vegetation. Mama Gator slowly, almost imperceptibly, sank beneath the surface of the pond without leaving a ripple.
Uh, oh, I thought. This duck is in trouble. A moment or two later the duck popped back up out of the water. "Weck!" It paddled in another circle, and dived again.
A minute or two went by, but no duck. Bill and I watched the calm and still surface for the ripples and bubbles and surfacing feathers announcing the duck's demise. Nothing. Five minutes went by. The water was as placid as a Monet watercolour. Ten minutes. Dragonflies knitted the air over the yellow-brown mirror of the surface. Fifteen minutes. Billl and I looked at each other. No duck in the world, not even those Chinese fishing cormorants, could stay submerged for a quarter hour. That duck was a goner.
Twenty minutes had passed and we decided to move back to the trail, since it looked unlikely that we would see duck or gator now. Suddenly there was a large crashing sound in the undergrowth behind us! I could only think, as we started running along the bank, was that it was a second gator, or that somehow Mama Gator had snuck out on the bank somewhere, and undetected by us, had circled around behind us! The thrashing and rustling noises followed us. Thorns and the low-lying mesquite left welts and scratches on our accelerating forms as we dashed for the safety of the open trail.
The Chachalaca is a peculiar bird native to the thornscrub country of South Texas, and can reach the size of a very small turkey, or a very large rooster. I turned to look back as we neared the trail,and could see the bobbing head of that bird as it folded its wings and turned back away from us. Why a chachalaca decided to chase us through the bush is beyond me. We did manage to have a good laugh when we caught our breath.
So that was the day we almost got chased and eaten by a horrible creature. On another trip to Alligator Pond we managed to see Mama Gator out on the bank, and she was enormous, perhaps twelve feet long and big as a pig around. Good thing it wasn't her chasing us! If you ever find yourself and a friend in such a situation, the thing to remember is this - you don't have to outrun the gator, you just need to outrun your friend!
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