Outdoor photographer Gerald Burleigh is known widely in his home state of Texas for his whitetail deer photography as well as his images of the life cycles of waterfowl.
While setting a game camera to lure in feral hogs on a stretch of property near the Neches River in Southeast Texas, he came across something interesting.
An alligator found his bait pile and came in and ate corn and gorged itself on some old donuts.
Alligators are carnivores that will eat virtually anything that swims in front of them but mainly eat fish and turtles.
This one apparently has a sweet tooth.
Something else interesting about this video is the camera is not set directly by the water. This alligator had to walk a pretty good way to find the food.
Alligators will actually cover long distances during the mating period and some of the very largest alligators are found in ponds far from the main waterways where they have set up after arriving there to find no mates during breeding season.
These areas house some of the very largest alligators because they are detached from their main habitat. The biggest alligators are targeted during the alligator hunting season so many of the largest specimens are those that have forsaken coastal marshes, main river channels and other spots close to civilization.
Alligators can grow to impressive sizes but it takes the correct genetics, available food and cover and the ability to live their maximum life cycle which can be upwards of 80 years.
Hunting pressure targeting the very largest alligators takes away the largest adults so truly large alligators (over 11 feet) are become increasingly rare.
Alligator populations themselves are high but those of maximum size are not as common as they used to be.
This one looks as if it might not make it too much longer. Any alligator that is willing to gobble up donuts would no doubt had a hard time resisting a chunk of rancid chicken dangling over the water.
There is something powerful about the eyes of a great white shark.
In the 1975 blockbuster “Jaws”, obsessed shark hunter Capt. Quint describes them as “lifeless eyes…black eyes…like a doll’s eyes”.
As an 18 footer turned its eye to look at me while on a cage diving expedition to the Farallon Islands I quickly disagreed with Quint. Black they were but lifeless the sharks’ eyes were not.
They were filled with purpose. To kill. To eat. To survive.
Long believed extinct in the Gulf of Mexico or at least an extremely rare visitor, it seems there are survivors.
In 2014, “Katharine” and “Betsy”, two young great whites were verified in Gulf waters.
Both of these sharks were fitted with SPOT transmitters by research/conservation group OCEARCH. These tags communicate with satellites and when the information from those tags if fed back to OCEARCH, it allows the public to view their movements at OCEARCH.org.
When, Katharine, all 2300 pounds of her, staked out the stretch of coastline off of Panama City Beach, Fla., people paid attention. More than four million logged onto the OCEARCH website, crashing the server the week and causing a media firestorm.
“Those two sharks, Katharine in particular, drew an enormous amount of attention to great white sharks in a very positive way and the interactive nature of the site, gave people a way to see great white movements take place in a way never before possible,” said OCEARCH founder Chris Fischer.
“We are solving the life history puzzle of ‘Jaws’ out of the Cape Cod area for the first time in history and it has been interesting to see unfold.”
Cape Cod is one thing but the Gulf of Mexico? That’s the domain of bull sharks and black tips, not great whites. Right?
Great white populations are on the rise due to 20 plus years of gill nets being banned along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. These nets caught and killed many juvenile great whites that are born on the East Coast and migrate into the Gulf to feed.
The shallow, nearshore areas along the eastern seaboard and portions of the Gulf Coast, especially Florida are “nursery” areas where the younger sharks spend their time. Both Katharine and Betsy were tagged off of Cape Cod in August 2013 and covered thousands of miles of water before entering the Gulf.
In 2005 I wrote an article called “Jaws in the Gulf” for Tide magazine recalling historical references and at the time a recent sighting. The article was a bit controversial as great whites in the Gulf seemed too magnificent to believe.
Now it has been vindicated. But that’s not the point. Seeking out the mysterious is a big part of what we do.
The point is the most iconic shark in the planet is proven to inhabit the Gulf and could be on the rise. Fishermen and conservationists need to know so these great predators can be protected.
NOAA has some extremely interesting older data on great whites in the Gulf of Mexico. Their earliest recorded white shark was off the coast of Sarasota, Fla on a set line in the winter of 1937. Another specimen was caught in the same area in 1943.
In February 1965, a female was captured in a net intended for bottlenose dolphins at Mullet Key near St. Petersburg. In addition, National Marine Fisheries Service officials reported 35 great whites as bycatch in the Japanese longline fishery in the Gulf from 1979 through 1982.
Those sharks died but last year the first great white ever known to be caught from the surf was taken by an angler in Panama City Beach, Fla.
Instead of killing it, he fitted it with a tag, photographed and released it.
Knowing about great whites, their rarity and conservation problems is crucial so great whites meet happy endings when encountered by anglers-the user group most likely to see them.
It might seem counterintuitive to save something that can and occasionally does eat humans. But the fact is we need things like great white sharks to keep us humble, to remind us, we are vulnerable and to keep us in a sense of wonder.
That was the state I was in gazing out onto the Gulf of Mexico while fishing the 61st St. Pier in Galveston, TX with my Dad at age 12.
