James Phillips Photography


Be You Later, Alligator

It was late in the morning when I set out by canoe from Rocky Ford, on Sarasota County’s scenic Myakka River. The air was hot and still, and despite recent rains the current was molasses-slow. I drifted downstream, past low deltas and sandy, head-high bluffs, over a riverbed laced with fossils. The banks were lined with pines and live oaks, sable palms and saw palmettoes, shimmering in the heat.

Aside from that, nothing much stirred. Turtles basked on waterworn stumps, legs extended, toes splayed. Kingfishers peeked from their muddy dens. On the bow, a heat-stunned dragonfly perched like a tiny figurehead.

Suddenly I heard a weird ruckus -a woofing and whooping and flapping and flopping- coming from a thicket on the bank. Only one thing makes that kind of commotion: a passel of hungry vultures. Plainly, something had attracted them. Something big. Something dead.

It was a ‘gator, a nine-footer at least. As Monty Python might’ve said, it was “bleedin’ demised.” Now, as naturalists say, it was transforming, from alligator energy into vulture energy, from a single ex-reptile to a horde of living, breathing birds. Molecules that once coasted on currents of water would soon glide on currents of air. Not such a bad fate, really.

I drifted closer, but the vultures didn’t budge. Pretty soon I was above the submerged tail. The brashest -or hungriest- birds still ignored me, eagerly probing the eyesockets and nostrils, looking for chinks in the armor. I snapped a few photos, then -feeling a little queasy- pushed off and continued downstream.

Here in Florida, live alligators are a common sight -but you almost never see a dead one, at least, not in the wild. I suspect it’s because Mother Nature is so brilliant at tidying up. When an organism at the top of the food chain kicks the bucket, she simply sends in her many and diverse cleanup crews. If you think of the alligator as a demolition site, vultures are like bulldozers, paving the way for myriads of other creatures, all of them drawn by the promise of a little sustenance, a share of the spoils.

Only rarely are we privileged to witness the transfer of energy on such a relatively massive scale. Usually its more subtle and covert, occurring on a microscopic level, a river of energy flowing from point to point, population to population, a staggering, not-quite-infinite number of tiny energy transactions, the economy of the wild.

By the time I returned, some weeks later, the carcass had vanished entirely. But high overhead, there were dozens of vultures, effortlessly riding the thermals.