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April 2, 2013

Reflecting on a Florida trip

The Daily Star

---- — After spending two months in Florida, on the southwest coast, I have returned with a few major impressions of the region’s wildlife, and some experiences that are entirely unique for me.

All the publicity these days may be geared toward the pythons in the Everglades and the sinkholes that can swallow homes and the people inside them, but it is the more natural phenomena that I have found interesting enough.

I was a bit rusty during my first round of golf this winter, but I can’t say I wasn’t also a little lucky.

Bob, one player in my foursome, hooked his ball into a pond on the 15th hole. I went over to help him look for it and saw a ball just a few feet from shore in about two feet of water. I was crouched low, reaching into the water and just about to snare it when Bob yelled.

“Hey, don’t move, look ahead of you,’’ he warned.

I looked out and saw two eyes poking up out of the water about 10 feet away, staring at me as if the gator had missed breakfast that morning.

Bob said, “Back away slowly and get out of there, but if you see him coming, better move it.’’

I eased myself up and backed away, as the alligator coasted toward shore. No problem. And it took a few minutes to realize I had Bob’s ball in my hand.

There are stories every year of alligators attacking golfers who stray too close to ponds on Florida golf courses. Just last year near Lake Wales, Al Miller, the 75-year-old former Hartwick College soccer coach, had finished fishing for his ball with a retriever and turned to walk away when a nine-foot gator rushed from the water and clamped on one of his legs.

A tug-of-war followed, with the man’s golf mates pulling from his shoulders and the gator struggling to drag the poor guy into the water. The alligator was winning the battle when it suddenly decided to let go of the leg and the men were able to haul the bloodied golfer away.

Lizard in the grass

On a lazy, sunny Saturday afternoon, we were relaxing in the backyard when we noticed a large snake slithering along a nearby hedge. Since I hadn’t seen even a small snake as yet, I had to get a closer look at what turned out to be three-foot Black Racer.

Of course, I had heard of Florida’s black snakes but didn’t know about the “racer’’ part. I quietly edged closer to get a good look but didn’t realize the reptile was stalking a brown anole, which is one of the common 6-to-8-inch lizards often mistakenly called geckos or chameleons. 

Apparently I startled the lizard, which took off across the yard. Those creatures are fast; just try catching one if gets in the house or lanai. Well, that snake raced after it and within about 10 feet snapped up the lizard, shifted it around and there it went down the hatch, head first.

I had never seen a snake move so quickly, and until then would have put my money on the lizard in a contest. Stunned, I also realized that in a short sprint that snake could have beaten me to the finish line. Fortunately, they are not poisonous and will only bite when cornered, which I decided I would never try to do.

King of the ant hill

Lions may be the kings of the jungle, but for ants scurrying about the yard, the ant lion is just as ferocious.

I was puzzled about all these cone- or funnel-shaped indentations in our yard; at first thinking they were inverted anthills for some odd species of ant. After observing a few of these cones, I realized no ants were living in them, but that some creature was living at the bottom, occasionally throwing sand up and out of the pit.

One day, I saw an ant in the trap and each time it tried to get out, the hidden and mysterious insect below the surface would toss sand on the side of the funnel, sending the hapless ant tumbling back to the bottom.

Eventually, the ant was grabbed by what I later learned was an ant lion and dragged below the surface. I couldn’t see what was happening to the ant in the sand, but I learned that the ant lion’s sharp jaws would rip its prey’s body open and it would suck the insides out.

Ant lions are the tiny larva stage of a winged insect that looks similar to a dragonfly and are deemed beneficial for controlling the ant population.

Nature can be beautiful, but it also can show us a strange and cruel world.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.