Sweetwater Wetlands in Gainesville

Karl took this shot of a Limpkin preening

During our recent stay at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, we hiked at Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Our trips in this area always include at least one morning hiking at this park. I did confirm that they were open on their Facebook page before we traveled since places just started re-opening. The Facebook page told us that the usual $5 fee must be paid via a phone app as they removed the usual envelope and cash system for health reasons. Karl and I discussed it, and decided to buy a season pass instead. We camp in that area at least three times a year, and visit this park often. We wanted to have the pass not only for convenience, but to further support a park we enjoy so much. A special thanks to the Gainesville city employee who helped us. She was very helpful, very friendly, and very efficient.

COGA with chicks
Chick talking to mom

We started our hike on an overcast morning after three days of rain and more rain forecast for the afternoon. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the entrance moved from the usual place to an entrance near the overflow parking. Signs everywhere encouraged distancing ‘to help us keep open’. We completely understood the request. Upon arriving in the area two days before, we heard on our first local newscast that infections were up in the area. The boardwalk had the spur areas blocked, and arrows showing a one-way path.PUGA Sweetwater

We found ourselves thankful for the cloud cover. The trails are open with little shade, and the high humidity and temperature made it a very warm walk even without sunshine. For those who have never visited, this is a birder’s paradise.  We recommend it to all the birders we know, and some who come from out of state now make it a regular stop on their way to visit us.  Our list included both the Purple Gallinule and the Common Gallinule, herons including many Green Herons and Tri-color herons, Red-winged Blackbirds everywhere flying and calling, Limpkins, and many others. Of course we also saw alligators, turtles, and dragonflies everywhere.GRHE Sweetwater

The ability to stop and observe makes this park special among places we bird. The boardwalks keep people far enough away from the birds that they go on about their business. Watching them catch and eat fish, swim with their chicks, and interact with each other provides that added dimension that birders love. Those same things make it a challenging and fun place for nature photography.

Horses at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Cracker Horse at Paynes Prairie

The wild Cracker horses we saw near the visitor center at Paynes Prairie descended from the original horses brought to Florida by the Spanish.  Left here by the Spanish, the Seminoles caught and rode these wild horses, as did the Florida cattleman. The horse breed became known by several names including Seminole ponies, Florida Cracker horse, and marsh tackie.  Eventually other horses replaced them where needed, and the breed nearly died out. Kept alive by a few farms in Florida, eventually Paynes Prairie became the home for this herd. The Florida cattlemen at that time were called Crackers, and  we use the name Florida Cracker horse today. However, read some early novels or history of Florida, and the names Seminole pony and marsh tackie come up.

Why were the cattleman called Crackers? We heard a variety of explanations over the years, but the one most commonly used is that they had a specific type of cow whip that they cracked to drive the cattle. The men became known as Crackers because of the sound of the whip. A few years ago we attended Rural Days at Stephen Foster Park in Florida. We saw the making of one of these leather cow whips by a man who preserved the tradition. He explained the cow whip is shorter than the better known bull whip. He and Karl talked for some time on the making of the whip and the traditions, and Karl took several photographs.

whip maker
Craftsman making the traditional Florida Cow Whip

Karl and I both took photographs of the wild Cracker horses grazing near the Visitor Center at Paynes Prairie. Using his Sony A73 with the Canon 24 – 105 mm Karl captured both of these beautifully framed shots of the peaceful scene.0241

The horse lying down was sitting there when we arrived. He obviously decided we were no trouble and lay down to take his nap. The others stood quietly, watched us as we came into sight but then went back to grazing. We have seen the wild horses several times over the years, whereas the bison we saw only the once. The horses are used to people being around, but are wild and should be given their space.

The Blue Jay and the Twig

Blue Jay sitting

This Blue Jay squawked and circled the trees before landing on a specific branch. Several birds called from the trees, including a fly catcher and a woodpecker, so fortunately I had my camera set up and trained on the clump of trees already. I watched as the Jay landed, looked around, and then chose a small twig to its left and started biting it. I saw no bugs, berries, or other potential food. As I watched the bird grabbed, twisted, and pulled on the on the twig, finally snapping it off. At first I had no idea why, so I just photographed, observed, and waited. In spite of the nice looking twig on the other side, it kept working that one. After a few minutes, it took off triumphant. It took me a minute to realize that the twig remained in its beak as it flew, likely to help build or repair a current nest.

Blue Jay 1

Blue Jay getting twig

Why that specific twig, who knows? Sticks covered the ground, why not the easy pickings on one already detached? Then again, why do we choose the house we choose and each decorate in our own way? I realize this seems a bit anthropomorphic, but after years of observing birds for my own interest and for scientific and citizen science reasons, I often have more questions than answers.

Camping at Paynes Prairie State Park

Paynes Prairie from Vistor Center
View of the Prairie from the Tower. Two deer graze in the middle ground.

