Until last week, our entire experience with the wild bison herd at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park consisted of a glance through binoculars several years ago. Even with binoculars we saw only dark brown furry dots along a distant horizon. If the volunteer had not said they were the bison, we might never have known. Many people gave enthusiastic accounts of seeing them much closer every time we mentioned we were headed there, but in spite of visiting several times a year, we had yet to have that kind of luck.
Since Hurricane Irma, the prairie looks more like a lake, probably as it did in the 1800s when it was Lake Alachua. We hiked Cone’s Dike trail hoping for a glimpse of the wild horses, knowing from our last two trips that with the high water levels they often grazed along the trail. This time we walked along with very few sightings of anything, and just enjoyed the very pleasant weather.
As we turned a corner in the trail, we noticed two other hikers in the distance who appeared to be watching something. Through the binoculars, I saw some shapes. I thought they might be bison, but as with birding I was reluctant to call it until I was sure so decided to wait until we got closer. The couple headed back and we met them half-way. They said that others they passed heading back told them they had not seen anything, but as they walked along they saw the bison heading toward the trail. By then we saw the bison clearly through the binoculars.
We walked a little closer, watching through the binoculars and taking photos with the long lens. At that point we realized that some were moving in our direction at a more quickened pace, and though a good distance still separated us we turned and walked away. A few yards on, I turned and saw that they had stopped, turned, and grazed. Karl stopped to take a few more shots.
As we hiked back, we noticed other hikers walking toward us. All of them heard the bison were in the area and hoped to see them. I am sure the Internet is full of photos taken that day. For me, the awe of seeing them in real life was amazing.
Caution: We were not at close as these photographs suggest. All photos were taken at 200mm – 400mm. As with the horses, alligators, and all other natural residents of this area, they are wild animals.