Bill and I joined the OTOW Unique Birders group for a wonderful field trip to hike the LaChua Trail at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park south of Gainesville.
Our first stop was the icy observation platform just off Route 441 in Micanopy (mic-can-no-pee). Looking out over the prairie, we saw dozens of Sandhill Cranes both on the ground and overhead. A coyote ran in the distance.
Normally, I would have overlooked this sparrow - but we were fortunate to have a birding expert in the group who identified it as a Swamp Sparrow - our first life bird of the day.
After a short drive we arrived at the parking area and the beginning of the LaChua Trail - a 3-mile loop into the prairie. As we headed through the trees at the entrance, it looked like we were in an apple orchard - but the bright red apples were Northern Cardinals.
I saw no birds when I passed this marshy area, but again, our eagle-eyed teacher pointed out an American Bittern in the reeds.
I was thrilled to see it step out in the open so I was able to get quite a few decent pictures.
The stripes on its neck are his camouflage as he "hides" in the reeds by standing still with his head pointed to the sky.
Overhead, we saw more Sandhill Cranes. While I was distracted photographing some of the shore birds, Bill said he saw a couple of Whooping Cranes fly over. I said, yea, right, sure you did.
The Sandhill Cranes landed in another marshy area beyond the viewing area. We could see lots and lots of cranes - including...
These beautiful birds stand almost a foot taller than their Sandhill Crane cousins.
Both of the birds were banded identifying them as either part of the resident population or migrants. As of Sept. 2010, there were 25 non-migratory and 119 migratory Whooping Cranes in Florida during the winter. What a trill to see two of the just over 400 birds currently in the wild.
There were lots of other eye treats as we walked the trail. The sun was shinning and the day warmed nicely. This Eastern Phoebe was also enjoying the sun.
I saw a bird hovering in the air and assumed it was a Belted Kingfisher as I've seen them hover over water before diving straight down to catch a fish - but Norm, our teacher, correctly identified it as an American Kestrel.
The area we were hiking has an interesting history. Before 1892, the area was covered with water. The huge Alachua Lake was was a tourist attraction and supported a thriving steamboat business. One day the entire lake just disappeared - into a giant sink hole. Today, water still flows into the hole and the lake has been replaced with over 16,000 acres of freshwater marsh and wet prairie. There are over 270 species of birds (including this cute Cattle Egret) bison, cracker horses and cattle, alligators and hundreds of Sandhill Cranes. The preserve includes the Prairie and some of the surrounding uplands for a total of nearly 22,000 acres.
Yes, I said bison! These young Plains Bison walked right in front of us - down the trail.
and wild horses! Horses were introduced to Florida in the mid-1500's to heard cattle.
So nice to see the shore birds! Along with this White Ibis, we saw several Glossy Ibis, the ever-present Coots, Anhinga, Little Blue Heron, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Common Moorhen, Tricolored Heron and Pied-billed Grebe. Someone said they saw a Wood Duck - but I missed it.
This Great Blue Heron was entertaining as he tried to figure out just how he was going to eat the huge fish he caught.
There were lots of hawks. This apparently is a young Red-Shouldered Hawk.
More Cattle Egret. I usually can't get close enough - or they refuse to stand still - for decent images.
This Tricolored Heron was intent on his mission to catch a fish (or two, or three) for breakfast.
I'm not sure what kind of turtle this is. He wasn't very big - maybe 6 inches across.
This is the kind of wet swampy area where I hoped to see a Purple Gallinule, but found Ibis and Moorhens instead.
...and Alligators! There were hundreds of American Alligators lining the banks - more and more as the day warmed.
Back at the entrance to the trail, several small birds played in the trees including this Black-and-white Warbler.
I also saw this bird, which I thought was a Northern Parula - or maybe a Magnolia Warbler or Blue-headed Vireo. I'm waiting for verification from our resident expert, Norm. (Norm has confirmed that my mystery bird is a Blue-headed Vireo.)
This car was in front of us as we caravaned to the next stop.
Next stop was the University of Florida's beef farm where a large flock of Sandhill Cranes joined the cattle. It looks like they are captive - but they are not.
We had already seen hundreds of Sandhill Cranes back at Paynes Prairie. The reason for our visit was the small white goose in with the much larger cranes - a Ross' Goose and another life bird.
My pictures aren't very good - and those of you that are regular readers know I hate having ugly man-made structures like this barbed-wire fence in my pictures - but that's what I had to work with and for a bird that is rarely seen in this neck of the woods, I'll make an exception!
After a wonderful morning of birding - and a total of 51 different species, we gathered at the 43rd Street Deli for lunch and friendship. Bill and I really enjoyed the company of this "Unique" group of bird enthusiasts and will definitely join them on more field trips in the future.