Beaufort News

Gators, flowers emerge during warm winter streak in Beaufort County

Three baby gators swim near a drainage pipe where the mother gator had been hibernating Monday afternoon behind the Comfort Inn in Bluffton's Belfair Towne Village.
Three baby gators swim near a drainage pipe where the mother gator had been hibernating Monday afternoon behind the Comfort Inn in Bluffton's Belfair Towne Village. Sarah Welliver

As far as Lowcountry alligators know, it's spring.

Charles Cilliers, general manager of the Comfort Suites of Bluffton, spotted a 13-footer sunning itself in the parking lot Monday morning during a routine patrol of the grounds.

When Joe Maffo of Critter Management came by to evaluate, he found a mother with more than 15 hatchlings enjoying the warm temperatures in woods by the hotel's property in Belfair Village.

"I was dumbfounded," Maffo said. Gators are not supposed to emerge from hibernation until April.

A warm streak that has broken records in some parts of the state has a few things popping out earlier than expected.

Lowcountry residents might also notice small flowers blooming on red maples, adding red or pink garnish to a backdrop of Spanish moss.

Botanist Bert Pittman of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources said the red maple is one of the earliest-flowering trees -- but "early" typically is late February or early March.

January is the earliest he has seen them bloom in his 30-year career.

The unseasonably warm days have not yet caused other types of plants to pollinate, Pittman said.

Many plants in this region are acclimated to temperature fluctuations this time of year and respond more to the length of days than the warmth, according to College of Charleston botanist Jean Everett.

"Unless it freezes super, super hard, most plants -- especially ones that bloom this time of year -- are pretty freeze tolerant," she said. And some plants will "emergency flower" a second bud if the first is lost to frost.

For food plants and some others, it's a little different story.

At Boone Hall Plantation near Charleston, managers are keeping a close eye on weather forecasts so they can protect the strawberries that already have been planted in anticipation of an early spring crop.

"We protect these strawberries, trust you me," said operations director Jadie Rayfield.

But the plantation's Japanese maples bloomed two weeks early and apricots by the manor house are blooming now, about a month early.

As for gators, it's not too unusual for them to sunbathe on warm days in the winter, said Jay Butfiloski, who heads DNR's alligator program.

"They come up to get some warmth, and when the temperature drops back down, they'll retreat again," he said.

They won't be active and probably won't eat. Their body temperature must reach about 70 degrees before they can digest food, Butfiloski said. Baby gators hatch in the fall and spend the winter close to their mothers.

Maffo spent Monday afternoon hammering signs -- which read, "Gators might live here" -- to trees in the woods where the mother gator and her young had emerged from their winter home in a drainage pipe.

He can't remove nuisance alligators now because the tags DNR requires haven't even been printed yet, he said.

Several high-temperature records were broken across South Carolina this weekend. Columbia set records on both Saturday and Sunday, while Florence tied its Sunday record with a high of 77.

Forecasters say temperatures should return to normal by mid-week. In fact, lows could reach the upper 20s.

Such swings are not uncommon for the Lowcountry, according to state climatologist Hope Mizzell.

The Associated Press and The (Charleston) Post and Courier contributed to this report.

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