Driving US 441 either into or out of Gainesville involves driving through Paynes Prairie. This prairie basin stretches across nearly 16,000 acres, and at times in history fills with water and becomes Lake Alachua. The prairie itself is mostly wetland, especially after heavy rains, and absolutely beautiful. Paynes Prairie State Park consists of the prairie basin and another 6,000 acres of upland. We camp here frequently. The camping in most Florida state parks feature vegetation and plenty of spacing between the campsites, and this campground is particularly generous in that area.

Last week we arrived just as several days of rain ended, so some of the trails we hoped to hike remained partially closed due to high water. The weather stayed hot and humid all week, so we rose early, and hiked a different area each day. We returned by lunch, had a nice cook-out, and by early afternoon as the temperatures and humidity soared, and/or the rain started we sat under the awning or in the RV reading, playing board games, on the computer working on the photographs taken that day, or even watching a DVD.

Viewing Tour from Hiking Trail
View of the tower from the trail

We started our first morning at the Visitor’s Center parking lot; the center itself remained closed due to COVID, and walked the trail toward the tower. We noticed as we rounded one curve that the wild horses grazed directly in front of us, so stopped to watch them then continued to the tower. We took photographs, but also just absorbed the view.

Horses 1
Wild horses on the Prairie. We hiked the trail seen in the background the next day

Karl and I are happy the parks re-opened to camping. Distancing is no problem with the large amount of space between each site. We did not see the casual socializing and talking between us campers that normally occurs, we all maintained a friendly distance. Even those walking dogs smiled and reined in the dog as they kept walking. Usually we stop at least briefly to exchange pleasantries and of course give the dog some attention, but understandably we are all maintaining respectful distances as requested.

Photography in the Florida Summer

Tree Fungus light and darkSummer may not be officially started, but with high humidity, rising temperatures, and the start of afternoon rains, it definitely started here. Our wet, hot, humid summers tend to be the ‘off’ season. Events take place in autumn, winter, or spring, when part-time residents and tourists abound. Even social events and groups often cease meetings for June, July and August as many members are part-timers who headed home at some point after Easter.

The rain and sun bring more than humidity; they bring incredible growth to plants. Many spring flowers continue through the summer, and many butterflies still fly around visiting them. After a rain, the colors really pop, and often so does the fungus.

I loved the light pattern on this tree fungus pictured above. These fungi only last a day or two before they begin to fade or become a meal for insects and other creatures. Catching them in the right light at peak takes some hunting.Nuttle's Thistle

Nuttall’s thistle grows to 5’ or more, and the flower heads, like most thistle, are popular with pollinators. I did a close up of the flower on this one, with two unopened buds on either side.

Palamedes Swallowtail Male

I often see butterflies like this Palamedes Swallowtail on the ground, not near any flowers. In this case it flew around some pine cover in our campsite, and stopped frequently obviously feeding on something. A reference I checked said the male often does this, and is feeding on water and needed minerals in the soil. I took several head-on shots for a different view, but wasn’t happy with the results so here is the traditional side view.

Early Morning Walk

Spider web morning light

The spider web in the early sun looks golden. I shot the whole thing at first, with the tiny spiny backed orb weaver in the middle, but it wasn’t until I concentrated on the side getting the brunt of the light that I really had the shot I wanted.

Arriving first thing in the morning for a walk or hike often means that in addition to the wonderful morning light, I see wildlife that by later morning take cover in the vegetation or canopy.

Let me start by saying that I am not a natural early morning riser. Though I have always done some of my best work early before life and obligations take over my brain, I get out of bed grudgingly and am best anti-social for a while. Coffee or tea help of course, less the caffeine and more something to sip while I contemplate still half in the dream world I just left. And before you imagine me thinking lofty thoughts, two days ago I designed in my brain a new format for the minutes I took at a Board meeting. Spoiler: It was very well received.

Early in the morning will be our normal hiking time for the next few months. Summer is here in central Florida and most mornings you can feel the air it is so humid. Once the sun is fully up and heats the air I retreat to the shade.Frog in pond

I crept as quietly as possible as not to startle the frog. The angle of his body visible in the water makes his head look far too big for the rest of him. He stayed until I left.Rabbit

I wasn’t quite so successful with this rabbit. I did startle it and it took off, but not very fast, watching me as it left. Then I saw it watching me from behind a bush, so I went in another direction so the munching of breakfast could be resumed.

Bird From the Boardwalk

BCNH log
Black Crowned Night Heron just noticed me

I love being the first person to walk a trail or down a boardwalk. Usually that means very early, so I have good light, generally I am alone or with Karl, and often it means that any birds or wildlife are still about. Once the joggers and walkers begin to go by, the more skittish of the wildlife move out of view.

This morning I walked as quietly as I could, and noticed the Black Crowned Night Heron on a log in the creek. These night herons frequent this area, and though not strangers to people going by whether or not they stay depends on the bird. This one looked up almost immediately and gave me that sideways glance.

BCNH Walking Away
Slowly walking away

He turned after a moment and started walking toward the vegetation on the side, keeping me in view. While not a run, it wasn’t a saunter either and I only managed the one shot before he disappeared from view.

