Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

A GREAT birding day at La Chua

Saturday March 23, 2013
Site 7, Paynes Prairie State Park
Micanopy, Florida


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.

La Chua Trail 002

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. 


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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.


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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.




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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.

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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.

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There are coots and coots and more coots everywhere.La Chua Trail 108



The clouds lighten up some as we reach the viewing platform at the end of the dike trail.


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We are having a GREAT birding day and it just continues with this glossy ibis.

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These wood storks.

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A flotilla of blue winged teals

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La Chua Trail 128


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And then the alligator face off begins. 


I am VERY glad we are on the platform when these two decide to duke it out.

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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.

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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.

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The loser is  on alert.

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The excitement has died down.  Back to the birds.  This mottled duck is a new bird for me.

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   I ‘m really happy with this picture of the snipe.  One of my favorites of the day.  He’s one who really blends in with his surroundings.  La Chua Trail 196



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.

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Is he smiling at the thought of a blue coated lunch snack??

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On the way back down the dike we notice evidence of a resident we didn’t see today.

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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.

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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.

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Here is an aerial view of where we were.  The boardwalk and dike trail are the brown line on the right.

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Here is the sink itself.  Duckweed has invaded??

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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
The End

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Gainesville to Hawthorne Rails to Trails

Friday March 22, 2013
Site 7, Paynes Prairie Preserve
Micanopy, Florida


Today we drive into Gainesville to pick up the 16 mile paved trail to Hawthorne


Boulware Springs

The trail head turns out to be at the city’s original Waterworks.  This is Gainesville’s only artesian spring which was tapped with a pipe in 1898 and provided the city’s only water source for years.   In 1905 Gainesville’s plentiful water source helped entice the University of Florida to locate here.  The spring was abandoned in 1948 with the completion of the water treatment plant.  Now the  spring flows onto Paynes Prairie as it did before the city’s original use.   I wonder - what it was it like for those 50 years to have spring water piped into your home.


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Gainesville to Hawthorn Bike Trail 122 

Gainesville to Hawthorn Bike Trail 115


Gainesville to Hawthorn Bike Trail 116



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  The trail is 16 miles one way so if you do the entire thing it’s a 32 mile round trip. We’ve gotten a late start today so we’ll probably only go about 10 miles up and then come back.  The most fabulous part of this trail is that it mostly doesn’t run on or even next to any roads.  It’s a biker’s dream.   There are also viewing spots and information boards along the way and we stop at them all of course.


Sweetwater Overlook

The Sweetwater Overlook is the first one we come to and it overlooks a lovely wetland.   We’ve heard it’s a great spot for watching the sunset but we’re too early for that.

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This bike trail is fun to ride.
As we move into a curve the sign reads

Caution sharp curve
Keep right
Stay in lane

and you’d better do that because some riders come flying along going the other way especially on the hills.

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The hills of Florida.

And there are hills in Florida.  Though not many I’ll grant you.  This one was just long enough thanks.

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The La Chua Trail spur

At 1.5 miles is the La Chua Trail  spur which includes a walking trail through the remnants of a ranch that operated on the Prairie from the turn of the 20th century until it was bought by the state in 1970.  A stone barn is all that remains of the ranch.   Hiking the trail is HIGH up on our list for another day, maybe even tomorrow.  It goes out to a platform in the northern section of Paynes Prairie.  Another chance to spot buffalo and wild horses.  But not today, today we look from the spur.   Beautiful view.


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     Gainesville to Hawthorn Bike Trail 140



Gainesville to Hawthorn Bike Trail 139



Back on the trail, the bike path curves around  sink holes.  The sign reads

Entering the Hammock
Hills and Curves
Keep Right

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Gainesville to Hawthorn Bike Trail 147




A ‘Wildlife Crossing’ sign always makes me think of deer or elk or buffalo or some big animal….moose??


We stop here but the resident is either inside or away for the day.  Really nice yard though.


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Gainesville to Hawthorn Bike Trail 149


Gainesville to Hawthorn Bike Trail 151



Prairie Creek Bridge

At 5 miles we reach Prairie Creek Bridge which is one of those kodak moments on both sides of the trail.  To the left on Prairie Creek is the rustic Kate’s Fish Camp and the gorgeous creek itself.

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Gainesville to Hawthorn Bike Trail 154



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Gainesville to Hawthorn Bike Trail 157



To the right is a long boardwalk back into the cypress swamp and the gorgeous views of the creek.  This is a wonderful tranquil spot except for the highway noise from the secondary road just beyond Kate’s.


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When I get back to Winnona, I intend to investigate this beautiful Prairie Creek more and see if there is a way to kayak it. 

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Prairie Creek Preserve Trail Heads

But for now we move on down the road where we arrive at the Prairie Creek Preserve Trail heads.   Orange or yellow?  No time for either today unfortunately.  Wish we’d known, perhaps we could have left earlier and had time for some hiking as well as peddling. Although since I went running and they cut back sunrise, we couldn’t have left much earlier.
Sunrise at 7:30 rather than 6:30 sure cuts into my day.
Yes I’m still whining.


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Gainesville to Hawthorn Bike Trail 173



Lunch time

Our final stop is at another Prairie Creek Preserve spot where we have our picnic lunch under the shade of these grand oak trees.  There is a parking lot here too so you can start the trail from here if you like and go either direction.


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Gainesville to Hawthorn Bike Trail 177



Hey look at those  beagles

At this point we cross our first road, county Road 234.  It leads to the town of Micanopy which we visited yesterday.  At 7 miles we pass a simple white Baptist church before entering the Lochloosa Wildlife Management Area where they say during hunting season cyclists may encounter hunters and hounds.


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Gainesville to Hawthorn Bike Trail 184   


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Gainesville to Hawthorn Bike Trail 186




Time to turn back.

At this point we’ve done a tad more than half of the trail and decide to turn back and leave the other half for another day.  Perhaps we’ll come back to the Prairie Preserve parking and bike to the end and back and then hike the preserve trails.  Sounds like a plan.  Or maybe we’ll just do the entire thing, and get out much earlier.  It’s a gorgeous trail.


This is my idea of the perfect bike trail.  It’s paved for those of us with hybrid rather than mountain bike tires and is packed with a variety of landscapes, vistas and topography as it skirts the Paynes Prairie Preserve and Lochloosa Wildlife Management Area.

Back the way we came, we enjoy it all over again.



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