The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission launched a new citizen science program where anyone who spots an alligator in the wild can upload and share their photos with biologist.
Alligators can turn up in unexpected places here in eastern North Carolina; concrete plants, swimming pools, even hiding out under cars at a local dealership. One was found basking in the baking sun at Holden Beach near the North Carolina/South Carolina line. Encounters between humans and alligators are becoming more common, according to Extension Wildlife Biologist Jessie Birckhead.
“We certainly had an increase in development in coastal North Carolina. So as we have more people moving to the coast, more developments that have waterways, man-made ponds, that sort of thing as part of their landscape, that increases opportunities for people to come into contact with alligators or to see them out in the environment.”
Now, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission wants to document these encounters. Wildlife Diversity Program Coordinator Allen Boynton says a citizen science project called “NC Alligators” began this month encouraging anyone who spots an alligator in the wild to upload and share photographs with them.
“When you take a picture with your phone, the phone records some metadata like the location, time and so forth. And that’s helpful to us to really get a better idea of where alligators occur in the state.”
Photos uploaded to the website iNaturalist.com allow wildlife officials to track where sightings occur near human development. So far, the website has 111 observations from 65 people from as far south as Sunset Beach, all the way to the North Carolina/Virginia border.
“For us, it’s a good way to collect in one place pictures of alligators and we’re able to verify that the picture is real and was taken then, and it lets us learn about where people are interacting with alligators and where alligators are too.”
The iNaturalist website has generated a lot of hits since the NC Alligator program started. One of the more recent posts came from Keith Kidwell of Chocowinity. He posted a picture of a 4 ½ to 5 foot alligator he spotted during a fishing trip on the Neuse River.
“So we were down probably a half a mile down creek from Swift Creek and we went into a side cove, it looked like it was going to be some good fishing. And got up in there. My wife was taking a break from fishing sitting on the back of the boat dangling her feet in the water. Looked up and said ‘is that an alligator?’ And needless to say, she came up out of the water pretty quickly.”
Catching a glimpse of an alligator in the wild can be a thrilling experience. But alligators in eastern North Carolina are actually shy and reclusive, rarely posing a threat to humans. This was forefront in my mind when I met John Jacobson, an avid kayaker and photographer from New Bern on Wednesday morning. He agreed to take me to a spot he’s seen alligators along Bachelors Creek, upstream from the Neuse River.
“Well, there’s two spots. One spot, I’ve seen both the male and the female, the female during the summer and the male during the spring. And then there’s another spot farther up where the female has her nest. And she’ll stay in that spot.”
After loading our gear into a pair of kayaks, John and I set off from Glenburnie Park to the first spot about four miles away. The wind is at our face, and the current is flowing against us. As we slowly make our way upstream, the waterway becomes narrower and wilder. Osprey fly overhead, mullet leap from the water all around us and turtles splash into the water as we pass by. After about an hour and a half of paddling, John motions for me to come alongside his kayak.
“Stay close to me, and I want you to stay on the outside so you get the first glimpse. Okay. You should see as we come around the bend, around this bend up here? Yeah, it’s an open area, a little cove and it should be straight on from the side when we come around that bend.”
We stealthily make our way around the bend, surrounded by moss covered cypress trees hanging over the water. Sunlight filters through the canopy and reflects off the water. A partially submerged log where John says he’s seen the alligator sunning itself before is unoccupied.
Undeterred, we paddle about a half mile upstream when John motions to me to slow down.
“So we have an alligator, she’s about twenty five feet away. My heart is racing right now. John is in his kayak about thirty feet away from me, to my left. The alligator just swam along the shoreline and now she’s resting in a patch of lily pads, she’s not moving, doesn’t seem to be bothered by us at all.
After a minute, she slowly swims away and disappears into the marsh.
“I think she’s between 12 and 13 feet. People several years ago, who have lived on this island have talked about her being 12 feet and I think she’s a little bigger than she was when I took pictures of her several years ago.”
That’s big for an eastern North Carolina alligator. Since this region is the northern most extent of their range, Wildlife Diversity Program Coordinator Allen Boynton says the cooler climate affects their rate of reproduction, barely keeping pace with their mortality. It also affects how large alligators grow.
“We do not have as long a growing season. It gets warmer later in the spring and it becomes colder in the fall the farther north you go. So alligators, of course, depend on food to grow and they don’t have as much time each year to grow, so they grow more slowly.”
Alligators have a natural range of about 25 coastal counties. They’re commonly found in swamps, lakes, marshes and ponds, something eastern North Carolina has a lot of. Farther up the coast, they’re few and far between.
“Our alligators are not like alligators farther south. They’re not continuously distributed, so they exist in separate populations. For example, we have a separate population in Hyde County that’s separated by some distance from other alligators.”
That’s where the NC Alligator project comes in. Right now, it’s mating season so males are moving about looking for a mate. Folks who see an alligator or a nest are encouraged to snap a picture with their phone and upload it to iNaturalist.com. Extension Wildlife Biologist Jessie Birckhead says just make sure you give the alligator some space.
“Anytime folks are observing alligators or any kind of wild animal in the wild, you always want to maintain a safe, respective distance from the animal. And the great thing with most of us with our smart phones can capture a picture of an alligator from a good safe distance away from the animal. These don’t have to be the greatest photo you’ve ever taken. Just a picture where you can see the animal in the photo is going to be enough to provide the observation data that we’re looking for.”
Birckhead warns the public not to feed the alligators to get a better picture. Not only is it illegal, it’s dangerous for both the observer and for the animal. For more information on the NC Alligator project and to see pictures of the alligator encounter on my kayak trip this week, go to publicradioeast.org.