Bald Head Island Conservancy

Alligator Surveys: A Night with the Conservation Team

Content Image

By Lauren Collver, Summer 2024 Intern

Over the course of the summer, BHI Conservancy staff will complete weekly surveys of the island’s alligator population. By counting the number and size of each alligator we see, we can provide an estimate of how many alligators live on the island. While alligators are often seen resting on the banks in the sunlight, they are easiest to spot after sunset with spotlights, which reflect an orange glow when they pass over an alligator’s eyes. These surveys are one of my favorite things I do as a conservation intern!

8:30 PM

30 minutes after sunset, our team gathers our materials and gets ready for the survey. We make sure we have our spotlights and binoculars for finding the alligators, as well as a data sheet for recording our findings. Long pants, long sleeves, and bug spray help us stay comfortable, and usually a good amount of coffee is a must-have for the night ahead.

8:45 PM

Screen Shot 2024 06 12 at 10.54.19 AMOnce our materials are in the golf cart and the sun has set, our team heads out to start our survey route. We start by driving down Middle Island to the Ibis Sanctuary. The pond here is covered with a film of duckweed, and it’s a lucky night if we see an alligator swimming through the green. We head to the freshwater ponds surrounding the Villas next, where the calls of green treefrogs is almost deafening. At each of three bridges in the neighborhood, we carefully shine our spotlights around the pond, scanning for the distinct orange glow of the alligators’ eyes. At our third stop, we find a small alligator right next to the bank, floating near the surface. From this close, we can estimate that it falls into our size category of 1-3 feet long, and it becomes the first tally on our data sheet.

9:30 PM

We make our way to the BHI Club golf course to tackle the bulk of the evening’s work. Alligators reside in the plentiful freshwater lagoons across the course, and we set out to tally each one that we can see. We drive along the course and park at each pond. As we walk from our cart to the banks of the ponds, our lights are aimed downward, scanning for frogs and toads. Dozens of southern toads are scattered around the grass at each spot, and bullfrogs the size of softballs startle us as they leap into the water. We scan for gators resting on the banks before we approach each pond. Once we reach the edge of the water, we pass our spotlights across the water and along the far banks until the distinct eyeshine glints back at us.

Screen Shot 2024 06 12 at 10.50.17 AM

From left to right: American Bullfrog, Eastern Narrowmouth Toad, Southern Leopard Frog

10:30 PM

Screen Shot 2024 06 12 at 10.58.34 AM

Alligator’s eyes reflect an orange color, which can help distinguish them from frogs and other animals from far away.

At hole 10, we’ve spotted two possible alligators at the far edge of the pond. Too far away to know for certain, one team member focuses their binoculars while another keeps their light aimed at the reflective eye of the animal. The first one turns out to be a very large bullfrog sitting on the edge of the pond. Interesting, but not what we’re looking for. Turning our focus to the second one, the binoculars confirm that we are in fact looking at a small alligator. We take turns looking through binoculars to estimate the distance from the gator’s eyes to the end of its snout. This distance in inches will give us a good idea of how long the entire gator is in feet. After careful inspection, this one looks like it will fall in the 4-6 foot range.

11:00 PM

We arrive at my personal favorite part of the evening and what we refer to as the nursery pond. This pond is long, skinny, and home to many young alligators. Splitting up into two teams of two, we slowly walk the length of the pond with our spotlights and binoculars. Here, we pay close attention to the shallow mud of the banks for resting babies. The challenge here is not losing track of how many you’ve spotted while you admire the tiny foot-long creatures. I would personally argue that a young fawn has nothing on the cuteness of a baby alligator. Our final tally this night is 13 babies and 4-foot long mama, to whom we give plenty of distance.

Screen Shot 2024 06 12 at 10.59.01 AM

The young alligator on the left is probably 1 year old. The one on the right is likely 2-3 years old.

11:30 PM

We end our survey at the Wildlife Overlook, where we have to be careful not to wake the roosting Ibis with our lights. We find one last gator, which brings our total for the evening to 15.Screen Shot 2024 06 12 at 11.19.24 AM

About BHI’s alligators:

  • From our surveys, we can estimate that the total population on the island is about 30, with about 10 of those being longer than 4 feet.
  • While the alligators spend most of their time in the freshwater ponds and lagoons, they can be found crossing roads or in people’s yards. They also are occasionally found in our salt marshes and on the beach. When encountering an alligator, the best thing to do is to keep your distance (at least 50 feet) and avoid disturbing it. They will typically move away on their own after some time and do not pose a threat as long as you keep your distance.
  • If you think an alligator is in distress, call the Conservancy’s wildlife response hotline at (910)-457-0089 x5

Previous Post
Smith Island Land...


Next Post
Bald Head Island...

Skip to content