“It’s a shame we don’t have a lot of great whites off our coast,” I told him.
“Maybe we do. We just haven’ found them yet,” Dad replied.
Dad is gone now and I sure would like to tell him, they have been found. Great whites dwell the Gulf of Mexico and you never know. There might have been one cruising the surf just beyond that pier on that night so long ago.
In other words, have they become the latest large wild creature living quite cozily within the city limits of the largest cities in the nation?
The answer is “yes”.
Right now there are sizable feral hog populations Dallas-Forth Worth and Houston in my home state of Texas and also around Baton Rouge, La. and a number of sizable metro areas in Florida.
I believe what we are about to see is cities harboring some absolutely monster-sized hogs.
In the past I have written and lectured on what I call “Monster Hogs” which are any weighing more than 500 pounds. Such animals are few and far between but some of our cities offer all of the right ingredients to make it happen.
There is adequate habitat, food and cover and large boars in particular which tend to be solitary are great at remaining hidden. They may in fact possess more “intelligence” than any wild animal in North America.
Add to this a lack of hunting pressure.
Hogs are popular with hunters and in fact, have superseded whitetail deer as the most harvested animal in Texas with a whopping 750,000 new killed annually according to Texas AgriLife. Louisiana and Florida also support a huge hog hunting culture.
The fact that firing guns in city limits is a no-no will give hogs with monster genes the opportunity to live to maximum potential.
This is where it will get interesting.
Sightings will be elusive but these creatures will be seen perhaps in schoolyards near children or eating Fifi” the poodle as granny takes it for a stroll in the park.
We are fielding increasing reports from shocked citizens seeing normal-sized hogs in greenbelts and suburbs but how will the public react to seeing a boar just shy of average grizzly proportions(600 pounds) strolling down main street?
The cottonmouth is the most feared snake of the American South.
With a reputation for a short temper, this stout pit viper often flashes the white of its mouth to say “Don’t Tread On Me”.
Wise people don’t.
I have dealt with cottonmouths on hundreds of occasions and actually found some of them to be quite docile but the one in this photo was not.
It rose up about a foot of the ground in an almost cobra-like stance. Actually it was sort of a cross between a western diamondback rattlesnake’s “s” position and a cobra.
The snake in question is the biggest I have ever worked with and is nearly four feet in length.
Another interesting thing about this particular snake is that unlike most cottonmouths I have worked with, it did not want to maintain its position and lash out. It lunged at me while conducting the photo shoot and kept advancing forward.
One of the things that continually amazes me about the amazing creatures the Lord graced us with is individuality. Most people, including those into wildlife, look at snakes as all one in the same. A snake is a snake is a snake…or something like that.
In reality there are vast differences among individuals in a population and also from region to region. The cottonmouths I encounter in the Pinewoods of East Texas do not tend to be as aggressive as the ones along the Texas coast.
In addition it is virtually impossible to get those I find along the Interstate 12 corridor in East Texas/Southwest Louisiana to show their white mouth while the ones just north and south of there do it frequently.
One of the intriguing things as a journalist pursuing wildlife is that we cannot interview them like I might a wildlife biologist so we spend as much time in the field as possible shooting photos and videos to capture a profile of a given species.
A beautiful herd of longhorn cattle made their way across a bluebonnet covered meadow.
Walking down a trail from an oak thicket, one particularly massive bull stopped and glared at us so I felt obliged to jump out of the truck and shoot photos.
We were at YO Ranch Headquarters near Mountain Home in Kerr County and had just completed granting a “Wild Wish” for a little boy named Amos who got to encounter a giraffe and many other exotic animals at the legendary ranch.
“Wild Wishes” is a program that grants exotic animal encounters to kids who have a terminal illness or have lost a parent or sibling.
Amos and two other wish kids who accompanied us followed me and another chaperone out to photograph the massive bull when we noticed something in the bushes. Hiding under the shade of a live oak was a massive bison. The longhorns were cool but this was awesome!
This thing was easily in the 2,000 pound range and gave us a real thrill as buffalos were the topic of conversation riding down the road. “Wild Wishes” grants exotic animal encounters for children who have lost a parent or sibling or who have a terminal illness and to think that the Lord granted us this chance to see such an amazing animal together was humbling to say the least.
Then it got better.
From behind another tree stood up something big and white. At first it looked like a bull but when it turned around chills ran up and down my spine. This was no bull. It was a white buffalo.
The Great White Buffalo!
As I snapped photos, the majestic bison looked us square in the eye and then retreated into the oaks as we stood blown away.
All three of the kids knew about the legend of the white buffalo and its importance to Native American culture and so did I of course. And I could not help but sing a chorus of my friend Ted Nugent’s “The Great White Buffalo”.
We had no idea such a creature existed on the huge ranch and would not have seen it if we had not decided to pull over and photograph the longhorns.
I have no question the Lord had His hand on this encounter and so did the kids who were excited beyond measure. They had seen something that until then only seemed like a legend.
