It has been a pleasant five (make that six) days here at Paynes Prairie among the usual suspects -- Alligators (big ones), Wading birds (they had better be big for us to identify them), Eagles and Osprey, Wild Spanish Horses, and rumors of Bison and Whooping Cranes -- all this in a 21,000 Acre wet prairie just South of Gainesville Florida. The prairie is far larger than the preserve -- I-75 and hwy 441 both cross it -- and creatures move freely around. In times of drought, it is a magnet and when it is wet, you will sight birds everywhere.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
The CONES DIKE TRAIL traces the Southeastern edges along wide graveled footpaths which gave us early morning views of Eagles, Osprey and Vultures circling in the thermals. Patty sighted two eagles, talons entangled, spinning toward the watery surface, breaking free just in time to nonchalantly climb again. Sometimes the trail is an expanse of sun-hardened muck hoof prints, and other times a grassy, shaded path beside spring fed gator holes.
THE NORTH ENTRANCE approaches the La Chua Sink which drains the prairie. At times the far side of the sink and the waterway leading to it are covered with HUGE GATORS, but times are good here on the Prairie; there is lots of water and the gators can disperse. All the common wading birds are easy to spot here, but you had better watch where you step.
We realize now how fortunate we were on an earlier visit when the state-wide drought brought literally thousands of Sandhill Cranes to the Prairie. We watched in awe as they circled overhead, raising an awful/ joyful racket preparing to leave for the North. This year we saw only two Sandhills flying close formation over the highway, probably local birds with their own private little wet spot somewhere near.
GAINESVILLE - HAWTHORNE BIKE TRAIL
Florida is blessed with many smooth paved rail to trail conversions. Because the topography is seldom challenging, they are nearly all straight as a die. But what's this?
The sixteen mile trail eventually does straighten, but after affording some great overlooks back into the Prairie...
... And glimpses at a number of trail side natural places where other delights await.
This is a great trail to just idle along, stopping for a short hike to a Cypress swamp or watch the fishermen along Lockloosa Creek.
Each afternoon we had a wonderful late lunch at our new favorite Pizza place --BLAZE. There wonderfully personable young folks help dottering old folks create their own pizza from a huge array of fresh quality ingredients. If that sounds pretty ordinary, please believe us, it's not!
Patty has declared it the "best ever" and is looking for stock. Al agrees and hopes they will remember HIS name when we return, 'cause by the third time they remember hers.
The last day of our visit we discovered SWEETWATER WETLANDS PARK on the Northern edge of the Prairie. Frankly, we thought it might be a waterslide attraction, but when we heard three miles of boardwalks and easy paths, we were in. This is a natural water filtration area. Treated water and runoff from the city of Gainesville flows through a series of settling basins and the "enhancement pools" convert nitrites to vegetation, food for a whole chain of creatures and clean water to recharge the Acquifer. As creators of all that upstream waste and the alpha critter with binoculars, we get to enjoy boardwalks and grassy pond sides filled with gators and birds of all kinds, flocks (I'm telling you 6-8 Osprey at a time) fishing and a pair Eagles content to swoop in periodically and take their lunch. It was glorious!
And everywhere there are Live Oaks... My Honey, she LOVES her some Live Oaks.
...but, like your humble author, Live Oaks seldom photograph well.
This is our favorite picture of the trip. This little guy has staked out a log in the Sweetwater and looking for a meal to grow on. His little needle sharp teeth are about a match for a passing Dragonfly right now, but if he keeps his spot we'll look him up next time.
Oh yes, about that extra sixth day... As we were pulling across the prairie on I-75 this morning, the back side window EXPLODED. After all these years of yelling "Taking Fire" at loud noises, neither of us has the presence of mind to do anything but check tire gauges and look for road debris. Still a mystery, but one that will be repaired by mid morning tomorrow. The campground folks were kind enough to let us back in and stay the night in the "overflow". Another star-filled night on the Prairie, but a shorter stay at Okeefenokee starting tomorrow.