I walked further along the boardwalk, and then turned and walked back. BCNH 1

I don’t know what made me look over, but I did and there he sat, still watching me. I took another shot and left him to continue whatever morning activities herons engage in when we are not looking.

In the Garden

Garden 2
Basket in the herb garden

We live in a place between a brackish creek and the salty Gulf of Mexico. The soil is barely sand and mostly rock fill. The houses are close, most with landscaped lawns of bushes and trees to make the tourists think of Florida resorts, and back yards with screened in lanais and pools. My little garden resides in containers and planters of various sizes, due not only to the poor soil but the knowledge that most people around us are using chemicals to keep green lawns in a climate that does not naturally grow lawns.

The herb garden grows incredibly this time of year. I went out to trim the oregano, lemon verbena (makes a wonderful tea), chives and several others. The overgrown chives made a nice nest for the basket, and by sitting on the ground to get eye level and using a shallow depth of field it looks like I have a large, wild garden. It is actually ten 16”pots placed closely together in a small area that gets enough sun, but not too much. That can be a concern here.

Note to self: for future garden shots, take the camera down from your eye, and look around before you sit down to get the shot you want. It rained the night before and I plopped down without looking in a small puddle!

Last year I decided to expand. The gardener/farmers supplying our local farmers’ market slowly went on to other things and we were left with no one providing vegetables or greens during the hotter months. Gardening in Florida during the summer provides plenty of challenges. Container growing provides another set of challenges on top of that. I learned to try different kinds of greens that the usual lettuces, growing a few which Karl and I had before, and trying some new varieties. Hopefully they will provide some photography subjects as they grow, barring weather and bugs!

Wild Coffee in Bloom

Lovebugs in WC
Love bugs in Wild Coffee Blooms

Wild Coffee (Psychotria nervosa) blooms in the spring and summer here in partly shaded areas. The beautiful large, dark green, veined leaves shine in the filtered sun. This plant attracts a lot of attention from hikers, in the spring because of the white flowers against the green and the multitude of insects enjoying those flowers, and especially in the autumn when the contrasting red berries against the dark green look wonderful and attract birds and other wildlife.

On a recent hike the profusion of blooms attracted my attention, and the attention of numerous insects. May is spring love bug season. Yes, here in central Florida we get two love bug seasons, our second one in September. Love Bugs covered the most  blooms of the coffee plants as I walked by though I did see other insects including honeybees and a red beetle.Beetle in WC

With the distinctive red body and black head and legs I didn’t expect any issues in identifying this guy.  So far, no luck.Honeybee covered in Pollen WC

The honeybee finally landed in the sun so I could get this shot. I took all of these with my Canon 100mm – 400mm fully extended at 400mm for the close-up.

Florida is slowly re-opening. None of our regular activities have been resumed yet, and we suspect that it will be July before most start up. We hoped to be able to camp in our RV the beginning of June at one of the state parks. To date, our reservations have not been cancelled, but the park is still closed to camping. We will see. We are eager to get going again, but also conscious that it will be slow steps.

Brooker Creek Preserve – After two months

Bench at end of Boardwalk
Inviting bench in the sun at the end of the boardwalk

The limited re-opening of the beaches on Monday meant Karl and I once again feel comfortable venturing into the open parks and preserves. The hiking trails at Brooker Creek Preserve remained open through the closure of so many parks and the beaches, and we received feedback that it was often crowded along with the few other places open. As it is a thirty to forty minute drive from here, more depending on traffic, we hesitated to make the trip only to find crowds. We took and still take our social distancing seriously. With beaches open, most people flock to them so Karl suggested we take a chance.

We arrived about 7:15 a.m., shortly after the gate opened. At the end of the nearly one mile drive to the parking lot, we discovered no other cars; we were the first and only for the start of the day.

Channel A
Channel A of Brooker Creek

We saw a Pileated woodpecker as we parked, and heard a Northern Parula as soon as we left the car. We searched for the parula, hearing but not seeing, but did catch a glimpse of two Carolina wrens flitting through the trees. Green salvinia covered the main channel of the creek itself, not unusual with the warm weather and lack of rain. We walked to the bridge, and then retraced our steps and took the boardwalk down to the buildings and into the wetland behind them. After walking to the end of the boardwalk, we decided to walk back along it to capture some shots while the light was still good. A very polite couple came along asked to pass by us so we stepped aside.

We walked slowly, photographing and savoring the damp open air of the swamp. Suddenly we heard a bellowing, which stopped and repeated four times. Karl’s hearing is amazing; he can triangulate easily and is always showing me the precise location of birds when he hears their calls. In this case he pointed to an overgrown, grassy area of the water and said “He is right in there”. “He” in this case meaning a male alligator. He was close, but kept to the grass and we didn’t get to see him.

Buttonbush over the water. Once of my favorite spring flowers.

We passed by the window of the Center to wave to the dedicated staff inside, and then headed back to the car. The beautiful weather together with the eventful hike really helped shake the slightly claustrophobic feeling we were both developing.