Monday, January 30, 2017

Follow the P's: Payne's Prairie Preserve (State) Park Photography Payoff

Friend Maureen recommended this Park to me last year. Alas, I didn't get there until January 14th, 2017. It did not disappoint! The Park was the first State Preserve in Florida in 1971, and it is now recognized as a National Natural Landmark.  The northern part of this 21,000 acre mixed marsh-lake-savannah wonderland borders Gainesville, and a long bicycle trail in that university city.  The south end is close to Micanopy Florida down highway 441.

We stopped first along 441 to view the Prairie, and found hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds already nesting in the marsh.  We proceeded to the north entrance, location of the visitor center, obtained information and brochures, and then hiked to the high lookout tower. Vistas seem endless.  I could see a few Sandhill Cranes, wild horses, and a Black-crowned Night Heron.

 I also had good view of many other wading birds like the Great Egret, above, and the Great Blue Heron, below.
 The day was waning, so we hurried to the LaChua Trail, in the Gainesville side of the Park.  It being the weekend, the trail was filled with University of Florida students and their families.  It was good to see so many younger people enjoying this natural place. This trail winds along ponds, lakes and wetlands 1.5 miles out to another observation tower overlooking the shallow Alachua Lake.  The canals and ponds are rich in fish and a large population of American Alligators (see two photos below).

 As I walked out to the Lake, the mud flats appeared on both sides of me, with so many Sandhill Cranes, Grus canadensis (above) shore birds, waterfowl and wading bird(see below)s, I had a hard time determining where to look. We Canadensis Snowbirds and the Cranes have a lot in common!

 A number of the wild horses, originally brought by the Spaniards, were grazing peacefully nearby.  Piles of horse hooey, horse hockey pucks, or whatever you call horse leavings, were the only hazard along the trail (aside from University of Florida students wearing various scents).
 The mudflats hosted more and more Sandhill Cranes (the Crane calling din drowned out all other sounds) foraging for food in the mud until....

 I noticed one crane that was all white, with both a red chin AND forehead (above and two photos below photographed from the observation tower). I now have seen a Whooping Crane in both Florida AND Texas!

 But, the Sandhill Cranes dominate....thousands as far as the eye can see, along with egrets, ducks and wading birds.

 These Yellow-legs were one of many shorebirds, like Sandpipers, Dunlin, Willetts and others.
 Challenge: count the Sandhill Cranes in the photo above.  The sun was falling, and, in theory, the Park closes before sunset.  In reality, as long as you are on the trail before 5 PM,  it is fine to continue to finish the 3 mile loop.

 Therefore, with cranes, ducks, blackbirds and more flying overhead to various roosting spots, I was able to capture a stunning sunset over the Prairie.
 I plan to go back and document all the birds along the LaChua Trail.

For more info:

See you next time!


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Withlacoochee and The Florida Greenway-Dunnellon Trails

The State of Florida has an ambitious plan, already in initial stages of implementation, to build the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway (hiking and biking), from Daytona, on the Atlantic, to the Nature Coast (Gulf of Mexico). A 2.5 mile section (the Dunnellon Trail) was completed last year (2015) and is right next to the Rainbow Rivers Club. This affords your fortunate hiker-blogger walking access to the Dunnellon Trail and some excellent offshoots, resulting in some extra special natural history and people watching.

 This is a view of the trail looking to the east.  Jan enjoys taking Winston for a walk along the pavement, and she keeps a sharp eye out for alligators, snakes and bobcats.

 A view towards the west at the same position shown above.  Note natural vegetation on each side of the trail. Also, the trail was constructed with geosynthetic mesh fabric, which has many advantages in this type of environment, including free flow of water from the bald cypress swamps to the left and the Rainbow River to the right. Geosynthetics could also reduce: construction costs, environmental damage and maintenance costs. The first photo shows how near the Rainbow River is. The second photo is the bald cypress swamp on the other side of the pavement. It is not unusual to see wildlife feeding within a few feet of either edge of the pavement.

 Or, if you look UP, you may see a male and a female red-shouldered hawk. We saw this pair mating yesterday as we ate lunch. Very entertaining for the 10 seconds this usually lasts!

Mammals may also be seen along the trail.  Armadillos, like the one below, are often active toward dusk. They use their snout to find invertebrates on and in the soil.

Ferns grow prolifically, more than 70 species in Florida.  Sword ferns are often seen in thick clusters along the trail. The native sword fern, shown below, is the  Nephrolepis exaltata. Back in the 19th century, an entrepreneurial pair of Floridian brothers brought this fern into horticultural production. Eventually, the horticultural variety became known as "Boston Fern". The great botany bloggers George Rogers and John Bradford tell the story here:

George has helped me a few times over the years. He writes in a most entertaining and educational manner. A personal note: back in 1977, I visited Fern City (Apopka), as I was in the tropical plant business.  I had a personal tour of the Boston Fern production facility mentioned in George's blog.

This January, Jan and I also walked a few miles of the neighbouring 46 mile portion of the paved Withlacoochee  pedestrian and bicycle trail at Citrus Springs.  It is surprisingly different from the Dunnellon Trail as the following photos suggest. Both the Dunnellon Trail and the Withlacoochee Trail merge with hiking (only) trails which take you into the splendid Rainbow River State Park and the very large Halpata Tastanaki Reserve (which protects many local lakes and the north shore of the Withlacoochee over a large proportion of its length). Together, these trails are hundreds of miles of Florida nature, rarely interrupted by traffic or other human influence.

The beginning of the Withlacoochee Trail features uplands, with oaks and pines dominating the forest.  Several of these large pines were a Turkey Vulture roost (above and below).

"I am SOOO pretty, don't you think so?"

Several of these shrubs were filled with white blooms.  I have yet to identify them, as I have not seen this kind of shrub anywhere else.  If you have an idea, do let me know. UPDATE, March 27, 2017: Ignore my previous update. This is Chickasaw Plum, Prunus angustifolia. It is an interesting and useful NATIVE shrub.

Read more about it here:

Back on the Dunnellon Trail, there is a lot more moisture, from springs, the rivers and many cypress swamps.  The Slash Pine (above) rules here, whereas Longleaf and Loblolly Pine is more dominant on the Withlacoochee Trail.

And, in this moist environment, many flowers, like the violet,  may be found, and ferns, like the ubiquitous Royal Fern, below.
It is the birdlife that most people notice, though many small songbirds, like the Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, below...
and wading birds, like the White Ibis, below, and...

an adult and juvenile (white) Little Blue Heron in one of the marshes.....

and if you are very fortunate, a Limpkin might yell out its loud screech.

Jan and I hear Pileated Woodpeckers doing their "Wipeout" call constantly. I took a photo of this one last year:

Yesterday, while paddling in the Rainbow River, right beside the Trail, I saw this bird taking a drink. I wonder if the bill deformity will shorten its lifespan? I have seen deformities such as these in fish-eating birds in the Great Lakes.  They are said to be caused by toxins.  I wonder if there is something similar going on here?

Pileated woodpeckers love the oaks and pines of the Nature Coast. There are many species of Oak along both trails, but the Water Oak is found in numbers only along the rivers of the Dunnellon Trail. It is distinguished by its spoon-shaped leaves.

Heading back home, with the sun setting just after 5:45 this time of the year, the new Dunnellon Trail Bridge crosses the Withlacoochee, affording scenes like those below.

Next time, the Paynes Prairie Preserve, near Gainesville.  Expect 'gators!