They said there’d be armadillos. They weren’t wrong.
I arrived at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, a 2760 acre mix of saltwater marsh, pine and deciduous woods, and grasslands, midmorning on a gorgeous, mostly sunny spring day. Before its establishment as a refuge, Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge was a World War II Air Force Base. Nature is still reclaiming the old runways in a surprising fashion.
A four-mile wildlife drive traverses the refuge with numerous named and unnamed hiking trails throughout. My first stop was the Bluebill pond trail, a 1.1-mile path around its namesake pond and along the south edge of Woody Pond. When I mentioned yesterday that I’d be coming here, I was told to watch for alligators sunning themselves on the trails. And armadillos are all over. I’d gone looking for armadillos in South Texas to no avail. I’m hopeful and excited. I’ve never seen a wild (live) armadillo before. And I’m on high alert – for basking alligators.
Bluebill Pond is shallow and unremarkable. Pintail ducks dabble in the reeds, and songbirds flit around. Northern Cardinals and their chipping are everywhere! As I round a bend, Woody Pond comes into view. On an earthen berm between the two ponds, I see my first alligator.
Wood storks preen on an island (a popular nesting site for them). Giant alligators are hauled out in the sun on every muddy bank. White egrets join the wood storks on prime perches, cormorants perch, preen, hunt, and chase on the water. A little blue heron is plucking morsels from the duckweed.
The next trail, West Woody Pond, is 1.2 miles out and back. It courses through the pine forest punctuated with occasional palms. The path is covered in pine needles accented with pine cones and spectacular lichens. It “ends” at an old runway between Woody Pond and Snipe Pond. The end turns out to be the best part!
On the mowed berm overlooking Snipe Pond, more large gators are hauled out. One is so rotund that his belly pushes his legs out to the side!
Basking turtles are stacked (the smaller, shy ones jumped at the sight of me), petite pied-billed grebes dabble, and common gallinules frolic. I’d never seen gallinules, a species of rail, before. They have the most joyous, cackling, gurgling calls. I’m enthralled.
A wide, mowed buffer surrounds Woody Pond. There is armadillo sign ALL OVER. I’m watching the woods to my left for armadillos and the pond edge to my right for gators while watching the birds. (No wonder I stepped on some fire ants and later a snake! Maybe next time I’ll wear close-toed shoes).
Woody Pond is named for the wood storks that nest here, but there are also families of common gallinules, a couple of roseate spoonbills, a colony of great egrets, a congregation of ibis, a tricolored heron, a raft of coots, and a better view of the storks.
Woody Pond also appears to be a favorite spot for the baby alligators. They are everywhere. Trails in the duckweed lead to tiny pairs of eyes peering over the water.
I retraced my steps to the forest path, excited to get back to the car to explore more. “No stopping except for armadillos,” I told myself. I had hardly entered the refuge and there was so much more to see. Not thirty feet into the woods, the loud rustle of an animal running through the leaf litter stops me dead in my tracks. As if mother nature said, “What’s your hurry?”
It’s an armadillo! A forest turtle with turtle rabbit ears.
I quietly stepped off the path, careful where I placed my feet, given my previous experiences, and moved around to a clearing. She went back to foraging, pushing through the pine needles with her nose, her face buried up to her ears, eating ants and other bugs. I was able to get a few photographs of her even in the deep woods. My first wild armadillo sighting!
My next stop was the Goose Pond Loop, a 1.4-mile trail that follows a triangle of old runways. Not far along, the wide pavement becomes a two-track road between two lakes. Alligator tracks lead from one body of water to the other.
The water on my right is even with the trail providing good sightlines. On the left, where the sun is shining, a mound of earth a few feet high obscures the water’s edge – and any basking reptiles. I walk on the far right. Goldeneyes court on the water, a great blue heron is fishing, and a black vulture comes in for a landing.
Now that I know the rustling leaf sound that I’d attributed to squirrels is more likely an armadillo, I stop whenever I hear it. I find a second armadillo by sound. This one doesn’t startle but is too far into the woods for a clear view. Then I found an armadillo carcass. The banded keratin (like your fingernails) seems like a prize, but I’m not putting this rotting, stinking thing in my luggage, so I leave it be.
It’s getting hot out; a record-high 85 degrees today. Not the best day to find wildlife out and about. Except maybe this yellow rat snake who tolerates my slow, careful approach allowing me to photograph her. After I quietly moved away, I watched her slither speedily into the brush as if she’d thought that freezing in place had made her invisible. Whatever works.
I see more alligators and egrets on my way back to the car.
Taking a side loop, I arrive at Thomas Landing on the South Newport River. A very narrow, short, sandy, brushy path leads me through the thicket to the “beach.” I walk slowly on heightened alert, not knowing who I might stumble upon on the beach. Popping out onto the river’s edge, I see hundreds of fiddler crabs scurrying to their holes. Raccoon tracks follow the edge of the woods. Thankfully, this salty tidewater river is not alligator habitat.
Back in the car idling at seven mph, I’m scanning the forest as I go. I see the telltale smooth, shiny hump of an armadillo’s back. I pulled to the side and watched her for quite a while. She didn’t seem to notice or be bothered by me.
They have notoriously bad eyesight (no wonder, they only have slits for eyes!) and spend so much time with their eyes beneath the leaf-litter anyway. The plate on her face helps her as she plows through the debris, searching for bugs, small invertebrates, ants, and termites.
Her long claws help her to dig up nests and excavate tunnels. They are such odd-looking, ancient animals. Like the alligator, they’ve been around for millions of years.
I saw a few more armadillos before I left the refuge and more alligators today than I’d seen in my entire life. What a glorious day! In several hours, I saw so much wildlife, creatures that I’d never seen before, and explored a unique habitat. All just an hour south of Savannah.
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