I have had many incredible wildlife encounters and this one ranks right up there with seeing great whites in the Pacific. This was a lifelong dream come true and I got to share it with three very special kids and a friend who is as big a buffalo fan as I am.
Part of my love of bison comes from knowing their tragic history and the great conservation efforts that saved them.
According to the Texas Bison Association, Bison were hunted in various ways. Before the Indians rode horseback, they would encircle the herd with tribe members on foot. By getting the animals to mill within the ring they formed, Indians were able to fire large volleys of arrows into the herd until they downed an adequate number of animals.”
“In the 16th Century, when horses were acquired by the Plains Indians, bison hunting became easier. The Indians used other methods to harvest the mighty buffalo: stampeding herds over a cliff, driving the animals into a large natural trap, or into bogs or blind canyons. The most famous hunting technique was the “horse surround.” Several hundred riders would form semicircles on two sides of the herd, then move in until they created a circle around its entirety. As pressure was applied by the oncoming riders, the bison would begin to get confused, start milling and eventually stampeded into a frenzied milling mass. At this point, riders would move in and begin the slaughter with showers of arrows or plunging lances.”
Then came wholesale slaughter of bison by European settlers that was as much to wipe out the Plains tribes that relied on them as it was to sell bison parts. What was once a herd of millions was reduced to less than 1,000 by the late 1800s.
According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, legendary rancher Charles Goodnight started the remnants of the herd on his JA Ranch in the Texas Panhandle in 1878, in attempts to save the animals that had meant so much to him.
“It was actually his wife that influenced the cattle and business tycoon to preserve them, before they disappeared, so that future generations might be able to see and appreciate these special creatures.”
“Somehow, against the odds, a herd of genetic-related Southern bison have managed to survive the decades since, and now, we all benefit from the Goodnights’ vision. When the bison were initially donated to TPWD and moved to Caprock Canyons State Park in 1997, it was discovered that their DNA was different, and feature genetics that are not shared by any other bison in North America. In fact, the Official Texas State Bison Herd at Caprock represents the last remaining examples of the Southern Plains variety.”
Now YO Ranch Headquarters and other ranches proudly raise bison and they are flourishing right here in the Lone Star State on private land and at Caprock Canyons State Park. Without ranchers and hunters, there would likely be no bison today.
As we walked back to the trucks, the moms, grandmas and dads were excited for the kids (and this big kid) who just encountered something special.. They got to see all of this go down but one thing they did not see were its eyes.
The dim moonlight illuminated the trees just enough to make out the edge of the forest. A strange sense of forebode overcame me as I gazed into the blackness.
As I neared a crossroads, something jumped out of the ditch and made its way through the tall grass. Standing about 20 inches at the shoulder, the creature had large, erect ears and pale, gray skin.
Perhaps, I had finally encountered the legendary “chupacabra”.
I have maintained the “chupacabras” seen on many video clips and photos shared on social media are coyotes or foxes with a very bad case of mange.
However, as I pulled over, grabbed my flashlight and ran to the woods edge, my rational explanation wasn’t resonating. I was alone, without a gun, on a dark, country road and looking for a “chupacabra”.
To top things off my flashlight was dying and so was my cell phone.
Sounds like a good start for a horror movie, doesn’t it?
As I pressed toward the woodline, a nasty growl came my direction. Followed by aggressive barks, I could tell there was a canine not happy with my presence. I inched a little closer and could make out a set of blue eyes illuminated by my dim flashlight. A creepy silhouette of a thin animal with tall ears peaking from a behind the tree looking at me, hit my curiosity factor so I moved closer.
At this point, the animal moved and started barking again. Aggressive barks.
It was time for me to go. I may be curious but I am not stupid.
I returned this morning slowly cruising alone the road as a thin layer of mist on the ground began to dissipate.
And about 50 yards from where I left it the night before was the mysterious animal. I quickly shot a few photos with my cell phone as it stood silhouetted in the forest. I could only make out the shape until it moved into an open patch of light.
I could see that it was a dog (mutt) of some sort with short hair that was coming off in large patches. It even had a tiny collar on.
If coyotes and foxes make up the bulk of “chupacabra” sightings, now the domestic dog can join the ranks.
“Chupacabras” are not monsters. They are simply sick animals and in this case I have feeling it was a sick animal dumped off in the woods so the owners would not have to deal with it. Either that or it escaped from somewhere and made a long haul to this stretch of road.
I doubt that though as it hung around the same spot I saw it last night. That’s a sign of an abandoned dog.
I knew what I was looking at was a canine of some sort all along but how many people would be able to tell during a brief sighting under the moonlight?
In this case the “chupacabra” was more like Frankenstein’s monster than some sort of evil being from beyond as some bloggers claim. It’s circumstance was at least partially man-made and it was just doing what it had to do to stay alive.
In this case I was the like the angry mob that drove the monster to the windmill, only with a flashlight instead of a torch. I did however back off and let nature take its course.
After all, Frankenstein’s monster fought back and I had no desire to end up bitten by a chupacabra-one wearing a collar or not.