Saturday March 23, 2013
Site 7, Paynes Prairie State Park
First I have to say I LOVE MY COMMENTERS. Yesterday I said I wanted to find out about kayaking Prairie Creek. A big thank you to Julie and Tom for the exact information I need.
Signed up to go
When we got back from the biking past the La Chua trail yesterday, I went down to the Visitor’s Center and signed us up for the 7am hike at La Chua. That’s one way of getting out before sunrise. The trail is a very popular hike being so close to Gainesville, and the gates are only open from 8am to 8pm. But if you go with a ranger who has the gate code so you can get in, then you are golden. And so we do.
We drive over in the dark and meet him at the parking lot where he unlocks the gate for us and one other hiker. There is a kiosk with information and trail maps here. We follow the path which crosses the bike trail and pass beneath a remnant of the old narrow gauge railway that once followed the north edge of the Prairie and connected the cattle farms with the cities of Florida. The trail turns left and passes through an old stable with the stalls in tact. This building remains from the last cattle operation prior to the area becoming a state park.
Cattle Ranch on the Prairie
This land had been a cattle ranch since the mid 1600’s when the Spanish established La Chua Ranch. La Chua served as the largest cattle ranch in Florida before English troops destroyed all operations in the early 1700s. The area continued to be used as herding grounds up until the early 1870s, when a heavy rain season caused water levels in the basin to swell up into what became known as Alachua Lake.
Historically Paynes Prairie has alternated between being a prairie and being a lake. It is a massive landform with a twist, it has a drain. That drain is the Alachua sink and every once in a while it plugs up turning the prairie into a lake.
In 1871 the sink was plugged with logs and debris and so became the Alachua Lake. For the next 20 years, steam-powered boats were charged with transporting cotton, citrus, lumber and other goods across the lake. Travelers toured the lake and used it to visit nearby towns until 1891, when the plug in the Alachua sink – a sinkhole that acts as the main drain for the basin — unexpectedly reopened. The waters receded back to normal levels and the whole lake disappeared in under two weeks time
In times of drought water collects at this end of the prairie. We’ve come to see the “sink” and the prairie.
The La Chua Trail is 3 miles round trip and leads to Alachua Sink and the center of the prairie marsh. I’ve been told that wildlife viewing from the platform at the trail’s end provides a panoramic view of the prairie basin.
We are on the trail just before sunrise.
Tough with my camera to get pictures then. The sun rises behind us rather than out over the prairie and the black clouds confirm the potential for rain that has been predicted for today. We are wearing raincoats so we’re well prepared we hope - unless it’s a Florida drencher and then we’ll wish we’d also worn rain pants.
The trail is a boardwalk for about a mile and then goes onto a dike into the prairie.
It’s the end of winter, and the water levels are low much of it is out of view below the plants and although it looks like you could walk out there, you’d be up to your knees if you tried. The birds show up just after sunrise. But in a very short time, the rain drops start. We keep on since we all have rain gear. But then it starts to lightning. We are the tallest thing out here so we turn back and as we do, it starts to pour.
Raindrops falling on my head
We race back to the covered observation platform at the end of the boardwalk and are soaked by the time we get there. Bummer! I really want to do this hike and thought the rain would hold off until afternoon. The rain comes down in sheets.
We are joined by other people who come in when the gates are opened and run down the boardwalk to get under cover. The other critters of course are not bothered by the rain, only the humans care.
The time allotted for the hike comes and goes.
The ranger, who has earlier admitted he doesn’t need to know the names of birds, has to go. The rain lightens up and we go on. We are very lucky that an excellent local birder has brought out some friends to help them find birds for their life lists. We just tag along and have a GREAT day. Birders are a great group. They are always willing to help the less knowledgeable. That would be us.
One of my favorite sights of the day happens soon after we walk down the the dike for the second time. I call it the Snowy Egret show. These two are having a face off and looking mighty fancy while they do.
I’m not sure the really subtle color of the cattle egret shows up in the photo but I always feel like some brown cow fur must have rubbed off on him.
The clouds lighten up some as we reach the viewing platform at the end of the dike trail.
We are having a GREAT birding day and it just continues with this glossy ibis.
These wood storks.
A flotilla of blue winged teals
And then the alligator face off begins.
I am VERY glad we are on the platform when these two decide to duke it out.
There is so much splashing and lunging going on that it’s hard to tell who is the victor until everybody zooms away and this guy swims over and claims the bank.
He definitely has a full belly and after his exertion I suspect he’s ready for a nap. He’s king of the bank for now.
The loser is on alert.
The excitement has died down. Back to the birds. This mottled duck is a new bird for me.
Time to start back.
The victor has claimed the bank next to the stairs to the platform. But he looks pretty tired so we think we’ll going down.
Is he smiling at the thought of a blue coated lunch snack??
On the way back down the dike we notice evidence of a resident we didn’t see today.
I think I take more than 10 shots of bitterns but they blend in SO well with their surroundings that this is really the only one where you can clearly see him.
Here’s a look at the big picture.
When we get back to the board walk and our birding day is over, we take the time to read the information about the Alachua Sink. This drawing shows clearly where we were and how the sink works.
Here is an aerial view of where we were. The boardwalk and dike trail are the brown line on the right.
Here is the sink itself. Duckweed has invaded??
It has been a fabulous birding day on the La Chua trail in spite of the rain. This is definitely a place I could return to day after day and have a wonderful time.
Black Necked Stilt at